Recent Decisions

2017 Term Decisions of Interest to Capital Habeas Practitioners

Ayestas v. Davis, 584 U.S. ___ (March 21, 2018) - In an appeal concerning the denial of funding to a habeas petitioner, the Supreme Court assumes, without deciding, that a COA is required to appeal the denial of funds and finds that the rule applied by the district court in denying funding was not only debatable but actually erroneous.  The district court’s ruling on the funding request was not an administrative decision such that the court of appeals and the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal.  The lower courts applied the wrong legal standard when denying petitioner funds under 18 U.S.C. §3599(f).  The statute authorizes funding that is “reasonably necessary” for the representation of an applicant.  The Fifth Circuit’s requirement that an applicant establish a “substantial need” for the funding was arguably more demanding than the statute requires.  The Fifth Circuit exacerbated the problem by invoking precedent that a habeas petitioner seeking funding must present “a viable constitutional claim that is not procedurally barred.”  This precedent is too restrictive after Trevino v. Thaler.  What the statutory phrase calls for is a determination by the district court, in the exercise of its discretion, as to whether a reasonable attorney would regard the services as sufficiently important.  In making this assessment, the district court is “to consider the potential merit of the claims that the applicant wants to pursue, the likelihood that the services will generate useful and admissible evidence, and the prospect that the applicant will be able to clear any procedural hurdles standing in the way.”  The Supreme Court declines to address the respondent’s argument, which was not  presented below, that funding is never “reasonably necessary” in a case like this one, where a habeas petitioner seeks to present a procedurally defaulted ineffective-assistance-of -trial-counsel claim that will depend on facts outside the state-court record. This is because, according to respondent, the fruits of the federally funded investigation would be inadmissible under 28 U. S. C. §2254(e)(2).  This argument remains open to be raised in the Fifth Circuit on remand.

Tharpe v. Sellers, 583 U.S. ___ (Jan. 8, 2018) (per curiam) - In Georgia death penalty case, remanding to the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration of whether petitioner is entitled to a COA to appeal the denial of his Rule 60(b) motion which sought to reopen his federal habeas proceedings regarding a claim that a juror was biased against him because of his race.  The Eleventh Circuit appeared to deny a COA on the ground that petitioner could not establish prejudice in connection with his procedurally defaulted bias claim.  This was premised on the state court’s factual finding that the juror at issue did not vote for a death sentence based on petitioner’s race.  Although that finding was entitled to a presumption of correctness that could only be overcome by clear and convincing evidence (see 28 U.S.C. §2254(e)(1)),  given the juror’s remarks about race contained in his affidavit, it was at least debatable among jurists of reason whether petitioner met his burden of overcoming the presumption of correctness.  The Supreme Court expressed no views on the other grounds on which the district court denied the Rule 60(b) motion which the Eleventh Circuit did not address.

Dunn v. Madison, 583 U.S. ___ (Nov. 3, 2017) (per curiam) - In Alabama capital case, the state trial court did not unreasonably apply Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986) or Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007), nor unreasonably assess the evidence before it, in determining that Madison was competent to be executed.  In reaching a contrary conclusion the majority of the Eleventh Circuit panel had relied on evidence that Madison, due to several recent strokes, did not recall having committed the capital murder, although he understood that he had been convicted of the crime and that was the basis for his upcoming execution.  In reversing the grant of habeas relief, the Supreme Court explained: "Neither Panetti nor Ford 'clearly established' that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case."  It noted, however, that it "express[ed] no view on the merits of the underlying question outside of the AEDPA context."

Kernan v. Cuero, 583 U.S. ___ (Nov. 3, 2017) (per curiam) - Reversing grant of habeas relief in non-capital case where the prosecution was permitted to amend the criminal complaint after petitioner had pled guilty with an agreement to a maximum sentence of fourteen years and four months.  As a result of the amendment, the maximum sentence was significantly greater.  Petitioner was given the opportunity to withdraw his guilty plea in light of the amendment; he ultimately pleaded guilty to the amended complaint with a longer sentence than he originally agreed to.   The Ninth Circuit had found that federal law mandated specific performance of the original plea agreement.  In this post-AEDPA case, the Supreme Court found that the issue before it was whether its  prior decisions "(1) clearly require the state court to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected; or (2) instead permit the State’s sentence-raising amendment where the defendant was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea?"  Because there was no decision from the Supreme Court clearly establishing that a state court must choose the first alternative, it reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision.