By Malorie Letcavage

On November 20, 2015 the Fourth Circuit released its published opinion in the civil case Ivan Teleguz v. David Zook. In this case, the court reviewed the district court’s ruling denying Ivan Teleguz’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The court rejected Teleguz’s gateway of innocence claims and ineffective assistance of counsel claims and upheld the district court’s denial of Teleguz’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

Procedural Background

In 2006, Teleguz was convicted of capital murder for hire. The court found that he had hired someone to kill his ex-girlfriend, who was also the mother of their child, because he did not want to pay child support. Gilkes testified and said he saw Teleguz hire Hetrick to kill his ex, and Safanov testified that Teleguz had attempted to hire him to kill his ex. Hetrick also took the stand and testified to Teleguz’s request for him to slit his ex’s throat. Teleguz was then sentenced to death based on the statutory aggravating factors of vileness and future dangerousness.

Teleguz filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in state court but that was dismissed. He then filed the same in district court and alleged that some of his claims that had procedurally defaulted should be considered because he had a Gateway Innocence Claim. This meant he had new reliable evidence that he was actually innocent, which was based on two witnesses recanting their testimony and saying the prosecutor had pressured them. The district court denied relief, but the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded for the Gateway Innocence claim to be analyzed.

The district court then conducted evidentiary hearings, where neither of the recanters testified, but the prosecutors denied any claims of coercion. Following this, the district court again denied Teleguz’s petition.

Gateway Innocence Claim Rejected

A Gateway Innocence Claim requires support by new reliable evidence, though all the evidence is considered. The court must determine whether it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found the petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is referred to as the Schlup standard. Teleguz tried to meet this standard based on Gilkes and Safanov’s recantations, Hetrick’s alleged lack of credibility, evidence that he was not present at the place where he had asked Hetrick to kill his ex, and evidence that he had not actually committed a murder referenced in his trial.

The court rejected the recanted testimony as meeting the Schlup standard because Gilkes appeared but refused to testify at the evidentiary hearings, and Safanov did not appear at the evidentiary hearings. By contrast, the prosecutor and U.S. Marshal who were accused of bullying them into their original testimony appeared at the evidentiary hearing and flatly denied the accusations and gave reasonable accounts that the district court found credible. The Fourth Circuit refused to replace the district court’s credibility determinations and rejected this as new reliable evidence.

The court also rejected Hetrick’s “lack of credibility” as new reliable evidence. Hetrick appeared at the evidentiary hearings and testified in line with what he had said at the original trial. The district court had determined that Hetrick was highly credible, and again the Fourth Circuit relied on their credibility determination.

Teleguz tried to argue that he had presented evidence that he was not at the birthday party where he asked Hetrick to kill his ex. However, the evidence he collected was unreliable, and called into question the validity of the affidavits he used. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that the evidence was not reliable enough to meet the Schlup standard.

During his trial, there was a reference to a murder in Ephrata, Pennsylvania that Teleguz allegedly committed. Teleguz argued that he did not commit this murder and this reference had negatively impacted the jury, but the Fourth Circuit found the Ephrata murder to be irrelevant to his innocence in the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The Fourth Circuit overall held that the district court had applied the appropriate legal framework to the evidence, and had made reliable credibility determinations.

Rejection of Martinez Claim

Teleguz argued that the district court’s analysis was fatally flawed because it thought that the jury had not been told about the Ephrata murder. While the Fourth Circuit agreed that the district court had erred when it said that Teleguz had failed to preserve the issue, it still did not see a fatal flaw. Martinez claims, which may have been procedurally defaulted, can only be reviewed if there is a substantial claim of ineffective assitance of counsel. This requires a finding of incompetency and prejudice on the part of counsel.

In this case, the jury was never told anything that would prejudice them towards Teleguz regarding the Ephrata murder. The jury only heard evidence that could possibly show that Teleguz was present when the Ephrata murder occurred, and nothing that could prejudice them. The Court then used the Supreme Court case Wiggins v. Smith as an example to show when prejudiced existed, and held that Teleguz’s case was not up to that standard. The Fourth Circuit also noted that Teleguz was sentenced to death based on vileness because he commissioned the murder without regard for his child’s well-being and specified that his ex-girlfriend should have her throat slit. Therefore the Martinez claims would not help his death sentence.

Fourth Circuit Affirms

The Fourth Circuit found that Teleguz’s gateway innocence claim did not meet the Schlup standard in providing new reliable evidence that meant there was a reasonable probability that the jury would not have found as they did. He also did not make a substantial showing that he had ineffective assistance of counsel. Therefore, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Judge Davis concurred that Teleguz failed to support his Gateway Innocence Claim with sufficient evidence but thought that the record was too sparse to determine whether Teleguz satisfied his Martinez claim.