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Professor Henke Successful in Appellate Court Decision

Melissa Henke, Robert G. Lawson & William H. Fortune Associate Professor of Law and Director of Legal Research and Writing, recently received a favorable decision from the Kentucky Court of Appeals in her pro bono representation of an inmate.

December 4, 2015

Melissa Henke, Robert G. Lawson & William H. Fortune Associate Professor of Law and Director of Legal Research and Writing, recently received a favorable decision from the Kentucky Court of Appeals in her pro bono representation of an inmate. The court ruling will be published, which means it will be reported in the official source of Kentucky case law and serve as precedent in future cases.

Dean David A. Brennen praised Professor Henke for her dedication and service to the legal community. “Professor Henke is making a difference both inside and outside of the classroom,” he said. “Her expertise inside the classroom is preparing future generations of lawyers to be community servants and to have a passion for assisting individuals during their time of need. Her work outside of the classroom demonstrates that she stands behind these teachings. Professor Henke contributed her time and energy over several years, free of charge, to assist Mr. Ramirez because she knew she could help make a difference and wanted to see a wrong, righted.”

Professor Henke humbly gave the praise to her client, “Mr. Ramirez’s persistence and patience during this entire appeals process paid off, not only for his own benefit, but also for the benefit of other Kentucky inmates facing future disciplinary proceedings."

Professor Henke provided the following background on her client’s case:

Mr. Jose Ramirez was found guilty of being involved in a fight with another prisoner back in 2009. From the start, Mr. Ramirez denied involvement in the fight and said he was asleep in his dorm at the time of the incident (a fact that his roommate corroborated when he testified as Mr. Ramirez’s alibi witness). The fight victim was actually willing to testify that Mr. Ramirez was not involved in the fight that left him seriously injured. However, the Kentucky Department of Corrections' administrative officer who conducted the disciplinary proceeding refused Mr. Ramirez’s request to offer the oral or written testimony of the victim as a witness on Mr. Ramirez’s behalf. Instead, at the end of a proceeding that lasted a mere 12 minutes, the officer found Mr. Ramirez guilty and assessed a penalty of 180 days served in solitary confinement, loss of two years of good time credit, and payment of restitution in the amount of $556.17. Mr. Ramirez has paid that entire sum of money to the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Mr. Ramirez appealed the discipline to the warden and then to the Kentucky courts. After losing at the trial court and intermediate court of appeals, Mr. Ramirez appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court, at which time Professor Henke was appointed to serve as counsel. In March 2014, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Mr. Ramirez’s favor that reversed the lower court opinion, finding that Mr. Ramirez’s due process rights were violated by the Kentucky Department of Corrections administrative officer in connection with the disciplinary proceeding. Of particular note, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that if an inmate challenges the denial of his request to call a particular witness at a disciplinary proceeding, the officer “must provide for the record on review, the [officer’s] reason for denying the witness.” The opinion is available at, Ramirez v. Nietzel, 424 S.W.3d 911 (Ky. 2014). The case was then remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Kentucky Supreme Court opinion.

Professor Henke continued to represent Mr. Ramirez before the trial court on  remand.  Unfortunately, the due process violations identified by the Kentucky Supreme Court were not remedied by the order rendered by the trial court on remand. As a result, Professor Henke appealed the trial court’s remand order to the Kentucky Court of Appeals on Mr. Ramirez’s behalf.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals recently issued its opinion in the appeal, finding unanimously in Mr. Ramirez’s favor and reversing the lower court’s remand order. The Kentucky Court of Appeals specifically found that the administrative officer’s reasons for denying Mr. Ramirez’s request to call the victim as a witness at his disciplinary proceeding did not satisfy the requirements set forth by the Kentucky Supreme Court opinion entered in this case, that the officer’s reasons offered to the trial court on remand were lacking, and perhaps most importantly, that due process of law required the officer to consider the victim’s testimony at Mr. Ramirez’s disciplinary proceeding. As a result, the Kentucky Court of Appeals voided the disciplinary conviction against Mr. Ramirez and ordered repayment to him of all money he paid in connection with the constitutionally-deficient discipline.  

Although it has taken more than six years, Mr. Ramirez will finally see justice prevail in his case. And because the decision is set to be published, future disciplinary proceedings must abide by the precedent set by the court.