Opinion By: Justice Liu (unanimous decision)
Trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to consult a time of death expert where the timeline was crucial to the defense theory of the case. In 2005, petitioner Long was convicted of the second degree murder of her boyfriend Conde. In response to Long’s 911 call reporting that she just came home and something was wrong with Conde, paramedics found him dead. He had been killed by blunt force injuries to the head. There was no physical or direct evidence that linked Long to the crime. The prosecutor’s theory at trial was that Long arrived home intoxicated around 1:20 a.m., killed Conde, disposed of the murder weapon, and cleaned herself and the scene before calling 911 at 2:09 a.m. Her conviction was affirmed on appeal and Long ultimately sought state habeas relief on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial court granted habeas relief, finding that Long’s trial attorney had rendered objectively deficient performance by failing to consult and present testimony from a time of death expert and by failing to present supporting evidence about Long’s clothing. The Court of Appeal reversed and the California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed. To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant/habeas petitioner must show that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness in light of professional norms and, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Conde’s time of death was a particularly important issue in this case and therefore gave rise to a duty of defense counsel to investigate. Estimating time of death requires expert knowledge on how to measure and evaluate relevant postmortem bodily processes and indicators and defense counsel did consult an expert on this issue. A reasonably competent attorney would have investigated further, and defense counsel had no reasonable basis for failing to do so.
Defense counsel’s failure to investigate prejudiced petitioner’s defense. To determine whether a defendant/habeas petitioner was prejudiced by counsel’s failure to investigate, the court examines what evidence counsel failed to discover and present in the case and whether there is a reasonable probability that a competent attorney would have introduced it. The court then addresses whether there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a different verdict if it had been confronted with that evidence. Here, the trial court found that, at the time of trial in 2005, qualified medical opinions concluding that the time of death occurred significantly earlier than 1:20 a.m. were available to defense counsel and there is a reasonable probability that a competent attorney would have presented this evidence at trial. This finding was supported by substantial evidence. The time of death evidence was complementary to the defense strategy that the murder was committed by a third party and it is reasonably probable that the presentation of such evidence would have led one or more jurors to harbor reasonable doubt about Long’s guilt. The prosecution’s case rested on circumstantial evidence of Long’s motive and opportunity to commit the crime. Additionally, there were two other people with a potential motive to kill the victim, and their alibis were not firm. Counsel’s failure to investigate the time of death, in a case where the timeline was crucial, was an error sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/archive/S249274.PDF