Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fourth Circuit grants habeas relief for counsel's failure to inform client of justification defense

In United States v. Mooney, John Mooney presented evidence in his 2255 hearing that he seized a firearm from his ex-wife in self-defense, when his ex-wife, who was intoxicated, pointed it at his head. He then walked several blocks to his place of employment to hand the weapon over to the police. Because Mooney was a convicted felon, however, he was charged with the unlawful possession of a firearm.

Counsel advised Mooney that justification provided no defense to a violation of § 922(g). Relying on counsel’s advice, Mooney reluctantly pleaded guilty, and the district court sentenced him to 180 months’ imprisonment. After an unsuccessful direct appeal, Mooney filed a timely § 2255 motion, claiming that his guilty plea was involuntary in that his counsel rendered him ineffective assistance by not investigating the justification defense and by advising him to plead guilty because there was no such defense.

The Court granted the petition. The panel found that Mooney was under unlawful and present threat of death or serious bodily injury, did not recklessly place himself in a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct, had no reasonable legal alternative to both the criminal act and the avoidance of the threatened harm, and that there was a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of the threatened harm.

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