Sunday, October 21, 2012

Court of Criminal Appeals Reverses Child Rape Conviction Due to Ineffective Assistance of Counsel



A Tennessee defendant, Joel Ernest Blanton, was convicted of one count of rape of a child and two counts of aggravated sexual battery and sentenced to 24 years in prison. Blanton appealed the conviction, citing several instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, particularly, that his attorney was ineffective for failing to obtain visitor logs from the Tennessee Department of Correction that could have been used to impeach the primary witness against him. The Court of Criminal Appeals heard the case and in an unusual decision, ultimately agreed with Blanton, reversing and remanding his case for a new trial.

By way of background, a 12-year-old girl said that Blanton was a friend of her family whom she had known for years. After having to spend the night at his house one day she says she awoke to find Blanton fondling her until she told him to stop and said that “it hurt.” The defendant remained in bed with the girl until the morning when he told her to be quiet about the incident. The girl’s sisters also later admitted to their mother that they too had inappropriate contact with Blanton after Blanton had crawled into bed with them on a previous occasion that same weekend.

Blanton, who was 20 year old at the time of the incident, always vehemently denied touching the girls, though he did admit that they were in the same house on the night in question.

The Court of Criminal Appeals held that the case turned solely on the issue of the witnesses’ credibility. One of the victims testified that her mother was snowed in overnight while visiting their father in prison. On cross-examination, the girl said she was “certain” her mother was away. However, in the videotaped interview with DCS, she said that her mother was at home when the incidents occurred. The other two victims testified that their mother was away from home on the night in question. The mother also said that she was away at the time of the incident. The Court said that whether the mother was home during the alleged incidents was a pivotal fact used by the children and their mother in establishing the time frame relied upon by the State.

The Court of Criminal Appeals found that this case turned completely on the credibility of the State’s witnesses versus the defendant’s witnesses. The evidence of prison visitation records would have irrefutably impeached the mother and her daughter’s credibility regarding where the mother purported to be the night of the incident.

Because the conviction in this case rested solely on the credibility of witnesses, defendant’s counsel should have obtained the available impeachment evidence for use at trial. The Court could not clearly say that the attorney’s failure to do so did not affect the outcome. Given that, Blanton suffered prejudice as a result of his attorney’s failure to request the prison visitation logs.

To read the full opinion, click here.
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