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Name: Vega v. Ryan
Case #: 12-15631
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 05/19/2014

Attorney provided ineffective assistance in failing to review client’s file and present the testimony of a priest who heard alleged molest victim recant. After charges were dismissed in federal and state court, Vega was again charged and convicted in a state court of molesting his stepdaughter, B. At the time of the trial, Vega’s attorney was unaware that Vega’s first two attorneys had documented in his client file that B. had recanted the allegations to a priest. After learning about the recantation, trial counsel filed a motion for a new trial and the priest testified at the hearing (the priest-penitent privilege was not claimed), but the court denied the motion. Vega appealed and sought writ relief; his conviction was affirmed in state court. He filed a federal writ petition based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Held: Reversed. The court’s review under AEDPA (28 U.S.C. § 2254, subd. (d)(1), (2)) is “doubly deferential.” However, the state court’s holding that counsel was not ineffective because counsel had no responsibility to obtain information known to his client incorrectly applied clearly established federal law. Trial counsel had a duty to read his client’s file and the fact that Vega did not inform his counsel about the recantation did not excuse counsel from conducting a rudimentary investigation. Additionally, the priest’s statement in Vega’s file was exculpatory as it would have corroborated B.’s mother’s testimony that B. recanted the accusations. Because there was no strategic reason for not calling the priest as a witness, the failure to investigate and present this evidence constituted deficient performance. As for prejudice, the state court’s finding that the priest’s testimony would have been cumulative and would have had no effect on the verdict was an unreasonable determination of the facts. The priest’s testimony went to the core issue of whether B. was telling the truth and carried more weight than the testimony of B.’s mother regarding B.’s recantation. When a victim recants on two separate occasions to two different people, it is harder to describe the testimony of the second witness as merely cumulative.