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Habeas – Brady Claim

Wetzel v. John Lambert, USSC No. 11-38, 2/21/12, vacating and remanding 633 F.3d 126 (3rd Cir. 2011)

Lambert claimed that state prosecutors withheld exculpatory information: a “police activity sheet” that arguably suggested someone other than, or perhaps in addition to, himself committed the offense (robbery and murder); and that could have been used to impeach the principal state’s witness. The state (Pennsylvania) court deemed the information too ambiguous to show that someone else had committed the robbery, besides which, the witness “was already extensively impeached,” so that “additional impeachment … would have been cumulative.” Without addressing whether the new information could show someone else’s involvement in the crime, the 3rd Circuit granted habeas relief, concluding that the withheld information was “material” because it “would have provided a different avenue of impeachment” than the witness had been subjected to. The Court now holds that the 3rd Circuit should have (deferentially) reviewed the threshold determination of the state court that the information was ambiguous:

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) precludes a federal court from granting a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner unless the state court’s adjudication of his claim “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). “Under §2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported . . . the state court’s decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of this Court.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 12).

In this case, however, the Third Circuit overlooked the determination of the state courts that the notations were, as the District Court put it, “not exculpatory or impeaching” but instead “entirely ambiguous.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 34, 36. Instead, the Third Circuit focused solely on the alternative ground that any impeachment value that might have been obtained from the notations would have been cumulative. If the conclusion in the state courts about the content of the document was reasonable—not necessarily correct, but reasonable—whatever those courts had to say about cumulative impeachment evidence would be beside the point. The failure of the Third Circuit even to address the “ambiguous” nature of the notations, and the “speculat[ive]” nature of Lambert’s reading of them, is especially surprising, given that this was the basis of the District Court ruling. Id., at 36.*

The matter is thus remanded for lower-court determination of the issue it skipped over: was the withheld information, as the state court held, too ambiguous to connect the 3rd-party with the robbery. Resolution turns on whether the state court’s ruling was reasonable within the meaning of AEDPA analysis; the Court declines to supply an answer, while at the same time stressing that this ruling “may well be reasonable,” and helpfully mapping out that destination.

Long and short of it: this appears to be more of an AEDPA stringent-review-regimen, than a contours-of-Brady-materiality, case.

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