Heard this one before?
A convicted murderer appeals his decision. He’s turned down at every state court level.
Said convict files writ of habeas corpus, claiming ineffective counsel. Said writ is denied by a U.S. District Court judge and a three-judge appellate panel. Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, issues writ.
What’s new, eh?
Well, for starters, oh cynical reader, the en banc panel that reversed the lower court in Richter v. Hickman (.pdf) Monday wasn’t exactly stacked with liberals.
In fact, Judge Stephen Reinhardt pulled in right-side-residents Alex Kozinski and Milan Smith along with all the Democratic appointees to create the 7-4 majority.
The seven judges found that petitioner Joshua Richter was denied an adequate defense because his attorney didn’t pursue any forensic tests of the crime scene, which included blood pools and spatter. A Sacramento County Superior Court jury convicted Richter in 1995 for his role in a convoluted tale of Christmas trees, marijuana and guns that left one man dead and another wounded.
“Counsel failed to undertake the most elementary task that a responsible defense attorney would perform in a case of this nature, and consequently provided representation that fell well below a reasonable standard of professional competence,” Reinhardt wrote for the majority.
Oakland attorney Clifford Gardner, who’s been working on the case for 10 years, said the decision was less about forensic science than an attorney not following through on promises to provide witnesses and evidence.
“I don’t think [the decision] is going to have a big impact because I don’t think it changes anything,” he said. “It’s not new ground that the counsel is supposed to provide an adequate defense.”
But in his dissent, Judge Jay Bybee warned his colleagues about getting too caught up in neato forensic stuff while losing sight of the whole range of facts.
“We know the plot by heart: the hapless state has charged the wrong guy and our scientists-turned sleuths will come up with the trial-changing evidence at the last minute,” Bybee wrote. “But State v. Richter isn’t the pilot for CSI: Sacramento.”
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Ward Campbell said his office was still reviewing the ruling and no decision has been made about an appeal.
— Cheryl Miller
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