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Comstock v. Humphries

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

May 12, 2015

STEPHEN D. COMSTOCK, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
STEFANIE HUMPHRIES; NEVADA ATTORNEY GENERAL, Respondents-Appellees

Argued and Submitted, San Francisco, California March 11, 2015.

Page 702

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 703

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. D.C. No. 3:10-cv-00147-LRH-WGC. Larry R. Hicks, District Judge, Presiding.

SUMMARY[*]

Habeas Corpus

The panel reversed the district court's judgment denying Stephen Comstock's habeas corpus petition challenging his Nevada conviction for possessing stolen property--a ring commemorating Randy Street's 1991-1992 national college wrestling championship.

The panel held that Comstock is entitled to relief under Brady v. Maryland based on the prosecution's failure to disclose that, prior to trial, Street told the prosecutor and the investigating detective that the ring might have been lost outside, not stolen from his apartment, just as Comstock's lawyer had argued to the jury.

The panel held that Street's recollections were favorable to Comstock in that they impeached the credibility of Street's trial testimony as to how he handled his ring, and more importantly, affirmatively cast serious doubt on whether there was a crime in the first place. The panel also held that the recollections were suppressed. The panel concluded that the suppression was prejudicial because had the information been disclosed, there is at least a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different. The panel held the state court's contrary conclusion was an unreasonable application of Brady and its progeny.

The panel instructed that on remand the writ of habeas corpus be granted, setting aside Comstock's conviction and sentence, and that Comstock be released from probationary custody unless the State notifies the district court within 30 days that it intends to retry him, and commences retrial within 90 days.

Ryan Norwood (argued), Assistant Federal Public Defender; Rene Valladares, Federal Public Defender, Las Vegas, Nevada, for Petitioner-Appellant.

Victor-Hugo Schulze, II (argued), Senior Deputy Attorney General; Catherine Cortez Masto, Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, for Respondents-Appellees.

Before: Marsha S. Berzon, Jay S. Bybee, and John B. Owens, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Owens.

OPINION

Page 704

OWENS, Circuit Judge:

In March 2004, a Nevada jury found Stephen Comstock guilty of possessing stolen property--a ring commemorating Randy Street's 1991-1992 national college wrestling championship. The State's theory at trial was that Comstock or Danny Carter, a known burglar, stole the ring from Street's apartment, and then Comstock pawned it. Comstock's trial counsel argued that the ring was not stolen, but found outside Street's apartment, where Street likely had lost it. The jury rejected that defense.

This seemingly trivial case had tragic results: Comstock received a 10-25 year sentence under Nevada's habitual offender statute[1] even though the " victim" of this crime, Randy Street, had serious doubts about whether his ring was actually stolen. In a pre-sentencing statement, Street wrote that, prior to trial, he told the prosecutor and the investigating detective that he remembered a time he had taken the ring off outside his apartment, placing it either on the ground or on an air conditioner, and did not recall putting it back on, meaning that the ring might have been lost outside, not stolen, just as Comstock's lawyer had argued to the jury. Yet neither the prosecutor nor the detective told Comstock's lawyer this crucial fact.

We recognize the immense challenge a habeas petitioner faces when making claims under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), and that our court routinely rejects such arguments. But this is no routine case. The troubling and unique circumstances here compel us to grant Comstock the relief that he seeks, albeit ten years too late.

I. FACTS

A. The Investigation

Detective Reed Thomas of the Reno Police Department routinely reviewed transactions at local pawn shops for " unusual property." In August 2003, something caught his eye: a collegiate championship wrestling ring with some engravings--'91-'92, National Champion, Northern Montana College, 150, and Street. Detective Thomas tracked down the ring's owner,

Page 705

Reno resident Randy Street.[2] Street thought the ring was inside its usual place--a seashell in his apartment. Thomas informed him that, in fact, the ring had been sold to a local pawn shop.

The pawn ticket bore the name of Stephen Comstock, whom Thomas was monitoring under a repeat offender program. Surveillance video confirmed that Comstock had pawned the ring. Comstock lived near Street and did maintenance work at Street's apartment complex, which had suffered a series of recent burglaries.

Thomas and his colleagues questioned Comstock at the police station. Comstock initially said that he could not remember if he had in fact pawned Street's ring, or merely had planned to do so. When pressed, however, Comstock admitted that he had pawned the ring, and he claimed that he had done so for his friend Danny Carter, in exchange for a carton of cigarettes. Comstock said that Carter lacked identification, so he could not pawn the ring himself. Although Comstock initially stated that he suspected the ring was stolen, as Carter was a known burglar, he then ...


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