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Curtailing cross examination of a prosecution’s star witness in an Escambia County corruption case was not a violation of the Sixth Amendment

Childers v. Floyd involved a federal habeas petition by Wyon Childers who claimed the Florida state courts violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation clause. In this En Banc decision the court found that because there was an adjudication in the Florida state courts on the merits of the Sixth Amendment Constitutional claim, the federal courts must show deference to the state courts rulings, as required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (” AEDPA”). The En Banc court further found the state court’s decision on the merits was not contrary to, or and unreasonable application of, the Supreme Court Confrontation Clause precedent. Though this case was a habeas petition, it may have an effect on direct appeals raised in federal court involving the limitation on cross examination under the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause.

Childers, a county commissioner in Escambia County, Florida, was convicted in state court of bribery in connection with the corrupt purchase by Escambia County of the Pensacola Soccer Complex from owner, Joe Elliot. Childers was involved in paying another Escambia County Commissioner, Willie Junior, to secure Junior’s vote in favor of the sale to Elliot, who purportedly provided Childers and Junior with kickbacks when the county purchased the property. Prior to trial, the State Attorney struck a deal with Junior to plead to bribery charges in exchange for his cooperation. The State granted him immunity from prosecution for all other offenses and agreed to an 18 month sentenced. Eliot and Childers were tried separately. Junior testified at Eliot’s trial, implicating Eliot and Childers about their offering a bribe in exchange for his vote in favor of buying the complex, but Eliot was acquitted.

After the Eliot trial, Junior provided state investigators additional facts that implicated Childers more directly in the soccer stadium deal, but some of his additional facts conflicted with Junior’s prior statements. Hearing these new statements, the State tried to revoke Junior’s plea agreement by filing a “Notice of Revocation of Terms of Plea Agreement” in his case. The state court disallowed the revocation on the grounds that Junior’s statements were not under oath at trial or hearing and therefore not a technically a violation of the plea agreement. The State then proceeded with an amended information against Childers for the same offense, supported by statements provided Junior after Eliot’s acquittal. At Childers’ trial, hiss attorney tried to impeach Junior’s credibility with the fact that the State tried to withdraw his plea agreement and the fact of Eliot’s acquittal by linking them to Junior’s motivations for changing his testimony. The trial court prohibited his attorney from impeaching him with these facts.

Childers filed a federal habeas petition in federal court claiming a Confrontation Clause violation. It was denied by the district court. The appellate court panel reversed finding there was a Confrontation Clause violation with Judge Barkett in the majority and Judge Tjoflat dissenting. The En Banc court vacated the panel decision and found no Confrontation Clause violation, with Judge Tjoflat writing the opinion and Judge Barkett writing a dissent.

The En Banc court gave deference to the state court’s rulings prohibiting Chandler’s attorney from impeaching Junior with the Notice of Revocation of the Plea Agreement and the Eliot acquittal. It decided that the state court’s decision was not unreasonable in view of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings on limitations by state courts of cross examination of witness bias. The three cases discussed were Davis v. Alaska, Delaware v. Van Arsdall, and Olden v. Kentucky. The En Banc court noted the following two “rules” from these cases.

First, the trial courts may not prohibit all questioning into a witness’ biases. As long as the state court permits some question about a witness’s bias, the state court satisfies the Confrontation Clause requirements. “In each of the precedential cases, the trial court barred the defense from informing the jury of the witness’s potential bias and how that might affect the witness’s testimony. The [Supreme Court], therefore, never had occasion to require trial courts to permit cross-examination on more than the existence of a bias.”

Citing Olden and Van Arsdall, the court acknowledged that the Supreme Court stated “that trial courts must permit all cross-examination that might provide the jury with ‘a significantly different impression’ of a witness’s credibility.” The court found that AEDPA prevents the court from requiring a far more extensive questioning than simply regarding the existence of a bias. The Court held that the “dicta” in these Supreme Court cases “does not permit us to expansively apply the Court’s holdings far beyond the fact of those cases.”

The second rule the en banc court took from these Supreme Court cases is that trial courts have wide discretion to limit cross examination “when they have allowed the defendant to expose some evidence of bias.”

The En Banc court ruled that this deference afforded to a state court is the same deference afforded to a district court’s decision to limit cross examination. The review is only for the abuse of discretion. In view of the ten hour cross examination of Junior, the admission of his plea agreement with the State, that his plea was in exchange for his testimony, that he avoided a 125 year sentence, and other evidence involving the witness’ possible bias, the Court found the limitation was not an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent.

In Judge Barkett’s dissent she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion on several points. In particular she found that Childers was not afforded a fair trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment because he could not present crucial evidence that the State’s star witness, Willie Junior, had fabricated the evidence against him. “The Confrontation Clause requires the admission of evidence of bias if it leaves the jury with a ‘significant different impression’ of a witness’s credibility, citing Delaware v. Van Arsdall.