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WOOD v. ALLEN ( No. 08-9156 )
542 F. 3d 1281, affirmed.
Syllabus

Opinion
[Sotomayor]
Dissent
[Stevens]
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Syllabus

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

WOOD v . ALLEN, COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit


No. 08–9156. Argued November 4, 2009—Decided January 20, 2010

Under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(2), a federal court may grant a state prisoner habeas relief if his claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court and “resulted in a decision … based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” Under §2254(e)(1), “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court [is] presumed to be correct,” and the petitioner has “the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.”

          Petitioner Wood was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in Alabama state court. Two of his court-appointed attorneys, Dozier and Ralph, had significant trial experience, but the third, Trotter, had only recently been admitted to the bar. After exhausting his appeals, Wood sought postconviction relief under Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, arguing, among other things, that he was mentally retarded and not eligible for the death penalty, and that his trial counsel were ineffective because they failed to investigate and present evidence of his mental deficiencies during the trial’s penalty phase. The Rule 32 court conducted evidentiary hearings and denied the claims initially and on remand. As to the mental retardation claim, it found that Wood had not shown deficits in his adaptive functioning. As to the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, it concluded that he had not established that his counsel’s performance was deficient or that any deficiency prejudiced his defense. In so doing, it made a factual finding that counsel had made a strategic decision not to pursue evidence of Wood’s alleged retardation. Observing that counsel had asked Dr. Kirkland to conduct a mental evaluation, had thoroughly reviewed his report, and had determined that no further investigation was warranted, the court additionally held that counsel appeared to have made a strategic decision not to present their limited mental-deficiency evidence to the jury because having Dr. Kirkland testify was not in Wood’s best interest. It also found no reasonable probability of a different outcome had the evidence developed in the Rule 32 proceedings been presented at trial. Woods subsequently sought federal habeas relief under §2254. The District Court rejected all but his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. The District Court concluded that the state court’s finding that counsel made a strategic decision was an unreasonable determination of the facts. The court further held that counsel’s performance was deficient and had prejudiced Wood, and that the state court’s contrary holdings were an unreasonable application of federal law under Strickland v. Washington , 466 U. S. 668 . Reversing, the Eleventh Circuit held that the state court’s rejection of Wood’s ineffective-assistance claim was neither an unreasonable application of clearly established law nor based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. With respect to the facts, it concluded that the evidence in the Rule 32 hearings supported the state court’s strategic-decision finding, and it agreed with the state court’s legal conclusion that counsel’s strategic decision was reasonable and that Wood had failed to show prejudice. Wood’s certiorari petition raises the questions (1) whether, in order to obtain relief under §2254(d)(2), a petitioner must establish only that the state-court factual determination on which the decision was based was “unreasonable,” or whether §2254(e)(1) additionally requires a petitioner to rebut a presumption that the determination was correct with clear and convincing evidence; and (2) whether the state court’s strategic-decision determination was reasonable.

Held:

     1. Even under Wood’s reading of §2254(d)(2), the state court’s conclusion that his counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue or present evidence of his mental deficiencies was not an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceedings. This Court need not reach the question whether §2254(e)(1) applies in every case presenting a challenge under §2254(d)(2), see Rice v. Collins , 546 U. S. 333 , because its view of the state court’s factual determination here does not depend on an interpretative difference regarding the relationship between those provisions. While “[t]he term ‘unreasonable’ is … difficult to define,” Williams v. Taylor , 529 U. S. 362 , it suffices to say that a state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance. See Rice, supra, at 341–342. Here, the state-court record shows that all of Wood’s counsel read the Kirkland report. Trotter testified that Dozier told him that nothing in the report merited further investigation, a recollection supported by the attorneys’ contemporaneous letters; and Trotter told the sentencing judge that counsel did not intend to introduce the report to the jury. This evidence can fairly be read to support the Rule 32 court’s factual determination that counsel’s failure to pursue or present evidence of Wood’s mental deficiencies was not mere oversight or neglect but the result of a deliberate decision to focus on other defenses. Most of the contrary evidence Wood highlights— e.g., that Dozier and Ralph put the inexperienced Trotter in charge of the penalty phase proceedings—speaks not to whether counsel made a strategic decision, but to whether counsel’s judgment was reasonable, a question not before this Court. Any evidence plausibly inconsistent with the strategic-decision finding does not suffice to show that the finding was unreasonable. Pp. 8–12.

     2. Because Wood’s argument that the state court unreasonably applied Strickland in rejecting his ineffective-assistance claim on the merits is not “fairly included” in the questions presented under this Court’s Rule 14.1(a), it will not be addressed here. Pp. 12–13.

542 F. 3d 1281, affirmed.

     Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kennedy, J., joined.