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A Jenner & Block team secured a significant win from the Seventh Circuit on behalf of pro bono client Anthony Lee, who has been incarcerated since 1995. On December 21, a panel of judges unanimously ruled Mr. Lee was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claim for ineffective assistance of counsel based on his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and call five witnesses at trial.
In 1996, Mr. Lee was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping and sentenced to 100 years in prison. The trial had no physical evidence or eyewitness testimonies other than testimony from Mr. Lee and his accuser, L.M. Prior to Mr. Lee’s trial, five potential witnesses submitted affidavits to Mr. Lee’s trial counsel that corroborated Mr. Lee’s testimony and contradicted his accuser’s. However, trial counsel did not call any of the five witnesses to testify at trial and never contacted them.
In 1998, Mr. Lee began pursuing a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel in state court. Although Mr. Lee pleaded a prima facie claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the state courts rejected his claim without ever granting him an evidentiary hearing on the merits. The state courts reasoned that Mr. Lee suffered no prejudice from trial counsel’s apparent failure to investigate the witnesses because the affidavits did not necessarily demonstrate that the witnesses would have made a difference at trial.
Jenner & Block began representing Mr. Lee in 2013. In 2017, the firm filed a federal habeas petition in the Northern District of Illinois. Although stating that it was a “close call” and “perhaps not the result this Court would reach on a blank slate,” the federal court held that the state courts did not unreasonably apply Strickland, and therefore dismissal was required. The firm filed an appeal to the Seventh Circuit.
On October 22, 2018, Jenner & Block Associate Abraham M. Salander argued the appeal before a panel of judges. Judge Easterbrook led the court’s questioning and focused on whether Mr. Lee’s requests for an evidentiary hearing in state court were sufficiently detailed to entitle him to a hearing in federal court under the federal habeas statute. After oral argument, the court ordered the parties to submit copies of Mr. Lee’s requests for an evidentiary hearing in state court along with the state courts’ rulings on those requests. Jenner & Block submitted a brief supported by 37 documents demonstrating that Mr. Lee’s requests were sufficient under federal law.
On December 21, the Seventh Circuit unanimously ruled Mr. Lee was entitled to an evidentiary hearing because, if the witnesses were called to testify, it was “unlikely” they “would have parroted their affidavits and refused to say another word.” The court specifically praised the firm’s “enthusiasm” and collection of relevant information in response to the court’s post-argument order.
Partners Michael T. Brody, Anton R. Valukas, Randall E. Mehrberg and Megan B. Poetzel assisted with oral argument preparation. Partner Jessica Ring Amunson and Associate William L. Von Hoene worked on the case at earlier stages.