Recent Decisions

2020 Term Decisions of Interest to Capital Habeas Practitioners

Dunn v. Reeves, 594 U.S. ___ (July 2, 2021) (per curiam).  Reversing grant of habeas relief by Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Alabama death penalty case on claim that trial counsel was ineffective in failing to develop and present evidence of petitioner’s intellectual disability as mitigating evidence.  The Alabama court did not violate clearly established federal law when it rejected petitioner’s contention that that his attorneys were ineffective in failing to hire a neuropsychological expert they had successfully obtained funding to retain.  Petitioner did not call trial counsel as witnesses at the state post-conviction hearing to explain this omission.  The Eleventh Circuit mischaracterized the state court decision when it held that the state court, in denying relief, had adopted a per se rule that the absence of testimony by trial counsel would always preclude a finding of deficient performance.  Rather, the actual analysis of the claim by the state court indicated a case-specific approach and the record supported a number of theories for why counsel proceeded as they did. “[T]he Alabama court’s treatment of the spotty record in this case was consistent with this Court’s recognition that ‘the absence of evidence cannot overcome the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.’” (Citations and internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

Edwards v. Vannoy, 593 U.S. ___ (May 17, 2021).  Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. __ (2020), which held that a state jury must be unanimous to convict a defendant of a serious offense, announced a new rule of criminal procedure that does not apply retroactively on federal collateral review.  The Teague retroactivity exception for new rules of criminal procedural that are considered "watershed" rules has never been found to apply and is eliminated.  

Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. ___ (April 22, 2021).  Supreme Court precedent does not require a sentencer to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing an individual who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18 to a sentence of life without parole.  Under Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U. S. 190 (2016), the decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. 460 (2012) -  that an individual who commits a homicide when he or she is under 18 may be sentenced to life without parole, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment - is retroactive.  But "to the extent that Montgomery’s application of the Teague standard is in tension with the Court’s retroactivity precedents that both pre-date and post-date Montgomery, those retroactivity precedents—and not Montgomery—must guide the determination of whether rules other than Miller are substantive."

Alaska v. Wright, 141 S. Ct. 1467 (2021) (per curiam). In non-capital case where petitioner pleaded guilty in federal court to failing to register as a sex offender and the registration requirement was premised on a prior Alaska conviction for sexual abuse of a minor, the fact that the petitioner’s state-court conviction served as the predicate for his federal charge did not render him “in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court” as required by Section 2254(a) in order to challenge the Alaska conviction.

Mays v. Hines, 592 U.S. ___ (March 29, 2021) (per curiam).  In Tennessee death penalty case, reversing the grant of habeas relief by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on 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. 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.)

Shinn v. Kayer, 592 U.S. ___ (Dec. 14, 2020) (per curiam) -  Reversing the grant of habeas relief on claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the sentencing phase of Kayer’s Arizona capital trial.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals violated AEDPA jurisprudence in ruling that the state court unreasonably applied Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) when the state court held that Kayer had failed to establish prejudice from trial counsel’s alleged deficient performance.  The federal appeals court arrived at its conclusions about the significance of the mitigating evidence trial counsel had failed to develop and present “without ever framing the relevant question as whether a fairminded jurist could reach a different conclusion.”  Because the state postconviction court did not articulate its specific reasons for finding that Kayer failed to establish prejudice,  the Supreme Court looked to what theories or arguments could have supported the state court’s conclusion.  Perhaps the most probable was that the state postconviction court simply found “that the new mitigation evidence offered in the postconviction proceeding did not create a substantial likelihood of a different sentencing outcome.”  In finding to the contrary, the Ninth Circuit impermissibly substituted its own judgment as to the relative  weight of the aggravating and mitigating evidence instead of asking “whether a fairminded jurist could take a different view.”  Unlike the Ninth Circuit, a fairminded jurist could have given substantial weight to Kayer’s prior conviction for burglary given that it involved a handgun and the capital crime was committed by a firearm.  And a fairminded jurist could also have taken a different view of the mitigating evidence than did the Ninth Circuit.  While the Ninth Circuit found that evidence of Kayer’s bipolar disorder and untreated alcohol and gambling addictions supported the finding of the statutory mitigating circumstance of mental impairment, “reasonable jurists could debate the extent to which these factors significantly impaired [Kayer’s] ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law at the time of the murder” given that

the record reveals that Kayer had extensive opportunities to consider his actions—planning the murder in advance, driving his victim to a remote area, and subsequently returning to the murder scene and shooting the victim in the head a second time. Moreover, Kayer’s planning of the murder, efforts to hide the body, interactions with [the victim] before and after the murder, and attempts to profit from his crimes using an alias display a measure of control and intentionality.

The Ninth Circuit had relied on Arizona Supreme Court direct appeal decisions in its prejudice analysis, concluding that they established a reasonable probability that the state supreme court would have reversed Kayer’s death sentence on direct appeal had trial counsel developed the mitigating evidence that was presented in the postconviction proceeding.  But “because the facts in each capital sentencing case are unique, the weighing of aggravating and mitigating evidence in a prior published decision is unlikely to provide clear guidance about how a state court would weigh the evidence in a later case.”  And the Arizona Supreme Court decision focused on by both the Ninth Circuit and Kayer had distinguishable aggravating and mitigating circumstances, thus falling “far short of placing the state court’s prejudice determination in this case beyond the realm of fairminded disagreement.”