Louisiana Supreme Court Holds Counsel’s Failure to Challenge ‘Stark Contrasts’ in Witness ID and Defendant’s Appearance Constituted IAC
by Dale Chappell
Counsel’s failure to challenge the “stark contrasts” between witness descriptions of a suspect and the defendant clearly affected the jury’s conclusion, the Supreme Court of Louisiana held, remanding for a new trial.
With the help of law enforcement, two robbery victims identified Leroy Jackson as one of the men who robbed them. One witness said Jackson “looked a lot like” the robber, and another said he was not sure because “all black people look alike to him.” The details given by the witness to police described a man with a distinct hairline who was larger than Jackson. Jackson was not only smaller, but he was completely bald. Defense counsel ignored these discrepancies and never challenged the witness identifications in court. Jackson was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 50 years in prison. The court of appeal affirmed, and the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Jackson’s writ.
When Jackson filed for collateral review claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, the district court noted the problems with cross-racial identifications and found that Jackson’s counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the witness identifications. Jackson was granted a new trial, but the court of appeal overturned the district court’s ruling, holding that Jackson could not meet the standard to show prejudice because of his counsel’s errors. Jackson filed for a writ in the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to the effective assistance of counsel. McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759 (1970). Whether Jackson’s counsel was ineffective depends on (1) whether counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) whether there was a reasonable probability the result of the proceeding would have been different. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The “ultimate focus,” Strickland says, is the fundamental fairness of the proceeding and whether the proceeding was unreliable because of a breakdown in the adversarial process.
“Centuries of experience in the administration of criminal justice have shown that convictions based solely on testimony that identifies a defendant previously unknown to the witness is highly suspect,” the Louisiana Supreme Court stated, “especially where unsupported by corroborating evidence.”
The only evidence against Jackson was the witness identifications that he was the robber. Counsel was provided information that undermined the witness identifications, in a case that rested entirely on the witness identifications, but did not use it,” the Court added. The State’s argument that counsel was merely using a strategy by not raising the challenge “does not merit serious consideration,” the Court chided.
“The only real question here, is whether counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced defendant,” The Court said. “We find it clear that it did.” The purpose of the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel is to ensure that a defendant has the assistance necessary to justify reliance on the outcome of the proceeding. The Court found that Jackson’s counsel clearly did not meet that standard.
There was a stark difference between the witnesses’ description of the perpetrator and Jackson’s appearance. Those suspect identifications were the only evidence the State had in convicting him, yet they went “virtually unchallenged at trial” by defense counsel. The Court concluded that there was a substantial likelihood of a different result at trial had those witness identifications been challenged. “Therefore, we find it sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome,” the Court ruled.
Accordingly, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal, reinstated the district court’s granting of a new trial, and remanded to the district court for further proceedings. See: State v. Jackson, 248 So. 3d 1279 (La. 2018).
Related legal case
State v. Jackson
|Cite||248 So. 3d 1279 (La. 2018)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|