New opinion: a noteworthy habeas reversal

Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI—habeas corpus—reversal—Greenaway

In a notable habeas case, the Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s denial of relief and held that the petitioner’s trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with his attempted defense of guilty but mentally ill (GBMI). Pennsylvania law provides that no GBMI plea may be accepted until the judge has examined  the relevant mental-health-expert reports, held a hearing, and determined whether defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense. In this case, the defendant said he wanted to plead GBMI, but the trial court took a straight guilty plea while promising to hold a GBMI hearing later. The trial lawyer never submitted reports, and the court never reviewed reports, held a hearing, or decided whether the defendant was mentally ill.

A claim for ineffective assistance of counsel has two prongs: deficient performance and prejudice. In the part of the case likely to have the broadest future application, the Third Circuit held that trial counsel’s performance “easily” qualified as deficient given his failure to research a key point of law, namely the applicable GBMI procedures. The harder question was whether the inmate had shown prejudice, especially because a GBMI plea wouldn’t have reduced the length of the sentence he received. The court held that proving prejudice required only demonstrating that he would have pled GBMI, not that the plea was likely to be accepted nor that a lesser sentence would have resulted.

The case also had a jurisdictional wrinkle. The court held that the district court erred by taking at face value the petitioner’s characterization of the relief sought and thus concluding that his claim wasn’t cognizable. The district court should have recognized that the claim was cognizable, imperfect pleading notwithstanding, and even if it weren’t the district court shouldn’t have dismissed it yet.

Having held that the petitioner was entitled to relief on his ineffective-assistance claim, the court remanded to district court with instructions to grant the habeas petition and to vacate the petitioner’s present judgment.

Joining Greenaway were Smith and Chagares. Arguing counsel were Rosemary Auge of the EDPA federal defenders for the inmate and Travis Anderson of the Lancaster County DA’s office for the Commonwealth. The opinion praised the petitioner’s current counsel, Auge and Arianna Freeman, for “skillfully and diligently” catching a misreading of the record made by every court and lawyer before and persuading the court to hear the petitioner’s GBMI claim.