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Media Alerts - Vance Haskell v. Superintendent Greene SCI-Third Circuit
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August 3, 2017
  Vance Haskell v. Superintendent Greene SCI-Third Circuit
Headline: The actual prejudice standard of Brecht does not apply to claims on habeas, where the state has knowingly presented or knowingly failed to correct perjured testimony. A reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony affected the judgment of the jury is all that is required.

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: Is the defendant entitled to relief once he has shown a reasonable likelihood the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury, or must he also show the perjured testimony caused him actual prejudice?

Brief Summary:
Pennsylvania knowingly used perjured eyewitness testimony to convict a man of murder. The defendant filed a habeas petition in federal court for due process violations. The Third Circuit found a reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury, and granted him relief. The court further held that it is unnecessary for a defendant to show that such an error had a substantial and injurious effect on the verdict because, when the state has corrupted the truth-seeking function of the trial by knowingly presenting or failing to correct perjured testimony, the threat to a defendant's constitutional rights is at its apex and the state's interest are their lowest.

Extended Summary:
Haskell was convicted of first-degree murder and several other crimes in connection with the 1994 shooting death of a man in Erie, Pennsylvania. To secure his conviction, the state's prosecutor relied heavily on testimony from four eyewitnesses. Of the four witnesses, only one - Antoinette Blue - gave consistent testimony, the other three either recanted their account or had previously denied being able to identify the shooter.

At trial, Blue claimed she expected nothing in return from the Commonwealth in exchange for her testimony, but both she and the prosecutor knew the state's help with Blue's own pending criminal matter was the quid pro quo for her testimony. The prosecutor failed to correct her statement, and even used her "untainted" participation for leverage in his closing argument.

Haskell filed a habeas petition challenging his conviction as tainted by perjured testimony in violation of his 14th amendment due process rights, to which the district court denied relief. It held that Blue's testimony was indeed false and that the prosecutor knew or should have known the same, but that Haskell failed to show that the perjured testimony had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury's verdict - the Brecht standard.

For federal cases on direct review of perjured testimony in a state prosecution, the materiality test applies a reasonable likelihood standard. Under this standard, Haskell must establish that: (1) Blue committed perjury, (2) the Commonwealth knew or should have known that the testimony was false, (3) the false testimony was not corrected, and (4) there is a reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. Uncontested facts established the first three elements, and the Third Circuit reasoned that Blue's central role in the state's case coupled with knowledge of the benefit she received posed a reasonable likelihood of affecting the jury's judgment.

This standard puts the burden on the prosecution to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the perjured testimony was a harmless error. Thus, the materiality and harmless error - Brecht - standards merge; whenever the applicable materiality test is derived from the reasonable likelihood standard, the test for materiality supplies the test for harmlessness.

But the issue on appeal, as framed by the Third Circuit, is whether the Brecht standard also applies to such a case under collateral review - here, a habeas petition. According to the Brecht standard, when constitutional trial errors are raised in habeas proceedings - as opposed to on direct review - the defendant must prove actual prejudice. This standard puts the burden on the defendant to show that the perjured testimony had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury's verdict. The majority of circuit courts have ruled that Brecht does indeed apply.

The Third Circuit ruled against the majority, stating that Brecht does not apply when the state has knowingly presented or failed to correct perjured testimony. The court began its reasoning by citing exceptions to Brecht, such as when a state violates the Brady rule by suppressing evidence, and then pointed out that the presentation of perjured testimony is one of three errors that implicate Brady. Directly addressing the argument of opposing circuits, the court said the materiality standard for false testimony should be lower because fabrication of the truth is an even greater error than suppression of the truth; it is the duty and responsibility of the state to elicit the truth and correct what is false.

The Third Circuit also found that the facts of this case did not reach the three main concerns of Supreme Court's Brecht rule, rather they fell closer to the Court's rule that a conviction obtained by the knowing use of perjured testimony is fundamentally unfair. The Third Circuit reasoned that when the state knowingly presents perjured testimony, it deprives the defendant of his constitutional right to due process and obtains a conviction through deceit. Perjured testimony cases involve a corruption of the truth-seeking function of the trial process by the state itself, and concerns of finality do not trump those of justice. Further, there is little chance that excluding perjured testimony claims from Brecht analysis will degrade the prominence of the trial itself, because the trial is where the perjury occurs.

Find the full opinion at: http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/153427p.pdf

Panel: Judges Ambro, Vanaskie, and Restrepo

Argument Date: March 27, 2017

Date of Issued Opinion: August 1, 2017

Docket Number: No. 15-3427

Decided: reversed and remanded

Case Alert Author: Kevin P. McGilloway

Counsel: Lisa B. Freeland, Elisa A. Long, counsel for Defendant
Mark W. Richmond, counsel for Prosecution

Author of Opinion: Judge Ambro

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 08/03/2017 12:51 PM     3rd Circuit  

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