The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Jones v. Trammell on Friday, December 5, 2014.
On July 28, 1999, Paul Howell was fatally shot in his Suburban in his parents’ driveway in Oklahoma City. Two days later, police found Howell’s Suburban, canvassed the neighborhood where it was found, spoke to various people, and eventually investigated Julius Jones as the suspect in the killing and robbery. Police also investigated Christopher Jordan as the co-conspirator. Police obtained a warrant to search Jones’ parents’ house, where they found the gun used to shoot Howell wrapped in the bandanna worn during the robbery hidden in a hole in the ceiling above Jones’ room. Police found the weapon’s magazine hidden inside the door chime housing.
Jones and Jordan were charged conjointly with conspiracy to commit a felony and with the murder of Howell. Jones was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Jordan pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Jones as part of his plea agreement. After a jury trial, Jones was convicted on all three charges. He was sentenced to death on the murder charge, 25 years’ imprisonment on the conspiracy charge, and 15 years’ imprisonment on the weapon charge, to run concurrently.
Jones filed a direct appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) asserting 19 propositions of error, including an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on his trial counsel’s failure to call Emmanuel Littlejohn as a witness. Littlejohn was Jordan’s cellmate, to whom Jordan had confided that Jones was not involved in the murder and robbery and that Jordan had committed the crimes. Jones’s trial counsel, David McKenzie, in his affidavit, stated he had personally interviewed Littlejohn and spoken to Littlejohn’s attorneys, and had decided not to call him as a witness due to concerns about his credibility. The OCCA affirmed Jones’s convictions and sentences, and expressly rejected his ineffective assistance claim. Jones filed a petition for rehearing and motion to recall the mandate. The OCCA granted the rehearing petition but ultimately concluded there was no merit to Jones’s issues on rehearing and denied the mandate motion. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.
Jones filed an original application for post-conviction relief with the OCCA while his direct appeal was still pending. Proposition One alleged various instances of ineffective assistance of counsel, including allegations that another inmate also overheard Jordan claiming responsibility for the robbery and murder and alleging ineffective assistance for his counsel’s failure to discover this witness. The OCCA denied Jones’s petition for post-conviction relief and expressly rejected Jones’s argument about the other inmate. Jones then filed a petition for federal habeas relief, again asserting an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on his counsel’s failure to explore the other inmate’s corroborating testimony. The district court denied his petition and refused to issue a COA. The Tenth Circuit subsequently issued a COA on the issue of whether trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to investigate Littlejohn’s claim.
The Tenth Circuit evaluated Jones’s ineffective assistance claim based on the standard set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under Strickland, the defendant must show that (1) counsel committed serious errors such that the legal representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness [the performance prong], and (2) there is a reasonable probability that but for counsel’s errors the result of the proceeding would have been different [the prejudice prong]. Jones conceded that the OCCA’s resolution of the ineffective assistance claim he raised on direct appeal “was likely reasonable.” Jones instead asserted that McKenzie’s failure to seek corroboration of Littlejohn’s proposed testimony was error.
The Tenth Circuit rejected Jones’s arguments, finding them based on the erroneous premise that the OCCA’s resolution rested on Strickland‘s performance prong. The Tenth Circuit instead discerned that the OCCA examined the proffered testimony and decided it would not alter the outcome of the proceedings, therefore implicating the prejudice prong. This effectively disposed of Jones’s arguments on appeal, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Jones’s habeas petition.