Counsel Failed to Argue that Person Cannot Burglarize Own House, Habeas Relief Granted

Leeds v. Russell, No. 21-16813, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 19081 (9th Cir. July 26, 2023)

In 2006, a Nevada jury convicted Leeds of first-degree murder. Although Petitioner resided at the house where the murder occurred, the prosecution presented a felony-murder theory at trial, alleging that Petitioner committed the murder during the course of a burglary because he entered the home’s garage as he struggled with the victim. Petitioner’s trial counsel failed to argue that a person cannot burglarize his own home. The jury’s general verdict form did not specify whether the jury relied on the felony-murder theory or the State’s alternative theory of willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder to convict Petitioner of first-degree murder. Petitioner later sought state habeas relief, but his postconviction counsel failed to allege in the petition that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that Petitioner could not burglarize his own home. The claim was, therefore, procedurally defaulted under Nevada law. Petitioner then filed a habeas petition in federal district court, which the court ultimately granted. The State of Nevada appealed the grant of Petitioner’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The panel held that Petitioner established a basis to excuse the procedural default of his claim because (1) Petitioner’s trial counsel IAC claim is substantial and therefore satisfies Martinez’s prejudice requirement; and (2) Petitioner’s postconviction counsel provided ineffective assistance under Strickland, meeting the Martinez cause requirement. The panel held that Petitioner is entitled to relief on the merits because (1) the trial counsel’s failure to raise the objectively important burglary argument constituted deficient performance, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different.

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