I know, the title line sounds a lot like the title to a horror film. Maybe I should have called this post "Racky Ramchair X- Dream Warrior" or "Racky Ramchair X - Racky's Revenge."
It has been a few weeks, but the Second Circuit's decision in Ramchair capped off what could have been the Best Habeas Week Ever. One reason for that is how much I have enjoyed the Continuing Saga of Racky Ramchair.
For the background of the case, you can check out those last two links. Here's as brief a summary as I can offer: A long time ago in a courthouse not so far away, Judge Gleeson indicated that he wanted to grant habeas relief to Ramchair on IAAC grounds based on appellate counsel's failure to raise a tricky little fair trial point. Because the claim had not yet been raised in state court, he gave Ramchair the chance to pursue his state remedies. The case went back to state court and it went all the way up to the New York State Court of Appeals. That court concluded that counsel was not ineffective since her performance as a whole wasn't so horrible. The reasoning can be summed up as: She filed a brief, didn't she? Gleeson took the case back and granted habeas concluding that the Court of Appeals decision was unreasonable and ordered a new trial. The Second Circuit vacated the grant, telling Gleeson that he should have held a hearing first and he must explain why he ordered a new trial as opposed to a new appeal. Gleeson took up the court's offer, held a hearing, and, once again, granted habeas. He explained that he ordered a new trial because the New York appellate courts had made their opinion known about their view of the issue and Ramchair should not wait any longer for a new trial.
Now, the Second Circuit has affirmed the habeas grant.
Follow me below the fold for "Chapter X - The Final Chapter"
Chapter X - The Final Chapter
After Judge Gleeson granted habeas upon remand, the State took the case back to the same panel that had heard the original appeal. The parties submitted letter briefs and the case was submitted without oral argument.
About two months after the case was submitted to the panel, the Second Circuit issued a published opinion affirming the grant of habeas relief.
The opinion basically reads as a "Ramchair Greatest Hits." The court gives a lengthy review of the facts of the case, including a recap of what happened at trial and the back and forth between federal and state court. The court discussed what occurred after its remand, namely the hearing and Judge Gleeson's opinion (see here for more details).
Then the court began its analysis of the claim. Put simply - it agreed with Gleeson every step of the way. And it even was willing to go a couple steps further in its analysis.
First, it agreed that Ramchair was denied a fair trial. The prosecutor's surprise tactic of raising the issue of counsel's presence at the lineup for the first time at the third trial was unfair because Ramchair was denied the opportunity to present a critical witness in his defense. For this reason, the trial court should have granted the request for a mistrial. The court went even further than Gleeson did and faulted the prosecution for failing to alert the defense of its strategy before the third trial began.
Next, the court agreed with Gleeson that counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this claim on appeal. It pointed out that the claim raised on appeal (the court should have allowed defense counsel to testify at trial) had little chance of success. Counsel's reason for focusing on this point, as opposed to the mistrial claim, were unpersuasive. The court summed it up nicely:
Appellate counsel was not wrong to argue for Ramchair's right to present a defense; rather, she was wrong to argue that it had to be vindicated by defense counsel Latimer serving as an advocate-witness in the third trial, and failing to argue that it should have been vindicated through the declaration of a mistrial.
The court then went one step further than Gleeson. While Gleeson had observed that the Court of Appeals had taken a "'dim'" view of the mistrial claim, the Second Circuit believed that there was a "reasonable probability" that had the claim been raised on direct appeal, the New York appellate courts would have been "swayed by the mistrial claim, because that claim was sound."
The court turned to the New York State Court of Appeals decision denying the IAAC claim. The court concluded that the decision was unreasonable. First, it criticized the Court of Appeals' description of the appellate brief as "'comprehensive.'" It stated, "[H]aving omitted the only claim that was clearly meritorious, we cannot see how the brief can be said to have been 'comprehensive.'"
As for the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the failure to raise the claim was a product of a reasonable strategy, the Second Circuit stated that it wasn't a product of strategy, but of mistake. The mistrial claim was the only "appropriate vehicle for vindicating the right to present a defense."
Finally, the court concluded that Gleeson did not abuse his discretion in granting a new trial. It accepted Gleeson's reasoning that Ramchair should not have to suffer any further delay in obtaining a new trial.
So, that closes the book on the habeas case of Racky Ramchair. At least this incarnation of it. I guess there is always a chance that, if Ramchair gets convicted again, he could eventually find himself back in federal court on a new habeas petition. But it obviously wouldn't be the same IAAC claim. So this really does close the book on this petition.
The saga of Racky Ramchair ends with a happy conclusion for Ramchair.
But . . .
As in all good horror films, just when you think you have reached the end, the bad guy gets up off the ground and the saga continues. Will the State* continue the saga by filing a cert. petition? We'll just have to wait to see.
*I am not equating the State with a horror-film bad guy here. I don't think that the State is the bad guy in this case. It simply works for the analogy.