Relist Watch #2: Harrington v. Richter, the Ninth Circuit, and Ineffective Assistance

It’s still too early to have much of an idea what the Supreme Court might be doing in Harrington v. Richter, 09-587—but that won’t stop me from blathering about it anyway. The Court has relisted only twice, at the January 15 and 22 conferences, and it has not yet called for the record. But Richter is in some ways a stereotype of a summary reversal candidate: it’s from the Ninth Circuit (check), the opinion reverses a murder conviction on habeas (check), there’s a vigorous dissent from a conservative judge (Judge Jay Bybee, joined by Judges O’Scannlain, Kleinfeld, and Ikuta–check), and perhaps most importantly of all, the author of the majority opinion is liberal lion Judge Stephen Reinhardt (check).

It is often repeated that Judge Reinhardt has said of the Supreme Court, “They can’t catch ‘em all.”  Whether he said it or not, the Justices now act as if they must try. Thus, if you search “Reinhardt” just on this webpage, you get (among other entries) “Reinhardt Reversed in Buttons Case,” “Supreme Court Opens Term with Reinhardt Reversal,” “Reinhardt Reversed for Third Time in Same Case,” and the not-quite-as-snappily-titled “First Opinion in an Argued Case in OT08” (“the Court reversed a Ninth Circuit panel of Reinhardt, Betty Fletcher, and Dorothy Nelson”). Reading about these cases gives one an extreme form of déjà vu, more aptly described as Groundhog Day Syndrome.

There’s one thing about Harrington v. Richter that makes this case a bit more unusual as a summary reversal candidate: it’s a decision of the en banc court, or at least an en banc panel under the Ninth Circuit’s en-banc-lite procedure. But the evident importance that moved the Ninth Circuit to take the case en banc and the greater visibility and influence of such opinions makes it more likely the Supreme Court will conclude the case warrants review in some manner. And besides, summary reversal of an en banc Ninth Circuit decision is hardly unprecedented. See, e.g., Gonzales v. Thomas, 547 U.S. 183 (2006); California v. Roy, 519 U.S. 2 (1996); INS v. Wang, 450 U.S. 139 (1981).

The case involves California’s prosecution of Joshua Richter and Christian Branscombe for murdering Patrick Klein and trying to kill Richter’s marijuana dealer, Joshua Johnson. The state claimed that Richter and Branscombe had shot Klein and Johnson while they were trying to steal Johnson’s gun safe; the defense claimed that Johnson had “freaked out” while high and accidentally shot Klein while trying to shoot Branscombe (for reasons that aren’t completely clear to me, although I guess you can’t demand clarity of someone who is, by hypothesis, freaking out). The evidence apparently jibed with Johnson’s stealing-my-gun-safe account. Believing that the case was sufficiently strong that they did not require more, the police, according to the majority, “did not pursue an in-depth forensic investigation” and did not immediately perform blood typing or spatter analysis nor attempt to discover whose blood had pooled in the bedroom doorway. After the trial began, the state performed a blood spatter analysis of the crime scene and tested some blood spattered above the pool, which the experts said indicated that Klein could not have been killed in the doorway (as Richter claimed) and that the spattered blood there was not Klein’s.

Richter and Branscombe were convicted. After his conviction became final, Richter’s federal habeas petition was rejected by the district court and a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit. But then the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc.

In a 39-page opinion that opens by quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (“To . . . not prepare is the greatest of crimes; to be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues”), Judge Reinhardt, joined by Chief Judge Kozinski and Judges Silverman, Wardlaw, Fisher, Paez, and Smith, held that defense counsel’s performance was constitutionally deficient because he had not attempted to obtain forensic evidence to establish that the blood pool in the doorway was Klein’s. The “failure to consult any forensic expert constituted a threefold abrogation” of counsel’s duty to provide effective assistance by failing to investigate adequately before settling on a trial strategy, by failing to determine how the forensic evidence might assist the defense, and by failing to consult experts who could have assisted at trial. The majority held that the error was prejudicial, and the state court’s contrary conclusion was an objectively unreasonable application of the governing case, Strickland v. Washington. Experts obtained later had given affidavits saying that Johnson could not have been standing while bleeding in the doorway (as Johnson claimed) and that the experts “could not exclude the possibility” that the blood pool contained both Johnson and Klein’s blood.

In a 46-page dissent, Judge Bybee called the majority opinion “a model of the intrusive post-trial inquiry into attorney performance long rejected by the [Supreme] Court.” He argued that defense counsel’s decision not to pursue forensic evidence was reasonable given that even the state did not focus on it until mid-trial and because pursuing it “might well have resulted in the discovery of additional inculpatory evidence.” Accordingly, it was “perfectly reasonable” for defense counsel simply to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses as they came and not attempt to present affirmative forensic evidence. The dissenters said that the majority had “plainly enlarge[d] the constitutional duty of defense counsel to seek out and present expert testimony,” which was far more than the Supreme Court previously had required.

I repeat that it’s still too early to have much of an idea what the Court is doing with this case. It has only relisted twice, which isn’t that unusual, and the Court hasn’t called for the record. The Court could simply be taking a close look at the case, as befits it when an en banc court of appeals has vacated a murder conviction and a state has petitioned for certiorari. But a majority of the Supreme Court has a narrower view of effective assistance of counsel than the Ninth Circuit majority seemed to employ, as demonstrated in a summary reversal earlier this term in Bobby v. Van Hook, where the state didn’t even have the benefit of the tailwind which AEDPA gives it (see slip op. 3). And the Court has repeatedly summarily reversed in AEDPA cases to drive home that habeas relief is not to be granted unless a state court has unreasonably applied clearly established Supreme Court precedent.