Bell v. Kelly


Must federal courts defer to the decisions of state courts on a constitutional claim when a criminal defendant attacks a state court decision in a federal court with a claim backed by evidence that was not developed in state court?

Oral argument: 
November 12, 2008

Petitioner Edward Bell claims that he is entitled to habeas relief from his death sentence for the murder of a police officer because his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel was violated. Bell’s court-appointed attorneys did not introduce mitigating evidence to show that he did not pose a threat of future violent acts. Bell sought habeas relief in the Supreme Court of Virginia, which denied both an evidentiary hearing and habeas relief. Upon Bell’s petition for habeas corpus at the federal level, the district court granted an evidentiary hearing and held that Bell’s counsel acted unreasonably but that Bell was not prejudiced by this action. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that § 2254(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) required deference to Virginia’s summary rejection of Bell’s ineffective assistance claim, even though certain evidence supporting Bell’s claim was introduced for the first time in his federal habeas proceeding. This case could clarify the boundaries of deference toward claims “adjudicated on the merits” under the AEDPA.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Petitioner asserted ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing, and the district court found that he had diligently attempted to develop and present the factual basis of this claim in state court, on habeas, but that the state court’s fact-finding procedures were inadequate to afford a full and fair hearing. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court found deficient performance but no prejudice and denied relief. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The question presented is:

Did the Fourth Circuit err when, in conflict with decisions of the Ninth and Tenth Circuits, it applied the deferential standard of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which is reserved for claims “adjudicated on the merits” in state court, to evaluate a claim predicated on evidence of prejudice the state court refused to consider and that was properly received for the first time in a federal evidentiary hearing?


On October 29, 1999 in Winchester, Virginia, Sergeant Ricky Timbrook and two probation officers encountered Petitioner Edward Bell and another man while searching for a wanted parolee. When approached by the officers, Bell ran. While chasing Bell, Timbrook was shot and killed. Police found Bell hiding in the basement of a nearby house, under which they also discovered the gun that shot Timbrook. Residue testing revealed Bell had fired a gun, and analysis of DNA from the recovered gun did not rule out Bell.

Before trial, the Virginia court allowed one of Bell’s court-appointed attorneys to withdraw because he was unprepared to present mitigating evidence that Bell was not a future threat. The court appointed a replacement attorney who had never tried a capital case, did not thoroughly investigate Bell’s background, and concluded that little mitigating evidence existed.

A Virginia jury found Bell guilty of capital murder for killing a police officer. In the separate sentencing phase of Bell’s trial, Virginia presented evidence about Bell’s previous violent acts and handgun possessions, as well as testimony from Timbrook’s family about the effect of his death. Bell’s counsel, however, presented testimony from only Bell’s father and sister about the case’s impact on their family; no witnesses testified about mitigating factors like Bell’s family relationships, background, or character. The jury sentenced Bell to death “based on the probability that he would commit criminal acts of violence in the future that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society.” Bell appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which affirmed his conviction and sentence.

Next, in the Virginia Supreme Court, Bell filed a habeas corpus petition, by which prisoners can challenge the lawfulness of their detainment, in the Supreme Court of Virginia. In his petition, Bell brought twenty-one claims, including that his attorneys’ failure to present mitigating evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel. Bell wanted to introduce five witnesses—his ex-wife and her sister, his ex-girlfriend and her mother, and his co-worker—to show that he was nonviolent, hard-working, and a loving father. The court denied Bell’s petition without holding an evidentiary hearing for Bell’s witnesses, holding that Bell did not show their testimony was likely to have prevented his death sentence.

After exhausting all possible state court remedies, Bell filed a motion to stay his execution and a petition for habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, bringing twelve claims, including the ineffective counsel claim. The district court ordered a hearing at which Bell’s five witnesses appeared and, for the first time, presented his mitigating evidence. After this hearing, the district court determined that although Bell’s counsel performed unreasonably, the Virginia Supreme Court was reasonable in holding that the five witnesses’ evidence likely would not have altered the jury’s decision.

Bell appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which held that the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision was reasonable because the evidence from Bell’s five witnesses in the district court was “cross-purpose”—potentially supporting both aggravation and mitigation. By cross-examining Bell’s witnesses, the prosecution could have shown “Bell’s infidelity; abandonment of his children, wife and girlfriend; domestic abuse; and failure to provide child support.”

The Supreme Court of the United States granted Bell’s petition for a writ of certiorari and a stay of execution on May 12, 2008 to determine whether the Fourth Circuit should have deferred to the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court in light of the evidence given by Bell’s five witnesses in federal court. Because habeas cases are brought against those detaining the prisoner, Virginia is arguing its case through Respondent Loretta K. Kelly, the Sussex I State Prison’s warden.


The writ of habeas corpus allows convicted prisoners to challenge the lawfulness of their state-court convictions in federal court. However, to encourage reliability and promote federalism, the writ’s availability is narrowly circumscribed by federal law. In particular, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) limited the power of federal courts to grant relief to cases where the state court’s adjudication of the of the prisoner’s claim (1) “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (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.” In Terry Williams v. Taylor, the Supreme Court held that a state court unreasonably applies federal law when it reaches a decision contrary to a holding of the Supreme Court on “materially indistinguishable” facts, or by applying the correct legal rule “unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner’s case.”

The Role of New Evidence Under § 2254

Federal courts adjudicating habeas claims generally presume state court factual determinations to be correct. However, an applicant for the writ can rebut that presumption of correctness with “clear and convincing evidence.” As interpreted by the Supreme Court in Michael Williams v. Taylor, § 2254(e)(2) authorizes district courts to hold evidentiary hearings on habeas claims arising from state convictions any time a prisoner can show “there [was] no lack of diligence at the relevant stages in the state proceedings” in pursuing his claim.

Petitioner Bell’s argument is based upon his interpretation of § 2254. Bell argues that because the district court conducted an evidentiary hearing under § 2254(e), where evidence was admitted that was not before the state court that considered his ineffective assistance claim, that new evidence was sufficient to give rise to a new claim not subject to the restrictions of § 2254(d). Therefore, Bell argues, the district should be required to review his ineffective assistance claim de novo, disregarding the determinations of the state court.

Respondent Virginia does not disagree with Bell’s analysis of the relevant law. However, based on the substance of both the evidence considered initially by the state court and the additional evidence considered by the federal court, Virginia argues that neither Bell’s federal court claim nor evidentiary hearing facts were actually new. Therefore Virginia argues that § 2254(d) bars Bell’s federal habeas hearing.

Bell presents several reasons why the Supreme Court should adopt his interpretation of § 2254. Bell contends that both the plain language of § 2254 and Supreme Court precedent determine that that a new claim (not adjudicated on the merits within the meaning of 2254(d)) arises if materially different facts are introduced during the habeas proceeding. Bell supports his plain language argument that sufficient new facts give rise to an entirely new claim with Supreme Court and other circuit’s precedent, as well as Black’s Law Dictionary definitions. Bell, citing Black’s, contends that the appropriate definition of claim is “[t]he aggregate of operative facts giving rise to a right enforceable by a court.” Bell argues that “[b]ecause the identity of a federal habeas ‘claim’ is tied inexorably to the aggregate of operative facts to which governing federal law applies, it follows that any significant change in the aggregate facts will change the ‘claim’ as well.” Bell further maintains that § 2254's structure supports his interpretation. Because § 2254(e) allows courts to receive new evidence once a prisoner has shown diligence under Michael Williams, Bell argues, § 2254(d) implies that federal courts are able to consider that evidence.

Virginia presents several alternative grounds for the Supreme Court to reject Bell’s interpretation of § 2254. Virginia argues that because § 2254(d) clearly applies to Bell’s claim, the Court should not reach a discussion of § 2254(e)'s alternative applicability. Virginia maintains that Congress designed § 2254(d) to limit federal review of cases that were fully litigated and appealed in state systems, absent some unreasonable constitutional violation by the state court. Virginia contends that Bell’s reliance on Michael Williams is misplaced because that case concerns prosecutorial misconduct. Unlike in Michael Williams, no forces beyond Bell’s control prevented him from discovering facts concerning his ineffective assistance claim. In addition, Virginia argues that even if the Court follows Michael Williams, Bell did not pursue his claims diligently enough in state court to justify the district court’s granting of an evidentiary hearing. Finally, Virginia argues that the Court should uphold the Fourth Circuit’s determination because, under any standard of evaluation, Bell failed to demonstrate sufficient prejudice resulting from his counsel’s performance.

Determining Reasonableness: § 2254 and the Proper Standard of Deference

Addressing Bell’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the Supreme Court of Virginia applied Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which lays out the “clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,” required by § 2254(d)(1). Under Strickland, a claimant must show that his trial counsel both (1) departed from a reasonable professional standard; and (2) that that departure resulted in such prejudice to the defendant that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” To pass the Strickland test, both of these prongs must be satisfied. The Supreme Court of Virginia held that Bell’s claims satisfied neither the performance nor prejudice prong of the test. However, noting that his state court habeas claim of ineffective assistance was denied for a failure to show proof, Bell contends that the Virginia court’s denial of his request for “expert and investigative assistance” caused his failure to satisfy the Strickland test.

Bell argues that his case presents a unique situation outside of the general reasonableness determination federal courts must make under § 2254(d). Bell contends that because he established his right to factual development under § 2254(e)(2) and Michael Williams and successfully proved sufficient facts not before the state court, § 2254(d) no longer applies because the state court could not correctly perform the Strickland analysis. Bell maintains that “[t]he record before the federal court . . . presented a new ‘claim,’ the ‘merits’ of which no state court had ever adjudicated.”

Virginia argues that the Supreme Court should not even consider Bell’s proposed interpretation of § 2254 because Bell never raised his “new claim” argument in the Fourth Circuit, but rather “expressly argued that his federal claim did not ‘fundamentally alter the legal claim considered by the Virginia Supreme Court.’” Furthermore, even if the Court accepted Bell’s interpretation of § 2254, Virginia argues that Bell’s claims are not “new” for the purposes of his proposed rule: the evidence the district court considered when granting the evidentiary hearing came directly from the record before the Virginia Supreme Court, and Bell’s “new” evidence was readily available to him throughout his state proceedings.

Bell argues that evidence his ineffective counsel prevented him from presenting during his trial would more likely than not have caused a jury to view the prosecution’s evidence differently. Bell contends that, based on expert testimony at his federal evidentiary hearing and the “totality of mitigating evidence,” there is a reasonable likelihood a jury would not have sentenced him to death. Virginia counters, however, that “[t]here is simply no probability, let alone a reasonable one” that a jury reviewing all the evidence that Bell presented in state and federal court “would not have sentenced Bell to death.”

Alternative Argument: No AEDPA Deference

Bell alternatively argues that if the Supreme Court determines that § 2254(d) does apply to his case, the state court proceedings satisfied § 2254(d)(1)’s requirement of an “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”Citing Supreme Court precedent, Bell maintains that the Supreme Court of Virginia unreasonably applied federal law by dismissing the factual claims in his habeas petition without an evidentiary hearing. Therefore, Bell argues that federal courts would owe no AEDPA deference to the state court decision when determining his Strickland claim for ineffective assistance. Virginia responds that the Court should not consider Bell’s alternative argument because he did not previously present it in the lower courts. In addition, Virginia contends that the precedent cited by Bell is inapplicable, and further argues that state courts are not constitutionally required to provide habeas review or “employ a specific procedure” for an ineffective assistance claim.


Should a federal court be able to grant relief to a death row prisoner who brings a claim based on new evidence but the same legal theory as a claim that was rejected by a state court? This case, which revolves around federal review of state court decisions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) could determine whether federal courts must defer to state court rulings when the defendant seeks to introduce evidence the defendant did not have an opportunity to present in state court. Congress passed the AEDPA to prevent federal courts from reopening state court decisions “adjudicated on the merits.”

Bell argues that his ineffective assistance of counsel claim became a new claim in federal court that was never adjudicated on the merits in state court because it was rooted in evidence not developed in state court. In contrast, Virginia argues that Bell’s federal and state court claims are the same and, therefore, the AEDPA requires that the federal court defer to the state court’s rejection of Bell’s ineffective assistance claim.

Amicus Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CLJF”) and respondent Kelly suggest that a ruling for Bell could overwhelm federal courts with claims based on evidence not fully developed at the state level. According to CLJF, almost every capital defendant brings post-conviction ineffective assistance claims, and defendants like Bell can always find “new” mitigating evidence such as testimony from friends and family. Supporting Bell, amicus Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“VACDL”) counters that federal courts would not be overwhelmed because only evidence a defendant diligently attempts to introduce and develop in state court would be eligible for consideration in federal court.

This case also demonstrates tension between the policies of promoting the truth-finding function of courts and respecting the finality of state court sentences. A group of former trial court judges contend that allowing federal evidentiary hearings in cases like Bell’s does not step on the toes of state courts because new evidence can create a distinct federal claim. The judges explain that a ruling for Bell would give defendants another potential avenue to develop factual bases of post-conviction claims that are rejected without hearings in state court. This access to evidentiary hearings is important to habeas petitioners: a recent study sponsored by Vanderbilt University Law School shows that federal evidentiary hearings account for a 21–32% higher defendant success rate in federal habeas petitions. The same study shows that, as of 2004, capital defendants’ success in seeking habeas relief declined sharply since Congress passed the AEDPA.

The CLJF, however, argues that sentence relitigation resulting from a ruling for Bell would undermine the AEDPA’s purpose “of curbing delays and preventing retrials, particularly for capital cases.” Another amicus, The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys, also argues that the federal court improperly interfered with the state court’s decision. This association contends that “Bell was not improperly denied a hearing” in state court because: (1) Virginia law required Bell to plead all “factual allegations” necessary to his claim and (2) the state court’s ruling was fair because it accepted all of Bell’s factual pleadings as true before denying relief.

In addition, this case may impact how frequently state courts grant post-conviction hearings. Thirty-one states supporting Virginia argue that the AEDPA does not require specific procedures for adjudicating claims “on the merits,” and that federal courts must honor reasonable state court decisions even if they use summary proceedings. Almost every state allows for courts to rule on post-conviction claims without hearings. Thus, a ruling for Bell could indicate claims become eligible for federal habeas review when state courts merely fail to fully develop the surrounding facts.

This case will clarify when federal courts may hear new evidence that was not fully developed in state court. Bell’s case is the first of three capital cases the Supreme Court has accepted so far this term—one of which also involves introduction of new evidence and habeas relief. Since the enactment of the AEDPA, as of 2004, although an average of only 198 state capital defendants per year seek federal habeas relief, 18,758 state non-capital defendants per year also submit federal habeas petitions. Thus, the outcome of this case could also affect many non-capital defendants.


This case may clarify the extent to which the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act requires federal courts to defer to the judgments of state courts in light of expanded evidence concerning constitutional claims. In this case, Edward Bell brought a Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in both state and federal court. In deciding this case, the Supreme Court of the United States could resolve whether a federal court is bound by the adjudication of the state court on the claim, or whether the federal court may hear the claim as “new” when the defendant seeks to introduce significant new evidence that the state court never developed and reviewed.

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