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Findings of Fact by Indiana Disciplinary Panel Not Entitled toPresumption of Correctness for Federal Habeas Purposes

by John E. Dannenberg

Seeking to clarify an "established proposition frequently ... overlooked in litigation arising from Indiana's prison system," the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that the lower burden of proof that attaches to prison disciplinary panel findings of fact is insufficient to "entitle prison defendants to the presumption of correctness that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e) affords to judicial findings." Stated another way, an Indiana prisoner's (personal knowledge) affidavit in support of his federal habeas corpus petition challenging a prison disciplinary panel's decision cannot be trumped by the panel's findings of fact developed in the disciplinary hearing. Rather, the federal district court must hold an evidentiary hearing to sort out where the truth lies.

Wabash Valley Correctional Facility state prisoner Shawn Johnson was charged with preventing his cell from being secured at lockup. The disciplinary report alleged that although Johnson had heard the lockup warning, he blocked the door until his cellmate could return. The disciplinary hearing panel relied upon this report, and assessed Johnson 30 days of good-time credits. Because Indiana does not afford state judicial review of prisoner disciplinary convictions, Johnson's sole remedy was to seek habeas corpus relief in federal court for his now-extended incarceration.

The facts of the incident were in dispute. Johnson said he had asked for a delay to prepare for the hearing; the panel said he did not. He said he had sought testimony from guard Williams and a copy of the unit's surveillance camera videotape of the incident, evidence that would have corroborated Johnson's assertion that the doors were closed without the required warning, and without hindrance on his part. The panel countered that Johnson had not sought to present any evidence. As the court astutely put it, "One side or the other has the facts wrong." The court added that whoever was factually correct would likely prevail under the law.

The Seventh Circuit recognized that while prison disciplinary boards are entitled to resolve factual conflicts under the "some evidence" rule of Superintendent v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445 (1985), they are "not entitled to prevent the prisoner from offering material evidence." And if Johnson was telling the truth, they observed, "that's exactly what this board did." Accordingly, the appellate court ordered the U.S. District Court (S.D. Ind.) to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine what happened. The Seventh Circuit closed by chastising Indiana lawmakers: "If Indiana wants federal courts to treat its decisions with more respect, it has only to provide for review in its own courts as an initial matter." See: Johnson v. Finnan, 467 F.3d 693 (7th Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Finnan