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Name: Liao v. Junious
Case #: 14-55897
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 01/29/2016

Petitioner was entitled to federal habeas relief where state trial court unreasonably determined that trial counsel’s failure to obtain a sleep study of the defendant to support sleepwalking diagnosis was not prejudicial. Liao was charged with attempted premeditated murder and assault for hitting his girlfriend’s teenage son, Henry, on the head with a hammer three times at 4:00 a.m. while Henry was asleep. Liao’s defense was that the incident happened while he was sleepwalking and, as a result, he lacked the intent required for the crimes. Based on a defense expert’s recommendation, Liao’s counsel filed a motion seeking permission to have Liao, who was in custody, undergo a sleep study so the expert could make a diagnosis of sleepwalking. When counsel’s associate called the court clerk to check on the status of the motion, the clerk incorrectly informed him that it had been denied. Without further inquiry, trial counsel proceeded to trial without the sleep study. The defense expert testified that he could not diagnose Liao as a sleepwalker without the sleep study. The prosecutor repeatedly emphasized this weakness and Liao was convicted. He filed a state habeas petition, arguing that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. He underwent a sleep study and was diagnosed with sleepwalking. The state court found that trial counsel’s performance was deficient but not prejudicial, reasoning that the sleep study was cumulative of lay testimony from Liao’s relatives that he was a sleepwalker. The federal district court denied Liao’s federal habeas petition and he appealed. Held: Reversed. Contrary to the state court’s finding, the sleep study was not cumulative and its absence (as a result of counsel’s error) left Liao’s defense weak and pregnable, which the prosecution exploited during trial. The state court’s factual determination that Liao suffered no prejudice from the error was objectively unreasonable. The state court’s application of Strickland v. Washington (1984) 466 U.S. 668 to the facts of this case was also unreasonable.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: