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Trial court needs to take another look at alibi defense

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a man’s petition for habeas corpus and ordered the District Court to take another look at the defense counsel’s alibi defense investigation.

Torray Stitts was convicted of the murder of Kevin Hartson in Kokomo and sentenced to 60 years in prison. The state’s case was based on the testimony of two witnesses whose reliability was attacked at trial. Stitts’ direct appeal failed as did his post-conviction relief petition. He claimed that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to adequately investigate his alibi defense for potential presentment at trial.

His attorney interviewed Stitts’ father, who claimed his son was at the American Legion Post with him and that other people saw Stitts there. Stitts’ attorney decided there weren’t any quality witnesses to testify on Stitts’ behalf and did not interview anyone else.

In Torray Stitts v. Bill Wilson, superintendent, Indiana State Prison, 12-2255, the 7th Circuit had to decide whether Stitts’ counsel’s alibi investigation violated Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984), not the decision to not present an alibi defense at trial. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of Stitts’ petition for post-conviction relief, finding that the attorney did investigate Stitts’ alibi defense and the investigation did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness nor was he prejudiced.

The Indiana Supreme Court declined to take the case. Judge Larry J. McKinney in the Southern District of Indiana denied Stitts’ petition for habeas corpus.

“When a defendant’s alibi is that he was at a nightclub at the time of the shooting, where there are presumably many people, we cannot fathom a reason consistent with Supreme Court precedent that would justify a trial counsel’s decision to interview only a single alibi witness without exploring whether there might be others at the venue who could provide credible alibi testimony,” Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote. “There is simply no evidence in the record to suggest that exploring the possibility of other alibi witnesses ‘would have been fruitless’ under these circumstances.”

The 7th Circuit remanded the case to the District Court to determine whether the trial counsel performed no further alibi investigation. If the attorney did not, then the District Court should grant the habeas petition. If the court finds the attorney did more, then the court must determine de novo whether that investigation was reasonable under Strickland.

 

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