By Paige Topper

Issue Raised by the Petitioner 

On April 22, 2015, in the civil case of Jones v. Clark, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia erred in granting Rashaad Jones’ habeus petition. The Fourth Circuit found that the District Court erred in granting the habeus petition and thus vacated the portion of the habeas order granting relief.

Jones’ Conviction and Habeas Corpus Proceedings

In January 2010, Jereme Joseph reported that someone broke a window in the back of his house and stole a television and other items from his bedroom. One month prior to the theft, Jones had visited Joseph’s house with a mutual friend, at which time he entered through the front door and stayed in the family room. A fingerprint analysis certification indicated that one of the fingerprints on the window belonged to Jones. Jones’ trial counsel did not object to the admission of this certificate. Joseph also testified that following the theft Joseph confronted Jones at the jail about why he committed the crime. Jones responded, “he made a mistake.” This trial judge interpreted Jones’ statement as an admission of guilt.

The trial judge convicted Jones of breaking and entering and grand larceny with a 10-year prison sentence. The Virginia appellate court denied Jones’ direct appeal, and the state supreme court denied his state habeas petition. In response, Jones filed a federal habeas petition. This petition proceeds as a civil action against the state agent, here Harold Clarke, the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, who holds the defendant in custody. The district court granted habeas relief on Jones’ ineffective assistance claim. Accordingly, the district court vacated Jones’ convictions and sentence.

The Ineffective-Assistance Claim

An ineffective-assistance claim argues that counsel’s unprofessional errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial. The Supreme Court of Virginia, in Strickland v. Washington, established two necessary components of an ineffective-assistance claim. First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was deficient. This component must show that counsel’s errors were so serious that counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This component establishes that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, the result of the case would be different.

Jones argued that his counsel should have objected to the admission of the fingerprint evidence. Specifically, Jones claimed that his counsel’s failure to object prejudiced Jones as the fingerprint was essential to the guilty verdict and without that evidence there was a reasonable probability that he would have been acquitted.

Exclusion of Fingerprint Evidence not Reasonably Likely to Produce a Different Result

The Fourth Circuit acknowledged that the fingerprint evidence constituted strong evidence establishing Jones’ guilt. However, the Firth Circuit found that there was not a reasonable probability that the trial judge would have had reasonable doubt regarding Jones’ guilty if the fingerprint evidence had been excluded. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit determined that even if the fingerprint evidence was removed from the equation, the admission of guilt to Joseph in the jail and the evidence that Jones had recently visited Joseph’s house are sufficient to establish Jones’ guilt of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt.

Portion of the Habeas Order Granting Relief Vacated

The Fourth Circuit held that the state supreme court did not unreasonably conclude that Jones failed to establish the Strickland prejudice for an ineffective-assistance claim. Thus, the district court erred in granting the habeas petition. The Fourth Circuit vacated the portion of the habeas order granting relief and remanded for the district court to dismiss the habeas petition.

The dissent argues that because the trial judge reasoned “when you take the fingerprint and combine it with the recent visit and you combine it with the statement,” there was a reasonable probability that if the fingerprint evidence was excluded, Jones would have been acquitted (emphasis added in dissent).