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Hernandez v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 24, 2018

MARIA HERNANDEZ, Plaintiff-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and HAYNES and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          HAYNES, Circuit Judge:

         Maria Hernandez was convicted of and imprisoned for various federal crimes, only to have her conviction set aside ten years later for ineffective assistance of counsel. Federal law permits certain classes of the "unjustly convicted" to sue in the United States Court of Federal Claims for compensation. See 28 U.S.C. § 1495. But to succeed in such a suit, a plaintiff must first receive a certificate described in 28 U.S.C. § 2513 from the district court that set aside the conviction.

         Hernandez sought such a certificate, which the district court denied. She now appeals. The only contested issue on appeal is whether Hernandez satisfied one of the requirements of § 2513: that the plaintiff be (a) exonerated on the grounds that she is not guilty or (b) found not guilty after a new trial or rehearing. Id. § 2513(a)(1). For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM.

         I. Background

         Hernandez was convicted in a drug and money laundering conspiracy case in 2004. The primary evidence connecting Hernandez to the conspiracy was $125, 000 sent from Robert Fansler, the head of the scheme, to "Maria Pena" at the address 41721 Road 168, Orosi, California. That property was a 20-acre ranch which had two homes on it, each of which received mail at that address. Hernandez had lived in one of the homes until 2000. Her sister-in-law, who was named Maria Trinidad Pena Topete, lived in the other home. The money was sent to the address in 2001, a year after Hernandez had left the property. Yet, Hernandez's attorney presented no evidence or argument about the sister-in-law or that Hernandez had moved away. Hernandez was convicted and sentenced to 204 months' imprisonment.

         Hernandez filed a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 and successfully had her conviction vacated. The district court reviewing her habeas petition concluded that Hernandez's counsel was ineffective for not presenting any evidence about the other Maria. The district court found that "had the jury been presented with testimony clarifying that Maria Trinidad [Pena] Topete was not Maria Hernandez, then a reasonable juror could have come to the conclusion that the $125, 000 sent to 'Maria Pena' was not intended for Maria Hernandez." Because Hernandez's counsel completely failed to investigate the existence of the other Maria-or do any pre-trial investigation-the district court concluded the attorney "rendered deficient representation." The court also found prejudice given the importance of this evidence. All that was left of the Government's case without the $125, 000 evidence was that Hernandez "was at her home one day when individuals were unloading marijuana nearby and that she (or someone named Maria) made two brief phone calls" to someone involved in the conspiracy. The court found that there was "a probability of acquittal 'sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome' and that therefore Maria Hernandez's defense was certainly prejudiced by [her attorney's] failure to investigate." The court vacated Hernandez's conviction and ordered her released pending a retrial.

         Instead of trying Hernandez again, the Government filed a motion to dismiss her indictment. In its motion, it asserted that the "vast majority of the evidence linking Ms. Hernandez to the charged conspiracy was the testimony of cooperating co-conspirators, " and that three of those witnesses were no longer able to testify. The district court granted the motion to dismiss, ending the case.

         Following the dismissal, Hernandez sought compensation for wrongful imprisonment through a Congressionally-approved program. Those "unjustly convicted of an offense against the United States and imprisoned" are permitted to seek damages from the United States government. 28 U.S.C. § 1495. Such damages suits must be filed in the United States Court of Federal Claims. Id. To succeed on such a claim, a plaintiff must meet certain requirements. 28 U.S.C. § 2513. The first requirement, which is the central focus of this appeal, is that

[her] conviction has been reversed or set aside on the ground that [she] is not guilty of the offense of which [she] was convicted, or on new trial or rehearing [she] was found not guilty of such offense, as appears from the record or certificate of the court setting aside or reversing such conviction.

Id. § 2513(a)(1). The second requirement is that the plaintiff must prove she "did not commit any of the acts charged or [her] acts, deeds or omissions in connection with such charge constituted no offense against the United States, " and that she "did not by misconduct or neglect cause or bring about [her] own prosecution." Id. § 2513(a)(2). The statute peculiarly provides that "[p]roof of the requisite facts shall be by a certificate of the court . . . wherein such facts are alleged to appear, and other evidence thereof shall not be received." Id. § 2513(b).

         Hernandez requested "an appropriate certificate" under § 2513 from the district court that granted her habeas petition. The same judge who had granted Hernandez's habeas petition concluded that Hernandez's conviction "was not set aside on the grounds that she was not guilty; it was set aside because of her counsel's ineffective assistance and resulting prejudice." The court thus denied her a certificate because she failed to satisfy § 2513(a)(1)'s requirements. Hernandez now appeals.

         II. ...

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