EvidenceProf Blog

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

Friday, January 4, 2019

Supreme Court of Alabama Throws Out the Conviction of Death Row Inmate Emanuel Aaron Gissendanner, Jr.

Today, the Supreme Court of Alabama granted a new trial to death row inmate Emanuel Aaron Gissendanner, Jr., "who was convicted of murdering Margaret Snellgrove in 2001 during a robbery and a kidnapping." I don't know enough about Mr. Gissendanner's case to say whether he is innocent or guilty, but I feel like I know enough about his case to say that there were serious issues with both the prosecution and defense at his trial. I also feel like I know enough about his case to say that this opinion by Alabama's highest court has significant ramifications for Adnan Syed.


Emanuel Aaron Gissendanner, Jr.

Why? The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland ruled 2-1 in Adnan's favor. The dissenting judge was Judge Graeff, who primarily relied on an Alabama case in denying Adnan relief. That case was a case decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama: Broadnax v. State, 130 So.3d 1232, 1236 (Ala. Crim. App. 2013). Judge Graeff acknowledged that "Broadnax did not involve a failure to investigate an alibi witness identified by the defendant prior to trial," but held that it was an indication that Alabama courts would find that defense counsel didn't have to interview an alibi witness identified by a defendant. Judge Graeff relied on a case from Alabama because there were no cases from Maryland that helped the State; understandably, the State subsequently placed primary importance on Broadnax v. State in its briefs and oral arguments to the Court of Appeals of Maryland.

Since those oral arguments, I have been convinced that the Court of Appeals of Maryland would rule in Adnan's favor. My one hesitation was the Court of Appeals adopting Judge Graeff's application of Broadnax v. State in her dissent. I no longer have that hesitation. And that's because Alabama's highest court -- the Supreme Court of Alabama-- has now actually addressed a case with similar facts to the Adnan Syed case and found that failure to contact an alibi witness was ineffective assistance of counsel.

That alibi witness was Gissendanner's brother, Joshua “Anton” Gissendanner. 

At the postconviction evidentiary hearing, Anton testified that on the morning of the day the State alleges Snellgrove was murdered he drove to his parent's house at around 7:00 a.m. to check his mail. On the way there, he said, he saw Buster Carr in Snellgrove's car. His father was getting ready for work when he arrived at his parent's house, and he saw Gissendanner and gave him a cigarette. When he came back to his parent's house after dropping his daughter at school, he said, he and Gissendanner smoked some marijuana. While he and Gissendanner were at his parent's house Buster drove Snellgrove's car into the yard. He said that Buster gave Gissendanner money and Gissendanner gave him drugs. Buster left and came back a little while later and asked if Gissendanner would let him pawn Snellgrove's car in exchange for drugs.

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama -- the same court that decided Broadnax v. State -- found that Gissendanner's trial attorneys were not deficient in failing to contact Anton for two reasons: (1) PCR counsel failed to ask them if/why they failed to contact Anton; and (2) Anton's testimony conflicted with Gissendanner's own trial testimony.

In today's opinion, however, the Supreme Court of Alabama found that the failure to contact Anton as an alibi witness was ineffective assistance of counsel. Importantly, the court reached this conclusion by applying the test from Broadnax v. State:

Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 9.42.55 PM

Applying this standard, the court held that 

The most plausible defense Gissendanner had to the murder charges was an alibi defense. Indeed, defense counsel argued in opening statements that Gissendanner had an alibi. However, defense counsel's inadequate pretrial investigation resulted in a lack of information and an inability to present an adequate alibi defense.

In other words, the failure to contact Anton was deficient performance

This then took the court to prejudice. This analysis was simpler. 

Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 9.49.50 PM

In other words, the failure to contact an alibi witness is almost per se prejudicial.

So, why is this so big for Adnan? Judge Graeff and the State essentially argued the following: (1) There's no Maryland case law that hurts Adnan; (2) but there is this Broadnax case from Alabama; (3) and while it doesn't deal with the failure to contact an alibi witness; (4) it might mean that Alabama courts would rule against a defendant claiming ineffective assistance based on failure to contact an alibi witness if that witness contradicts the defendant or defense counsel doesn't explain why they failed to contact the alibi witness.

But now, with Gissendanner, the Supreme Court of Alabama was presented with exactly this case and exactly these arguments...and it found that this was clearly a case of ineffective assistance of counsel. This means that there is no way the Court of Appeals of Maryland will use Broadnax v. State to rule against Adnan, and, again, Broadnax is at the heart of Judge Graeff's dissent and the State's argument. Simply put, this case is huge for Adnan Syed.



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Is there a system (online notices or via motions to the court) to ensure that clerks and judges are made aware of all changes in cited and relevant case law that occurs in the lag between briefs/arguments and their decision? Or do you simply rely on the diligence of the judge's clerks to regularly check?

Posted by: Steven | Jan 5, 2019 3:07:16 PM

Does someone like Justin need to actually submit this change/update to the court or would the justices/clerks know this to be in play now? How does this work since there has already been oral arguments?

Posted by: JanW | Jan 5, 2019 3:41:10 PM

Why does it matter at all how Alabama rules? Since it’s a Maryland court, I would assume that Maryland and federal cases would be the ones that count - not opinions from other states. Does every state ruling apply across the country? Thanks!

Posted by: Emma | Jan 5, 2019 5:33:13 PM

Steven: and JanW: Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 28(j) allows for citation of supplemental authority. Steve Klepper has noted on Twitter that “[t]here’s no Maryland version of the Rule 28(j) supplemental authority letter. But courts have accepted motions for leave to file supplemental authorities.”

Emma: In her dissent, Judge Graeff used the Broadnax case out of Alabama as her primary support for denying Adnan relief, and the State subsequently put primary reliance on Broadnax in its briefs and arguments to the Court of Appeals. The key point is that there is no Maryland case law that helps the State, so the State had been hoping that the Court of Appeals would rely on the out-of-state Broadnax case. It was a long shot, but it was the only real shot the State had. Now, however, the Supreme Court of Alabama has found ineffective assistance based on failure to contact an alibi witness case that is very similar to Adnan’s case. Now, if the Court of Appeals is going to use an Alabama case, it will be this case and not Broadnax.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jan 7, 2019 12:54:29 PM

You wrote that Maryland courts have accepted motions for leave to file supplemental authorities.

If Adnan's lawyers file for such a motion, does that mean the State will also have an opportunity to file other cases as authorities? Perhaps they'll discover other rulings favorable to their arguments, even new ones.

Posted by: Danny | Jan 7, 2019 1:22:17 PM

Danny: Yes, in the event that a court issued a new opinion that is favorable to the State, they would have the same opportunity.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jan 8, 2019 6:03:13 AM

maybe the state will find a golden egg-laying precog, like from minority report, and it will provide the elusive unimpeachable support for their case too Danny ;)

Posted by: Paul | Jan 9, 2019 2:35:40 AM

I just wondered if there was a risk of giving the State another opportunity to supplement its arguments. Apparently there is, except I guess if Adnan's lawyers let COA find and use the latest ruling on its own.

Posted by: Danny | Jan 9, 2019 11:44:59 AM

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