A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit (Wilkinson, King, Agee) issued an unusual ruling in an unpublished per curiam opinion in Hyman v. Keller. North Carolina appealed the grant of a writ of habeas corpus to Terrence Hyman, currently serving a sentence of life without parole for the murder of Ernest Lee Bennett Jr. Rather than affirm or reverse, the Fourth Circuit stayed the appeal out of deference to a potential state resolution.
The district court granted the writ upon concluding that Hyman had been denied the right to counsel because Teresa Smallwood, a lawyer defending Hyman in his murder trial, also had represented a key trial witness, Derrick Speller. In the course of her representation of Speller, Smallwood had a conversation with Speller, Hyman argued, in which Speller identified a different man as the shooter.
As it came to the Fourth Circuit, the case had a complicated procedural history. North Carolina argued, among other things, that Hyman failed to exhaust his claim. The district court had rejected North Carolina’s exhaustion argument. Instead of resolving North Carolina’s argument that the district court erred, the Fourth Circuit stayed North Carolina’s appeal to allow a North Carolina court to address the parties’ arguments in the first instance. As mentioned at the outset, this is an unusual disposition.