Recently in Habeas Corpus Category

I am not making this up.  It's from PBS.

You gotta love the use of the word, "normally."
We continue to make small gains in the ability of victims of crime to have their voices heard in cases affecting the criminal justice system.  On March 12, I noted that the California Court of Appeal had rejected the attempt of the California Department of Corrections to throw out the suit of two victims' families to force it to adopt a lethal injection protocol.

Meanwhile, back in federal court, the fight continues over the attempt to squelch the federal "fast track" on capital habeas cases, the never-implemented major reform of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.  Since USDoJ is not interested in fighting this as vigorously or expeditiously as is needed, I moved to intervene on behalf of Marc Klaas, the father of a murdered little girl.  Unsurprisingly, the other side's favorite district judge rejected the intervention motion, so I filed an appeal from that order plus a protective appeal from the injunction on the merits of the case. 

The capital defense lawyers, being represented contra bono publico* by the Orrick firm, moved to have the merits appeal dismissed before briefing.  Today the appellate commissioner denied that motion.  On its face, the denial is "without prejudice to renewing the arguments in the briefs," but since the whole point is to preclude the briefing, that is a win for the good guys.

Yet Another Summary AEDPA Reversal

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet again summarily and unanimously reversed a decision of a federal court of appeals for failure to observe the limitation that Congress placed on its authority to second-guess decisions of state courts.

If two courts disagree on a question of law, which court's opinion should prevail?  Within the hierarchy of appellate review, the "higher" court's opinion prevails.  That is what we mean when say that questions of law are reviewed "de novo."  (For questions of fact, the judge or jury at trial gets broad deference.)

When a federal court considers the decision of a state court on habeas corpus, though, the situation is different.  A federal district court or court of appeals is not "higher" than the state supreme court in this sense.  Congress has never placed any federal court but the Supreme Court above the state courts in the sense of appellate jurisdiction.

So what do we do when a habeas petitioner claims in federal court that he is in jail illegally, but his legal argument has already been considered and rejected by the state court on appeal or state collateral review, and the U.S. Supreme Court has either refused or not been asked to review the state court's decision directly?  It's complicated.
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court took up once again the question of whether its decision in Miller v. Alabama, that LWOP sentences for under-18 murderers must be discretionary and not mandatory, applies retroactively to overturn sentences that were correctly decided on appeal under the law existing at the time.  The previous case on this question, Toca v. Louisiana, became moot when Toca's sentence was commuted. 

The new case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280.  This case is a better vehicle than Toca, as the facts are more typical of an LWOP case.  Montgomery murdered Deputy Sheriff Charles H. Hurt in 1963, when Montgomery was 17.  He could have been executed in the electric chair at the time, but the jury granted him leniency.

The question presented as phrased by the petitioner/defendant is, "whether Miller adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison?"  The Court added its own question, "Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U. S. ____ (2012)?"

Note the "die in prison" phrasing.  Apparently death is no longer different.

My initial impression is that the answers are "no" and "yes."  Since the parties are agreed on the jurisdictional point, the Court may appoint an amicus to argue the "no."

In other action, Court decided two civil cases today.  Still waiting on the Facebook threats case, Elonis v. United States.  Possibly tomorrow.

Yesterday the Court turned down the Wisconsin voter ID case, Frank v. Walker, No. 14-803.

On February 5, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Texas quadruple murderer Lester Leroy Bower while it considered his petition to take up his case for full briefing and argument.  Today the high court denied the petition, and the stay automatically terminates, giving Texas the green light to proceed (if they can find some pentobarbital).

In order to accept Bower's claim, the Court would need to further extend what is possibly the worst of all the errors in its capital sentencing jurisprudence, the Lockett/Penry rule that the defendant must be allowed to introduce "mitigating" evidence that has nothing to do with the crime and that the jury must be instructed to consider it.  The rule is wrong for the reasons explained by Justice White in Lockett v. Ohio, Justice Scalia in Penry v. Lynaugh and Walton v. Arizona, and Justice Thomas in Graham v. Collins.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, dissents from today's order.  Interestingly, Justice Kagan does not join this opinion.

Jennings v. Stephens Podcast

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The Federalist Society has this podcast by CJLF's Legal Director Kent Scheidegger on the U.S. Supreme Court's January 14 decision in Jennings v. Stephens.

Habeas Appeals and Alternate Grounds

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Today the U.S. Supreme Court decided Jennings v. Stephens, No. 13-7211, regarding the issues a habeas petitioner can raise on appeal when the district court accepts some of his claims but rejects others and the state appeals.

Congress long ago placed a limitation on appeals by habeas petitioners, recognizing that the vast majority of petitions are meritless.  In 1996, Congress bolstered the filter for appeals by adding a requirement that a certificate of appealability specify the issues will potential merit and limiting the appellate court's jurisdiction to the identified issues.

How does this requirement apply to a case where the petitioner actually wins on one of his issues, and the state is the party appealing the decision?  For the most part, it doesn't, the Court held 6-3.  The court applied the standard rule for appeals in other kinds of cases, that the party prevailing in the trial court can raise the issues rejected by that court as long as he does not seek different or greater relief than he obtained in that court.

I do not think this result is consistent with the purpose of the issue-specification requirement, although it is not contrary to any language in the statute.  I very much doubt that anyone in Congress even thought about this particular wrinkle as the legislation was moving through.  It will present a practical problem for the courts of appeals in cases where petitioners file hundreds of claims, most of them frivolous, as is increasingly common in capital cases.

This is a loss, but not a big one in overall scheme of things.

The real goal of CJLF's brief in this case was to get the Supreme Court to finally define what is a "claim" for the purpose of habeas corpus.  That question was squarely presented six terms ago in Bell v. Kelly (CJLF brief here), but the Court dumped the case.  The manner in which the Court resolved the appeal issue in Jennings made it unnecessary to decide that question today.  We will keep on keeping on.

Still Guilty, After All These Years

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Here's a red-hot news flash.  Sirhan Sirhan is guilty of the murder of Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

In 1996, Congress clamped a one-year statute of limitations on petitions for writs of habeas corpus when used as collateral attacks on criminal judgments.  In 2013, the Supreme Court held in McQuiggin v. Perkins, 133 S. Ct. 1924, 1928 that actual innocence is, in effect, an exception.  (I have no quarrel with that holding as a matter of policy and did not file a brief in that case to oppose making the exception, but as a matter of statutory interpretation I don't think the opinion holds water.)  But look who crawls out of the woodwork claiming innocence.  Later in 2013, the federal magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation rejecting Sirhan's claim.  It begins,

This case may be the final chapter in an American tragedy. On June 5, 1968, moments after declaring victory in the California Democratic primary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy walked through the kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, where petitioner was waiting.  As Senator Kennedy stopped to shake hands with hotel employees, petitioner walked toward him, extending his arm. Instead of shaking Senator Kennedy's hand, petitioner shot him. Petitioner continued to fire his gun even as bystanders wrestled him onto a table. Senator Kennedy died of his wounds.
Kate Mather and Richard Winton report in the LA Times:

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against the man charged in the deadly 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, according to court documents filed Friday.

Paul Anthony Ciancia, 24, was charged with 11 federal counts in connection with the Nov. 1, 2013, attack that killed one Transportation Security Administration officer and wounded three other people. Authorities allege Ciancia walked into the airport's busy Terminal 3 and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle.
The decision is obviously correct, and this is one of the few homicides that really should be prosecuted as a federal offense.  The homicide victim was a federal officer targeted specifically because of his federal duties, as are two of the wounded victims.

The current Administration has been reasonable in seeking the death penalty in federal cases where it is warranted, but it is derelict in carrying it out. 

USCA9 Drops Henry Like A Hot Potato

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The strange case of Arizona murderer Graham Henry continues.

Three weeks ago, I noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had taken the unusual step of directing the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to answer Arizona's petition for an extraordinary writ.  The state was challenging the Ninth's decision to stay the mandate in Henry's case while it considers another case, McKinney v. Ryan, even though the panel in Henry had decided that it really makes no difference to that case how McKinney comes out.

Two days after the Supreme Court's order, the Ninth reheard McKinney en banc.  Today, the Chief Judge issued an order in Henry saying,

Having heard the argument in McKinney, and having considered the record and the briefs filed by the parties in this case, the Court concludes that: (1) the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record, and that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument; and (2) a stay of proceedings and further en banc consideration in Henry is not necessary to secure or maintain the uniformity of the Court's decisions.

Therefore, this case is submitted for decision without oral argument. Fed. R. App. P. 34(a)(2). Henry's motion for a stay of proceedings pending the issuance of a decision in McKinney is DENIED. En banc proceedings in this case are concluded. The Clerk is directed to issue the mandate.
I don't know what the Ninth will say to the Supreme Court in its response next Wednesday, but in substance it will probably amount to something equivalent to the famous words of Gilda Radner, "Oh, never mind."

I don't seriously believe that it was the oral argument in McKinney that changed their minds.  Oral argument is rarely that illuminating.  Everything they needed to know was in the papers.

USCA9 Flips Yet Another Death Sentence

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Twenty-five years ago, in Tucson, Arizona, Eric Mann conceived a cold-blooded plan to cheat another man in a drug deal and then kill him to cover it up.  When the customer brought someone else to the transaction, Mann killed them both according to his plan.

After Mann's claims against his death sentence were heard and rejected by the Arizona Supreme Court, the trial court on collateral review, the Arizona Supreme Court again, and the federal district court, Mann appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  The panel assigned was Judges Sidney Thomas, now Chief Judge, Stephen Reinhardt, and Alex Kozinski.  Knowing nothing about the legal issues but only from the composition of the panel, can you guess the outcome?

CJLF Brief in Jones v. Davis

CJLF has filed an amicus brief in the case where a federal district judge ruled that the long delays in executing murderers in California are a violation of the defendant's rights.  The delays are a violation, of course, but not of the defendant's rights.  The delays are a violation of the rights of the victims, which includes the family of deceased victims, under both a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 3771, and the California Constitution, Article I § 28. The remedy is for judges both state and federal to get off their duffs, stop tolerating stalling by the defense, and move these cases along.

If Virginia can execute the D.C. Sniper in less than six years from sentence to execution, other states can do the same no matter how complex the case.  In the rare case of actual doubt that we have the right guy, fine, delay as long as it takes to eliminate the doubt, and commute the sentence if it can't be eliminated.  In all other cases, i.e., the vast majority of cases, there is no need to delay more than six years.  That is plenty of time to resolve all genuine claims. 

After all, if we know to a certainty that the defendant is a murderer, there is no possibility of a miscarriage of justice in the sentence.  The question in the penalty phase is whether to give him what he deserves as a matter of justice or let him off with less as an exercise of mercy.  That is an important question, and its decision must be made carefully and reviewed carefully, but the outcome cannot be an injustice to the defendant.

The idea that we need to spend more time and resources reviewing the sentences of certainly guilty murderers sentenced to death than we spend reviewing the convictions of possibly innocent people sentenced to life in prison is absurd.
Usually, the way to have a lower court's decision reviewed by a higher court is to appeal.  In the U.S. Supreme Court, an actual "appeal" in the technical sense is usually not available, and a petition for writ of certiorari is used instead.

Sometimes, though, neither of these procedures is available, and the aggrieved party must resort to an "extraordinary writ," a petition for a writ of prohibition or mandate.  In form, this is a new suit by the petitioner against the lower court itself, designated the "respondent."  In practice, the opposing party in the lower court is designated the "real party in interest," and that party defends the lower court's action.  That avoids the need for a court to appear as a party, generally regarded as unseemly.

And now, for something completely different....

In re Ryan, U.S. Supreme Court No. 14-375, is a petition by Arizona's prison chief against the Ninth Circuit for sitting on a case after it should be over.  As usual, the opposing party in the court below, the Arizona Federal Defender on behalf of murderer Graham Henry, filed an opposition.  But yesterday, the Supreme Court asked the Ninth Circuit itself to file a response.

Truth and Journalism

Bill noted yesterday how a hoax was printed as fact to bolster a position on the campus rape debate.  Before commenting on the story, let me make very clear that CJLF has a long history of supporting the rights of victims of rape.  It is a terrible crime, and the victims deserve justice.  We have further supported shield laws to protect victims from being revictimized.  Our commitment to victims' rights remains undiminished.  That said, however, the current movement regarding campus sexual assault is going to extremes that will do little to help actual victims, threatens grave consequences against people who have done nothing wrong, and may well end up hurting real victims as a backlash creates renewed skepticism of those who come forward.

Now, Rolling Stone never has been an exemplar of objective journalism, but reporting inflammatory allegations without the most elementary fact-checking is well below the standard we should expect of any national magazine.  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal today pinpoints the underlying problem here:

The larger problem, however, is that Ms. Erderly was, by her own admission, looking for a story to fit a pre-existing narrative--in this case, the supposed epidemic of sexual assault at elite universities, along with the presumed indifference of those schools to the problem. As the Washington Post noted in an admiring profile of Ms. Erdely, she interviewed students at several elite universities before alighting on UVA, "a public school, Southern and genteel."
In other words, Ms. Erdely did not construct a story based on facts, but went looking for facts to fit her theory. She appears to have been looking for a story to fit the current popular liberal belief that sexual assault is pervasive and pervasively covered-up.
Kevan Brumfield murdered Police Corporal Betty Smothers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1993.  He went on trial in 1995.  Six years earlier the Supreme Court decided in Penry v. Lynaugh that mental retardation (now called intellectual disability) is a mitigating factor that the jury must be allowed to consider but not a categorical exclusion.  Brumfield's lawyers put on no evidence of retardation, instead arguing other factors as mitigation, and he was sentenced to death.

Seven years after the trial, the Supreme Court decided in Atkins v. Virginia that retardation would be a categorical exclusion after all.  The high court did not apologize for its flip-flop.  On state collateral review, the trial judge denied the petition on the basis of the trial record.

What to do on federal habeas?  The deference standard of 28 U.S.C. §2254(d) allows a federal court to grant relief despite a state court's denial on the merits if the state court's "adjudication of the claim ... (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 

But what if the argument is that the state court's unreasonableness was in not allowing evidence, rather than assessment of evidence?  Can a rule to deal with that issue be crafted without opening the door to federal micromanagement of state collateral review or the wholesale relitigation that the AEDPA reforms were enacted to prevent?

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