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Socha v. Richardson

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

November 3, 2017

Thomas R. Socha, Petitioner-Appellant,
Reed A. Richardson, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued September 6, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 08-C-994 - Rudolph T. Randa, Judge.

          Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and ROVNER and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Thomas Socha has won two battles in his effort to obtain relief from his Wisconsin conviction for murder. See Socha v. Pollard, 621 F.3d 667 (7th Cir. 2010) (Socha I); Socha v. Boughton, 763 F.3d 674 (7th Cir. 2014) (Socha II). He is now hoping to win the war. Perhaps he would have been able to do so, if federal courts had plenary authority to review state-court criminal proceedings. But they do not. Especially since the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) in 1996, state prisoners seeking federal habeas corpus relief have been required to overcome a set of rules that, in the aggregate, require every benefit of the doubt to be given to the state courts. Socha would like us to find that the state prosecutor in his case violated the obligation recognized in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence to him. But even though the prosecutor indeed withheld potentially impeaching evidence from Socha, the state courts concluded that there was no reasonable probability that this evidence would have changed the verdict. Because this conclusion was not so outlandish as to be unreasonable, we must affirm the decision of the district court refusing to issue the writ. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).


         In November 2001, Socha and his acquaintances, Lance Leonard and Victor Holm, each forged a stolen check. On November 17, police officers began asking questions. They went to Holm's apartment, seeking Leonard, but Leonard was not there. Holm agreed to go with them to the stationhouse, where he admitted his forgery and said that Leonard had also forged a check. Socha's name did not come up.

         Accounts of what happened over the next few days differ. But it is clear that Leonard moved from place to place, avoiding contact with the police. On November 20, 2001, Holm and his friend, Dennis Drews, drove Leonard from Berlin, Wisconsin, 140 miles or so upstate to Crandon. They arrived at the house of Holm's brother, Vincent. Leaving Leonard behind and armed with a shotgun, Holm, Drews, and Vincent left the house and dug a grave. Back again at Vincent's house, Holm and Drews persuaded Leonard to go on an errand with them. The errand turned out to be a fateful one for Leonard. They drove him to the grave they had just dug, murdered him, and buried the body. Meanwhile, Socha was back in Berlin partying with Holm's girlfriend, Beth Mrazik, and making sure that the two were seen in several bars. That night and early morning, Holm and Mrazik (and possibly Socha) exchanged multiple phone calls.

         In the days after November 20, news of the murder quickly spread. Drews bragged about it to Mrazik, who told a friend, who in turn informed the police. By December 6, Holm and Drews were arrested. No one had yet implicated Socha. That did not happen until a few months later when Mrazik, Drews, and Holm alleged that Socha was involved in the plan to kill Leonard. Eventually Mrazik, Drews, and Holm entered into plea agreements with the state.

         In August 2002, Socha was tried for being a party to the crime of first-degree intentional homicide. See Wis.Stat. §§ 940.01, 939.05. The prosecution's theory of the case identified Socha as the mastermind, who wanted Leonard dead primarily to ensure that he did not reveal Socha's drug-dealing and only secondarily to keep him from telling the police about the check forgery scheme. The state presented testimony from Holm and Drews that, with Socha, they decided that Leonard had to die. Others testified to seeing the three men in conversations in the days before the murder. There was also testimony that Socha behaved suspiciously once the police began investigating the murder. After a two-day bench trial, the judge found Socha guilty.

         Meanwhile, on April 11, 2002, the police had interviewed Roy Swanson, Holm's cellmate. While the recording and transcript of the interview were turned over to Holm's counsel, a slip-up in the prosecution's office resulted in a failure to turn them over to Socha. Consequently, Socha was not aware of the Swanson interview until after his trial. In the interview, Swan-son discussed his impressions of Holm. He commented that "[a] lot of times [Holm is] still lying." He recounted statements exhibiting Holm's lack of remorse about Leonard's death, saying at one point that he "should get a medal for killing [Leonard]." This was in marked contrast to the performance Holm gave at trial, where he was wiping away tears in supposed contrition. Swanson said that Holm had admitted that he and Lance "were the ones who stole the checks in the first place, " and even that Holm confessed that he had "killed before in Arizona." Swanson got the impression that Holm's accusation of Socha was concocted: Holm, he said, "talked to his lawyer [who] said, well if you were coerced in any way, or forced to say something, you know what I'm saying, do something against your will, you know, that's a ... Oh, and then all of a sudden a big light bulb pops up on his head and says, 'Oh, Mexican Mafia and Tom Socha ... .'" Nonetheless, Swan-son's story was not entirely helpful for Socha. At one point Swanson went so far as to say that "Tom's a major player in the murder."

         Socha knew about the Swanson interview by the time he filed his direct appeal and post-conviction motions. Among other things, he argued that he was entitled to a new trial under Brady because the prosecutor failed to disclose the Swanson transcript and recording. The circuit court, presided over by the judge who had handled the trial, denied his post-conviction motions. On December 5, 2006, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of all relief. It dispatched Socha's Brady claim in one paragraph, which characterized the Swan- son evidence as "inconsequential" and not "very exculpatory." The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied Socha's petition for review.

         Socha then turned to the federal court for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court dismissed his petition twice on timeliness grounds, and we reversed twice. See Socha I, 621 F.3d at 673; Socha II, 763 F.3d at 688. At last reaching the merits, the district court found no grounds supporting issuance of the writ. We granted ...

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