Vega v. Ryan

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 11-13-2013
  • Case #: 12-15631
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Chief District Judge Beistline for the Court; Circuit Judges Schroeder and Bybee
  • Full Text Opinion

Counsel's failure to familiarize himself with his client's file which contained information about the victim's recantation of the allegations of sexual abuse was a deficient performance and such failure was prejudicial because presenting testimony on the recantation would not have been cumulative and could have tipped the scales in the defendant's favor.

Pedro Vega was convicted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, child molestation, and three counts of sexual abuse. Vega knew that the victim, his stepdaughter, recanted her allegations to her priest, but his trial lawyer only learned about this after the conviction. Counsel’s motion to vacate and direct appeals were denied because it was not “newly discovered evidence.” Vega next pursued post-conviction relief on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel, which the trial court denied, and the appellate and supreme courts denied relief and review, respectively. Vega sought habeas relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He argued that his counsel was “ineffective for failing to familiarize himself with the file and, accordingly, failing to call witnesses who could provide exculpatory testimony” and that the state court “unreasonably applied clearly established federal law regarding ineffective assistance of counsel.” The Ninth Circuit determined that the state court’s application of clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable. First, Vega’s lawyer’s performance was deficient because he did not investigate and failed his duty “to familiarize himself with his client’s file… [which] led to a failure to present a key witness to the jury.” Second, the deficient performance prejudiced Vega since “the testimony of a priest … could have tipped the scales in Vega’s favor.” The panel disagreed that the Priest’s testimony would have been merely cumulative to the testimony of the mother that the victim recanted to her and the cross-examination of the victim on her recantation to her mother because it could have impacted the victim’s credibility and, with a reasonable probability, led to a different outcome. The panel held Vega’s claim met the Strickland test and granted relief. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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