Harrington v. Richter: Cert Granted in AEDPA Ineffective Counsel Case

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Harrington v. Richter, a federal habeas corpus case out of the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit held that Richter was prejudiced by his defense lawyer’s unreasonable failure to investigate and present expert testimony on blood evidence and that the state court’s determination that he was not denied effective assistance of counsel was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

The question presented is whether the Ninth Circuit denied the state court the deference mandated by AEDPA and impermissibly enlarged the Sixth Amendment right to counsel by elevating the value of expert opinion testimony to virtually always require criminal defense attorneys to produce such testimony. In addition, the Court asked the parties to brief whether AEDPA deference applies to a state court’s summary disposition of a claim, including under the Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel.

The facts of this case would make for an interesting episode of CSI. Both parties agreed that two defendants, Richter and Branscombe, socialized for several hours in Johnson’s house with Johnson and Klein until 2:30 a.m., when they left but Klein decided to spend the night. The prosecution and defense presented divergent theories at trial of the events occurring later that morning, when Klein was killed and Johnson received gunshot wounds.

The central dispute between the prosecution and the defense was Klein’s location at the time he was shot. Blood-spatter evidence could have confirmed either the defense’s or the prosecution’s theory of the case, but the state conducted an inadequate forensic investigation. Had Richter’s lawyer chosen to consult a forensic expert for the defense, that expert could have assisted him in evaluating the testimony of the prosecution’s experts or guided him in developing effective cross-examination of those witnesses.

The Ninth Circuit’s lengthy opinion is available here.
The briefs are available at the following links:
Petition for Writ of Certiorari
Brief in Opposition
Reply to Opposition