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Name: People v. Smothers
Case #: A156081
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 3
Opinion Date: 07/20/2021

Trial counsel was prejudicially ineffective for failing to present evidence of the identity of a man whose DNA was found in a murder victim’s fingernail scrapings despite a court order allowing counsel to do so. In 1983, a woman was found dead. In 2008, investigators began processing evidence for DNA using new procedures. Blood DNA pointed to defendant, the woman’s boyfriend, who had been a suspect in the earlier investigation. However, DNA under the woman’s fingernails yielded a match to a man named Sennett, who appeared to have no connection to California, the woman, or defendant. In 2016, defendant was charged with murder. The trial court granted the defense motion to introduce evidence of the DNA match to Sennett in support of a third-party culpability defense. However, defense counsel never introduced the evidence nor mentioned Sennett’s name during trial. The jury found defendant guilty of murder but found a weapon enhancement to be not true, a verdict consistent with the prosecution theory that defendant conspired with a third party to kill the woman. After the trial, counsel learned Sennett was in California the week of the murder. Defendant appealed. Held: Reversed and remanded. In assessing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a reviewing court will consider whether counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and whether the defendant suffered prejudice to a reasonable probability. During a post-trial hearing, defense counsel explained he did not present evidence related to Sennett because he could not in good faith argue that Sennett was in California and therefore could not connect him to the murder. However, the mere presence of Sennett’s DNA placed him in California, and the trial court made no indication that it would prevent counsel from referring to Sennett by name. Counsel’s misconceptions fell below an objective standard of reasonable performance. The deficient performance was prejudicial because there was absolutely no evidence of defendant’s connection to Sennett nor proof of an agreement between the men to kill the victim. [Editor’s Note: The court rejected defendant’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion to dismiss the indictment on grounds of pre-accusation delay, concluding that the delay was “quintessentially reasonable” based on the county’s limited resources for DNA testing in cold cases.]