Bradshaw v. Stumpf

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Bradshaw v. Stumpf.


Oral argument: 
April 19, 2005

John Stumpf and his accomplice, Clyde Wesley, were convicted of the murder of Mary Jane Stout. Stumpf, in his appeal to the Supreme Court, argues that the prosecutor unfairly used inconsistent theories to prove that both he and Wesley were guilty for the murder – -- even though a single shot was used to kill Stout. Stumpf thus claims his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution were violated. Stumpf also argues that his guilty plea at trial was entered unknowingly and involuntarily because he did not understand the elements of the crime. The Supreme Court, in making its decisions, will have to address the role of the prosecutor in a criminal proceeding, the rights of the defendant under the Due Process Clause, and the extent to which a defendant can later invalidate his earlier plea of guilty.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 


On May 14th, 1984, defendants John Stumpf and Clyde Wesley knocked on the door of Norman and Mary Jane Stout and asked to use the phone. The record is clear on the initial events. After entering, Stumpf and Wesley pulled out guns. Stumpf held the Stouts at gunpoint while Wesley searched the house for valuables. When Norman Stout tried to escape, Stumpf shot Norman twice in the head. Before Stumpf and Wesley left the house, one of them also shot and killed Mary Jane Stout. Norman, who survived his gunshot wounds, heard the shooting of his wife, but did not see who fired the gun. The record is not clear on who shot her.

At his trial, Stumpf pled guilty to aggravated murder. With his plea, he entered a statement that he had shot only Norman, but the three-judge panel did not believe the statement. In September 1984, the panel sentenced Stumpf to death.

Several months later a jury convicted Wesley of killing Mary Jane Stout and sentenced him to life in prison. Wesley allegedly confessed to the murder while awaiting trial in prison. According to his cell mate Wesley said that Stumpf dropped his gun and fled and Wesley picked up the gun and shot Mary Jane. A parole board will decide this year whether Wesley is eligible for parole.

Stumpf's lawyers have argued on several occasions that Stumpf's constitutional rights have been violated and that he deserves a new trial. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case, concentrating on two questions: First, did Stumpf intend to plead guilty? Stumpf, a man with a low IQ, maintained throughout his trial that he had not shot Mary Jane. While he could still be found guilty of murder if this version of the events were true (because under Ohio law the crime of capital murder does not require the defendant to be the actual shooter), his actions would not fit with Ohio's definition of aggravated murder in 1984, which required intent to kill. The majority concluded that it seemed Stumpf had not knowingly chosen to enter a plea, since he did not understand that an element of the crime was specific intent, which could entitle him to a new trial.

The second question the court addressed was, even if Stumpf had meant to plead guilty, did it violate his Due Process rights for the State to punish him for a crime for which it subsequently convicted someone else (Wesley)? The 6th Circuit majority decided that it did violate Stumpf's rights and ordered a new trial.

The dissent from the 6th Circuit, however, pointed out that a guilty plea made strategic sense for Stumpf at the sentencing and that the information upon which Wesley's trial was based came to light after Stumpf's trial, so his Due Process rights were not impaired. The State of Ohio further argues that there is no satisfactory way to determine whether a guilty plea is intentional, and no federal court has required a new trial for anyone after another person is convicted of the same crime.

Stumpf has now appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that he should have a new trial on two grounds. First, he argues that his Due Process rights were violated by the state's actions in securing verdicts against both him and Wesley for the same crime, using inconsistent theories. Second, he claims he pled guilty involuntarily because he was not aware of the specific intent element of the crime. On January 7th, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Legal background

One important consideration the Supreme Court will have to address in Stumpf v. Bradshaw is the role of the prosecutor, both ethically and legally, in a criminal proceeding. Legally, a prosecutor is supposed to work within the advocacy system and argue the government's case as zealously as possible. Ethically, according to the ABA, a prosecutor is not simply an advocate, but also operates as a "minister of justice." See ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.8 Comment 1 (1983); See also ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, Prosecution Function § 3-1.2 (1992). This idea comes from the notion that a prosecutor is the representative of the government whose obligation is to govern impartially. See ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility EC 7-13 (1981). The Supreme Court has previously stated that prosecutors, as ministers of justice, have an obligation to seek the truth. See Giles v. Maryland, 386 U.S. 66, 98 (1967). Ethically, a prosecutor has a duty to make sure that the defendant's rights are protected and convictions are based on sufficient evidence. See ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.8 Comment 1 (2003).

A prosecutor's legal and ethical duties can come into conflict when a prosecutor has the opportunity, like the respondents argue the prosecutor in the Stumpf case did, to argue inconsistent theories in separate proceedings. This occurs when the prosecutor faces defendants in two different trials with regard to the same event. For example, as in Stumpf, where two different defendants are charged with capital murder and the victim died of a single shot, the prosecution has an opportunity to argue in separate proceedings that each of the defendants fired the fatal shot. See 89 Cal. L. Rev. 1423 (Oct. 2001) The prosecution has the opportunity to present inconsistent arguments to two separate sets of juries in order to garner convictions for both defendants. See id. The jury in each proceeding considers only the case of the defendant before it and is unaware of the prosecution's arguments against a separately tried co-defendant. See id. Thus, inconsistent arguments asserted by the prosecutor potentially create a risk that the defendant who did not fire the shot will receive an unduly excessive punishment. See id. Therefore, some argue that by allowing a prosecutor to advance inconsistent arguments in separate proceedings invites unfairly inconsistent verdicts. See id.

If the prosecutor advances inconsistent arguments and does indeed cause inconsistent verdicts, it might implicate the defendant's Due Process rights. Amendment XIV of the Constitution states that no person shall be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law. CITE. Thus, just as the Due Process Clause forbids the state to punish a person factually innocent of the charged crime, so too might it forbid the state to punish two different persons for the same act when only one is criminally culpable. This is the argument Stumpf is advancing.

The Supreme Court will also have to address whether a defendant can later change his plea of guilty based on claims that new evidence has arisen, or that the defendant was uninformed as to the consequences of his plea. It is a well settled rule that that a voluntary and intelligent plea of guilty by an accused person, who has been advised by competent counsel, may not be later attacked. See Mabry v. Johnson, 467 U.S. 504, 508 (1984). It is only when the defendant's plea was somehow not consensual, or coerced, that it may later be called into question. See id. Thus, a defendant, in order to change his plea, must argue that his plea induced by threats, misrepresentation, or a bribe. See Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 755 (1970). The rationale for this high standard the defendant must meet is concerns for finality. See United States v. Timmreck, 441 U.S. 780, 784 (1979). The Supreme Court has previously stated that courts should in particular respect the finality of guilty pleas since they are, after all, based on the defendant's profession of guilt in open court See United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 124 S. Ct. 2333, 2340 (2004). Later vacating a guilty plea would undercut the procedural benefits of the plea, such as speed, economy, and finality. See Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 71-72 (1977). In addition, undermining the finality of criminal convictions would undermine the "deterrent effect" the threat of conviction poses. See Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 309 (1989). This is buttressed by the fact that vacating any conviction can have tremendous social costs. Kuhlmann v. Wilson, 477 U.S. 436, 453 (1986). A retrial for the defendant may be impossible because of the inability to relocate witnesses and the erosion of memory that naturally arises when a substantial amount of time has passed since the event in question. See id. Even if the defendant can be retried, a substantial amount of resources will need to be expended and it will frustrate the policy within the judicial system of the prompt administration of justice.


1. Is a representation on the record from defendant's counsel and/or the defendant that defense counsel has explained the elements of the charge to the defendant, sufficient to show the voluntariness of the guilty plea under Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637 (1976)?

The parties in this case have two disputes regarding the constitutionality of Stumpf's guilty plea. First, they differ on what the proper standard is to judge whether a plea is voluntary, knowing, and informed. Second, the parties dispute whether Stumpf's conviction should even be rendered invalid if he did not actually kill the victim.

In Henderson v. Morgan, the Supreme Court established the standard for invalidating pleas. 426 U.S. 637 (1976). The Court stated that a plea was invalid when the defendant did not receive "real notice of the true nature of the charge against him." Id. at 645. Factors that were considered relevant were the defendant's low IQ and findings that the defense attorney did not concede that, in this case, the defendant had the intent to kill as stipulated in the plea, the attorney did not explain to the defendant that the plea would be an admission of that intent, and the defendant never implied he had such an intent. Id. at 644-47.

Petitioner, Warden Margaret Bradshaw, argues there is a split among the circuits regarding whether Henderson placed the burden of proving or disproving the adequacy of pleas on the state or the defendant, respectively. Pet. Reply Brief 2. Bradshaw argues that the Sixth Circuit places the burden on the state to disprove the regularity of a plea, as it did in Bradshaw v. Stumpf, while at least two other circuit courts place the burden on the defendant to show that his attorney did not explain the plea. Pet. Reply Brief 1. Additionally, she states that the proper standard should be one where the defendant can only overcome a presumption of regularity by competent, extrinsic evidence, or the plea is unreasonable on its face. Pet. Brief 29-30. But Stumpf contends that this proposed standard would create an irrebuttable presumption, which would endorse numerous unconstitutional pleas. Resp. Brief 14.

Stumpf persuasively argues that the proper standard is the one employed by the Sixth Circuit in this case, where the state has the burden to show the plea was obtained in a regular manner, and thus valid, which the state usually satisfies by presenting the trial transcript. See Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969). Under Henderson, pleas are presumed valid unless the transcript or the defendant raises some serious concerns about the defendant receiving "real notice" of the plea, and those concerns are sustained by both forms of evidence. 426 U.S. at 644. Stumpf contends that the evidence in this case clearly overcomes any presumption of the plea being valid, such as Stumpf's confusion about the plea, his constant interest in offering his story of the night in question which contradicted the plea, trial counsel's ineffective assistance, his low IQ, and the Wesley trial. Resp. Brief 21.

Bradshaw also argues that, despite the Sixth Circuit's finding that Stumpf's guilty plea was not voluntary, enough evidence existed to uphold his conviction under Ohio law as an accomplice. Pet. Brief 22; see Ohio Rev. Code § 2923. Though the state obtained Stumpf's conviction on the sole theory that he was the principal offender in the death of Mrs. Stout, they claim that Ohio allows a jury to infer the requisite intent for a death sentence from merely being an accomplice to her death. Id. Stumpf counters by stating that Ohio law still requires proof of intent for accomplices as well, which cannot be inferred from simple complicity, and the state did not present any evidence other than the guilty plea to establish intent. Resp. Brief 18. Additionally, a jury may be permitted to infer intent, but that inference is not conclusive because it must also consider all other evidence, including evidence that the defendant lacked the requisite intent. Resp. Brief 42. Also, the story related by Stumpf of what occurred that evening would weigh strongly against finding that he had the requisite intent for the death of Ms. Stout, and he likely would not have received a death sentence. Resp. Brief 43-44.

2. Does the Due Process Clause require that a defendant's guilty plea be vacated when the state subsequently prosecutes another person in connection with the crime and allegedly presents evidence at the second defendant's trial that is inconsistent with the first defendant's guilt?

Stumpf also makes the strong argument, which was followed by the lower court, that the prosecutor's use of two conflicting theories concerning the identity of the shooter to convict both Stumpf and Wesley constitutes a Due Process violation. See Stumpf v. Mitchell, 367 F.3d 594 (6th Cir. 2004). This Due Process challenge to the use of inconsistent theories is based on the notion of fundamental fairness: because inconsistent theories render convictions unreliable, they constitute a violation of the Due Process rights of any defendant in whose trial they are used. Id.

Stumpf's argument is supported by many Supreme Court as well as Circuit Court cases.

In reference to the prosecution's responsibility to practice fairness, the Supreme Court has emphasized that "because the prosecutor is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer, . . . it is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate method to bring about one." Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935), overruled on other grounds, Stirone v. United States, 361 U.S. 212 (1960), (emphasis added).

Overall, the Supreme Court consistently disapproves of the use of inconsistent theories in the prosecutions case for conviction. See Green v.Georgia, 442 U.S. 95 (1979)(rejecting prosecutor's attempt to use hearsay rules to prevent defendant from presenting evidence that the prosecutor previously used to convict another defendant of the same crime); Miller v. Pate, 386 U.S. 1 (1967) (condemning prosecutor's use of inconsistent theories in a case involving a prosecutor's knowing use of false testimony); Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 681 (1986)( recognizing "the principle that the central purpose of a criminal trial is to decide the factual question of the defendant's guilt or innocence").

Also in support of Stumpf's case, Circuit Courts have found that the use of inconsistent theories to secure convictions against more than one defendant in prosecutions for the same crime violates the Due Process Clause. In Smith v. Groose, the prosecutor used two conflicting statements by a co-defendant at consecutive trials to convict the petitioner at the first trial and another individual at the second trial. 205 F.3d 1045, 1049 (8th Cir. 2000). The Eighth Circuit ultimately held that "[t]he use of inherently factually contradictory theories violates the principles of due process." Id. at 1052. The court there ruled that an inconsistency in the prosecutor's theories "must exist at the core of the prosecutor's case against defendants for the same crime" in order to constitute a due process violation. Id. Such a core inconsistency would be a due process violation because it makes convictions unreliable given that "[the s]tate's duty to its citizens does not allow it to pursue as many convictions as possible without regard to fairness and the search for truth." Id. at 1051.

In the Ninth Circuit case, Thompson v. Calderon, the same result was reached with support from an Eleventh Circuit holding. 120 F.3d 1045 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc), vacated on other grounds, 523 U.S. 538 (1998)

The prosecutor's theories of the same crime in the two different trials negate one another. They are totally inconsistent. This flip flopping of theories of the offense was inherently unfair. Under the peculiar facts of this case the actions by the prosecutor violate the fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice. . . The state cannot divide and conquer in this manner. Such actions reduce criminal trials to mere gamesmanship and rob them of their supposed search for the truth.

Thompson, 120 F.3d at 1059 (quoting Drake v. Kemp, 762 F.2d 1449, 1479 (11th Cir. 1985) (en banc)).

Altogether, when confronted with prosecutors utilizing inconsistent theories in seeking convictions against more than one defendant, courts have consistently found such to be improper. In the case at hand, the prosecutor achieved a conviction for Stumpf and a death sentence by contending that Stumpf shot and killed Mrs. Stout. In Wesley's trial, the same prosecutor relied on fresh evidence and argued that it was not Stumpf but Wesley who shot Mrs. Stout. Precedent indicates quite clearly that where such a material inconsistency exists in the prosecution's arguments, as seems to be the case here, the defendant's Due Process rights are violated.