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Fifth Circuit Grants Habeas Relief Because Detective’s Testimony of Witness Identification of Defendant Violates Confrontation Clause

The crime was a robbery during which Justin Atkins and Lawrence Horton allegedly beat and robbed a man after he cashed a check. Horton later went to the police and told them Atkins did the crime and that he was merely a lookout. Both were arrested, and Atkins was eventually convicted by a jury of robbery and aggravated battery.

The conviction came after a Louisiana state prosecutor asked the detective on the stand before the jury: “Did you in fact speak with Lawrence Horton?” The detective said he did, and the prosecutor asked if Horton had implicated anyone in the crime. “Based on the information he provided I was able to obtain a warrant. Q: For whom? A: Justin Atkins.”

After Atkins’ appeals were exhausted, he made his way through the postconviction process in the state courts. He was rejected at every step. Filing a federal habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Atkins argued that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him. The Fifth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on the issue.

Under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, “the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited “testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial unless he was unavailable to testify, and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross examination.” Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). The Supreme Court has further held that a detective reading a codefendant’s confession before a jury, even omitting the defendant’s name, violated the Confrontation Clause because it “obviously” referred to the defendant. Gray v. Maryland, 523 U.S. 185 (1998).

The state postconviction court here, however, concluded that the detective’s testimony was only made “to explain the sequence of events leading to the arrest” of Atkins. State v. Calloway, 324 So. 2d 801 (La. 1975). Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”), the only way the federal court could grant Atkins relief was if the state court’s decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court” or “an unreasonable determination of facts in light of the evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

“Detective Dowdy may not have used Atkins’ name, but surely there was no doubt in jurors’ minds that Horton had implicated Atkins,” the Fifth Circuit explained. “This was clear because Dowdy testified that based on what Horton said, Dowdy obtained an arrest warrant for Atkins.” Construing the Supreme Court’s decisions on the Confrontation Clause, the Fifth Circuit has held that “officers cannot refer to the substance of statements made by a nontestifying witness when they inculpate the defendant.” United States v. Kizzee, 877 F.3d 650 (5th Cir. 2017).

Because the state court’s reasoning in denying Atkins relief was an “unreasonable application of Gray,” the Court concluded that Atkins’ rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated. “Detective Dowdy testified that Horton, a nontestifying witness, implicated Atkins and the prosecution likewise referenced that testimony in its closing argument. Such testimony violates the Confrontation Clause,” the Court concluded.

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Related legal case

Atkins v. Hooper



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