Avena v. Chappell, No. 14-99004 (9th Cir. 2019)Annotate this Case
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of habeas relief on a certified claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase. Petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death by a California jury on two counts of first-degree murder for killings he committed during a carjacking.
The panel held that the California Supreme Court unreasonably applied clearly established federal law in denying petitioner's claim for ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase. Reviewing de novo counsel's performance under Strickland v. Washington, the panel held that counsel rendered deficient performance by failing adequately to investigate petitioner's good character and social history, and he had no reasoned or tactical excuse for not doing so. The panel also held that counsel rendered deficient performance by not investigating petitioner's claim of self-defense in the jail homicide to counter the State's use of it as aggravation evidence. Furthermore, the state court's conclusion that petitioner failed to show prejudice was objectively unreasonable. Accordingly, the panel remanded with instructions.