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Media Alerts - Grueninger v. Virginia Dep't. of Corrections -- Fourth Circuit
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February 29, 2016
  Grueninger v. Virginia Dep't. of Corrections -- Fourth Circuit
Attorney's Failure to Challenge Uncounseled Confession Justifies Reversal of Sex Abuse Conviction

Areas of Law: Criminal Law, Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: (1) Whether defense counsel's failure to move to suppress client's uncounseled confession constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. (2) If so, whether counsel's ineffectiveness established cause and prejudice excusing Grueninger's procedural default of the claim.

Brief Summary: The Fourth Circuit found that but for counsel's deficient performance in failing to file the suppression motion or objecting to the use of Grueninger's confession during trial, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Therefore, with respect to the convictions on sexual abuse charges, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court's dismissal of Grueninger's habeas petition.

Extended Summary:
On March 13, 2009, Virginia police arrested Eric Adam Grueninger for sexually abusing his fourteen-year-old daughter. An officer met with Grueninger in jail and administered Miranda warnings to which Grueninger responded, "These are felonies, I need an attorney." The officer immediately ceased all questions. Later that day, an officer searched Grueninger's home and found thumb drives in Grueninger's top dresser drawer containing pictures and videos of child pornography. Three days later, a new arrest warrant with additional charges was issued, and an officer visited Grueninger again to administer Miranda warnings and ask questions about the new charges. Grueninger admitted to various sexual acts with his daughter in addition to storing and accessing child pornography on his laptop.

A grand jury charged Grueninger with two counts of indecent liberties with a child under the age of fifteen, two counts of aggravated sexual battery by a parent, one count of rape by force or threat, three counts of forcible sodomy, and two counts of sexual object penetration (hereinafter collectively "the sexual abuse charges"). Grueninger was also charged with nine counts of possession and one count of distribution of child pornography (hereinafter "the child pornography charges"). Grueninger's attorney did not file a motion to suppress Grueninger's confession under Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981), in writing before trial as local rules required. Counsel also failed to object to the introduction of the confession at trial. At the close of evidence, the trial court noted the importance of the confession, pointing out how the confession shifted the case to a different perspective. Grueninger was convicted on all counts and sentenced to a total term of 235 years, all but 88 suspended.

Grueninger appealed his convictions, arguing insufficient evidence and ineffective counsel. The Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed, and the Supreme Court of Virginia denied his request for review. On July 25, 2011, Grueninger filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Hanover Circuit Court before the same judge who presided over his case. The Circuit Court held that Grueninger was not entitled to relief on any of his claims. In particular, the judge dismissed the petition due to procedural default on the substantive Edwards claim and found no prejudice caused by ineffective counsel. The Supreme Court of Virginia agreed. On June 12, 2013, Grueninger filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the Eastern District of Virginia (hereinafter "the district court"), largely alleging the same claims. The district court agreed with the circuit court. Grueninger later appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (hereinafter "Fourth Circuit"), which granted partial relief.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court's denial of the habeas petition de novo and found its determination objectively unreasonable. As to the Edwards issue, the Fourth Circuit believed Grueninger unambiguously invoked his right to counsel after being given Miranda warnings in jail the first time and was subsequently interrogated by the visiting officer. Grueninger was also able to show ineffective counsel through deficient performance and prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The Fourth Circuit noted that the unfiled suppression motion was substantive and but for counsel's deficient performance in filing the Edwards motion or objecting to the use of Grueninger's confession during trial, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Therefore, with respect to the convictions on the sexual abuse charges, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court's dismissal of the habeas petition. The court, however, affirmed the child pornography convictions because the Commonwealth presented overwhelming evidence tying Grueninger to the thumb drive and laptop file containing child pornography with his name on it, and Grueninger could not show a reasonable probability that the confession altered the outcome of the trial as to those charges.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Motz, Gregory, and Harris

Argument Date: 10/27/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 02/09/2016

Docket Number: Case No. 14-7072

Decided: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Nakisha Small, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Michael Allen McIntosh, SKADDEN, ARPS, SLATE, MEAGHER & FLOM, LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Steven Andrew Witmer, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Harris

Dissenting Opinion: None

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/29/2016 12:44 PM     4th Circuit  

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