Bowen (“Bo”) Ranney ‘11 recently graduated from Law School, but his work with Professor Ursula Bentele’s Capital Defender and Habeas Clinic wasn’t finished. While a student, he had worked on behalf of his client, Jose Fernandez Munoz, and he wanted to see the case through. He had a chance to do just that on September 20, 2011, when he argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Munoz was convicted of burglary charges in 1998 and was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. He appealed his sentence in 2000 and filed a habeas petition pro se in 2002. Bentele’s Clinic became involved with the case in 2004. Over the years many students worked on the case and were involved in various stages, both in state and federal court, over the last seven years. “Their hard work culminated in the opportunity for Bo to argue before the Second Circuit,” said Professor Bentele.
In 2004, one of the students was struck by the extraordinary events that occurred during jury deliberations at Munoz’s trial. The jury announced a guilty verdict on one count (and not guilty on seven others), but when polled, Juror #9 stated that it was not her verdict. The court instructed the jury to continue deliberations and what followed were highly unusual proceedings, including the questioning of four jurors that indicated racial tensions and the possibility of violence erupting during deliberations. There were jury notes submitted but not read into the record, and an Allen charge (urging the jurors to come to a unanimous verdict) to which counsel objected. The attorney assigned to represent Munoz on appeal failed to raise any issue regarding the court’s handling of the jury discord, despite the fact that New York law regarding a trial court’s supervision of the deliberations of a jury in a criminal case is unusually detailed and rigidly enforced, often even when trial counsel failed to object.
The Clinic argued that appellate counsel’s failure to present any of the significant issues surrounding the jury deliberations, while submitting two extremely weak and largely unpreserved claims, deprived Munoz of his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of appellate counsel. The district court, while agreeing that counsel “probably should have raised” these issues, noted the “highly deferential standard of review” under the applicable statute and denied habeas relief. The Clinic responded that, even under that standard, the New York courts’ rejection of the Sixth Amendment claim amounted to an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law.
In response to vigorous questioning, Ranney argued with clarity and poise that the court should affirm the district court’s decision to allow the Clinic’s amendment to Munoz’s original pro se petition. Such an amendment is permissible only if the new claim “relates back” to the claims raised in the timely petition. He asserted that the district court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the amendment, particularly in light of the fact that Munoz did not have the assistance of counsel when he filed his petition. “It was an exciting and somewhat grueling argument,” Ranney said, “but I felt very prepared. My coursework and Moot Court Honor Society experiences, both in the Trial and Appellate Advocacy Divisions, gave me a confidence that served me really well.”
“Bo was terrific,” Bentele added. “He was composed and articulate under a lot of pressure from persistent questions posed by the court about how the amendment our Clinic made related back to the original petition. He then made the key points in support of the merits of our claim. Bo also did a great job on rebuttal, which is a very hard thing for an experienced lawyer to do, much less for someone to do for the first time.”
Ranney was well prepared as a result of practicing before current clinic students and with Professors Neil P. Cohen, Stacy Caplow, Bob Pitler, Stanley Neustadter, Tara Urs, Mollie Falk, Mark Noferi, and his teammate, David Beddingfield ’11 who worked on the brief and helped Bo prepare.
Less than a month after Ranney’s argument, the Court denied the Clinic’s request.
“Everyone knew that the obstacles confronting state prisoners seeking federal habeas relief today are daunting, and the court’s October 14 summary order affirming the district court’s denial was hardly a surprise. The court did not, however, rule against Mr. Fernandez on the amendment issue, so that his claim was heard on its merits. And Bo had a terrific experience that reflected well on Brooklyn Law School,” said Professor Bentele.
Ranney now works at the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), in its Office of Supervision, Enforcement, and Fair Lending. After a competitive selection process during his 3L year he was awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship, which led to his selection at the CFPB.