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No habeas relief for alleged errors in capital case

Eric D. Holmes v. Ron Neal, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Nos. 04-3549, 06-2905, and 14-3359, 3/22/16

Holmes claims various errors in his capital murder case merit habeas relief, but the 7th Circuit doesn’t agree.

Holmes’s primary claims involve unanticipated testimony by a sheriff’s deputy during the guilt phase of his trial and various errors during the penalty phase. As to the guilt phase error, Holmes’s attorney was given an overnight recess to deal with the testimony, and in any event Holmes wasn’t significantly harmed by the testimony. (Slip op. at 6). As to the penalty phase errors, the improper closing argument to the jury by the prosecutor was handled appropriately by the trial court’s striking the remarks from the record (and in any event the jury’s verdict on penalty was only advisory) and the claim Holmes’s lawyer failed to advance certain claims at sentencing are belied by the record, which shows counsel made the essential points Holmes now says he failed to present. (Slip op. at 5-6, 7-8).

Holmes also has a claim that he is not sufficiently mentally competent to be executed under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), but that claim is premature because the state has not yet set an execution date and thus there’s not yet been a hearing to determine his competence. (Slip op. at 10).

Note that Holmes was convicted over 20 years ago, and that proceedings on his initial habeas petition had been stayed because of doubts about his competency to proceed. (Slip op. at 2-3). But after Ryan v. Gonzalez, 133 S. Ct. 696 (2013), that stay was no longer appropriate if his claims could be adjudicated based on the record from the state court. (Our post on Gonzalez notes the untenability of the 7th Circuit’s precedent allowing stays of habeas proceedings, which, coincidentally, was in Holmes’s case.) The court finds it can decide his claims based on the existing record (in part because a number of them were defaulted) and thus declines to reinstate the stay of proceedings. (Slip op. at 3-5).

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