Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Court Clarifies "Evidnce as a Whole" in 2255 Cases

US v. MacDonald: MacDonald was convicted in 1979 of murdering his wife and two daughters at Fort Bragg in 1970. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence. In 2006, he filed (with permission from the Fourth Circuit) a successive 2255 motion asserting a due process claim of newly discovered evidence with regards to a former US Deputy Marshal named Britt ("Britt claim"). Britt stated that he was present when the prosecutor at MacDonald's trial interviewed another potential suspect (and defense witness) and threatened her with being prosecuted for the murders if the testified consistently with what she told him. Shortly thereafter, results of DNA testing (authorized by the Fourth Circuit in 1997!) became available. MacDonald (without permission) added a claim of actual innocence based on the results of the DNA tests ("DNA claim"). He also urged the district court to consider the DNA evidence as part of the "evidence as a whole" in resolving the Britt claim. The district court denied relief. As to the DNA claim, the court found it lacked jurisdiction because MacDonald failed to get permission to file that claim. As to the Britt claim, after a "more searching" analysis than the Fourth Circuit made, the court denied MacDonald leave to file the new 2255 motion.

The Fourth Circuit (a two-judge panel, due to the death of Judge Michael after oral argument) reversed and remanded for further consideration of both claims. As to the Britt claim, the court found that the district court applied the standard of review applicable to review of state convictions, rather than federal ones. While the standards were very similar, the court remanded for reconsideration rather than find the error be harmless because "the court committed prejudicial error by taking an overly restrictive view of what constitutes the 'evidence as a whole'" by not expanding the record to consider evidence received after trial and MacDonald's initial 2255 petition. The district court erred by limiting its review to only the trial record and the specific newly presented evidence of the Britt claim. As to the DNA claim, the court concluded that the district court had jurisdiction over it because it was properly added to an otherwise authorized successive motion. The court did not reach the substance of either of MacDonald's new claims.

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