7th Circuit dismisses as moot state’s appeal of habeas relief in Elkhart murder case

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed as moot Indiana’s appeal of a conditional writ of habeas corpus for a man convicted of murder as a teenager, finding that state-court vacatur of the conviction ended the appellate court’s jurisdiction over the petition.

Dentrell Brown was convicted in 2009 of the murder of Gerald Wenger, who died of a gunshot wound to the head in March 2008. Brown, who was 13 at the time of the shooting, was tried in adult court in Elkhart County,

During his trial, Brown’s trial lawyer failed to object to a serious violation of his constitutional right to confront witnesses against him. However, his direct appeal and post-conviction relief petition were both unsuccessful in state court.

Initially, Brown’s attempt at federal habeas relief was also unsuccessful. But in 2017, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of his habeas petition, finding the Martinez-Trevnio doctrine applied in Indiana, and remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana for a hearing on ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel. The 7th Circuit later denied rehearing. 

On remand, the Indiana Southern District Court granted Brown a conditional writ of habeas corpus, and both sides appealed. While Indiana appealed to reverse the writ, Brown cross-appealed seeking an order barring any retrial. While the appeals were pending, Indiana complied with the writ, resulting in a state-court order vacating the original judgment of conviction.

Brown then moved to dismiss the state’s appeal and to dismiss his cross-appeal, which the 7th Circuit did in a Thursday decision. The appellate court found the state’s appeal to be moot because the state court’s vacatur of Brown’s conviction ended the 7th Circuit’s jurisdiction under both 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and Article III of the United States Constitution.

The 7th Circuit first found common ground in Eddleman v. McKee, 586 F.3d 409 (6th Cir. 2009), and Gillispie v. Warden, 771 F.3d 323 (6th Cir. 2014), cases in which a district court granted conditional writs of habeas corpus.

“The critical facts in this case are also identical: the conditional writ ordered the State of Indiana to either release Brown or elect to re-try him. The State picked both, just as the state effectively did in Eddleman by releasing Eddleman and later re-arresting him. Here, the State moved to release Brown and to vacate his conviction and sentence. As in Eddleman and Gillispie, the state court’s vacatur of Brown’s conviction ended federal jurisdiction over Brown’s habeas corpus petition under the terms of § 2254,” 7th Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote.

Likewise, the vacatur rendered Indiana’s appeal moot under Article III in the case of Dentrell Brown v. Frank Vanihel, 20-2473 and 20-2474.

“If this court were to rule in favor of the State in this appeal and conclude that the district court erred by granting the writ of habeas corpus, there is no ‘meaningful relief’ that we could provide to the State,” Hamilton wrote. “… There were paths available to the State that could have avoided this result, but the State chose not to take them. The State could have sought a stay of the writ pending the conclusion of the appeal before this court, and in the interim neither initiated pretrial proceedings nor moved the state court to vacate the conviction in dispute.”

The 7th Circuit also rejected the state’s argument that it was not guaranteed success in seeking a stay, pointing out that in the legal system, “the lack of guaranteed success is not a sound basis for excusing a party from at least seeking relief.”

“Under both § 2254 and Article III, we are concerned about the following scenario in the absence of a stay,” the 7th Circuit posed. “Suppose that we deny Brown’s motions to dismiss and proceed with merits briefing and argument on the State’s appeal. Then suppose that while that appeal is pending, Brown is retried in state court and acquitted. And then suppose that we decided that the federal writ should not have issued. What relief should be ordered in that scenario?

“We could not reinstate his original conviction, which the state courts had vacated. The prospect that the state courts might then disregard the new acquittal and somehow reinstate his original conviction would pose a very knotty problem. That problem is entirely avoidable if a state in such a case seeks and obtains a stay before a new trial,” Hamilton wrote for the panel, concluding it couldn’t reinstate Brown’s state-court conviction.

Lastly, the panel denied Brown’s motion to file a special appendix in the state’s appeal in Case No. 20-2474.

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