Harrington v. Richter


Whether the California Supreme Court's summary denial of Richter's claim was an adjudication on the merits that qualifies for state court deference under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d), and whether the Court reasonably adjudicated both prongs of Richter's Strickland claim.

Oral argument: 
October 12, 2010

Joshua Richter, convicted of murder, alleged that he received inadequate assistance from his attorney at trial. Richter argued that his attorney should have presented expert testimony concerning a blood splatter at the crime scene, which could have corroborated his version of the events. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with Richter and granted his request for habeas corpus relief. Kelly Harrington, the prison warden, claimed that Richter did not receive inadequate counsel and that the California Supreme Court’s earlier summary disposition denying habeas corpus relief should be upheld. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will determine the level of deference that should be granted to lower court orders, such as summary dispositions, which could discourage lower courts from issuing such orders in the future.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

In granting habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner, did the Ninth Circuit deny the state court judgment the deference mandated by 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d) and impermissibly enlarge the Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel by elevating the value of expert-opinion testimony in a manner that would virtually always require defense counsel to produce such testimony rather than allowing him to rely instead on cross-examination or other methods designed to create reasonable doubt about the defendant's guilt?

In addition, the parties were directed to brief the following question: Does AEDPA deference apply to a state court's summary disposition of a claim, including a claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)?


On December 19, 1995, Respondent Joshua Richter (“Richter”) and his co-worker Christian Branscombe (“Branscombe”) drove to Joshua Johnson’s (“Johnson”) home, to deliver money that Richter owed to his co-worker “Tony” and to buy marijuana from Johnson. Richter and Branscombe arrived at Johnson’s house, where they met Johnson as well as Patrick Klein (“Klein”). At Johnson’s house, the men socialized for several hours, smoking marijuana, and Branscombe cleaned a gun that Johnson had given to Branscombe for protection at work. Richter and Branscombe then left Johnson’s house later that night, while Klein stayed at the Johnson residence.

The subsequent events are disputed by both parties. According to the State of California, Branscombe and Richter re-entered Johnson’s house later that night in order to steal Johnson’s gun-safe, wounding Johnson and killing Klein in the process. According to Richter, Branscombe and Richter came to the Johnson residence to return the gun Johnson lent to Branscombe, and to pay money that they owed Tony. Richter alleges that Klein let Branscombe into the home while Richter waited outside. Richter further claims that he later heard gunfire, went into the house, and that he saw Johnson wounded on his bed, Klein lying in Johnson’s doorway, and Branscombe standing in the middle of the bedroom. According to Richter’s attorney, when Branscombe entered Johnson’s bedroom, Johnson shot at Branscombe but hit Klein instead. Branscombe then returned fire, hitting Klein and Johnson.

When police arrived at the scene of the crime, they found that it unnecessary to conduct an in-depth investigation of the crime scene because Johnson’s story was consistent with the scene of the crime. Police subsequently took a blood sample from the bedroom door’s molding, but not directly from the pool of blood. Police did not try to analyze whose blood was at the doorway until approximately one year later. At trial, forensic serologist Jill Spriggs (“Spriggs”) testified that the blood in the doorway did not belong to Klein. Richter’s attorney did not offer any expert testimony in opposition to Spriggs’s testimony.

Investigators found the missing gun-safe in Richter’s garage. Richter claims that Johnson lent him the safe. Johnson acknowledged that he had lent Richter the safe in the past, but had not done so this time. Police also found gun cartridges that matched the bullets that killed Klein.

The California Superior Court found Richter and Branscombe guilty of all charges, including murder, and sentenced them both to life in prison without the possibility of parole. . Richter subsequently appealed this decision, claiming that he received inadequate assistance from his attorney at trial. . Richter petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of California, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but was denied relief. Richter then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, en banc, which granted Richter’s request for habeas corpus relief. . The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari on February 22, 2010.


Was the California Supreme Court’s summary denial of Richter’s claim an adjudication on the merits that qualifies for state court deference under 28 U.S.C Section 2254(d)?

Section 2254(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") applies to federal habeas corpus proceedings when federal courts review state courts’ decisions of prisoners’ habeas corpus claims challenging their convictions or sentences. Federal courts must give deference to a state court’s decision once the state court adjudicates the merits of a prisoner’s claim for habeas corpus relief. Federal courts cannot consider the claim de novo and grant habeas relief unless the state court’s decision was an unreasonable application of the AEDPA.

Kelly Harrington (“Harrington”) argues that the state’s summary denial of Joshua Richter’s ("Richter") claim for habeas corpus relief qualifies as an adjudication on the merits, and is entitled to AEDPA deference. According to Harrington, the AEDPA's statutory language indicates that Congress did not intend for state courts to explain the reasoning of their rulings. The only prerequisite for AEDPA deference, according to Harrington, is that the decision is an adjudication on the merits, which focuses on the state court’s result rather than its process. For example, Harrington points out that subsection Section 2254(d) uses the term “decision” rather than “opinion” to refer to the state’s adjudication. In Harrington's view, “decision” means a legal judgment while an “opinion” includes the court’s rationale. Furthermore, Harrington contends that preventing deferential review for state courts’ decisions undercuts AEDPA’s purpose to prevent court delays, retrials, and to carry out state convictions. Finally, according to Harrington, requiring states to explain all of their decisions, and to write written opinions for every decision goes against AEDPA’s objective to be judicially efficient, and to save judicial resources.

Harrington further argues that Richter's ineffective counsel claim, which has two components, does not prevent deferential review. Although it is unclear whether the state court adjudicated on both prongs of Richter’s claim, Harrington claims that the court undisputedly adjudicated on the merits. Moreover, Harrington argues denying AEDPA deference to summary denial of ineffective counsel claims will force other petitioners with federal claims that have multiple components to be reviewed de novo as well. In Harrington's view, Congress did not intend to require state courts to clarify whether they considered each component of a claim.

Alternatively, Richter argues that the state’s summary denial of his claim for habeas corpus relief is not an adjudication on the merits, and therefore, AEDPA deference does not apply. Richter argues that the type of summary denial that the state court issued is not an adjudication on the merits. Rather, the summary denial of his claim falls under the category of silent denial, where the court does not refer to merit or procedural defaults. In Richter's view, the court issues a silent denial when it does not explain the basis for its decision. In other words, Richter believes that a silent denial is not a decision on the merits.

Richter further argues that the summary denial of an ineffective counsel claim does not mean that the court adjudicated on both prongs of the claim. Richter asserts that AEDPA deference applies only to the prong that the state actually adjudicated. Furthermore, Richter contends that according to the principles of statutory construction, the state carries the burden of proving that the court adjudicated on both prongs. Moreover, Richter suggests that courts are not required to resolve both prongs of the claim since they often reject a claim by resolving only one prong.

Finally, Richter argues that giving AEDPA deference to an unexplained summary disposition of a claim conflicts with the statute’s subsections, 28 U.S.C § 2254(d)(1) and (2). Richter notes that these subsections list ways for a petitioner to question the state court’s reasoning so that the federal court can review the merit-based decision de novo. Richter argues that it is inconsistent to apply AEDPA deference to unreasoned state courts’ decisions and to provide exceptions that depend on analyzing state courts’ reasoning. In Richter's view, it also creates the wrong incentives for the state courts to receive AEDPA deference by providing as little reasoning as possible behind their decision.

Was the California Supreme Court's summary denial of Richter’s Strickland claim an unreasonable application of the Strickland Test?

Under 28 U.S.C Section 2254(d), a state court must apply the established federal law in their adjudication of a prisoner’s claim for habeas corpus relief. For Richter’s ineffective counsel claim, the applicable federal law was established under Strickland v. Washington. Under the standard established in Strickland ("Strickland Test"), a criminal defendant can seek relief for an ineffective counsel if he proves that (1) his counsel’s performance was objectively unreasonable, and (2) his counsel’s error prejudiced the outcome of the case.

Harrington argues that the state court reasonably applied both prongs of the Strickland Test. First, Harrington asserts that it was objectively reasonable for Richter’s counsel to cross-examine the prosecutor’s expert on blood samples from the crime scene rather than present his own expert to counter the evidence. According to Harrington, Richter’s counsel had a difficult case because the overall evidence weighed against Richter. For example, Harrington explains that Patrick Klein ("Klein") was shot by two different firearms, that one of the spent .22-caliber casing matched live cartridges, and that a magazine for a pistol was found in Richter’s bedroom. Also, before trial, Harrington states that counsel had little or no notice that the prosecutor intended to present expert testimony regarding the blood at the crime scene. Under these circumstances, Harrington maintains that it was reasonable for counsel to cross-examine the state’s expert to question the weaknesses of the blood spatter evidence. Moreover, Harrington claims that the defense counsel also made a reasonable judgment to wait until after the cross-examination to decide whether to hire his own blood-spatter expertIn Harrington’s view, defense counsel decided not to point out the ambiguities in the prosecution’s investigation of the blood pool or to test the blood because it might have harmed Richter’s case.

Harrington also argues that the defense counsel's decision to cross-examine the prosecutor’s expert did not prejudice Richter’s claim. Even if counsel decided to present expert testimony to explain the blood-pool, Harrington believes that there was significant evidence that weighed against Richter’s claim that Klein was shot in the bedroom. For example, Harrington notes the high velocity blood spatter on the wall near the couch, which Harrington suggests shows that someone was shot on or very near the couch. Moreover, the lack of blood trail, in Harrington's view, indicates that Joshua Johnson ("Johnson") moved Klein from the bedroom to the couch. Furthermore, Harrington notes that no blood samples from the crime scene were obtained or preserved, which Harrington argues makes Richter’s claim only speculative that Klein’s blood might have been in the pool, and therefore, that he was lying on the floor rather than the couch. Finally, Harrington claims that Richter’s expert failed to disprove the evidence indicating that the semi-automatic pistol found in Richter’s bedroom matched the .22 caliber casing found at the crime scene.

On the other hand, Richter argues that his counsel fails to pass the Strickland Test on both prongs. In Richter’s view, it was unreasonable for the defense counsel to state that he would show that Klein was not killed on the couch but then fail to introduce evidence to support his theory. Also, the fact that counsel decided to cross-examine the prosecutor’s expert, Richter asserts, does not excuse him from failing to conduct his own defense. Richter believes that it was unreasonable for counsel to rely on cross-examination without consulting a blood-spatter expert to show his defense theory that the physical evidence showed Klein was not killed on the couch.

Richter also argues that counsel’s failure to investigate the source of the blood pool as part of his defense theory was prejudicial to the outcome of the case. Richter contends that the outcome of the case would depend on whether the jury would believe either Johnson or Richter, and the source of the blood pool was crucial to the issue of credibility. Richter notes that if, for example, the blood pool was from Klein, this would suggest that Klein was not shot on the couch and that therefore Johnson had lied about the shooting. However, Richter states that if the blood pool was from Johnson, this would show that Klein was shot on the couch, suggesting that Johnson was telling the truth, and that therefore the defense theory was false. According to Richter, Harrington’s claim that the source of the blood pool is only speculative is false; a blood spatter expert had testified that Johnson could not have been the source of the blood pool, which means that Klein is the only other source. Finally, Richter notes expert testimony which had rejected the factual claim of high velocity blood spatter and confirmed that there were blood drippings, which shows that Klein was moved to the couch.


Warden Kelly Harrington (“Harrington”) argues that the decision reached by the California Supreme Court was an adjudication on the merits, and that it was objectively reasonable, and therefore should have been treated with deference under Section 2254(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Alternatively, Joshua Richter (“Richter”) argues that the summary disposition of the case was not an adjudication on the merits, and that the defense counsel provided unconstitutionally ineffective assistance to Richter.

Texas and 32 other states (“States”) agree with Harrington that the conviction should be upheld as a reasonable adjudication on the merits and that it deserves AEDPA deferential review. The States argue that even if a state court misinterprets federal law, once an adjudication on the merits has been granted, a federal court can still be required to give deference to the decision. The States also explain that summary dispositions are common in habeas corpus cases, noting that thousands of California habeas corpus petitions are decided in such a manner. Additionally, the States argue that the Supreme Court should look to federal circuit court treatment of summary dispositions, noting that most circuits grant deferential review under the AEDPA to summary dispositions.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”) argues that denying deferential review would defeat Congress's intent in enacting the AEDPA, and that it would overturn court judgments that have been properly reached. CJLF also distinguishes summary dispositions which are adjudicated on the merits from ambiguous decisions which may not be decided on the merits, suggesting that the current case falls under the former category. Finally, CJLF argues that the California Supreme Court’s decision was based on an unambiguous reason–that the defendant did not receive inadequate assistance from counsel–and should therefore be viewed as an adjudication on the merits.

On the other hand, advocates for Richter argue the lower court's decision was not an adjudication on the merits. California Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers (collectively “California Attorneys”) are concerned that granting AEDPA deference could cause a defendant to receive only a limited review of a habeas corpus petition, even if the court’s decision was not on the merits. The California Attorneys also argue that the AEDPA should not apply to unexplained state-court decisions since California’s Supreme Court has a heavy workload and therefore delivers numerous court orders which lack an agreed-upon reason behind them.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) argues that if the decision is considered an adjudication on the merits, any time a state court makes a summary disposition, it would be given every benefit of the doubt, and would ironically make the decision even less likely to be overturned than if the court were to provide a detailed account of its legal reasoning. NACDL also argues that states exaggerate the inconvenience of reviewing summary dispositions under the AEDPA, since court decisions normally contain detailed reasoning. Additionally, NACDL asserts that denying AEDPA deference would not prohibit state courts from issuing summary dispositions. Rather, in NACDL's opinion, it would make courts decide whether a cost-benefit analysis supports writing a detailed court opinion as opposed to a summary disposition. Finally, the NACDL argues that since Richter offered new expert testimony evidence for the first time at federal trial, de novo review is appropriate.

The Supreme Court's decision will provide guidance on the level of deference awarded to summary dispositions. If the summary disposition is not viewed with deference, it could force courts to provide more detailed opinions to ensure that a decision is considered to be “on the merits.” Conversely, if deference is indeed granted to the summary disposition, it could encourage courts to use that time-saving method more frequently.


The Supreme Court's decision in this case will determine whether the federal court should grant deference to a state court's summary denial of a habeas corpus relief claim under 28 U.S.C § 2254(d). Harrington argues that state court deference should be granted because the summary disposition was an adjudication on the merits, and the state court reasonably rejected Richter's claim under the Strickland Test. Richter argues that state court deference should not be granted because the summary denial was not an adjudication on the merits, and that his Strickland claim passes the Strickland Test. The Supreme Court's decision will affect the level of deference granted to court orders with few detailed legal reasoning, and the court's practice of issuing such orders in the future.

Edited by 


Additional Resources 

· Wex: AEDPA

· Civil Procedure and Federal Court Blog: SCOTUS Cert Grant of Interest: Harrington v. Richter (Feb. 25, 2010)