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GA Supreme Court Reverses Habeas Relief in Molestation Case

October 3, 2016

In Hooks v. Walley, the Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the grant of the defendant’s habeas corpus petition, holding that the habeas court erred in finding that his appellate counsel was ineffective.

Following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of aggravated sexual battery and child molestation and was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison. In his motion for new trial, his appellate attorney contended that his trial counsel failed to inform him of a plea offer from the State that called for a five-year sentence. However, he withdrew the claim during the hearing on the new trial motion. The Georgia Court of Appeals later affirmed the defendant’s conviction.

In 2013, the defendant petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel against his appellate attorney for abandoning this claim at the motion for new trial. At the habeas hearing, trial counsel testified that he had verbally presented the plea offer to the defendant but had not given him the letter memorializing the offer. He further testified that he advised the defendant that they wait until after the court ruled on the State’s similar transaction motion before deciding on the plea. Following the court’s ruling that the similar transaction evidence would be admissible, the State withdrew the plea offer.

The habeas court granted the defendant’s petition, concluding that both his trial and appellate attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Supreme Court held that while the evidence at the habeas hearing may have supported a finding that trial counsel was ineffective, the defendant failed to overcome the presumption that appellate counsel’s decision not to pursue the ineffective assistance claim on appeal was reasonable. The Court also noted that appellate counsel had not been questioned about his decision to abandon the ineffective assistance claim, though he testified at the habeas hearing that he had raised every claim that he “saw might have a chance.”

As a result, the Court concluded that the habeas court was not authorized to grant the defendant’s petition because the evidence before it was insufficient to overcome the presumption that appellate counsel made an appropriate strategic decision in withdrawing the ineffective assistance claim.

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