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Habeas win! 7th Circuit orders new trial due to denial of right to present complete defense

Shan Fieldman v. Christine Brannon, __F.3d__  (7th Cir. 2020)

Shan Fieldman climbed into a truck and told a hit man that he wanted his ex-wife and her boyfriend killed. Turns out the hit man was an undercover cop who videotaped their conversation. At trial the State played the video. Fieldman testified that he did not intend for the hit man to actually commit the murders, but he was barred from fully explaining why. He was convicted of soliciting murder for hire, lost his direct appeal, won habeas relief in the Southern District of Illinois, and now the 7th Circuit has affirmed.

Fieldman didn’t just request the hit, he also made a $100 down payment and signed an IOU to pay the remainder at the completion of the job. So what could he possibly say that would convince 2 federal courts that he was denied his 6th and 14th Amendment rights to present a complete defense?

Fieldman’s girlfriend introduced him to a woman named Trina at a party. Trina regaled Fieldman with stories of crimes she had committed including–for fun–duct taping an elderly man to a chair and blowing his brains out in front of a child. Tina asked Fieldman if he had ever been mad at anyone because she had people who could take care of the job for him. He said that he had been mad at people but didn’t want anyone killed. Trina asked if Fieldman if he wanted anything done to his ex-wife or her boyfriend. He said “no.” Opinion at 6.

Over the next few weeks Trina kept badgering Fieldman’s girlfriend for money and Fieldman himself to pay for a hit job. She became increasingly aggressive about arranging the hit, though Fieldman never requested it. Fieldman was so scared for himself and his family that he decided to meet with the hit man to collect information to take to the police.  Trina, a police informant, brokered the meeting with the undercover cop.

After meeting with the hit man Fieldman did not go directly to the police because his girlfriend called and asked him to pick up her kids because she was caring for her dying grandfather. As Fieldman was driving the kids home, the police arrested him.

At trial Fieldman’s ex-wife testified that the two got along well despite their divorce and that Fieldman and her boyfriend were friends. At one point Fieldman even found him a job and gave him a place to live. Fieldman himself was allowed to testify that he did not intend for the hit man to carry out the murders. Rather, he thought that meeting the hit man and collecting information for the police was the best way to get Trina to leave him alone. But the trial court barred Fieldman from testifying about the many weeks of Trina’s escalating and alarming interactions with him–interactions he did not initiate.

The Illinois state courts deemed Fieldman’s proposed testimony about the context for his meeting with the hit man irrelevant evidence. The 7th Circuit court  found this an unreasonable application of clearly established SCOTUS precedent: Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683 (1986)(defendant has right to present a complete defense) and Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44 (1987)(defendant has right to testify on his own behalf about circumstances bearing on his guilt or innocence). Opinion at 13-15.

First, the Illinois state courts infringed Fieldman’s right to present a complete a defense because the State’s video was tantamount to a recorded confession. Fieldman was denied the ability to provide crucial, contextual evidence for his claim that he never intended for the hit man to commit the murders. Opinion at 20-24.

Second, the State court’s exclusion of the evidence based on lack of relevance was arbitrary. For example, the trial court forced Fieldman to limit his testimony about his state of mind to the day of the meeting. In contrast, the State was allowed to prove his state of mind with evidence from the 4 months leading to the meeting. Opinion at 24-29.

Third, the evidence was “material and favorable,” meaning that the exclusion of it undermined the 7th Circuit’s confidence in the outcome of the trial. Opinion at 30-33.

Note: Fieldman assumed that he was required to prove that the excluded evidence was “material and favorable.” The 7th Circuit, citing Crane and Rock, said that this requirement may not apply when the excluded evidence is the defendant’s own testimony. Opinion at 16 n.4. Something to consider when presenting this type of claim.

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