Cullen v. Pinholster

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Oral argument: Nov. 9, 2010

Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Dec. 9, 2009)


After receiving a death sentence in state court, Scott Pinholster submitted a habeas corpus petition in California federal district court claiming that his attorney’s deficient performance at trial violated his Sixth Amendment right to fair representation. Though the state court had dismissed Pinholster’s petition on the merits, the federal district court agreed to conduct an evidentiary hearing on new facts regarding Pinholster’s medical and family history that were available but not presented during the sentencing phase of Pinholster’s state trial. The federal district court eventually granted habeas relief, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, ordering a new sentencing proceeding. Now, the Warden at San Quentin State Prison argues that the new facts presented during the federal evidentiary hearing violated Section 2254 of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 because these facts were not first presented in state court. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will affect the circumstances under which a federal habeas court may allow for evidentiary hearings that introduce facts not considered by state courts below.

Questions presented

1. Whether a federal court may reject a state-court adjudication of a petitioner’s claim as “unreasonable” under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and thus grant habeas corpus relief, based on a factual predicate for the claim that the petitioner could have presented to the state court but did not.

2. Whether a federal court may grant relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on a claim that trial counsel in a capital case ineffectively failed to produce mitigating evidence of organic brain damage and a difficult childhood because counsel, who consulted with a psychiatrist who disclaimed any such diagnosis, as well as with petitioner and his mother, did not seek out a different psychiatrist and different family members.



1. Whether a federal court can grant habeas corpus relief on a claim decided in state court when the relief is premised on facts that were available, but not presented, during the state-court proceedings.

2. Whether counsel provided ineffective assistance during trial when counsel spent 6.5 hours preparing for penalty proceedings, interviewed a single defense witness, and failed to investigate a defendant’s history of mental illness and physical abuse.



On the evening of January 8, 1982, while hosting a party at his apartment, Respondent Scott Lynn Pinholster solicited two friends to rob the house of Michael Kumar, a local drug dealer. When Pinholster and his companions arrived at Kumar’s house, they found it empty and the back door unlocked. While searching the house for drugs, however, Kumar’s house-sitters, Thomas Johnson and Robert Beckett, unexpectedly entered through the front door. A confrontation ensued, and both Johnson and Beckett were stabbed to death. The trial jury eventually convicted Pinholster of first-degree murder

In preparation for the subsequent sentencing proceeding, counsel for Pinholster retained a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. John Stalberg, who initially diagnosed Pinholster with antisocial personality disorder. However, after reviewing police reports and conducting a two-hour interview with Pinholster, Dr. Stalberg concluded that Pinholster was mentally sound, manifesting no signs of brain damage. Thus, during the sentencing proceeding, counsel for Pinholster did not summon Dr. Stalberg as a defense witness and instead relied solely on the testimony of Burnice Brashear, Pinholster’s mother. Brashear testified that Pinholster suffered several serious head injuries as a child, the result of car accidents and the occasional beating he received from his step-father. After more than two days of deliberation, the jury in the penalty proceeding returned a death sentence.

In 1993, Pinholster filed a habeas corpus petition with the California Supreme Court, alleging that his attorney provided ineffective assistance during the guilt and penalty phases of his trial. In his petition, Pinholster included the opinion of a new expert, Dr. George Woods, who diagnosed Pinholster with bipolar disorder and asserted that Pinholster had experienced epilepsy-related seizures at the time of Johnson’s and Beckett’s murder. The California Supreme Court, however, dismissed Pinholster’s petition on the merits.

Pinholster then submitted a habeas petition to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, substituting Dr. Woods’ statements with new testimony by Dr. Stalberg, who partially disavowed his earlier opinion of Pinholster’s case. However, finding that Pinholster’s petition contained new material facts, the district court sent the petition back to the California Supreme Court, which again denied the petition on the merits.

Following the denial from the California Supreme Court, Pinholster again petitioned the federal district court for habeas relief and also requested an evidentiary hearing. Though the district court upheld Pinholster’s guilty verdict, it granted the evidentiary hearing with respect to his death sentence. At the evidentiary hearing, Pinholster presented two new experts, Dr. Sophia Vinogradov and Dr. Donald Olson, both of whom diagnosed Pinholster with organic brain damage stemming from childhood head injuries. Holding that Sections 2254(d) and (e) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 did not limit federal habeas courts to consider only the evidence presented during state-court proceedings, the district court granted habeas relief, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in an 8-3 en banc opinion. The Supreme Court will now determine whether the evidentiary hearing was proper and whether habeas relief should have been granted.



The controversy in this case involves Section 2254 of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), which concerns federal review of habeas corpus petitions arising from claims adjudicated in state courts. Vincent Cullen, the Warden of California State Prison at San Quentin (“Warden”), argues that Section 2254(d) prevents federal courts from considering habeas petitions based on facts that were available, but were not presented, during state-court adjudications of the claims. Furthermore, the Warden contends that Pinholster’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim did not warrant a grant of habeas relief. Pinholster, on the other hand, argues that the Warden’s reading of Section 2254(d) not only contravenes Supreme Court precedent, but also renders other important provisions of the AEDPA superfluous. Pinholster further asserts that the footing is solid for his ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”) sides with the Warden, arguing that through Section 2254, Congress aimed to reduce relitigation of fully adjudicated state claims by cutting down on the number of capital cases reviewed in federal court and by expediting the resolution of habeas petitions heard in federal forums. According to the CJLF, Congress’s desire to reduce federal relitigation is clear because the Congressional Record on AEDPA overflowed with protracted case histories and with repeat reviews of the same judgment. The CJLF also asserts that, in addition to causing unnecessary delays and diverting resources from other important pursuits, federal relitigation of state claims violates the rights of the party that prevailed in state court, forcing that party to re-engage in battles already won at the state level.

The State of Pennsylvania, joined by 17 other States, seconds the CJLF’s interpretation of Section 2254(d) on the ground that this interpretation preserves proper comity between state and federal interests. Additionally, with regard to Pinholster’s ineffective assistance claim, Pennsylvania avers that the combination of Section 2254(d) and Strickland v. Washington instructs federal habeas courts to be doubly deferential when evaluating the professional performance of counsel. Citing a passage from Strickland, Pennsylvania warns that the application of anything other than a highly deferential standard to counsel’s performance would encourage the proliferation of ineffectiveness challenges, diminish enthusiastic advocacy, and undermine trust in attorney-client relationships.

The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), however, argues that the CJLF’s reading of Section 2254(d)—which would preclude federal habeas courts from considering any facts that do not appear in the state-court record below—runs the risk of eliminating federal fact-finding altogether, even when such fact-finding is warranted. Indeed, the ACLU decries the “bizarre” situation in which federal courts are forced to ignore properly established facts out of deference to state court decisions that were based on partial or misleading evidence. While the ACLU admits that Congress intended for the AEDPA to curb delays and inefficiencies in habeas litigation, the ACLU notes that several provisions other than Section 2254(d) are better suited to address these problems directly.

In support of Pinholster’s ineffective assistance claim, the Disability Rights Legal Center (“DRLC”) notes the disproportionally high incidence of mental disability among the few people subjected to capital trials. The DRLC also observes that anywhere from 25 to 87 percent of death-row inmates, much like Pinholster, have a history of head injury. According to the DRLC, a defendant with a mental or cognitive disability is especially vulnerable during capital proceedings because the disability may hinder the defendant’s ability to communicate effectively with counsel. Thus, in the DRLC’s view, to satisfy constitutional requirements, counsel’s investigation into the history of a client with known mental, emotional, or physical trauma must extend beyond the interview of a single family member.



The Supreme Court will address two issues in this case. First, the Court will consider whether, in an application for habeas corpus relief, a federal court may consider facts presented during a federal evidentiary hearing when those facts were not presented to the state courts in earlier proceedings. Second, the Court will decide whether, here, the California Supreme Court’s decision to withhold habeas relief was unreasonable in light of the facts found at the evidentiary hearing. The Supreme Court’s decision will involve an interpretation of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), specifically addressing the interaction between Sections 2254(d)(1) and (e)(2).

Normally, habeas relief is unavailable to claims decided on the merits by a state court except where the decision (1) “resulted in . . . an unreasonable application of . . . federal law,” or (2) involved an “unreasonable determination of the facts” based on the evidence presented in state court. Additionally, the habeas applicant bears the burden of rebutting the presumption that the state court’s ruling on factual issues was correct. In fact, AEDPA does not allow for a federal evidentiary hearing unless (1) the applicant relies on a previously unavailable rule of constitutional law made retroactive by the Supreme Court, or on a factual premise that, despite an earlier exercise of due diligence, could not be discovered; and (2) the facts claimed by the applicant would provide clear and convincing evidence that “but for constitutional error” a reasonable fact-finder would have found the applicant not guilty.

Admissibility of New Facts Presented at Federal Evidentiary Hearing

Vincent Cullen, Warden of the California State Prison at San Quentin (“Warden”), begins his argument with a textual interpretation of Section 2254(d). First, the Warden argues that, because Section 2254(d) is framed in the past tense, any federal review of a state-court decision must be retrospective, and therefore, any federal determination of unreasonableness cannot consider new facts unearthed in a subsequent federal hearing. Second, the Warden relies on Section 2254(d)(2)’s mention of “evidence presented in the State court proceeding” as evidence that any examination of the state court’s “reasonableness” is limited to the state-court record. The Warden believes that this reading better supports Congress’s twin intentions of channeling habeas petitions to state courts and requiring federal habeas courts to exercise deference toward state-court decisions.

Respondent Scott Lynn Pinholster counters that the Warden’s estimation of Congress’s intentions cannot displace the AEDPA’s actual text. Pinholster also contends that the Warden’s interpretation of Section 2254(d)(1) renders Section 2254(e)(2) superfluous. In Pinholster’s view, the Warden’s reading of Sections 2254(d)-(e) would eliminate the need for federal evidentiary hearings altogether: if a consideration of reasonableness is limited to the state record, either the state court was unreasonable and habeas relief should be granted, or it was not and habeas relief should be withheld, and no further investigation is necessary.

In the alternative, the Warden contends that even if Section 2254(d) does not bar Pinholster’s petition, Section 2254(e)(2) prohibits Pinholster from entering new evidence not established in state court. Citing Williams v. Taylor, the Warden explains that Section 2254(e)(2) prohibits the introduction of new evidence in federal court when the applicant failed to submit that evidence in state court due to “lack of diligence.” . Here, the Warden argues that the Ninth Circuit’s affirmation relied on new expert testimony regarding Pinholster’s medical evaluation, but Pinholster had had previous access to experts. Finally, the Warden argues that the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning for granting Pinholster a federal hearing is mistaken. The Ninth Circuit held that Pinholster was not at fault in failing to develop the factual basis in the state claim and was therefore entitled to a federal hearing because the California Supreme Court denied Pinholster the opportunity to present new facts in a state court evidentiary hearing. , However, the Warden reasons that, because state law requires a court to presume that the factual allegations Pinholster included in his habeas petition are true, Pinholster enjoyed the “benefits of an evidentiary hearing,” and still the California Supreme Court decided to dismiss Pinholster’s petition on the merits.

In response, Pinholster insists that the California Supreme Court could not have properly applied the presumption that all of Pinholster’s factual allegations were true because if the court had done so, the court would have found Pinholster’s counsel to be deficient. Furthermore, Pinholster argues that the Warden’s reading of Williams v. Taylor would create unjust results because state statutes limited the amount of money Pinholster could spend on preparing evidence for a sentencing proceeding involving the death penalty. Pinholster further points out that the new medical testimony contained in his federal habeas petition was presented in direct response to the state’s new mental health expert, who challenged Pinholster’s previous expert witnesses. Finally, Pinholster argues that his new expert testimony does not, as the Warden suggests, provide completely new facts but rather merely elaborates on the diagnoses presented in state court. Moreover, Pinholster suggests that the Warden’s argument ignores the exhaustion doctrine,whereby courts do not consider additional facts presented in federal court as illegal so long as these facts pertain to the substance of the state-court claim.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The prevailing test that courts employ in their consideration of ineffective counsel is the one identified in Strickland v. Washington., Strickland laid out a two-pronged test under which an applicant must demonstrate that (1) counsel was ineffective under prevailing professional norms, and (2) but for counsel’s ineffectiveness there was a reasonable probability that the applicant’s case would have been decided differently.

According to the Warden, the Strickland test requires two levels of deference. First, the Strickland decision itself required that judicial review of an attorney’s performance be highly deferential. Second, the decision in Yarborough v. Gentry warned that federal courts may not grant habeas relief even if a state court decision is erroneous, so long as the decision was reasonable.Responding to the Ninth Circuit’s admonishment of Pinholster’s trial counsel for not attempting to “humanize” Pinholster, the Warden observes that effective legal assistance does not require trial counsel to execute any single approach or strategy, nor does it require counsel to interview expert witnesses until a favorable diagnosis is found.The Warden then offers several examples where trial counsel chose not to provide mitigating evidence, and still the Supreme Court dismissed the ineffective-assistance claims.The Warden suggests that, when compared to these past ineffective-assistance claims, the performance of Pinholster's counsel certainly met and surpassed the requisite constitutional threshold.

Pinholster counters with a trio of Supreme Court cases, arguing that failure to investigate mitigation in a capital case is inherently unreasonable. Furthermore, Pinholster contends that his attorney’s performance was blatantly deficient because counsel (1) admitted to not preparing for the penalty phase one week before it began; (2) declined the court’s offer to allow for a continuance; (3) did not adequately investigate Pinholster’s medical, family and social history; and (4) billed only 6.5 hours in preparation for the sentencing proceeding. Pinholster argues that counsel, far from pursuing a tenable legal strategy, chose to pursue no legal strategy at all.

The Warden, however, believes that because Pinholster's crime involved a wealth of aggravating features, any mitigating evidence would have a negligible effect. These aggravating features included (1) the violent nature of the murders; (2) Pinholster's in-court boasting of past crimes; (3) his lack of remorse toward the victims of the crime; and (4) his violent threats toward a key witness. In response, Pinholster states that the Strickland test is not whether it is conceivable that a hypothetical jury could hear all the mitigation evidence and still impose the death penalty, but whether enough mitigation evidence exists to sufficiently influence the jury’s decision and undermine the earlier outcome. Pinholster notes that his new evidence regarding brain damage, childhood abuse, and drug use aligns his case with a handful of Supreme Court cases in which similar mitigation evidence destabilized a finding of culpability at the penalty phase.



In this case, the Supreme Court will determine the circumstances under which a federal habeas court may allow for evidentiary hearings that introduce facts not considered by state courts below.The Petitioner suggests that a fair reading counsels deference to the state-court decisions, while the Respondent decries the injustice that could result from trial counsel’s failure to unearth evidence which could substantially mitigate a death sentence.



Prepared by: Colin O’Regan and Edan Shertzer

Edited by: Joanna Chen

Additional Sources

· LII: Sixth Amendment

· CRS Annotated Constitution: Sixth Amendment: Effective Assistance of Counsel

· Wex: Sentencing


Edited by