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Eighth Circuit Vacates Habeas Denial, Remands to Determine Whether ‘Martinez Exception’ Excused Procedural Default by State Prisoner

Jim Harris, a Missouri state prisoner, encountered an obstacle to federal habeas relief that many prisoners face – procedural default. In 2010, he was charged in state court of robbery and gun offenses. Before that case got moving, federal authorities “borrowed” Harris from state custody and charged him with robbery and gun charges – unrelated to his state case. He pleaded guilty to the federal charges and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. He was then returned to state custody and was handed a 15-year sentence in state court, to run concurrent with his already-imposed federal sentence. He remained in state custody until he completed that sentence and then went into federal custody.

Harris assumed his federal sentence was already running with his state sentence. After all, that’s what his state lawyer told him. However, the federal district court was silent on whether the federal sentence was concurrent with the state sentence. This required the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) to begin his 25-year federal sentence on the day he entered federal prison. Harris then filed a counseled state postconviction motion under Rule 24.035, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) as to “the amount of his sentence he was to serve.” After a hearing, where plea counsel admitted Harris pleaded guilty “in light of the fact he was already serving a 25-year sentence, which would completely swallow the 15-year sentence,” the court still denied his motion.

Harris appealed and argued that postconviction counsel was ineffective for not raising that plea counsel was ineffective in her advice that the two sentences would be concurrent. The Missouri Court of Appeals, however, found he had procedurally defaulted this claim because it wasn’t raised in his Rule 24.035 motion. His appeal was denied without the court hearing the claim.

Harris, now pro se, filed a timely federal habeas corpus petition, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, reiterating his original plea counsel IAC claim. The district court denied his petition. He appealed, and the Eighth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability (“COA”) on the issue.

Before a federal court can hear a state prisoner’s habeas claim, he must “exhaust” that claim in any state postconviction proceedings available to him. Failure to do so results in the claim being “procedurally defaulted,” meaning the federal court cannot hear it. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991). But a federal court may hear a defaulted claim if “cause and prejudice” can be shown. That is, there was “cause” to excuse the failure to raise the claim, and the petitioner would be “prejudiced” if the federal court declines to hear the claim.

The U.S. Supreme Court created a narrow exception to allow IAC claims to excuse procedural default. In Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), the Court held that a “substantial” IAC of trial counsel that is procedurally defaulted, may still be heard if postconviction counsel was ineffective for not raising it (and if state postconviction review was the “initial” proceeding for such claims). To show IAC is “substantial,” the claim must have “some merit,” the Supreme Court said. Martinez. At a minimum, the petitioner must show that the issue – in the present case, whether plea counsel was ineffective under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) – “was debatable among jurists of reason.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322 (2003). With respect to cause, the petitioner must show that during the state collateral review proceeding counsel – in the present case, PCR counsel – was ineffective under Strickland. Martinez

The Court noted that since the district court didn’t recognize Harris’ claim, “it never reached the issue of procedural default or determined whether the Martinez exception applies.” Thus, the Court remanded to the district court with instructions to “hold an evidentiary hearing to consider these matters in the first instance. If the district court determines that procedural default is excused for Harris’s claim, it should proceed to the question of whether the claim merits habeas relief.”

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