Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Sept. 5

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Hill v. Long, et al.

Robert Hill is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder of a child under the age of 12. He appealed the district court’s dismissal of his federal habeas application pursuant to 28 U.S. Code 2254. The court dismissed the petition as untimely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1) and denied his request for a certificate of appealability.

Hill then requested a certificate of appealability from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to appeal the district court’s procedural ruling. He conceded his application was untimely under the one-year statute of limitations, but argued he was entitled to either equitable tolling based on state post-conviction counsel’s failure to file a timely notice of appeal from the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief or an equitable exception to the statute of limitations based on his actual innocence.

A judge of the 10th Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on one of the two issues raised by Hill, namely, “whether the district court erred in rejecting [Mr.] Hill’s actual-innocence argument on the grounds that he failed to present new evidence of innocence.”

Exercising jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1291 the 10th Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings. According to a footnote from the 10th Circuit, it denied a certificate of appealability on Hill’s argument the statute of limitations should have been equitably tolled based on post-conviction counsel’s failure to file a timely notice of appeal. 

In his habeas application, Hill listed five claims: trial counsel’s failure to properly investigate and present the theory the victim had a bleeding disorder, which might have undermined the prosecution’s theory about the cause of death; trial counsel’s cursory consultation with only one emergency room physician and no other experts; trial counsel’s failure to fully investigate a theory the victim died of natural causes; the denial of a meaningful appeal from the trial court’s denial of post-conviction relief because the Colorado Court of Appeals relied on untrue facts; and cumulative prejudice from trial counsel’s errors. The district court dismissed the fourth claim for relief because it failed to state a federal constitutional claim and the remaining claims as time-barred. 

According to Hill, the court erred in its actual innocence analysis because it was under the mistaken belief he failed to present any new evidence to demonstrate his actual innocence. The 10th Circuit agreed this was a clear error and remanded for further proceedings.

Hill didn’t dispute the district court’s resolution of the fourth claim for relief.

During his state post-conviction proceedings, according to the 10th Circuit opinion, Hill presented expert testimony the victim had a bleeding disorder that could have exacerbated otherwise routine injuries. According to Hill, if this testimony had been presented at trial, it would have allowed the defense to argue the victim died from a simple fall, rather than abuse. However, on habeas review, the district court mistakenly determined the evidence was presented at trial and therefore, it wasn’t “new.”

The 10th Circuit agreed with Hill this was a clear error. 

The case was remanded to the district court for consideration of Hill’s claim of actual innocence based on the new evidence presented during his post-conviction proceedings. The 10th Circuit granted Hill’s motion to proceed on appeal without pre-payment of costs and fees.

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