Whether the scope of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act requires a federal court to conduct its own fact-finding, and to what degree, when determining the reasonableness of state court decisions regarding habeas corpus petitions under the Act.
In 1994, Petitioner Holly Wood was convicted of capital murder for sneaking into his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom and shooting her in the head with a shotgun. The judge imposed the death penalty, as recommended by the jury. Wood claims that, during sentencing, he did not receive effective assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. He argues that defense counsel failed to further investigate or present evidence of his mental disabilities. According to Wood, the state court’s rejection of this argument was an unreasonable application of federal law. He also argues that the Eleventh Circuit’s standard of review in habeas corpus proceedings abdicates the court’s judicial review function under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). The State of Alabama counters that the Eleventh Circuit properly deferred to the reasonable determinations of the state courts as required by the AEDPA. This decision will better define the appropriate level of deference due to state court factual determinations during federal habeas corpus proceedings.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
1. Whether a state court’s decision on post-conviction review is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts when it concludes that, during the sentencing phase of a capital case, the failure of a novice attorney with no criminal law experience to pursue or present evidence of defendant’s severely impaired mental functioning was a strategic decision, while the court ignores evidence in the record before it that demonstrates otherwise?
2. Whether the rule followed by some circuits, including the majority in this case, abdicates the court’s judicial review function under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act by failing to determine whether a state court decision was unreasonable in light of the entire state court record and instead focusing solely on whether there is clear and convincing evidence in that record to rebut certain subsidiary factual findings?
In 1993, while on parole for shooting another former girlfriend, petitioner Holly Wood snuck into the bedroom of his ex-girlfriend while she slept and fatally shot her in the head with a shotgun. See Wood v. Allen, 542 F.3d 1281, 1283–84 (11th Cir. 2008). Wood was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. See Id.The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court both affirmed his conviction. See Id.The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. See Id.
Wood then filed a petition for post-conviction relief under Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, claiming that (1) he is mentally retarded and thus cannot be executed and (2) his trial counsel were ineffective by failing to investigate and present evidence of this during sentencing. See Wood, 542 F.3d at 1284.
The Rule 32 court denied Wood’s petition. In the interim, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, holding that the death penalty could not apply to mentally retarded persons. See Wood, 542 F.3d at 1284–85. The Alabama Appeals Court remanded Wood’s petition to the Rule 32 court in light of that decision. See Id.Following an evidentiary hearing, the Rule 32 court found that Wood was not retarded and that his counsel was not ineffective. See Id.Afterthe Rule 32 court denied Wood’s petition, the Alabama Appeals Court affirmed, and the Alabama Supreme Court denied certiorari. See Id.
Wood then filed a federal habeas corpus petition. See Wood, 542 F.3d at 1285. He sought relief under Atkins, again claiming mental retardation. See Wood v. Allen, 465 F.Supp.2d 1211, 1226–32 (M.D.Ala. 2006). The district court denied these claims. See Id. Wood also argued that his counsel was ineffective for not presenting evidence to the sentencing jury about Wood’s “intellectual functioning.” Wood, 465 F.Supp.2d at 1239–40. The court granted relief on this ground, holding that “[c]ounsel’s failure to investigate and present any evidence of intellectual functioning … is sufficient to undermine confidence in the application of the death sentence.” Id. at 1245. The court also held that the Alabama courts’ rejection of the ineffectiveness of counsel claim was “an unreasonable application of federal law.” Id.
A divided Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s rejection of the Atkins claim, but reversed on the acceptance of the ineffective counsel claim. See Wood,542 F.3d at 1314. The court held that Wood’s counsel was entitled to a presumption of having exercised reasonable professional judgment. See id. at 1305.Furthermore, the court held that, even absent that presumption, it was not deficient for counsel to decide to present less mitigation evidence than available. See id.
The Eleventh Circuit also closed its discussion by addressing the scope of its judicial review and how it relates to ineffectiveness claims under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). See Wood, 542 F.3d at 1314. The court said its role is “not to determine de novo whether Wood’s counsel were ineffective or whether Wood was prejudiced. We are concerned only with whether the state courts’ findings and conclusions—that Wood did not carry his burden to show deficient performance or prejudice—were contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, or were based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.” Id.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the Eleventh Circuit made an unreasonable determination of the facts by calling counsel’s failure to present evidence of Wood’s limited mental functioning a strategic decision, and whether the scope of AEPDA requires courts to consider a larger context in determining the reasonableness of state court decisions. See Question Presented.
Petitioner Holly Wood petitioned the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama for habeas corpus relief on the grounds that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. To demonstrate ineffective assistance a defendant must first prove that defense counsel’s performance fell below an “objective standard of reasonableness.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694 (1984). Second, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice by showing that there is "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694.
Although the district court granted relief to Wood, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that the state court’s decision to deny Wood’s appeal was reasonable. Wood asserts several reasons the Supreme Court should reverse the Eleventh Circuit by granting his petition of habeas corpus and overturning his death sentence. Respondent Richard Allen, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, et al. (“Alabama”) argues that the Eleventh Circuit properly deferred to the reasonable determinations made by the state court, as required by the AEDPA.
Prong 1– Ineffective Assistance and the AEDPA
The U.S. Supreme Court will review this case through the lens of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). The AEDPA articulates a deferential standard of review for habeas corpus proceedings, prohibiting federal courts from overturning state court factual or legal determinations unless they are objectively unreasonable. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
Wood’s first argument is that the state court unreasonably applied federal law by denying his claim that defense counsel provided ineffective assistance during his sentencing. See Brief for Petitioner, Holly Wood at 21–25. He claims his attorney acted incompetently by failing to investigate his mental deficiencies as mitigating evidence to present at sentencing. See id. Wood argues that his defense team was aware of a psychological report (“Kirkland Report”) that indicated he was mentally impaired. See id.A court appointed psychologist, Dr. Kirkland, evaluated Wood and produced the report five months prior to his trial, and should have spurred defense counsel to further investigate his mental deficiencies. See id. Wood claims that any competent counsel would have requested psychological and mental testing, as well as secured school records as evidence of mental disabilities. See id. at 24–25, 49–50. According to Wood, the failure to pursue this avenue of mitigating evidence violated his Sixth Amendment right to effective representation as clearly established by Strickland. See id. at 21, 24. (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 684).
Alabama disputes Wood’s contention that any reasonable attorney would have further investigated his client’s mental deficiencies. It argues that defense counsel is not required to allocate limited resources pursuing defense strategies that are not promising. See Brief for Respondent, Richard Allen, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, et al. at 22–24. According to Alabama, Wood’s attorney made a reasonable decision that further investigation of Wood’s mental deficiencies would be fruitless. See Id. at 49–52. Alabama claims that the Kirkland Report merely suggested that he had below average intellect, but was functionally unimpaired and was capable of logical and moral thinking. See Id. at 24. Furthermore, Alabama argues that presenting the psychological report would have opened the door to testimony about a previous attempted murder conviction and other damaging evidence that his defense counsel was intentionally trying to suppress. See Id. at 50–52.
Second, Wood alleges that the state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts given the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. See Brief for Petitioner at 35. He argues that, based on the record available from the state court proceeding, it was unreasonable for the court to conclude that defense counsel fully explored mitigating evidence as required by law. See id. at 35–36. Wood disputes the Eleventh Circuit’s application of the AEDPA, arguing that the court incorrectly conflated distinct standards mandated by §§ 2254(d)(2) and 2254 (e)(1). See id. at 37–38. He claims that the Eleventh Circuit erroneously held him to the higher presumption-of-correctness standard applied in §2254(e)(1), See Id. at 42–43. Wood argues §2254(d)(2) applies during federal habeas corpus proceedings where the defendant challenges factual determinations only using the evidence adduced in the state court proceeding, whereas §2254(e)(1) only applies when the defendant is challenging state court factual determinations based on evidence that was extrinsic to the state court proceeding. See id. at 37–39. Because Wood was only challenging the state court determination based on evidence adduced during the state court proceeding, he argues that he should not have been required to establish that the state courts factual determinations were objectively unreasonable by clear and convincing evidence. See id. at 42–44.
Alternatively, Wood argues that even under a clear and convincing evidence standard, the record below is sufficient to demonstrate that the state court unreasonably determined that his counsel represented him competently in the state court proceeding. See id. at 43.
Alabama counters that it does not matter if Wood’s attorney failed to investigate his mental deficiencies because the state court determined that deciding not to further investigate was reasonable. See Brief for Respondent at 40–43. It argues that the Eleventh Circuit applied the correct standard of review under the AEDPA. See Id. at 35. Alabama asserts that all circuits except the Ninth Circuit agree with the standard articulated by the Eleventh Circuit. See Id.According toAlabama, §§ 2254(d)(2) and 2254 (e)(1) are different standards, but they complement each other. See Id. at 35–37. Alabama disputes the idea that the two sections apply based on whether or not the evidence being considered was intrinsic or extrinsic to the state court proceeding. See Id. at 29. Alabama argues that § 2254(e)(1) serves as a threshold standard applied to all habeas corpus proceedings. See Id. at 35–37. If the defendant disputes a state court determination, then he has a minimum burden of overcoming a presumption of correctness by establishing that the determination was incorrect by clear and convincing proof. See Id. Only once the presumption of correctness has been rebutted by clear and convincing proof should the federal court consider the objective reasonableness of the state court determination under § 2254(d)(2). See Id. Alabama contends that proving the determination must be the threshold showing because a correct determination is not unreasonable. See Id.
Prong 2 – Prejudice
To satisfy the second prong of Strickland, Wood argues that ineffective assistance of counsel prejudiced him during sentencing. See Brief for Petitioner at 51. He asserts that in order for a jury to properly assess the individual circumstances of the defendant and render an individualized decision, they must be able to consider all of the mitigating evidence. See id. at 51–52. Wood argues that those who are mentally deficient are not as morally culpable for their crimes. See id. at 53–55. Because his counsel failed to provide the jury evidence of his mental deficiency, Wood claims that they were denied a “vehicle through which to express its ‘reasoned moral response.’” See id. at 54–55. He asserts that in order to establish prejudice he only needs to show that one juror would likely have decided differently, given that only ten jurors voted for a recommendation of death, the minimum required by Alabama state law for a death sentence recommendation. See id. at 54–55. Given its potentially compelling nature, Wood contends that it is likely that at least one juror would have changed their mind if presented with evidence of his mental disabilities. See id. at 54–55.
Alabama disputes the standard for showing prejudice articulated by Wood. See Brief for Respondent at 55. Alabama argues that the proper test is whether there is “a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the sentencer . . . would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death.” Id. Alabama argues that Wood’s one juror standard is erroneous because it fails to consider the nuances of Alabama law. See Id. at 55–56. Under Alabama law the judge makes the final decision on sentencing and the jury does not provide a binding recommendation. See Id. Even if the jury returns a recommendation for death, the judge merely views this as a mitigating factor in their own determination. See Id. at 55.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision will affect the level of scrutiny federal courts should give to state court findings of fact for habeas petitions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”).
In an amicus brief supporting Wood, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) argues against what it calls the “deplorable practice” of trial courts adopting prosecutor-drafted orders. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Lawyers in Support of Petitioner at 2. According to the NACDL, Alabama courts regularly adopt orders verbatim from the prosecution. Id. at 8. Here, the NACDL claims the Alabama state courts adopted Alabama’s submission nearly verbatim, and the Eleventh Circuit then afforded too great of deference to the “erroneous factual assertions” contained therein. Id. at 2–4. As stated by the NACDL, “[t]he State prosecutors’ factual findings and legal conclusions as to Wood’s ineffective-assistance claim thus came to the Eleventh Circuit virtually unmodified by any Alabama court.” Id. at 18. NACDL argues that the Eleventh Circuit should have reviewed the state court decision with higher scrutiny and found the state court determination unreasonable. See Id. at 21–22.
Nineteen states, led by Indiana, filed an amicus brief supporting the State of Alabama and advocating deference to state court decisions. See Brief of Amici Curiae Indiana, et al. (“Indiana”) in Support of Respondent at 1. The amici argue that they “have an obligation to protect the finality of the judgments entered by their courts.” Id. They argue a ruling against Alabama would undermine state interests in administering their criminal justice system and encourage more proceedings at a higher risk of unfairness and inaccuracy. See Id.
The states, along with other amici, are concerned with the interplay between two sections of the AEDPA. See Brief of Indiana at 1–3; Brief of Amicus Curiae Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”) in Support of Respondent at 5.The first, §2254(d)(2), bars federal relief unless the state court decision was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(2). The second, §2254(e)(1), instructs that “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct” and rebuttal requires “clear and convincing” evidence. 28 U.S.C. §2254(e)(1). The states argue that that second provision applies to all habeas cases under §2254 but that both apply “in a coordinated way to narrow the scope of a federal habeas court’s review of state court factual findings.” Brief of Indiana at 1–3. In other words, the states advocate a less searching review of state court decisions. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”) makes a mostly similar argument, claiming “[i]n cases where there is no additional evidence produced in federal court, the ‘unreasonable determination’ standard of §2254(d)(2) and the ‘clear and convincing’ standard of §2254(e)(1) are essentially equivalent and will typically point to the same result.” Brief of CJLF at 5. These arguments, if adopted, would also afford deference to state courts’ findings.
Wood argues that the two provisions of §2254 are independent and should not be “conflated.” Brief for Petitioner, Holly Wood, at 37. According to Wood, when a habeas petitioner seeks relief based entirely on the state record, the additional requirements of §2254(e)(1) do not apply. See Id. at 37–38. The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) parallels this reasoning, claiming that the two provisions are complementary in that they address different legal scenarios. See Brief of Amicus Curiae American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) in Support of Petitioner at 7–9. According to the ACLU’s argument, §2254(d)(2) applies in cases where no additional evidence was introduced in federal court. See Id. They argue §2254(e)(1) then applies when petitioners offer new evidence in federal court, creating a situation where a federal court makes conclusions of law based on new facts. See Id. at 9. The ACLU’s view, if adopted, would lessen the impact of the provision and require a heightened review of the state court’s decision.
Petitioner Holly Wood was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for shooting his ex-girlfriend in the head with a shotgun while she slept. Wood claims that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of his trial. He argues that, despite having a psychological report indicating his mental deficiencies, his attorney failed to further investigate or pursue any evidence of mental disability to present the jury as mitigating evidence during sentencing. He claims that the state court’s rejection of this claim was an unreasonable application of federal law and that the Eleventh Circuit provided an incorrect standard in reviewing his claim under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). The State of Alabama argues that the Eleventh Circuit properly deferred to the reasonable determinations of the state courts as required by the AEDPA. This decision will help shape the standard of review that federal courts will use when evaluating state court factual determinations under the AEDPA.