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California Supreme Court Vacates Murder Conviction, Finds IAC for Failure to Obtain Expert Testimony on Time of Death

In 2005, Kimberly Long was convicted of second-degree murder of her boyfriend and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. After rounds of appeals and postconviction challenges were denied, Long eventually convinced the California Supreme Court in a habeas corpus petition that she was entitled to relief. She argued ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) because her lawyer had failed to consult with a time of death expert, among other claims. The trial court held a hearing and vacated her conviction, releasing her on bond pending a new trial.

The State, however, appealed, and that vacatur was overturned. The Court of Appeal found that counsel was not ineffective and reinstated Long’s conviction. The case made its way back to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the trial court’s vacatur of Long’s conviction.

The issue before the trial court was whether a time-of-death expert would have changed the outcome, had counsel sought one. Long came home and found her boyfriend unresponsive with a head injury. She called 911, and paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. They said rigor mortis and lividity had already set in, a late sign of death.

A witness testified at Long’s trial that he dropped her off at home at 1:20 a.m., but she said it was closer to 2:00 a.m. This was important because she called 911 at 2:09 a.m., meaning that there would have been just 20 minutes for her to kill her boyfriend before arrival of EMS and the paramedics’ finding of rigor mortis – a timeframe that meant it could not have been medically possible. But had she been home for 50 minutes before calling 911, rigor could have started before EMS arrived.

The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on Long’s claim, which largely went in her favor.

Habeas counsel obtained two time-of-death experts, who both credibly refuted the State’s expert that rigor could have set in “within minutes” of death. That was “medically impossible,” one of the experts testified.

The Supreme Court’s focus on the State’s appeal was not on whether defense counsel should have presented expert testimony as to time of death “but on whether the investigation supporting counsel’s decision not to consult a time-of-death expert was itself reasonable.”

In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court established a two-pronged analysis of IAC claims. First, counsel’s actions had to be outside the “professional norm,” and second, those errors must have a “reasonable probability” of affecting the outcome.

The California Supreme Court found that counsel’s failure to investigate the time of death without the assistance of an expert in the field “was the result of inattention, not reasoned strategic judgment.” Strickland recognizes that counsel’s “strategic decision” about a defense plan can be insulated from IAC claims, like not hiring an expert. But the Court stressed that this is true only if counsel properly investigated whether an expert would be needed. Counsel failed to do that in Long’s case.

“A time of death defense would have potentially complemented defense counsel’s theory of third party culpability; evidence that [the victim] died before Long got home would have suggested that someone else committed the crime,” the Court explained. “Given the totality of the trial evidence, there is a substantial, not just conceivable, likelihood that expert testimony that [the victim] died before 1:20 a.m. would have led to a more favorable result for Long,” the Court ruled

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Related legal case

In re Long

 

 

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