Eleventh Circuit Denies Habeas Relief for Criminal Convicted of Vehicular Homicide

In Reed v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, No. 13-10900 (Sept. 24, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s conditional grant of Kelvin Leon Reed’s 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Before the Eleventh Circuit was Reed’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim for trial counsel’s failure to locate, interview and call a trial witness, which Reed claimed was prejudicial to his defense.

In 2005, Reed was convicted of two counts of vehicular homicide, each carrying a consecutive sentence of 17.5 years imprisonment. Reed was the driver in a tragic hit-and-run accident where Reed, while traveling at speeds between 70 and 100 miles per hour, struck two pedestrians who were crossing the road. The pedestrians, Michael Harper and Troy Henshaw, were thrown 150 feet and died thirty minutes after impact. Reed did not stop to render assistance or give information about the incident, in direct violation of Fla. Stat. §§ 782.071 and 316.062.

Earlier on the night of the accident, Reed met with Willie Richards, one of his neighborhood friends, who agreed to allow him to borrow Richards’ car on the condition that Reed drive Richards home. On the way home, Reed and Richards’ encountered Jarvis Coleman and Reed agreed to drive Coleman to his house on the way to Richards home. After dropping Coleman off, Reed proceeded to Richards’ house at high speeds, swerved through traffic, and eventually drove into the middle of a median where he ran over the two pedestrians. Coleman was never contacted or interviewed about that night, and if he had been, Coleman would have denied meeting and being in a vehicle with Reed or Richards.

Reed directly appealed his conviction but was denied. Reed then appealed for postconviction relief through the state court appellate system arguing that Coleman’s testimony would have corroborated his alibi and impeached Richards’ testimony. As trial counsel failed to attempt to secure this testimony, Reed alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. In support of his motion, Reed included a sworn statement from Coleman. His convictions, however, were ultimately summarily affirmed by Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal.

In 2011, Reed filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Reed’s habeas petition alleged, inter alia, that his trial counsel’s failure to locate, interview, and call Coleman as a trial witness prejudiced his defense and amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washinton, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The district court conditionally granted habeas relief as to this ineffectiveness claim, holding that the state court’s application of Strickland was unreasonable.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court after finding that “the state appellate court ruling was neither contrary to nor an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law,” in affirming the denial of postconviction relief. Therefore, Reed did not meet the burden required of him under § 2254(d)(1) or (2) before a federal court will grant habeas relief after a state court has adjudicated a petitioner’s claim on the merits.

Reed alleged that the state court did not reasonably apply the Strickland standard in its review of his postconviction motion. In order for Reed to be entitled to habeas relief under Strickland, he would have to establish deficient performance and actual prejudice. The Eleventh Circuit declined to address deficient performance as it held that the Florida appellate court had a reasonable basis for concluding that Reed failed to establish Strickland prejudice. From the state court record, the Eleventh Circuit was “hard-pressed to find that the outcome of Reed’s trial would have been different had [trial counsel] investigated Coleman.” The Court based this conclusion on the unavailability of Coleman around the time of trial, the incredibility of Coleman’s testimony, and the fact that even if Coleman’s testimony were accepted as true it would not have “directly exculpated Reed. . . . [as t]he jury could have inferred Reed’s guilt from additional circumstantial evidence.” Therefore, the Florida appellate court had a reasonable basis for concluding no actual prejudice and thus the ineffectiveness claim failed.

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