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Criminal Practice — No Habeas Writ for Fingerprint Issue

Jones v. Clarke, Director (Lawyers Weekly No. 15-01-0388, 35 pp.) (Shedd, J.) No. 14-6590, April 22, 2015; USDC at Norfolk, Va. (Jackson, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: A trial lawyer’s failure to object to admission of evidence of defendant’s fingerprint around a window broken in a home from which a television was stolen was not constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel, and the 4th Circuit vacates a district court’s grant of a writ of habeas corpus.

The Supreme Court of Virginia adjudicated defendant’s ineffective assistance claim on the merits. The court noted that on appeal defendant argued the fingerprint evidence was inadmissible without the testimony of the fingerprint analyst; an objection by his counsel to the admission of the fingerprint evidence would have been sustained; and the remaining evidence against him would be insufficient to support the conviction. However, the court rejected his claim. Because the state supreme court adjudicated defendant’s claim on the merits, a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the adjudication resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, or resulted in a decision based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.

To show ineffective assistance of counsel, Strickland v. Washington requires deficient performance and prejudice.

Based on the trial judge’s comments at the bench trial, and our review of the trial evidence, there are five main facts bearing on defendant’s guilt: the victim’s house window was broken; the television was stolen from the house; defendant visited the house a few weeks before the theft occurred; defendant’s fingerprint was lifted from the broken window area; and defendant stated, in response to the victim’s question about why he committed the crime, that he “made a mistake or whatever and that’s what happened.”

The determinative question for Strickland purposes is whether there is a reasonable probability that the trial judge would have had reasonable doubt respecting defendant’s guilt if the fingerprint evidence had been excluded. We believe the answer is “no.”

We vacate the portion of the habeas order granting relief and remand for dismissal of the habeas petition.


Gregory, J.: Defendant’s trial counsel not only refused to put up a fight, but she also went so far as to unnecessarily surrender the very Sixth Amendment right that helps animate the adversarial system: the right to confront one’s accusers. The trial judge reasoned, “I think that when you take the fingerprint and combine it with the recent visit and you combine it with the statement I think that’s sufficient beyond a reasonable doubt….” In that light, there is a reasonable probability that, if the fingerprint evidence were excluded, defendant would have been acquitted. I thus respectfully dissent.

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