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Fifth Circuit Affirms Habeas Relief Granted to Louisiana Prisoner Who Overcame SOL by ‘Credible Showing of Actual Innocence’

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a federal district court’s ruling that a Louisiana man who has served over 35 years in prison for murder should get a new trial. The April 6, 2018, ruling vacated the stay of habeas relief and reinstated the lower court’s order that the State either retry or release the prisoner within 120 days.

William Hines and Rodney Robinson, two gay men, were found murdered in New Orleans within days of each other in late 1980. The circumstances of the crimes were similar; both men were stabbed to death after a long night of drinking and a vigorous bout of sex.

Detective John Dillman investigated both cases and concluded that the same perpetrator was responsible for both murders. Multiple tips indicated that John Floyd, a white male living as a “drifter” in New Orleans, had made incriminating statements linking him to the murders.

Floyd was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree murder. After Dillman’s interrogation of Floyd, which allegedly involved a severe beating and a threat from Dillman that he would throw Floyd out of a window, Floyd confessed. He then proceeded to trial, maintaining a defense of third-party guilt.

At a joint bench trial, the State presented no physical evidence, despite plenty being found. In defense of the Hines murder charge, Floyd presented evidence that he was not the source of the blood and hair discovered at the scene. In defense of the Robinson murder charge, Floyd presented evidence that the blood and seminal fluid discovered at the scene were not his, and that a black man was seen fleeing the area shortly after the murder.

The trial judge found Floyd guilty of the Hines murder, but inexplicably not guilty of the Robinson murder. Floyd was sentenced to life without parole.

Fast forward 23 years and the Innocence Project of New Orleans stepped in and filed a petition for post-conviction relief on Floyd’s behalf. Floyd claimed four newly discovered pieces of evidence that established actual innocence and multiple Brady violations. First, evidence from the Hines scene, which was not disclosed by the State, indicated that while Floyd’s fingerprints were not on a whiskey bottle that the State theorized he drank from, someone else’s were. Second, DNA and fingerprint evidence, also not originally disclosed by the State, excluded both Floyd and Robinson from the hair and fingerprints found at the Robinson scene. Third, Detective Dillman had allegedly beaten other defendants into confessions. And finally, John Clegg, a friend of Hines, provided an affidavit in which he said that Dillman misrepresented his statement after the Hines murder. Clegg told Dillman that Hines had a strong preference for “rough” black male sexual partners. But on the stand, Dillman testified that Clegg said Hines had frequent sex with both black and white men.

None of this new evidence persuaded the Louisiana trial court or the Louisiana Supreme Court. Both denied Floyd’s post-conviction relief petition without explanation. Floyd then filed a petition for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. After years of litigation, the federal district court ultimately granted Floyd’s petition, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Fifth Circuit first considered whether Floyd’s petition was time-barred. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) limits when federal habeas petitions may be brought to within one year of conviction, unless a prisoner can make a “credible showing of actual innocence.” McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383 (2013). Floyd alleged such a claim, and both the district court and appellate court found his claim of actual innocence credible.

As an initial matter, the Court noted that the State did not challenge Floyd’s claim of actual innocence. In fact, the State offered Floyd two pleas during the pendency of his appeal and conceded that it did “not take issue with Floyd being permanently released from custody.”

That startling fact aside, the Court found the actual innocence claim meritorious on its own. It was clear to the Court that the newly discovered evidence severely undermined Floyd’s confession, which was essentially the only evidence offered by the State against him. Moreover, the trial court had to have found that Floyd falsely confessed to one of two closely linked murders because Floyd was found not guilty of Robinson’s murder.

“In light of the newly discovered evidence of: the fingerprint-comparison analysis excluding Floyd from the Hines scene; the Robinson-related fingerprint-comparison results and DNA tests further undermining Floyd’s confession; Detective Dillman’s improper interrogation techniques; Floyd’s vulnerability to coercion [he had an IQ of 59]; and Clegg’s affidavit maintaining Floyd did not fit the likely profile of the perpetrator, no reasonable juror would find Floyd’s confession … sufficient to support Floyd’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” concluded the Court.

The finding of a meritorious claim of actual innocence was only the first step in the Court’s analysis, however. Such a finding overcame the asserted untimeliness of Floyd’s petition, but the Court still needed to consider the merits of Floyd’s constitutional claim. Here, the question was whether the State, in violation of Brady, withheld favorable material evidence of fingerprint-comparison results and the actual statement made by Clegg. If so, then Floyd established that the Louisiana courts, which denied the Brady claims, unreasonably applied clearly established federal law in such a manner as to require the granting of federal habeas relief.

To prevail on his Brady claim, Floyd needed to prove that the State suppressed evidence favorable to his defense and that the suppressed evidence was material to his guilt or punishment. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The Court found that the fingerprint-comparison results were suppressed by the State, despite the State’s argument that it had provided a report that indicated the presence of fingerprints at the scene. In the Court’s view, this was not enough to satisfy Brady. It wasn’t the existence of fingerprints that mattered; it was to whom they belonged that mattered to the defense. Moreover, the Court easily found that the fingerprint-comparison results were favorable to Floyd’s defense. He argued at trial that someone else committed the crimes, and fingerprints establishing that someone else was there would clearly have supported that defense.

Detective Dillman’s misrepresentation of Clegg’s statement also constituted a withholding of favorable evidence, in violation of Brady. At the time of trial, the only person who knew what Clegg actually said—that Hines preferred rough, black men for sexual liaisons—was Dillman. And Dillman misrepresented that statement by claiming that Clegg told him that Hines had frequent sex with white men as well. Given the high likelihood that the killer in both cases was a black man, as argued by Floyd, the suppression by the State of Clegg’s actual statement violated Brady, as it was both material and exculpatory.

Brady was clearly violated in this case, but in order to satisfy AEDPA, the violation must be “objectively unreasonable.” Because neither of the Louisiana courts explained why Floyd’s petition was rejected, the Fifth Circuit had to hypothesize the reasons that the state courts could have used to support the denial of Floyd’s claim in a constitutional manner. Try as it might, the Court could not hypothesize any valid reason.

“[T]he state court was presented with no reasonable theory for concluding the state did not withhold the fingerprint-comparisons results and the Clegg statement; nor were we presented with any; nor do we perceive any,” wrote the Court. Moreover, “there was no reasonable theory for the state courts’ concluding the evidence was not favorable to Floyd under Brady.”

In the end, it was clear to the Court that the trial judge would not have found Floyd guilty of the Hines murder had the physical evidence tending to show that someone else, likely a black male, was there that night been presented. The likelihood of a not guilty verdict was high because the trial judge found Floyd not guilty of the Robinson murder after receiving essentially the same evidence, with the addition of highly relevant physical evidence establishing that someone else probably committed the murder. The Court concluded that “any theory supporting the conclusion that the withheld, favorable evidence was immaterial is an unreasonable application of Brady’s materiality standard.”

Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s grant of habeas relief. See: Floyd v. Vannoy, 894 F.3d 143 (5th Cir. 2018). 

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