Criminal Law Blog

Dissent offers guidance on standard for entitlement to evidentiary hearing on IAC claim

Brown v. United States (decided March 29, 2018).

Players: Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby, Associate Judge Glickman, Senior Judge Nebeker.  Opinion for the court by Judge Nebeker.  Dissent by Judge Glickman.  Cecily E. Baskir for Appellant.  Trial judge: Ann O’Regan Keary.

Facts: The story of this appeal began in 1997, when Appellant was convicted of first-degree murder.  Fast forward to 2008.  That year, while serving his sentence at a federal penitentiary in California, Appellant attempted to stab a correctional officer.  Appellant’s federal public defender had him evaluated by a psychiatrist, who testified at his 2010 trial.  In the opinion of the psychiatrist, Appellant suffers from PTSD stemming from a 1991 shooting.  As a result of this condition, according to the psychiatrist, Appellant was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions at the time of the assault. After a mistrial, the 2008 charge was eventually dismissed.  Appellant then sought to attack his 1997 conviction, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate Appellant’s mental condition.  Appellant noted that he had told his lawyer about the 1991 incident that was the cause of his PTSD.  Appellant also pointed out that he had no history of violence before the 1991 incident and no motive to shoot the decedent in the 1997 incident.  The trial court denied Appellant’s ineffective-assistance-of -counsel motion without a hearing, reasoning that Appellant had failed to present any evidence to explain why he had failed to raise this claim during his direct appeal. 

Issue: Were trial counsel in the 1990s ineffective for failing to investigate a possible insanity defense, and was appellate counsel ineffective for failing to raise this issue in the direct appeal?   Holding:  No.  There were no observable symptoms or statements from Appellant that could reasonably have called attention to the possibility of an insanity defense at the time of Appellant’s trial.  Appellant therefore failed (1) to show that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate Appellant’s mental condition and (2) to show cause for the delay in bringing this claim.

Of Note: The DCCA focuses on whether Appellant established that his trial counsel was ineffective and whether the ineffectiveness was the cause of Appellant’s failure to raise this claim in a timely manner.  The basis for the Court’s reasoning is specific to the unique facts of this case.  Judge Glickman’s dissent, however, could be more broadly applicable.  Judge Glickman focuses on the narrower (and arguably more germane) question of whether Appellant was entitled to an evidentiary hearing and appointment of counsel on his claim.   

  • As Judge Glickman notes, there is a “strong statutory presumption in favor of holding a hearing.”All that Appellant was required to do was proffer sufficient facts to show that, with an attorney’s help, he may be able to overcome the procedural bar and demonstrate that his trial counsel was ineffective. 
  • The extent of the trial court’s discretion on whether to hold an evidentiary hearing on a § 23-110 claim is “quite narrow.” Slip op. at 15 (quoting Bellinger v. United States, 127 A.3d 505, 514-15 (D.C. 2015)).The court “shall” grant a hearing “[u]nless the motion and files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.”Id.(quoting D.C. Code § 23-110(c) (emphasis added by J. Glickman). 
  • The Court has “declared repeatedly that ‘any question regarding the appropriateness of a hearing on a § 23-110(c) motion should be resolved in favor of holding a hearing[.].’” Slip op. at 15-16 (quoting Newman v. United States, 705 A.2d 246, 261 (D.C. 1997)). 
  • In addition, “in reviewing a summary denial, we must be satisfied that under no circumstances could the petitioner establish facts warranting relief.”Slip op. at 16 (quoting Bellinger, 127 A.3d at 515).
  • In Judge Glickman’s view, Appellant’s proffer was sufficient to require an evidentiary hearing and appointment of counsel.Appellant claimed that a mental health examination would have revealed that he suffered from mental illness and could have mounted a meritorious insanity defense, and that the basis for this claim (the expert opinion from his 2010 federal trial) was not available until long after the conclusion of his direct appeal.On the present record, there was not sufficient evidence to determine that Appellant knew or should have known that he had a mental disorder before his 2008 evaluation.In Judge Glickman’s view, it was therefore premature of the trial court to deny this pro se motion without an evidentiary hearing.NG

Read the full opinion here.