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February 1, 2006

Why habeas (in non-capital cases) is so important

Though technically not a sentencing case, the decision today by the Ninth Circuit in Goldyn v. Hayes, No. 04-17338 (9th Cir. Feb. 1, 2006) (available here), provides a stark and stunning reminder that federal habeas corpus is about so much more than the death penalty (discussed here) and that those concerned about injustice in the criminal system should look beyond the death penalty (discussed here).  Per Judge Kozinski, here are some choice snippets from Goldyn:

Petitioner spent 12 years in prison for conduct that is not a crime....  Over the twelve years she spent in prison, Goldyn asserted her innocence seven times before three courts.  Yet no court appears to have taken her argument seriously....

No rational trier of fact could have found that Goldyn committed the crime of writing bad checks as defined by Nevada law.  And no rational judicial system would have upheld her conviction.  See 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254(d)(1).  We are saddened and disappointed that the state supreme court unanimously affirmed a conviction carrying multiple life sentences based on such cursory and inadequate review of the record in light of the applicable statute....

Had the Nevada courts and prosecutor's office taken more seriously their "obligation to serve the cause of justice," United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 111 (1976), Goldyn would not have spent twelve years behind bars for conduct that is not a crime.

UPDATE:  A brief e-mail exchange with an astute colleague has led me to read the conclusion that Judge Kozinski's rhetoric seems too harsh given possible ambiguities in the criminal statute being applied in the case.  Throw in the fact that the opinion moves past the habeas review standard quickly by concluding simply that "no rational judicial system would have upheld her conviction," and I am now convinced that the Goldyn story is more nuanced that the Ninth Circuit's opinion would suggest.

Indeed, a footnote at the end of the Goldyn opinion hints the Nevada lawyers handled in this case in a manner that led the Ninth Circuit panel to look at the state's claims in a damning light. Judge Kozinski says other claims by the defendant not ultimately addressed "raise similarly significant issues that cast further doubt on the state's commitment to the pursuit of justice in this case."  I will be interested to see if we hear more background about the litigation of this case in the days ahead.

MORE:  The AP has this brief article on the Goldyn case and notes the defendant is "a problem gambler."  And an amazing comment dialogue about the case can now be found here at Volokh.

February 1, 2006 at 04:43 PM | Permalink


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The claim that the statute of ambiguous is not really right. The statute clearly stated that a check was not illegal if you had a line of credit to back the check. The distinction may be subtle, but it is also a very basic one that seperates a crime from a civil matter.

The opinion also notes that the prosecutors were so oblivious to this point that the charging instrument didn't note that statutory language that allowed a line of credit to back up a check, and the testimony of the bank at trial made clear that indeed it did have a line of credit backing up the checks.

The opinion also makes clear that even if it is possible that a crime was committed, that it was not the crime charged. Applying for a bank account under a false identity is probably a crime (although quite possibly a misdemeanor), but it isn't the crime of writing a bad check, which is what she was convicted of doing.

Of course, the 9th Circuit's view is also probably colored by the fact that someone was sentenced to five life terms in prison for writing five bad checks (the amounts of the checks are not identified in the 9th circuit opinion).

If the law on cruel and unusual punishment were not so crabbed, a life sentence for writing a bad check would be clearly out of line. Writing a bad check clearly isn't as serious an offense as non-capital murder, even if you do have prior fraud convictions. But, that wasn't necessary in this case.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Feb 1, 2006 10:59:36 PM

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