Right to Confrontation and Hidden Evidence

Justin Odell Langford vs. State of Nevada

(Unpublished Supreme Court Order Affirming)

Justin Langford appealed from a judgment of conviction, pursuant to a jury verdict of lewdness with a child under the age of 14. His victim H.H., told a nurse assistant at school that her stepfather, Langford, was sexually abusing her. Based on H.H.'s allegations, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) detectives arrested Langford. Investigators recovered bedding, a white rag, and bottle of baby oil in his dresser. After DNA testing, the white towel was found to have both Langford’s and H.H.’s DNA.

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Langford learned at his preliminary hearing that H.H. was receiving counseling because of the alleged abuse. He filed a pretrial motion for production of H.H.’s psychiatric records. The district court denied Langford's motion.

On appeal, Langford argued that his Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine his accusers entitled him to H.H.'s psychiatric records, as they were a source of cross-examination material. The court disagreed. The Confrontation Clause is not "a constitutionally compelled rule of pretrial discovery," (Pennsylvania v. Ritchie, 1987). Rather, "the right to confrontation is a trial right, designed to prevent improper restrictions on the types of questions that defense counsel may ask during cross-examination." 

“Langford failed to show that H.H.’s medical records were favorable to his defense-e.g., that they contained impeachment evidence, or that they were suppressed by the State” as the records were not in its possession. The other witness’ testimony and corroborating DNA evidence suggested the outcome of the proceeding would not have been different even if Langford were to have impeached H.H.’s testimony. The court found that there was no Sixth Amendment violation and it was further determined that Langford was not entitled to relief. The order of his judgement of conviction was affirmed.

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James Robert Pete vs. State of Nevada

(Unpublished Supreme Court Order of Affirmance)

James Pete was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Pete appealed both his judgment of conviction and the subsequent district court's denial of his motion for a new trial. During his trial, Pete admitted to stabbing and killing his victim. Pete argued he did so in self-defense, as his victim had attacked him first.

Pete’s first complaint was that the district court abused its discretion in allowing Detective Mogg to give opinion testimony despite Pete's objection.

The State used Mogg's experience as a homicide detective and with blood spatter as the foundation for admitting his opinion that the victim was lying down when attacked. He further testified that the pattern of wounds indicated that the victim was not actively moving when stabbed; thus negating Pete’s self-defense. Mogg's opinion drew upon specialized knowledge, not deductions a layperson may have drawn. To that extent, Mogg offered an expert opinion. The Court of Appeals found that the district court erred in admitting his expert testimony as an opinion testimony and the State also failed to provide the required advance notice to Pete about their new witness. Despite this error, the admission of this evidence did not substantially and adversely affect the jury's verdict, which is required for non-constitutional error to merit a reversal.

Pete also questioned the district court judge's impartiality, asserting that the judge showed favoritism in helping the State lay foundation for Mogg's opinion testimony. Reversal is warranted if the district court's actions prejudiced Pete's right to a fair trial (Oade v. State, 1998). Such prejudice did not occur here. To the Court of Appeals, the district court judge appeared to have acted out of concern for judicial expediency, and noted that the premeditation of the murder would have been found regardless. Thus, there was no impermissible assistance or favoritism that denied Pete a fair trial. The Supreme Court found that all the arguments and claims did not warrant reversal. The Court subsequently affirmed the judgment of the district court in denying Pete’s motion for a new trial.

Benny Hammons vs. State of Nevada

(Court of Appeals order reversing and remanding)

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Appellant Hammons appealed on the basis of the district court dismissing his postconviction petition for writ of habeas corpus. He claimed that they had improperly denied his petition without first holding an evidentiary hearing, which was necessary as he claimed actual innocence. A witness at trial emailed Hammons' sister, stating that she had found the safe in the desert and that it was not damaged when she found it. When this witness met with the prosecutor, he showed her a picture of a different safe that was damaged. She told the prosecutor it was not the safe that she had found. This evidence, Hammons argued, violated Brady by being false evidence brought by the prosecutor. The district court received Hammons’ petition with a copy of the witness email, but they rejected “for failing to provide reliable evidence” as the email could have easily been fabricated.

According to Berry v. State (2015), “a petitioner claiming actual innocence is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on a claim of actual innocence if he presents specific factual allegations that, if true, and not belied by the record, would show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him." The Court of Appeals found that the district court had failed to apply the Berry standard as Hammons met his burden of proof and was legally entitled to an evidentiary hearing regarding his actual innocence claim. The Court reversed and remanded his case to hold an evidentiary hearing on his claim of actual innocence.

Travis Lieberwirth vs. State of Nevada

(Court of Appeals Affirming)

Travis Lieberwirth appealed from a judgment of conviction pursuant to a guilty plea of burglary. Lieberworth claimed that his substantial rights were affected at his sentencing.

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Two individuals were allowed to make victim impact statements, despite the fact that their house was burglarized while Lieberwirth was proven to still be in custody. Their burglary had little to no relevance to Lieberwirth as he obviously had not committed the crime because he was in custody at the time. Lieberworth had the burden of proof to show that “actual prejudice or a miscarriage of justice,” had occurred with the use of their statements. The Court of Appeals stated that there is nothing showing that the District Court solely relied on the victim impact statement in determining sentencing and as such, there was no prejudice. His order of judgment of conviction was affirmed.

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Michael Howard Rachlin v. Renee Baker (Warden) and The State of Nevada

(Court of Appeals Reversed and Remanded)

Appellant Michael Rachlin appealed from an order dismissing his postconviction petition for a writ of habeas corpus at the district court. Rachlin plead guilty to his charges, but argued that he was misinformed by his counsel that he was not allowed to file a direct appeal.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals concluded that the district court erred by denying appellant’s claim without first holding an evidentiary hearing. The Court found that Rachlin successfully demonstrated that counsel’s performance was deficient and due to the misinformation that appellant could not file a direct appeal, there was a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceedings would have been different (Strickland v. Washington, 1984).

The Court of Appeals cites Toston v. Nevada (2011), to demonstrate that counsel has a duty to inform defendants that have pled guilty about their rights to appeal when defendants inquire or may receive benefit from such advice. When counsel misinforms their client about the right to appeal, the right to appeal is meaningless because the client may have been deterred from requesting a direct appeal due to the misinformation.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the matter back to the District Court to hold an evidentiary hearing as Rachlin had been misinformed about his right.