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October 9, 2007

Notable Sixth Circuit habeas ruling on sentencing due process

The Sixth Circuit today in Stewart v. Erwin, No. 05-4635 (6th Cir. Oct. 8, 2007) (available here), grants habeas relief to a state prisoner because he was denied access to certain information used at his sentencing. Here are the highlights from the start of the opinion:

After exhausting his state remedies, Stewart filed a habeas petition in federal district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging, inter alia, that he was denied due process of law because he was not given the opportunity to review, rebut, and explain the entire body of information that the sentencing court relied upon to justify its imposition of an eight-year prison term.  The district court denied the habeas petition but, on the same day, granted Stewart’s motion to expand the habeas record and ordered the State of Ohio to file, under seal, the presentence report and victim impact statements from Stewart’s case.  The custodian of these documents has thus far refused to comply with the district court’s order, and these documents do not appear in the record on appeal.  The district court also subsequently granted a certificate of appealability as to Stewart’s due process challenge, and this is the sole claim presently before us.

As explained below, we agree with the district court that there is no clearly established federal constitutional right to full disclosure of all information used by a trial judge in determining a defendant’s sentence.  Nonetheless, we recognize, as did the court below, that there is a clearly established federal due process protection against a trial court’s reliance on materially false information at sentencing.  Unlike the district court, we find ourselves unable to ascertain whether this latter sort of due process violation might have occurred here, where a portion of the materials used in determining Stewart’s sentence has been withheld from federal court review, and where the limited record before us suggests a reasonable possibility that at least some of this sentencing information might have been erroneous. Consequently, we reverse the district court’s order denying Stewart’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and remand for additional proceedings, with further instructions that the writ should be granted if the State fails to supplement the record as ordered by the district court within forty-five (45) days of the date of this opinion.

October 9, 2007 at 10:59 AM | Permalink

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Posted by: 222222222 | Oct 18, 2007 9:18:17 PM

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