EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Humbled: Seventh Circuit Finds Defendant Received Effective Assistance Of Counsel In New Year's Day Related Case

The opinion of the Seventh Circuit in Humbles v. Buss, 268 Fed.Appx. 459 (7th Cir. 2008), reveals that there is not much that counsel can do with evidence of prior charges against a witness that did not result in a conviction.

In Buss, William L. Humbles was convicted of attempted murder, aggravated battery, and battery based upon "a New Year's Eve celebration that turned violent."  And after he exhausted his state remedies, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.  And after that petition was denied, Humbles appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

According to the Seventh Circuit, the facts of the case were as follows:

     "[Titus] Larkin was attending a 1998 New Year's Eve party at his cousin's house in South Bend, Indiana. At approximately 2:30 a.m. on New Year's Day, Larkin walked (or perhaps carried, as she was drunk) his girlfriend to a vehicle parked outside. According to the court of appeals, Humbles and two other men were sitting across the street in another vehicle. When Larkin was outside, Humbles summoned him. Larkin approached the driver's side window and Humbles accused Larkin of telling the police about Humbles' involvement in [a] robbery. When Larkin looked into the vehicle, he saw a black automatic weapon on the seat between Humbles' legs. Fearing that Humbles was going to shoot him, Larkin ran. Humbles fired three shots at Larkin, two of which missed. One, however, struck Larkin in the right buttock and exited through his groin. Larkin's left testicle was severely damaged and had to be removed."

Part of the basis for Humbles' appeal was that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel at trial.  Specifically, Humbles contended, inter alia, that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate a prior charge against Larkin for false informing in connection with his accusing someone else of shooting him in a previous incident.

But the problem for Humbles was that his trial counsel actually elicited more testimony regarding that charge than he should have.  According to the Seventh Circuit, Humbles' trial counsel did ask Larkin, "Do you have a prior conviction for false informing?" and Larkin said he did, even though he had not actually been convicted of the crime.  Humbles wanted his counsel to elicit more testimony from Larkin, but if counsel were attempting to impeach Larkin, he shouldn't even have been able to ask this first question because witnesses can only be impeached through convictions under Indiana Rule of Evidence 609.  Moreover, the Seventh Circuit found that Larkin's prior false reporting was not admissible to prove any permissible purpose under Indiana Rule of Evidence 404(b).

Finally, the Seventh Circuit found that even if Larkin's prior false reporting were admissible, it would have been in a way that was damaging to Humbles, meaning that his trial counsel could have acted prudently in not pressing the issue.  According to the court,

     "[t]he incident that led to the charge involved LeRoy Humbles, petitioner's brother, and showed 'bad blood' between Larkin and petitioner Humbles, thus adding to his motive to shoot Larkin. It could well have been a strategic move to decline to pursue the matter."   



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