Lee v. Kemna, 534 U.S. 362 (2002)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 00-6933. Argued October 29, 2001—Decided January 22, 2002

Petitioner Lee was tried for first-degree murder and a related crime in state court. His planned alibi defense—that he was in California with his family at the time of the murder—surfaced at each stage of the proceedings. Although Lee's mother, stepfather, and sister voluntarily came to Missouri to testify to his alibi, they left the courthouse without explanation at some point on the third day of trial, the day the defense case began. Lee's counsel moved for an overnight continuance to gain time to find the witnesses and enforce the subpoenas he had served on them. Neither the trial judge nor the prosecutor identified any procedural flaw in the motion's presentation or content. The trial judge denied the motion, stating that it looked as though the witnesses had in effect abandoned Lee, that his daughter's hospitalization would prevent the judge from being in court the next day, and that he would be unavailable on the following business day because he had another trial scheduled. The trial resumed without pause, no alibi witnesses testified, the jury found Lee guilty as charged, and he was sentenced to prison for life without possibility of parole. Lee's new trial motion, grounded in part on the denial of his continuance motion, was denied, as was his motion for state postconviction relief, in which he argued, inter alia, that the refusal to grant his continuance motion deprived him of his federal due process right to a defense. His direct appeal and his appeal from the denial of postconviction relief were consolidated before the Missouri Court of Appeals, which 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. Declining to consider the merits of Lee's due process plea, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and the denial of postconviction relief. He then filed a federal habeas application, which the District Court denied. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, ruling that federal review of Lee's due process claim was unavailable because the state court's re-

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