May 16, 2014 – A Wisconsin appeals court applied a rule of law at odds with controlling U.S. Supreme Court precedent, a federal appeals court has ruled, meaning a Wisconsin prisoner is now entitled to proceed on his habeaus corpus petition for relief.
William Avila was sentenced to serve 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to child sexual assault and multiple child pornography charges. Avila, in a petition for writ of habeas corpus, argued the he was being held in prison unjustly.
Among his claims, Avila says his attorney told him he would receive only five years in prison if he pleaded guilty. Ultimately, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that Avila waived any challenge to counsel’s performance by pleading guilty.
This ruling was contrary to Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52 (1985), according to a panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Avila v. Richardson, No. 13-1833 (May 7, 2014).
In Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court held that defendants can challenge guilty pleas if the plea was the result of ineffective assistance of counsel. “Because there has been no opportunity for factual development of the issue, all we can say about the merits of Avila’s claim at this point is that he is entitled to make it,” Judge David Hamilton wrote.
Avila had been accused of sexually assaulting an eight-year old boy repeatedly. Police found a video of Avila sexually assaulting the victim, along with other child pornography on Avila’s computer. The state had recommended a 60-year prison sentence.
Ultimately, the sentencing court imposed 35 years in prison with 20 years of extended supervision. His appellate attorney found no grounds for appeal. Avila pressed on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, but it was rejected in state appeals court.
The state appeals court ruled that “Avila’s claims that trial counsel performed deficiently before entry of the guilty pleas were waived by his guilty pleas.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court declined Avila’s petition for review, so Avila went to federal court.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin accepted the conclusion of the state appeals court: Avila had waived his right to bring the claim.
On appeal, the three-judge panel noted that “[t]he state court’s conclusion that Avila could not challenge his counsel’s performance after pleading guilty cannot be reconciled with the Supreme Court decision making clear that he could,” Judge Hamilton noted.
The appeals panel noted that if the state appeals court had “simply denied Avila’s claim without explanation,” Avila would have to prove there was no reasonable basis for the result. “But here the state appellate court did explain its reasoning,” Hamilton wrote.
The panel ruled that Avila, representing himself throughout the federal litigation, is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether his counsel was ineffective.
The evidentiary hearing is not foreclosed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the panel noted, because Avila alleged facts that would entitle him to relief if proved, and he never received a full hearing on the issue in state court.
AEDPA made it more difficult for federal courts to grant habeas corpus relief, and foreclosed federal fact finding if the petitioner fails to develop facts in state court.
“We see no such lack of diligence in this case,” Judge Hamilton noted. “Avila has consistently presented his claim at each stage of post-conviction proceedings, without the benefit of counsel or the opportunity to collect evidence.”