Seventh Circuit Review


David J. Welch


As Justice Blackstone once opined, a writ of habeas corpus, oft referred to as the “great Writ,” is “another Magna Carta” established to safeguard people imprisoned in violation of the law. Codified under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the writ compels a judicial body to review the legality of a state prisoner’s conviction. A granted writ of habeas corpus may require the court to set aside or vacate the conviction or detention. If a petitioner’s case has already been adjudicated on the merits in state court, then the writ cannot be granted. However, if the petitioner can show that either the state court proceeding resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or the state court unreasonably applied, clearly established federal law, or the state court’s decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented at trial, then the petitioner’s habeas relief must be issued.

In Jensen v. Clements, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reviewed the Wisconsin Appellate Court’s decision in the Petitioner’s murder trial that the admission of a “letter from the grave,” which violated his confrontation clause rights, was harmless error. In review, the Seventh Circuit highlighted five guiding factors for a harmless error analysis and determined that the Wisconsin State Court’s decision was so unreasonable that fair-minded jurists could not possibly agree on the outcome.

Yet, a fair-minded jurist did find the outcome reasonable. Judge Tinder dissented from the majority opinion and explained how the Wisconsin Appellate Court’s decision, while perhaps not the best analysis, was reasonable based on the five factors highlighted by the majority. The Seventh Circuit’s majority opinion appears result driven and fails to adequately address the high level of deference given to State court decisions—raising significant policy concerns regarding state sovereignty and finality of criminal convictions if the high bar for relief is lowered.

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