Lee v. Kemna

LOCATION:Los Angeles City Hall

DOCKET NO.: 00-6933
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 534 US 362 (2002)
ARGUED: Oct 29, 2001
DECIDED: Jan 22, 2002

Bonnie I. Robin-Vergeer – Argued the cause for the petitioner
Paul C. Wilson – Jefferson City, Missouri, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

While on trial for first-degree murder, Remon Lee planned an alibi defense. His mother, stepfather, and sister were to voluntarily testify that he was in California at the time of the murder. The day the defense was to begin its case, the three could not be found. Lee’s counsel moved for an overnight continuance to gain time to find the witnesses. The trial judge denied the motion. Subsequently, no alibi witnesses testified, the jury found Lee guilty, and he was sentenced to prison for life without possibility of parole. The Missouri Court of Appeals eventually disposed of the case on state procedural grounds. The appeals court held that the denial of the continuance motion was proper because Lee’s counsel had failed to comply with Missouri Supreme Court Rule 24.09, which requires that such motions be in writing and accompanied by an affidavit, and with Rule 24.10, which sets out the showings a movant must make to gain a continuance grounded on witnesses’ absence. Ultimately, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that federal review of Lee’s claim, that the refusal to grant his continuance motion deprived him of his federal due process right to a defense, was unavailable because the state court’s rejection of that claim rested on state-law grounds, independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.


Is a defendant’s imperfect compliance with Missouri court rules an adequate state ground to preclude the federal habeas corpus review of his claim that a Missouri trial judge’s refusal to grant an overnight continuance violated due process?

Media for Lee v. Kemna

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 29, 2001 in Lee v. Kemna

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 22, 2002 in Lee v. Kemna

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 00-6933 Lee versus Kemna will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

We review in this case a judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit that deals with criminal proceedings in Missouri State Courts.

The petitioner Remon Lee stood trial for murder and alibi was his sole-defense, reclaimed he was visiting his family in California at the time of the murder in Kansas City.

Lee’s mother, sister and step-father traveled voluntarily from California to Kansas City to support his alibi defense.

Defense counsel previewed the witnesses’ testimony on voir dire and in detail during his opening statement.

Both the prosecutor and defense counsel referred to the expected alibi testimony as the trial unfolded.

On the morning of the third and final day of trial, Lee’s family members came to the courthouse and were seen in a witness waiting room while the trial proceeded.

Unaccountably, they left the building and could not be found when the time came for Lee to present their testimony.

Lee’s counsel asked the trial judge for an overnight continuance to enable him to reach the witnesses and bring them back to court.

The judge refused to delay the trial speculating that the witnesses had abandonedly.

The judge further stated he could not resume that trial the next day because he had to be with his daughter in a hospital nor could he continue the proceedings the following day because he had another trial scheduled then.

The trial resumed without any alibi testimony.

Lee was convicted and later sentenced to life imprison without possibility of parole.

Lee appealed urging that the denial of the continuous motion deprived him of due process in particular of a fair opportunity to defend against the murder charge.

The Appeals Court held that two procedural defects in the presentation of Lee’s continuance motion, barred consideration of his due process plea.

In the trial court, neither defect had been raised by the prosecutor or noted by the judge.

Fist the Missouri Court of Appeals said Missouri Supreme Court Rule 2409 requires that continuous motions be made in writing but this motion was made only orally in open court.

Second the Appeals Court continued this request did not set out all the elements Rule 2410 list for continuances necessitated by the absence of witnesses.

We ultimately sought a writ of habeas corpus in Federal Court appending affidavit in which his alibi witnesses accounted for their absence they said a court officer told them to leave because their testimony would not be needed until the next day.

The witnesses verified their continuing willingness to testify on Lee’s behalf.

The Federal Trial and Appeals Courts nevertheless declined to consider Lee’s due process objection to the denial of an overnight continuance.

They held that the Missouri Appeals Court has stated adequate procedural grounds for its decision.

In the extraordinary circumstances this case presents did the former flaws and Lee’s continuance motion constitutes state law grounds adequate to block federal review of his due process right to defend Lee.

That is the question on which we grant a review, we decided in Lee’s favor.

We vacate the Eight Circuit judgment and remand the case to that court for consideration of Lee’s federal denial of due process claim.

Ordinarily noncompliance with the firmly established regularly followed state rule will be adequate to foreclose review of a federal claim.

Our precedent leaves no doubt on that score.

There are however exceptional cases in which exorbitant application of a generally sound procedural rule renders the state ground inadequate to block consideration of a federal question.

This is such a case.

Three considerations in combination determined our judgment: First, when the trial judge denied these motions he stated a personal reason for insisting an immediate completion of the trial his daughter’s next day hospitalization, a reason that could not have been countered by an entirely fault-free continuance motion; second, no prior published Missouri decision insisted on flawless continuance motions in the atypical circumstances we have here; the sudden unanticipated and at the time unexplained disappearance of critical witnesses; third and most important, Lee substantially complied with the key rule, each of the elements required by Rule 2410 were either covered by Lee’s oral motion or otherwise inescapably apparent on the record.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Regarding Rule 2409, we agree with dissenter in the Eight Circuit that to insist on a written continuance motion in the heat of a murder trial upon discovery that subpoenaed witnesses were suddenly and unaccountably absent would inject an Alice-in-Wonderland quality into the proceedings.

In sum, in Lee’s case no perceivable state interest would be served by insistence on perfect compliance with the state procedural rules in question.

We therefore conclude that the failure meticulously to observe those rules, rules raised only on appeal and not at trial when Lee could have cured an alleged defend do not constitute state ground adequate to block review of Lee’s federal claim.

We remand to the case to the Eight Circuit to consider the merits of Lee’s contention that the trial judge by refusing to grant an overnight continuance denied him his due process right to put on a defense.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Scalia and Thomas joined.