Los Angeles attorneys Mary McKelvey and David Schultz received a rare initial victory in a state habeas death penalty case, given less than 3% of these claims are granted. The judge ruled in favor of their client on four issues of the nine claims raised in their 550 page habeas brief following two separate hearings where they presented extensive oral argument. The case was complicated by the fact that the allegations of ineffective assistance involve an attorney who is now a sitting judge in the jurisdiction where the hearing took place.
The court found that the Polsinelli team had made the requisite showing of ineffective assistance of counsel in jury selection, investigation, preparation, presentation of mitigating evidence and expert opinions involving petitioners’ personal, family, social and psychological background and during other aspects of the penalty phase of the trial.
The underlying case against Michael Bramit was tried in 1997, in which he was charged with an attempted robbery and fatal shooting of Jose Fierros, while the highly intoxicated Fierros was in the process of soliciting prostitutes. Bramit, an African American, was 18 years and 1 month at the time of the shooting. He was charged with capital murder, found guilty and received the death penalty in a Riverside court.
In addition to presenting significant procedural and legal errors, the Polsinelli team’s habeas petition discussed evidence that could have been but was not presented at the underlying trial. Among the evidence that was presented in the petition, which the jury could have considered during the penalty phase, was critical background information about Mr. Bramit. As the petition discussed, he was raised by a crack-cocaine addicted mother who was incapable of taking care of him or his siblings. He grew up in the gang-infested neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Riverside, and he began stealing at a young age to provide basic necessities such as food and clothing for his younger siblings. Bramit’s court-appointed trial attorney conducted minimal pre-trial investigation, did not conduct a thorough examination or selection of potential jurors, called no defense witnesses and did not give an opening statement in the guilt phase. Only a few witnesses were called in the penalty phase including Bramit’s mother, whose testimony negatively impacted his case.
To support Mr. Bramit’s habeas petition, the Polsinelli team marshalled evidence from over 30 witnesses and attached over 120 exhibits. This included a declaration from one juror who supported the petition’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim and a statement from Mr. Fierro’s wife that she opposed the death penalty that was imposed on Mr. Bramit. Based on the evidence and arguments presented, the court issued an order to show cause as to why the petition should not be granted. Further briefing will be set for a final decision by the assigned judge this year. As before, the Polsinelli team will continue to mount a vigorous defense for Mr. Bramit to challenge his conviction and penalty.
Attorneys McKelvey and Schultz were assisted during preparation for and at the extensive court hearings by Jacob Deparalta, a legal assistant in the Los Angeles office who is in the process of applying to law school. The team is grateful for the unwavering support that Polsinelli has provided to this important Pro Bono cause.