Thursday, August 26, 2010

Valencia v. Hedgpeth

One of the issues in Elena Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation hearings was her view on the standard for vacating a conviction for ineffective assistance of counsel. Under the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendments a criminal defendant in a felony case has a right to an attorney. It's possible, at least theoretically, that the attorney could be so bad that 1) the attorney's handling of the case fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and 2) this case handling gave rise to a reasonable probability that, had the case been properly handled, there would be a different result.

Jesus Valencia was accused of being a child molester. Mr. Valencia left Mexico to live with his mother and three sisters. Between the fall of 2003 and September 2004, the sisters made various allegations to school counselors and police that Mr. Valencia had inappropriately touched them. They later changed there minds, said nothing inappropriate happened and that they had previously lied in order to be returned to their mother's custody. Mr. Valencia's first trial resulted in a mistrial and his second trial resulted in various convictions amounting to thirty years in prison.

Mr. Valencia appealed claiming that a social worker's testimony about statements made to her by Mr. Valencia's sister about when Mr. Valencia touched another sister should not have been admissible. There is a rule in California a person can only testify about matters within personal knowledge unless an exception applies. Here, the elder daughter later stated he had no idea when Mr. Valencia could have touched the younger daughter. Accordingly, she could not pass that information on to the social worker who, in turn, could not testify about it in court.

For unknown reasons, Mr. Valencia's attorney did not object to these statements at trial. The California Court of Appeals for the 6th District found that by not objecting the attorney's conduct fell below a standard of reasonableness and without that testimony there would be no basis for one of the convictions with it. It vacated the conviction on one count, but denied the remainder of the relief.

That brings us to the present action which is fashioned as a writ of habeas corpus. In addition to failing to object to the social worker's testimony, the attorney also failed to object to 1) his confession to police 2) evidence of a red stain on Mr. Valencia's sister's clothing after leaving his bedroom and 3) statements by his sister that he had previously used drugs and fought with police.

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel found that the California Court of Appeals ruling on this point was not inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and that other evidence would have affirmed the jury's findings on the other charges even if these pieces of evidence were excluded.

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