Knowles v. Mirzayance


1. What is the proper application of the Supreme Court's test for ineffective assistance of counsel when the state court opinion summarily denies habeas relief but does not explain its reasoning, where the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 statutorily denies federal habeas relief unless the state court proceeding "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"?

2. Did the Ninth Circuit improperly substitute its own findings of fact for those of the district court?

Oral argument: 
January 13, 2009

During his trial for first-degree murder, Alexandre Mirzayance's attorney advised him to withdraw his insanity plea on the morning the insanity phase of the trial was to begin. After he was sentenced to twenty-nine years to life, Mirzayance initiated a habeas petition, claiming that his attorney's advice to withdraw his insanity plea constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The California Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court both summarily dismissed the petition without explanation. Mirzayance appealed to the federal court system. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), a federal court is barred from granting habeas relief unless the prior state proceeding "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." After a remand from the Ninth Circuit to conduct a factual hearing, the district court granted the petition, apparently misapprehending the test the Ninth Circuit dictated. The Ninth Circuit applied the facts surrounding the withdrawal of the defense and found ineffective assistance of counsel under the Strickland test. Knowles argues that the Ninth circuit failed to adhere to AEDPA's rule requiring deference to state courts. He argues that it should have reviewed the state-court decision based on whether there was any way that the state court could have ruled the way it did. Mirzayance argues that when a state court has no published reasoning for its decision, a federal court is entitled to conduct its own fact-finding on review.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Concluding that defense counsel was ineffective in advising petitioner to withdraw his not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted habeas relief to petitioner without analyzing the state-court adjudication deferentially under "clearly established" law as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) and by supplanting the district court's factual findings and credibility determinations with its own, opposite factual findings. This Court vacated the Ninth Circuit decision and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Carey v. Musladin, 127 S. Ct. 649 (2006). On remand, the Ninth Circuit conceded that "no Supreme Court case has specifically addressed a counsel's failure to advance the defendant's only affirmative defense" but nonetheless concluded that its original decision was "unaffected" by Musladin and subsequent § 2254(d) decisions of this Court.

The questions presented are:

1. Did the Ninth Circuit again exceed its authority under § 2254(d) by granting habeas relief without considering whether the state-court adjudication of the claim was "unreasonable" under "clearly established Federal law" based on its previous conclusion that trial counsel was required to proceed with an affirmative insanity defense because it was the only defense available and despite the absence of a Supreme Court decision addressing the point?

2. May a federal appellate court substitute its own factual findings and credibility determinations for those of a district court without determining whether the district court's findings were "clearly erroneous?"


The facts as presented here are drawn from the party briefs.

On October 13, 1995, Alexandre Mirzayance, armed with a hunting knife and pistol, entered the bedroom of his cousin Melanie Ookhtens. After stabbing her twice, he shot her in the stomach and head, killing her. After collecting the incriminating evidence and attempting to create an alibi, Mirzayance eventually turned himself in to the police.

California charged Mirzayance with first-degree murder. At trial, Mirzayance plead not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity ("NGI"). Under California law, a plea of NGI triggers two trials. The first determines the guilt of the defendant, presuming that the defendant was sane. The second determines sanity.

The first trial: Guilt

Donald Wager, Mirzayance's defense attorney, called a psychologist to testify as to Mirzayance's mental state. According to Mirzayance's brief, Mr. Wager attempted to argue that Mirzayance's actions were without motive or rationality, thus lacking the requisite deliberation required for first-degree murder. The jury was instructed at the end of this first trial that "[f]or this [first trial] and this [first trial] alone sanity is conclusively presumed." The jury convicted Mirzayance of first-degree murder for killing Melanie Ookhtens.

The second trial: Sanity

After the first trial determined guilt, a second trial was required to determine Mirzayance's sanity at the time of the murder. Multiple experts were prepared to testify that Mirzayance could not appreciate the nature of his actions at the time of the murder. However, Mr. Wager believed that the jury would not accept the claim that Mirzayance was insane at the time of the murder. After speaking with Mirzayance, Mr. Wager withdrew the NGI plea.Mirzayance was then sentenced to twenty-nine years to life in prison.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

Mirzayance then initiated a habeas petition, claiming that his Sixth Amendment rights were violated because Mr. Wager offered ineffective assistance of counsel ("IAC"). Mirzayance's efforts to pursue this IAC claim in the California court system failed. Without explanation, both the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court denied his habeas petition. Having exhausted his state options, Mirzayance turned to the federal court system and appealed to the District Court for the Central District of California.

The District Court for the Central District of California initially denied habeas relief. Mirzayance appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to the district court, directing it to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine if dropping the IAC claim was either justified as a defense tactic, or was instead improper abandonment. After that evidentiary hearing, the district court granted the habeas petition. However, the district court apparently misinterpreted a citation in the Ninth Circuit's opinion to require a "nothing to lose" test and granted relief based upon that misinterpretation.

Knowles, the warden against whom Mirzayance filed the habeas petition, appealed the district court's decision to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court to grant the habeas petition. The Ninth Circuit, however, did not affirm the district court's application of the "nothing to lose test," but claimed to affirm based upon an application of the proper Strickland test for IAC.

Knowles then appealed to the Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the Ninth circuit to reconsider the case in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Carey v. Musladin. The Ninth Circuit reviewed Musladin and concluded that its original opinion affirming the district court's grant of the habeas petition was "unaffected" by the decision in Musladin. Knowles again appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.


Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to assistance of counsel. The mere presence of an attorney is not enough; the accused must be given effective assistance by their attorney. However, an "effective" assistance requirement is not a "perfect" assistance requirement; under Strickland, an IAC claim requires that the defendant prove (1) that his attorney's "representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" (i.e. deficient performance) and (2) that there is a reasonable probability that, but for the errors, the outcome would be different (i.e. the defendant was prejudiced).

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") sharply limits the power of federal courts to grant habeas petitions for prisoners convicted by state courts. Generally, AEDPA requires federal courts to deny habeas petitions from prisoners whose claims received an adjudication on the merits from the state court. However, there are two possible exceptions: if the state court proceeding "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 "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."

The Supreme Court applied AEDPA's standard to a habeas petition in Carey v. Musladin. The Musladin habeas petition concerned the prejudicial effect of spectators wearing buttons displaying the victim in court. In granting a habeas petition for that case, the Ninth Circuit had looked to Supreme Court cases involving state-sponsored prejudicial court room practices.Linking that test to the spectator's conduct, the Ninth Circuit found the state court's test "was contrary to clearly established federal law and constituted an unreasonable application of that law." The Supreme Court reversed, finding that, while Ninth Circuit precedent extended the Supreme Court's test involving state conduct, no Supreme Court holding compelled the application of the test to private actor conduct. As such, the Court ruled, California's denial of relief "was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law." In other words, a federal court must deny a petitioner habeas relief if the state court did not violate a holding of the Supreme Court. In the current case, the Ninth Circuit held that Musladin did not affect their decision affirming habeas relief because binding Supreme Court precedent required the Strickland test for IAC claims.

Did the Ninth Circuit improperly apply AEDPA to the IAC habeas petition, thus violating the AEDPA default of no federal habeas relief?

Did the Ninth Circuit apply the traditional Strickland test, or a nothing to lose test that would not provide a basis for habeas relief under the AEDPA?

According to Knowles' interpretation of the Ninth Circuit opinion, the Ninth Circuit applied an improper "nothing to lose" ("NTL") standard - essentially, that it is improper to abandon a defense if you have nothing to lose by presenting it. While the Ninth Circuit expressly disapproved of the district court's use of the NTL standard, Knowles argues that the Ninth Circuit basically applied it by finding that Mirzayance had nothing to gain by dropping a viable defense (i.e. equating nothing to gain by dropping a defense with nothing to lose by offering it). Knowles believes that this is an impermissible extension of the Supreme Court's Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel. As impermissible extensions of Strickland will not support an exception to the general denial of habeas relief under the AEDPA, Knowles thus reasons that the NTL test could not support such an exception. According to Knowles, since the Ninth Circuit's grounds for finding an exception were invalid, the Ninth Circuit should not have affirmed habeas relief.

Mirzayance does not dispute that a NTL standard is improper. See at 28. Rather, he argues that the Ninth Circuit simply did not apply the NTL standard. See at 24-25. Mirzayance claims that, while the district court improperly applied a NTL test, the Ninth Circuit disclaimed that test and applied "textbook" Strickland analysis to affirm the district court's granting of habeas relief on other grounds. See Essentially, Mirzayance claims the Ninth Circuit applied Strickland by finding that it was unreasonable for defense counsel to abandon his client's only defense where that defense was viable and prepared, and, by failing to advance that defense, probably affected the outcome of the case. See at 24-25, 30, 57.

Were the California decisions unreasonable under the Strickland test?

Knowles argues that the state courts' refusal to grant habeas relief was a reasonable application of Strickland's test for IAC in light of the state record. In terms of the prejudice requirement, Knowles argues"[t]he state-court record supports a reasonable conclusion that the jury would not have found Mirzayance could prove he met California's definition of insanity at the time of the killing." Likewise, Knowles argues the record before the state court "supports a conclusion that Wager made a ‘reasonable choice.'" Essentially, Knowles is arguing that, because the state courts had evidence sufficient to conclude either that Wager gave effective assistance or that Mirzayance was not prejudiced by ineffective assistance, the state courts' denial of relief was objectively reasonable. Since the state courts' decision was not an "objectively unreasonable" outcome based on a Strickland analysis of the record, the AEDPA requires deference to the state courts decision, even if the California courts were ultimately incorrect.

Mirzayance argues that the Ninth Circuit properly found that the California decisions were unreasonable under the Strickland test. Since the California courts' provided no explanation for their decision, he maintains that the district court properly conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine if Wager's actions satisfied Strickland's definition of IAC. Mirzayance claims theNinth Circuit simply applied Strickland to the facts developed at the federal evidentiary hearing, and properly concluded that the California decisions denying relief were not reasonable outcomes.

It is important to note that the federal courts were looking at the results of the federal evidentiary hearing conducted after the California courts had denied relief. Knowles counters that the state court decisions were not unreasonable based on the information the state courts possessed when denying relief. Thus, Knowles claims the federal courts should have looked to the reasonableness from the perspective of what the state courts had in front of them at the time they denied relief. Mirzayance argues that, in the absence of a state opinion, the federal court must conduct a proxy analysis: applying Strickland to the federal evidentiary hearing results, and then determining if the state court's decision was a reasonable outcome. Mirzayance points out that not only is there no Supreme Court precedent guiding how to handle a state court habeas decision where the decision is devoid of the law used and the facts applied, but also that there is a circuit split regarding the appropriate method of review.

The Ninth Circuit's treatment of the district court's findings of fact

Knowles also claims the Ninth Circuit improperly supplanted the fact determinations by the district court with their own. See Brief for Petitioner at 44. Here, the district court did two things: made findings of fact, and granted habeas relief on a "nothing to lose" standard. See Brief for Respondent at 9, 24. The Ninth Circuit rejected the "nothing to lose" standard (though the extent of that is in dispute), but then allegedly supplanted the district court's fact determinations with their own in affirming the grant of habeas relief on other grounds. See Brief for Petitioner at 47. Normally, as Knowles argues, an appellate court such as the Ninth Circuit must accept fact determinations from the lower courts unless they are "clearly erroneous." See Id. at 47. Mirzayance claims that the facts relevant to the Strickland analysis, those used by the Ninth Circuit, are contained within the district court findings. See Brief for Respondent at 46-57. Essentially, the argument surrounding the second certiorari question is not so much about the standard of appellate review, but is rather a factual dispute as to whether the Ninth Circuit did in fact supplant the district court's findings of fact relevant to the Strickland analysis.


When deciding whether to grant a request for habeas corpus, a court on appeal, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, considers whether the petitioner is being held "contrary to the Constitution" and, according to § 2254(d), whether the state court's decision in rejecting the appeal was based on either an unreasonable application of the law or an unreasonable determination of the facts. How § 2254(d) is interpreted is still a matter of debate: a narrow reading would constrict the power of the higher courts, and a broader reading would in turn constrict the power of the lower courts in maintaining decisions they have made that later come up for review.

This case focuses on whether the Ninth Circuit exceed its authority under § 2254(d) by granting habeas relief without considering whether the state-court adjudication of the claim was "unreasonable" under "clearly established Federal law." The issue indicates a question of scope of power: whether the federal court is able to do its own fact-finding analysis in the absence of a state court opinion explaining its claim. The primary dispute here centers on the appropriate test a federal court should apply when judging a habeas corpus claim, when a lower state court has declined to give its reasoning or explain its fact-finding.This turns on how § 2254(d) is to be interpreted. Whichever way the Supreme Court decides will allocate greater power to one level of the appeals structure, either the state or federal courts, and diminish the power of the other level.

On the one hand, if the Ninth Circuit exceeded its authority on whether it could substitute its own fact-finding and reasoning for that of the lower court without following a narrow reading of its means to do so under the statute, this would mean that courts would have to give deferential review to the lower court's decision. This would ensure that appeals courts follow the hierarchical court structure, and not make arbitrary decisions. Yet, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, it would also create a very lax standard of review, because in situations where lower courts give summary, unexplained decisions, higher courts will have to "imagine" the basis of the lower court's decision and then give deference to that decision. Such a situation would give a lower court the power to decide habeas corpus writs without giving any in-depth fact-finding or reasoning for its decision, and insulate it from further review. It would also result in higher courts basing their decisions on any conceivable line of argument that could be drawn from the facts that would explain the lower court's decision.

If the Supreme Court finds that the Ninth Circuit did not exceed its authority, however, this would allow higher courts to review the specific reasoning of lower court decisions and determine whether results were reached appropriately. It would also grant higher courts the power to do their own fact-finding without having to label a lower court's rulings clearly erroneous. According to Knowles, this could lead to situations where higher courts impose particular views on how a case should be decided with very little justification; because this would greatly expand the power of the higher courts, it would contradict the appeals structure in the U.S. Knowles argues a grant of this broad a right of judicial review to the higher courts could essentially allow these courts to act as sole law-makers and review state court decisions de novo. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers does see an upshot to this, however: the Supreme Court could provide a standard for higher courts to follow when lower courts do not issue a basis for their reasoning.

Furthermore, a decision for Mirzayance would imply a duty on lower state courts to lay out their fact-finding analysis and reasoning for every habeas corpus opinion filed. While this would ensure a thorough review, such a situation could lead to an overwhelming burdening of the appeals process.


In considering a habeas corpus claim, courts are bound by the limits of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, part of which holds that a federal court may overturn a state court's decision if the state court proceeding resulted in a decision contrary to law, or was an unreasonable determination of the facts. 28 U.S.C. 2254. In this case, the state courts denied Mirzayance's habeas corpus petition without publishing an opinion as to its reasoning or factual basis. The federal courts overturned this decision and, based on its own reasoning and fact-finding, granted the petition. Knowles contends that not only was this improper, but the actual analysis the federal courts used deviated from the appropriate Strickland standard. This case considers whether the Ninth Circuit acted unreasonably under AEDPA, whether it applied the appropriate standard, and whether it acted within its authority when it based its decision on its own reasoning and fact-finding. The decision will affect how courts review habeas corpus claims, and what standard to apply when lower courts' decisions are summarily given, without explanation.

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