The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Milton v. Miller on Friday, March 7, 2014.
Appellant Antonio Milton is an Oklahoma state prisoner serving a life sentence without parole for drug-trafficking-related convictions. After exhausting his state court remedies, Milton filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging that his counsel on direct appeal was ineffective for failing to assert a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, specifically that Milton’s trial counsel failed to inform Milton of a favorable pretrial plea offer. The district court denied Milton’s petition, but the Tenth Circuit granted Milton a certificate of appealability to challenge the district court’s ruling.
The Tenth Circuit concluded that the Oklahoma state courts’ resolution of Milton’s ineffective assistance claim could not survive scrutiny under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), and that unresolved issues of fact prevented the court from completing its de novo review of the claim. The court concluded that reasonable jurists could debate the merit of Petitioner’s claim of ineffective assistance based on the counsel’s alleged failure to inform him of the plea offer.
Milton argued on appeal that the OCCA’s resolution of his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. In turn, Milton argued, he was entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing to resolve his claim.
Milton correctly identified Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) as the clearly established federal law applicable to his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim. Milton challenged the Oklahoma Court of Appeals (OCCA’s) analysis of his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim, arguing that the OCCA’s decision was both contrary to and an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law because the OCCA misstated the legal tests governing the proper inquiry under federal law.
The Tenth Circuit agreed with Milton that the OCCA misstated the standard for analyzing the issue of whether appellate counsel’s performance was deficient. The result was the requirement that the Tenth Circuit review de novo Milton’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, rather than deferring to the OCCA’s resolution of that claim.
In applying the two-pronged Strickland test, the Tenth Circuit agreed with Milton that Milton’s appellate counsel clearly performed deficiently in failing to promptly and meaningfully convey to Milton the existence of a plea offer made by the prosecution at some point prior to the October 30, 2007 preliminary hearing. The focus then turned to the second prong of the Strickland analysis, i.e., whether Milton was prejudiced by his appellate counsel’s deficient performance. The court concluded there was conflicting evidence in the record regarding the precise nature of the plea offer that was purportedly made by the prosecution prior to the October 30, 2007 preliminary hearing. The court concluded there was a reasonable probability that, had Milton’s appellate counsel raised on direct appeal the issue of whether trial counsel failed to inform Milton of the pre-preliminary hearing plea bargain, Milton would have prevailed on this issue in his direct appeal.
The Tenth Circuit held that Mr. Milton was entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing to resolve the disputed factual issues relating to his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim, since disputed issues of fact existed that precluded the court from completing its de novo review of Milton’s ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim.
The Tenth Circuit REVERSED and REMANDED to the district court with directions to conduct an evidentiary hearing on, and to subsequently review on the merits, Milton’s ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim.