In many ways, the federal Third Circuit’s opinion last week in Haskell v. Superintendent Greene SCI was a simple and straightforward repudiation of a prosecution that purposely misled jurors and suborned perjury. And, while the court delved into some thicker questions about standards of review applicable in cases litigated in federal habeas proceedings, that repudiation is the takeaway lesson. It took nearly 20 years, but the misconduct that former Erie County prosecutor Matthew R. Hayes perpetrated finally undid the State’s case against Vance Haskell for the murder of Darrell Cooley.

Vance Haskell’s conviction combines two themes that regularly arise in stories of unfair and wrongful prosecutions: (1) the prosecutor elicits false testimony from a key witness denying that she will benefit from her cooperation with the State; and (2) a witness provides a crucial eyewitness identification of the alleged killer. Here, the same witness who struck a deal with the State to testify against Mr. Haskell—Antoinette Blue—gave the only firm and unquestioning eyewitness identification. The core constitutional problem was that, with assistance from Mr. Hayes, Ms. Blue kept the benefits she received from testifying concealed from the jury.

Reading the Third Circuit’s opinion, it is clear that Ms. Blue’s agreement with the prosecution was not incidental. Indeed, though the murder occurred in 1994, “[s]he never spoke with the police about the incident until three years later in February of 1998.” What prompted her cooperation with law enforcement? “Blue was in the Erie County Jail when she finally spoke to the police about the shooting. Two warrants brought her there. One was issued for a parole violation following her conviction for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The second stemmed from her failure to appear for sentencing after pleading guilty to a charge of attempted theft.” Mr. Haskell’s defense team obtained evidence demonstrating that the Erie County prosecutor, Matthew Hayes, was in touch with the DA of Mercer County, where Blue faced theft charges. He wrote a letter explaining that Blue was cooperating in their case against Mr. Haskell and indicating that he would let the Mercer County judge know about Blue’s assistance. After Haskell’s trial, Blue’s deal kept her out of prison in Mercer County, and she was ultimately sentenced to a suspended jail sentence with 18 months’ probation.

When Blue took the stand, the defense asked her questions about whether she sought help from the prosecution in exchange for her testimony. Blue denied, denied, denied. Then, on his re-direct examination of Blue, “Prosecutor Hayes attempted to dispel the notion that Blue had agreed to cooperate in order to receive some benefit in her own criminal matters.” If that were not enough:

In his closing argument, Prosecutor Hayes ridiculed the idea that Blue would benefit from her testimony and vouched for her credibility:

Antoinette says that she sees Haskell over at the [sic] Felicia Clark’s place. She also sees him out in the parking lot, and here she is the one that is trying to get all this benefit from this—this valuable testimony. And what she says she’s doing out there, she’s committing a crime. She’s smoking marijuana. That should help her pretty well. * * *

So, yes, she gives her statement [three] years later; yes, it’s during the time she’s in prison. Is it a lie? Of course not. It’s not a lie. … She’s not a liar, at least not about what happened here. And, if she’s not a liar and if her information is good, here’s your man.

The Third Circuit’s opinion reviewed the legal test Mr. Haskell had to meet to establish his claim. He had to show that “(1) Blue committed perjury, (2) the Commonwealth knew or should have known that the testimony was false, (3) the false testimony was not corrected, and (4) there is a reasonable likelihood that the perjured testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury.” The court had no difficulty at all with the first three elements. In its words, “[u]ncontested facts in the record demonstrate that Haskell has satisfied the first three elements.” The key question was the final element. On that question, the Third Circuit concluded “that there is a reasonable likelihood that Blue’s false testimony could have affected the jury’s judgment. Blue was a key witness. All the other eyewitnesses had significant problems with their testimony.”

One additional question remained: did Mr. Haskell also have to meet the “actual prejudice” standard set forth in Brecht v. Abrahamson? In short, this standard was embraced by the Rehnquist Court to further insulate state court decisions and state court convictions, protecting the “finality of convictions.” The Brecht standard is more difficult for a defendant to meet than the “reasonable likelihood” standard from Giglio and Napue. But, crucially, Brecht does not apply in all federal habeas cases. The Third Circuit explained:

[T]here are a number of exceptions to Brecht’s actual-prejudice requirement. The Court recognized in Brecht itself that structural constitutional errors . . . are not subject to harmless-error review. . . . Moreover, it noted that, “in an unusual case, a deliberate and especially egregious error of the trial type, or one that is combined with a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct, might so infect the integrity of the proceeding as to warrant the grant of habeas relief, even if it did not substantially influence the jury’s verdict.”

Ultimately, the Third Circuit held that the State’s subornation of perjury falls within the category of constitutional violations that do not require federal courts to impose the Brecht standard upon the habeas petitioner. The court acknowledged that this legal question has divided several federal courts of appeal, signaling that this may be the sort of question the U.S. Supreme Court needs to decide definitively. The split itself is a bit mystifying, as it seems clear that the knowing presentation of false evidence strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system’s integrity. The Third Circuit wrote, “[i]f suppression of evidence (and thereby, the truth) is a serious constitutional error, its fabrication is a greater error still. . . . Presenting false testimony cuts to the core of a defendant’s right to due process.” Here, the Third Circuit is right on in its interpretation of the constitutional rules pertaining to prosecutorial misconduct and how they interact with federal court review, just as it was in the James Dennis case last year.

As so often happens in these cases, it looks like the Erie County District Attorney, Jack Danieri, will ask the Third Circuit to reconsider its ruling. Meanwhile, the prosecutor responsible for the misconduct, Matthew Hayes, seems to have moved on from his post with the Eric County DA; today, according to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s roster of attorneys, he works for the Department of Homeland Security (see Bar # 52132 here).

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