Taft won a significant victory this week for client Abulay Nian in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Taft Cincinnati attorney Brian Morris represented Nian pro bono, as part of Taft’s commitment to provide pro bono services to the communities we serve. The case is significant as it gives defendants in Ohio courts a clear path to challenge juror misconduct. This was a rare result because it is difficult to obtain habeas relief, and even more difficult to get courts to look into whether a jury’s verdict could have been tainted by jury misconduct.
Nian was a home health mentor for a family with a special-needs child. One day after work, Nian hugged his client’s sister goodbye and left. The sister, however, accused Nian of trying to perform oral sex on her. Nian was then charged and convicted of rape by cunnilingus in Ohio state court. But Nian has always maintained his innocence. Indeed, as the Sixth Circuit explained, Nian consistently told police that “it was just a hug and a hug only.” In other words, the entire case came down to a credibility determination between Nian and the accuser.
Following the guilty verdict, a juror came forward and explained that the jury convicted Nian only after it independently investigated Nian’s criminal history, which was not evidence at trial, and then relied on that information during deliberations. The jury also relied on the fact that Nian was from Sierra Leone. This violated Nian’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and to a jury that considers only the evidence presented at trial.
The state trial court excluded the juror’s testimony under Ohio’s “aliunde rule,” which blocks a court from considering juror testimony about the jury considering improper information unless the defendant can first verify the misconduct by other evidence from another source.
The Ohio court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s exclusion under the aliunde rule, and the Ohio Supreme Court declined review.
Nian then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus. Nian argued that the state court violated his Sixth Amendment rights by not granting him a new trial after he presented evidence that jurors had considered extraneous information during deliberations. The district court rejected Nian’s claim and dismissed his petition.
The Sixth Circuit reversed: the trial court could not rely on the aliunde rule to ignore Nian’s Sixth Amendment claim. Despite the government’s reliance on the victim’s testimony, text messages, and forensic evidence, the Sixth Circuit agreed with Taft’s argument that the entire case came down to a credibility determination between Nian and his accuser. As a result, “there was sufficient evidence to prove Nian’s guilt if a juror believed [the accuser’s] version of events or his innocence if a juror believed Nian’s version of events.” The Sixth Circuit granted conditional habeas pending a full hearing in state court. The Sixth Circuit cautioned that such a hearing may still be constitutionally insufficient based on the passage of time since trial, but ultimately left that decision to the trial court.
The case is Nian v. Warden, North Central Corr., Case No. 18-3938 (6th Cir. Apr. 19, 2021).
Morris is a member of Taft's Litigation and Appellate practice groups, where he advises clients on contracts, business disputes, business torts, and other legal matters relating to private and public companies.