United States District Court Judge Mahan of the District of Nevada granted Michael Hogan’s request for an evidentiary hearing on a claim of IAC for failing to investigate and challenge an Iowa prior conviction that was used as an aggravating circumstance in Hogan’s Nevada capital trial. Hogan v. Baker, 2015 WL 5692101 (D. Nev. Sept. 28, 2015).
Hogan contended that his guilty plea was invalid under Iowa and federal law and that the crime did not involve violence. When post-conviction counsel mounted a challenge to the manslaughter conviction in Iowa, an assistant county attorney representing the State of Iowa stipulated that Hogan’s guilty plea to the manslaughter charge was unconstitutional and violated Iowa law. Hogan was unable to obtain relief, however, because the state supreme court ruled that the challenge was untimely. Looking to the Nevada Supreme Court’s rejection of the IAC claim, Judge Mahan found it unreasonably flawed in two respects, thereby overcoming § 2254(d)’s barrier to relief. First, although the Nevada Supreme Court had found that the plea was not unconstitutional under relevant Supreme Court precedent, it failed to address whether the plea was infirm under state law. Second, the Nevada Supreme Court did not recognize that Hogan was complaining about trial counsel’s failure to raise a timely challenge to the conviction. The stipulation by the assistant county attorney “establishe[d] at least a reasonable likelihood that such a challenge would have been successful, which, in turn, would have precluded the State of Nevada from using the conviction as an aggravating circumstance to support the death penalty.” Judge Mahan also found flawed the reasoning of the Nevada Supreme Court regarding whether the prior conviction involved violence. The state court concluded violence was established by the statements made by Hogan’s attorney and the prosecutor at the plea hearing. But, as noted by Judge Mahan, the capital jury did not hear these statements and instead was provided only with the judgment of conviction. The prosecutor, without objection, argued to the jury that the judgment of conviction alone showed that Hogan’s violent acts had previously caused the death of another. The jury was not told that under Iowa law an accidental killing could have been the basis for the manslaughter conviction.