Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Comstock v. Humphries (9th Cir. - May 12, 2015)

Judge Owens writes a strong opinion this morning.  Rightfully so.  Stephen Comstock gets convicted of stealing a ring.  But the owner of the ring told the prosecution that he might have left it outside of his apartment when he washed his motorcycle; e.g., lost it, rather than had it stolen.  But the prosecutor never disclosed this information to the defense.

That's a Brady violation.  It justifies habeas relief.

Fair enough.

But without really arguing the merits, I just want to push back a tiny bit on the vigor of Judge Owens' opinion.

Judge Owens ends the opinion by saying:  "This is the rare criminal case where the entire prosecution rested on the shoulders of one man—Randy Street."  That's sort of true.  Street was the owner of the ring, and he said he rarely wore it, and when he did, he took good care of it.  And when the detective told him that they'd found his ring, Street was surprised:  he thought it was still in a seashell in his apartment.

Okay.  So that's some decent evidence that the ring was indeed stolen.

But it was hardly the only evidence against Mr. Comstock.  Comstock did, in fact, pawn the ring.  A distinctive ring at that:  one with not only Street's name engraved on it, but also Street's success as the '91-'92 National Wrestling Champion.  Comstock lived near Street.  Moreover, Comstock did maintenance work at Street's apartment complex; indeed, had been in Street's apartment at some point in the past.  There'd also been a rash of burglaries at that complex.  Oh, and Comstock appears to be a serial thief; the police were actively monitoring him, and he was sentenced as a habitual criminal.  To round things off, Comstock's story to the police about how he obtained the ring was radically different than his story at trial.

So to say that "the entire prosecution rested on the shoulders of one man -- Randy Street" may be a bit strong.  There was plenty of other evidence as well.

One more thing.  The undisclosed testimony from Street was hardly as lock-solid devastating as one might initially think.  Sure, he said that he "might" have left the ring outside his apartment while cleaning his motorcycle, since he "didn't remember putting it back on" after taking it off.  But his actual testimony at trial was quite a bit more incriminating than this prior statement.  And remember that, at the time, Street thought that his ring was still in the seashell; i.e., not left outside.

And then there's the matter of timing.  When did Mr. Street submit a note to the judge saying that "to have a clear conscience" he "ha[d] to bring up the possibility" that the ring was lost instead of stolen?  Only after Mr. Comstock was convicted and faced an incredibly long 10-25 years in prison.  I think it's possible that Street was taken aback by the sentence.  A possibility reflected even in Street's note to the judge, which expressly referred to Comstock's sentence and said that "[h]e’s probably served enough time for not asking nearby tenants if they were missing the ring."

I mention this not because Mr. Comstock shouldn't get out of prison.  (Though it bears mention that he is not, in fact, still in prison, and is presently out on parole.)  Nor does any of this mean that the prosecutor shouldn't have disclosed the relevant information.  S/he should have.  Definitely.

But if the subsequent question -- as may be the case -- is whether Mr. Comstock should prevail in a civil suit, and get $50,000 or so a year for every year he was incarcerated, I do think it's worth taking a look at the complete picture.  Because even if Nevada has a slim desire to retry Comstock at this point -- which may well be the case since he's already served his entire sentence, wholly apart from the difficulties of prosecuting a decade-old case in which the victim, Mr. Street, is now deceased -- it is perhaps worth noting that Mr. Comstock may well not be entirely innocent.  Indeed, even under his own version of the facts, Mr. Comstock was almost certainly guilty of a crime (misappropriation of lost property) anyway.  And that's assuming you buy his story at trial.  Which there's every reason to discount.

So I'm on board for how Judge Owens resolves this one.  I just want to mention the equities on the other side as well.