NICHOLAS v. GRAHAM, NO. 15-6616
Decided: April 27, 2016
The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court.
Richard Nicholas, the defendant, was convicted of killing his daughter in 1997. At trial, Nicholas stated that he was in the car with his daughter when she was shot from a passing car, and he immediately called for help. The prosecution contradicted this timeline with expert witness testimony on lividity. The expert determined that Nicholas’s daughter had died and remained on her side for two hours before he called for help based on how the blood had settled in her body. This was the strongest evidence against Nicholas.
In 2005, Nicholas filed a state petition for post-conviction relief, which was denied. Shortly thereafter, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in district court. As part of this proceeding, his counsel obtained police notes detailing two interviews with witnesses. Both witnesses stated they heard a loud noise, like a gunshot, on the night of the girl’s death. Nicholas subsequently filed a motion to re-open the state post-conviction proceeding based on this new evidence, and the federal proceeding was stayed until he exhausted state remedies.
At State court, Nicholas argued that the government’s failure to disclose the witness statements violated his rights under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The state court denied the motion to reopen the case because the statements were not beneficial to Nicholas. He was denied leave to appeal, and reinitiated federal court proceedings. The district court granted relief on the Brady claim, finding the witness statements could have helped to corroborate Nicholas’s version of events.
The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the district court because the district court failed to give proper deference to the determination of the state court as required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. A federal court may only grant habeas relief if the state court reached a decision that was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law,” or based on “an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) (2012). Without deciding whether the statements were favorable, the Fourth Circuit found that the state court was not unreasonable in determining that the statements were not material to the case, as required by Brady because those witness statements were inconclusive, and the jury could have still found the expert witness testimony more credible than the lay witness accounts.