Supreme Court Developments March 29, 2021

On March 29, 2021, the Supeme Court issued a per curiam decision reversing a grant of habeas relief by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a Tennessee death penalty case on a claim that trial counsel had been ineffective at the guilt and sentencing phases of the trial by failing to suggest that the man who discovered the victim’s body was the actual killer.  Mays v. Hines, 592 U.S. ___ (March 29, 2021) (per curiam).  The victim worked at a motel where petitioner had rented a room.  Her body was found stabbed to death by a regular patron of the motel.  In state post-conviction proceedings, the patron’s account for his presence at the motel was shown to have been false.  While he claimed at trial to have simply stopped by to visit the motel owners and fortuitously found the victim when he entered a room to use the bathroom, in fact he was there for a regular tryst with a woman who was not his wife.  Although defense counsel was aware of the affair at the time of trial, defense counsel decided to forgo eliciting the embarrassing information.  In granting relief, the Sixth Circuit failed to “carefully consider all the reasons and evidence supporting the state court’s decision” that petitioner had failed to establish prejudice.  Instead of evaluating the substantial evidence linking petitioner to the crime, e.g., his “flight [from the motel] in a bloodstained shirt, his theft of the [victim’s] vehicle and money, and his ever-changing stories about stabbing and robbing various people on the day of the crime,” the court of appeals focused on all the reasons why it thought the third party “could have” been a viable alternative suspect.   “This approach plainly violated Congress’ prohibition on disturbing state-court judgments on federal habeas review absent an error that lies ‘beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.’” (Citations omitted.)

Also on March 29, 2021, the Supreme Court in Johnson v. Precythe, 20-287, directed the parties to file supplemental letter briefs addressing the following question: "Given that the District Court dismissed without prejudice, would petitioner be barred from filing a new complaint that proposes the firing squad as the alternative method of execution?" The certiorari petition was filed on August 28, 2020, and raises the following questions:

     In Bucklew v. Precythe, 139 S. Ct. 1112 (2019), this Court held, at the summary judgment stage and on the record in that case, that the State had a legitimate penological justification for rejecting the inmate’s proffered alternative method of execution because that method had not previously been used to perform an execution, and the inmate had presented no evidence that the method had been studied or could be carried out.

     The questions presented are:

     1. Whether Bucklew established a categorical rule that a State may obtain dismissal of an Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim by proffering a reason for rejecting the plaintiff’s opposed alternative method of execution that is legitimate in the abstract, regardless of whether the plaintiff has plausibly alleged that the State’s proffered reason is not legitimate or sufficient on the facts of the case.

     2. In the alternative, whether the court of appeals’ refusal to permit petitioner, after this Court’s decision in Bucklew was issued, to amend his complaint to propose a previously-used alternative method of execution warrants summary reversal.