PUBLISHED:October 09, 2018

Appellate Litigation Clinic client gains release following Third Circuit habeas ruling

After serving more than 18 years of a life sentence, Alonzo Price walked out of New Jersey state prison Oct. 8, a free man. His release came after Duke Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic successfully represented Price in obtaining a writ of habeas corpus from the U.S. Court of Appeals from the Third Circuit.

Supervised by Clinical Professor Sean Andrussier ’92, the clinic director, a team of students briefed Price’s habeas claims in the 2016-2017 academic year, challenging his trial counsel’s approach to the state’s use of DNA evidence against him. Andrussier argued the case before the Third Circuit in Philadelphia in the summer of 2017. The Third Circuit issued its ruling in March.

Maintaining innocence in face of life sentence

In June 2000 in a small New Jersey town, two home invasion incidents occurred one week apart. Within hours after the second incident, state police arrested Price, who was 39 at the time. Price denied he was the perpetrator, but a jury convicted him for the burglaries and related crimes, and he was sentenced to a life in prison, plus 30 years.

Price maintained his innocence and sought relief in state court, arguing he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, in violation of the Sixth Amendment, concerning DNA evidence the state used against him — a cigarette butt.

At the scene of the second burglary, a cigarette butt was discovered on the roof by the window where the burglar had entered. The item wasn’t discovered by crime scene investigators; it was discovered more than 12 hours later by the victim’s friend. In his post-conviction pleadings, Price maintained that the cigarette butt tested by the lab for his DNA couldn’t have been recovered from the roof, and instead must’ve come from his ashtray in his apartment, which a detective encountered during a search just a few hours after retrieving the cigarette butt discovered on the roof.

Price argued that his counsel failed to properly discredit that evidence. The state courts rejected Price’s claim, however, and so did a federal district court on Price’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Price appealed to the Third Circuit.

Appellate Litigation Clinic briefs argue ineffective assistance of counsel

The Appellate Litigation Clinic got involved when Andrussier was appointed by the Third Circuit to represent Price on appeal. Under his supervision, a team of third-year clinic students in the class of 2017 worked on the appeal and entered appearances in the Third Circuit as student counsel for Price: Chase Harrington, Kate Perkins, Laura Revolinski, Christine Umeh, and Wenbo Zhang.

In briefs challenging trial counsel’s approach to discredit the DNA evidence, in particular the chain of custody, the clinic stressed that “DNA evidence has a unique and potent influence on jurors.” 

The clinic also pointed to gaps and deficiencies in the state’s other evidence. For example, the clinic emphasized that other evidence the state hoped would bear an assailant’s DNA did not match Price, and none of the stolen items were found in Price’s possession. Moreover, while neither victim saw the perpetrator’s face, their estimates of the size of the perpetrator didn’t match Price.

The clinic’s briefs also challenged the state’s voice-identification evidence. The second victim, who alleged familiarity with Price’s voice because he was a customer at the pharmacy where that individual worked, told police the perpetrator’s voice sounded like Price’s. The clinic highlighted problems generally with mistaken eyewitness identification and in particular empirical research on “earwitness” testimony (identification by voice alone). “Researchers have warned,” the clinic argued, “that such testimony can be unreliable and that a variety of factors can yield mistaken identifications.”

A Third Circuit victory

In March 2018, the Third Circuit ruled for Price, in an opinion authored by Judge Jane Roth and joined by Judges Theodore McKee and Thomas Ambro. The court accepted the clinic’s argument that the state courts had unreasonably adjudicated Price’s constitutional claim about his counsel’s performance. “Cigarette butts,” the court observed, “are ubiquitous, almost indistinguishable, and easily substituted one for another by a person wishing to do so.”

The court also agreed with the clinic’s argument that Price established prejudice. The court ruled that if the case had been properly tried, the jury could choose to disregard the cigarette butt, which the court agreed was “the single most important piece of evidence for the prosecution.”  “If the jury began to doubt police procedures regarding the cigarette butt,” the court added, the jury “might have become concerned about other pieces of evidence.”

The court reversed the district court’s judgment, directed that “the writ of habeas corpus be granted,” and ordered that “[t]he State must release Price or grant him a new trial within six months.”  Price wasn’t retried, however, and instead a deal was reached which led to his early release.

An “ecstatic” client

Now 58 years old, Price said that he was “ecstatic” when the Duke Law clinic took on his case.

“The team’s effort was incredible and the legal representation was of the highest caliber,” he said, noting that during his 18 years in prison he always retained hope that he would someday gain release.  “I held my breath for so many years, and now I can breathe again. I was blessed to have them represent me.”

Price said he now plans to spend quality time with his elderly mother, a former minister, and will help care for her. He said he is also looking forward to spending time with his children, grandchildren, and siblings and to finding employment.

Clinic graduates who represented Price said this experience ranked as their most challenging and meaningful in law school. Perkins, who now practices environmental litigation as an associate at Hunton Andrews Kurth in Charlotte, said she was “honored and humbled” to have been involved. “Working on this case was an invaluable experience,” she said. “The skills I developed by working in the clinic will help me throughout my legal career.”

“It showed me that, by hard work, a lawyer can protect someone's rights and make a difference,” said Harrington, a constitutional law fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who recently completed a clerkship with Tenth Circuit Judge Allison H. Eid.

Added Revolinski, who recently moved to Nashville after working with the Department of the Interior: “It helped me remember why I came to law school in the first place.”