Split 7th Circuit affirms denial of habeas relief despite excluded evidence

A northern Indiana man convicted of molesting his teenage nephew has lost his appeal of the denial of habeas relief based on the argument that he should have been allowed to present evidence of his nephew’s drug use.

A dissenting judge, however, would have granted relief on that basis, finding the defendant was denied a “very core” legal right.

The case of James E. Hinkle v. Ron Neal, Warden, 21-2067, began in the summer of 2004, when 13-year-old S.B. visited family in Elkhart, including his uncle, petitioner-appellant James Hinkle. Hinkle molested S.B. at least once that summer, then again the next year.

Later, S.B. began using illegal drugs, prompting his family to confront him. During the confrontation, S.B. admitted to the drug use and also revealed that Hinkle, who was not present, had molested him.

Hinkle was subsequently charged in state court with child molesting, sexual misconduct with a minor and being a repeat sexual offender. Part of his defense was the argument that S.B. had falsely accused him of molestation to deflect from his drug use, but the trial court ultimately excluded evidence of S.B.’s drug use on relevance grounds.

Hinkle was then found guilty as charged and was sentenced to 42 years.

He stayed his direct appeal and instead pursued post-conviction relief under the Davis-Hatton procedure, but the trial court denied his PCR petition. The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed the denial in 2018, finding the trial court had not abused its discretion by excluding the evidence of S.B.’s drug use.

Hinkle then sought transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court and, when that failed, filed a federal habeas petition in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. The district court denied habeas relief, and a majority of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on Thursday.

“We need not posit arguments in support of the state appellate court’s decision,” Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the majority, which also included Judge David Hamilton. “That court expressly found that Hinkle had not presented ‘any basis, other than speculation,’ to connect the family discussion on S.B.’s drug use to a motive to bring false accusations against Hinkle. So the proffered evidence was not ‘essential to the defendant’s ability to present a defense’ and was, at most, ‘merely impeaching.’

“… (T)he state appellate court upheld the trial court’s conclusion that ‘Hinkle had not demonstrated a connection between S.B.’s family discussion on his drug use and a motive for S.B. to falsely accuse Hinkle of molestation,’” Brennan continued. “Hinkle fails to respond to this conclusion or offer any argument that the state appellate court’s decision ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’

“… And Hinkle has not suggested that Indiana’s evidentiary rules, requiring a reliable evidentiary foundation to pursue a theory of impeachment, fail on either front. He has thus failed to show that the state appellate court’s decision was an unreasonable application of federal law.”

Additionally, the appellate majority pointed to other impeachment evidence against S.B., including his previous criminal convictions and testimony that S.B. was “really good at lying.” Thus, the court rejected Hinkle’s argument that a violation of Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973), had occurred.

“Finally,” Brennan concluded, “even had the Indiana state courts unreasonably applied federal law, any error was harmless.” That’s because “other portions of S.B.’s testimony were corroborated by other witnesses, and the jury had plenty of evidence from which they could assess S.B.’s credibility, including his prior convictions, manipulative behavior, and history of lying to his relatives.”

But Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi dissented, writing separately that the majority’s reliance on Kubsch v. Neal, 838 F.3d. 845 (7th Cir. 2016) (en banc), was wrong.

“… Kubsch has limited applicability when the evidence at issue was excluded for reasons other than a state’s hearsay rules or when the evidence implicates other constitutional rights beyond the complete-defense right,” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote. “Here, the Indiana courts excluded evidence of S.B.’s motion on relevancy — not hearsay — grounds.

“And although Hinkle’s current counsel frames the case in terms of Hinkle’s right to present a complete defense, the crux of Hinkle’s claim is that he should have been allowed to present evidence of S.B.’s motive for providing false testimony — a quintessential defense ingrained in the Confrontation Clause,” she continued. “Accordingly, we should draw from the Supreme Court’s Confrontation Clause precedent to determine whether Hinkle’s right to impeach S.B. with this evidence was clearly established.

“I would hold that the exclusion of this evidence was contrary to clearly established federal law confirming a defendant’s right to confront his accusers. … Because the right to expose a witness’s motivation to lie is at the very core of the Supreme Court’s Confrontation Clause precedent, Hinkle should be entitled to habeas relief. On that basis, I respectfully dissent.”

Responding to the dissent, the majority wrote that Jackson-Akiwumi’s “recharacterization” of Hinkle’s challenge as one under the confrontation clause was “not supported by the record … .”

The majority pointed to the district court’s finding that Hinkle “didn’t present a Confrontation Clause claim to the state courts.” Also, at the 7th Circuit, “Hinkle argued only that his constitutional right to present a complete defense was denied.”

“Second, Hinkle’s theory of impeachment fails to explain how S.B.’s accusations of sexual molestation would allow the victim to avoid drug treatment, thereby supplying S.B. with a motive to lie,” Brennan continued in the majority response to the dissent.

The majority judges also rejected the dissent’s reliance on Fieldman v. Brannon, 969 F.3d. 792 (7th Cir. 2020), which Jackson-Akiwumi had said “limited” Kubsch, and her reliance on Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308 (1974).

“Hinkle had the right to impeach the victim, and he did,” Brennan concluded in the response to the dissent. “But Hinkle did not have the right to present evidence supporting any theory of impeachment, no matter how speculative.”

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