- Does the abolishment of a diminished-capacity defense represent an "unexpected and indefensible" change in state common law in violation of the retroactivity constraints of due process?
- Did the Michigan Court of Appeal's retroactive application of the Michigan Supreme Court decision lack justification to the extent that there could be no reasonable disagreement as to justifying habeas relief?
Former Detroit police officer Burt Lancaster shot and killed his girlfriend, Toni King, in 1993. As a result, the State of Michigan charged Burt Lancaster with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm while committing a felony. Although Lancaster, who has a history of mental illness, asserted both defenses of insanity and diminished capacity during his initial trial in 1994, a Michigan jury convicted Lancaster on both counts. Lancaster's conviction was subsequently overturned, however, because of an error made by the State during jury selection. The State of Michigan retried Lancaster in 2005. Although Lancaster planned to rely completely on his diminished capacity defense during his second trial, the Michigan trial court prohibited Lancaster from doing so on the grounds that the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the defense in 2001. As Lancaster was unable to assert the diminished capacity defense at his second trial, the Michigan state court convicted Lancaster once again and sentenced him to life plus two years in prison. Lancaster petitioned the federal courts for a writ of habeas corpus. While the District Court denied Lancaster's petition, the Sixth Circuit reversed, finding that the retroactive application of the Michigan Supreme Court's abolishment of the diminished capacity defense violated federal due process. On appeal, the State of Michigan argues that the Michigan state court's decision to prohibit the diminished capacity defense was not an "unexpected and indefensible" abrogation of Michigan law because the diminished capacity defense has never been expressly provided by Michigan statute nor has it been a part of settled Michigan common law. Lancaster responds that he has the constitutional right to present the diminished capacity defense because the defense was well-settled under Michigan law and available to him at the time he committed the murder. The State of Indiana and others argue in support of Michigan, asserting that diminished capacity is a state law issue and federal courts should defer to a state court's analysis. Lancaster responds that the Michigan state court's decision was unreasonable and that a federal court should independently review the Michigan state court's determination. This decision will further outline the prohibition on changes in state judge-made law by determining when the retroactivity prohibition can be used to justify granting habeas corpus relief and by further defining what constitutes an "unexpected and indefensible" change to the common law.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
- Whether the Michigan Supreme Court's recognition that a state statute abolished the long-maligned diminished-capacity defense was an "unexpected and indefensible" change in a common-law doctrine of criminal law under this Court's retroactivity jurisprudence. See Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001).
- Whether the Michigan Court of Appeals' retroactive application of the Michigan Supreme Court's decision was "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement" so as to justify habeas relief. Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011).
In April of 1993, Lancaster shot and killed his girlfriend, Toni King, in a parking lot outside of a Michigan shopping mall. For these acts, the state of Michigan charged Lancaster and tried him before a Michigan jury in 1994. At trial, Lancaster admitted to killing King but also asserted the defenses of insanity and diminished capacity. Though Lancaster suffered a long history of mental illness, the Michigan jury nonetheless rejected these defenses and convicted Lancaster on both charges.
Lancaster unsuccessfully appealed to the state courts and later filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In his petition, Lancaster successfully claimed that the State committed a Batson violation at trial when the State excluded an African-American juror on the basis of the juror's race. Consequently, the district court granted the writ of habeas corpus and overturned Lancaster's conviction.
As a result of this ruling, the state of Michigan retried Lancaster on the same charges in 2005. At this trial, Lancaster waived his right to a jury and decided to limit his defense to strictly diminished capacity. This defense allows a legally sane defendant to offer evidence that the defendant possessed a mental abnormality that makes it impossible for him to form the specific-intent element of a crime. If the defense is successful, a court can only convict the defendant of a lower grade crime that does not require specific intent.
Yet, in the time between Lancaster's 1994 trial and his retrial in 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the diminished-capacity defense in People v. Carpenter. The trial court determined that Carpenter applied retroactively, and therefore, the court prohibited Lancaster from asserting the diminished-capacity defense in his retrial. After the Michigan appellate courts declined Lancaster's interlocutory appeals, the trial court convicted Lancaster on both charges. The court sentenced Lancaster to life imprisonment for the murder conviction plus two additional years for the firearm conviction.
After unsuccessful appeals to the Michigan courts, Lancaster filed another petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In this petition, Lancaster argues that the trial court violated his right to due process of law. Lancaster argues that the denial of the diminished-capacity defense was a substantive change in the law, and that by applying it retroactively, the trial court violated his constitutional rights. The district court denied this petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted Lancaster's petition. Consequently, Warden Linda Metrish appealed the Sixth Circuit's decision to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Because the defense of diminished capacity was never firmly entrenched in Michigan law, Warden Linda Metrish contends that its abolition was foreseeable, and thus its application was not a violation of Lancaster's due process rights. Also, Metrish argues that the federal courts should not overturn the Michigan state court's decision because it was not objectively unreasonable under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA").
Burt Lancaster contends that the Carpenter decision was unconstitutionally applied to his trial because the abolition of the diminished capacity defense represented a departure from well-established Michigan law. Therefore, the trial court denied Lancaster due process of law, according to Lancaster, by denying him the right to present evidence on a defense that was available when Lancaster committed the crime.
THE FEDERAL COURT'S RELATION TO STATE JUDGE-MADE LAW
The state of Indiana and other states assert that the Michigan courts were analyzing their own state law and that federal courts should defer to that analysis. Specifically, Indiana contends that the AEDPA requires deference to state courts in order to promote the goals of comity, finality, and federalism. Finally, Indiana argues that the diminished-capacity defense is particularly a state-law issue because it is not a fundamental principle of justice nor a deeply rooted defense like insanity.
Lancaster contends that federal courts must limit the deference accorded to state courts in order to protect the primacy of federal law. Lancaster argues that federal courts should limit deference to state courts if it would mean that federal law is applied "one way in Virginia and another way in California." Lancaster also asserts that this case demonstrates the necessity for habeas relief because the state court's error denied Lancaster a fair trial. Finally, Lancaster argues that if the Court denies his petition, Lancaster would be the only Michigan defendant who was unable to challenge a specific-intent crime with a diminished-capacity defense between 1973 and 2001.
FAIRNESS TO THE ADJUDICANTS
The state of Indiana and other states contend that an individual's due process right against retroactivity should only guarantee that the defendant had fair warning that his conduct is a criminal offense. Therefore, Indiana argues that due process should not apply where the change in law would not affect anyone's behavior at the time of the offense. But Indiana argues that it would be irrational to assume that a defendant would have foreseen the availability of a diminished capacity offense. Indiana asserts that diminished capacity relates to the defendant's lack of awareness at the time of the criminal act; this same lack of awareness, Indiana continues, would negate any argument that the defendant foresaw the availability of a diminished-capacity defense. Finally, Indiana argues that the defendant should not be given the benefit of two opposing mental states: one that supports the defendant's lack of awareness of his crime, and another that supports his reliance on an affirmative defense relating to that lack of awareness.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers ("NACDL") responds that constraints on retroactivity also relate to the adjudicants' decisions at trial. Specifically, NACDL argues that both prosecutors and defense attorneys rely on the present state of the law in their decision-making process. NACDL asserts that this reliance applies both to the development of trial strategies and the process of plea negotiations. NACDL argues that if courts allow retroactive abolishment of affirmative defenses, it would inject uncertainty into the adjudicatory process because both parties would have to determine whether a defendant could have consciously relied on a defense at the time of commission. This determination would create uncertainty when prosecutors decide which charges to bring and when parties evaluate the merits of a plea bargain, according to NACDL. In addition, NACDL argues that this uncertainty would continue at trial because parties will be unable to adopt strategies that account for future hypothetical changes in the law.
The U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause prohibits courts from assigning retroactive constructions to existing statutes that would deprive defendants of their right to receive a "fair warning" that their conduct was, in fact, criminal at time of their alleged offense. However, where a change in the law is readily foreseeable, and thus readily defensible, a retroactive change in the law is not a due process violation. A change in the law can be readily foreseeable when, for example, a matter of law has remained unsettled under common law precedent, a state court reevaluates the state's common law precedent "to conform with logic and common sense" or when a significant number of other jurisdictions have either abolished or chosen not to follow the disputed legal rule.
Habeas corpus petitions help safeguard prisoners' due process rights by allowing federal courts to review the constitutional validity of state courts' decision to imprison certain defendants. Although prisoners have the right to file habeas corpus petitions in certain circumstances, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") specifically prohibits prisoners from filing repetitive habeas corpus petitions for claims adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court verdict: (1) contradicts or involves "an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law" or (2) was centered on "an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding."
The Validity of Michigan's Diminished Capacity Defense PRior to People v. Carpenter
In People v. Carpenter, the Michigan Supreme Court held that Michigan's 1975 insanity defense statute, Michigan law § 768.21a, abolished the use of the diminished capacity defense in Michigan common law.
Petitioner, Warden Linda Metrish, contends that the Michigan Supreme Court reasonably concluded in People v. Carpenter that Michigan law § 768.21a bars Michigan criminal defendants from using the diminished capacity defense. Specifically, Metrish argues that the fact that Michigan law § 768.21a expressly provides insanity as a valid defense and is silent regarding the availability of the diminished capacity defense demonstrates the Michigan Legislature's intent prohibit the use of the defense.
Respondent Burt Lancaster counters that the diminished capacity defense is available under Michigan law § 768.21a, in part, because the Statute fails to demonstrate an express intent to either enumerate all available defenses or to abolish the diminished capacity defense altogether.
Metrish acknowledges that some lower Michigan courts have permitted the use of the diminished capacity defense, but claims that this precedent is irrelevant under both the express language of Michigan law § 768.21a and Michigan Supreme Court precedent, which never recognized the diminished capacity defense under Michigan law § 768.21a prior to expressly barring the defense in People v. Carpenter in 2011.
Lancaster counters that, at the time of his offense, the right to use the diminished capacity defense was "firmly established, well-settled and widely relied on in Michigan jurisprudence" after becoming part of the Michigan common law in 1973 following the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision in People v. Lynch.
Metrish argues that the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in People v. Ramsey demonstrates the Michigan Supreme Court's disapproval of the diminished capacity defense because there, the Court concluded that a "finding of mental illness, even when defined as a substantial disorder of thought or mood, does not inexorably lead to the conclusion that the defendant did not entertain the requisite malice aforethought for murder." Metrish further avers that the Michigan Supreme Court has "never specifically authorized the use of the diminished capacity defense" and that the diminished capacity defense has "never enjoyed a solid foothold in Michigan's law," having "never served as a ground of decision in any murder case."
Lancaster counters that the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in People v. Ramsey does not demonstrate the Michigan Supreme Court's disapproval of the diminished capacity defense because there, the Court noted that "[u]nder the doctrine referred to as partial responsibility, diminished responsibility, or (somewhat less accurately) partial insanity, evidence concerning the defendant's mental condition is admissible on the question of whether the defendant had the mental state which is an element of the offense with which he is charged."
Compliance with Due Process
Metrish maintains that because Michigan law § 768.21a never expressly provided for the diminished capacity defense, People v. Carpenter did not change the existing Michigan common law by prohibiting the defense, but merely construed Michigan law § 768.21a according to its plain language.
Lancaster counters that, except as limited by Rogers v. Tennessee, defendants have a fundamental right to present relevant, competent evidence at trial in support of any defense that was available to them at the time of their alleged offense. Thus, Lancaster contends that, because the diminished capacity defense was available under Michigan common law at the time he committed his offense, he has a right to use the defense in his criminal case.
Metrish argues that even if People v. Carpenter changed the existing Michigan common law by invalidating the diminished capacity defense, this change did not result in a due process violation under the Supreme Court's ruling in Rogers v. Tennessee, which acknowledged that common law courts "frequently look to the decisions of other jurisdictions in determining whether to alter or modify a common law rule in light of changed circumstances, increased knowledge, and general logic and experience." Metrish concludes that because many jurisdictions no longer recognize the diminished capacity defense, the Michigan Supreme Court's retroactive application of Michigan law § 768.21a's bar of the diminished capacity defense would not be unforeseeable to Michigan criminal defendants.
Lancaster contends that, although changes in the law may be foreseeable and even necessary in cases involving unsettled questions of law, the invalidation of the diminished capacity defense in People v. Carpenter was unforeseeable under Rogers v. Tennessee's "unexpected and indefensible" standard because Michigan state courts recognized the validity of the diminished capacity defense during the twenty-eight years prior to Carpenter. Lancaster distinguishes Carpenter from Rogers by arguing that, while Rogers permitted a change in law to apply retroactively when it complied with existing common law precedent, Carpenter effectively changed the common law in a manner akin to enacting a new statute.
Necessity FOR supreme Court Review
Metrish notes that under AEDPA, federal courts may only vacate a state conviction when the decision constitutes an error so "well understood and comprehended in existing law" that it was "beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." In other words, Metrish concludes that, under AEDPA's standard of review, mere error by a state court does not justify the grant of a habeas corpus petition because the state court's application of federal law must have been objectively unreasonable to warrant review. Metrish argues that because Michigan law § 768.21a is silent in regards to the diminished capacity defense and because many other jurisdictions no longer allow the defense, the People v. Carpenter holding was not an error "so well understood and comprehended in existing law" that it was "beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Thus, Metrish contends that the Supreme Court should respect the Michigan Supreme Court's holding that Michigan law § 768.21a abolished the diminished capacity defense in Michigan common law.
Lancaster argues that the question of whether the retroactive abolition of a common law defense violates due process is a question properly before the Supreme Court. Lancaster maintains that because the holding in People v. Carpenter was clearly unreasonable and unforeseeable, the Supreme Court should independently determine whether the Michigan Supreme Court's reading of Michigan law § 768.21a reasonably protected Lancaster's due process rights.
In this case, the Supreme Court will further delineate the retroactivity prohibition on changes in state common law by determining whether the prohibition can be used to justify granting habeas corpus relief and further defining what constitutes an "unexpected and indefensible" change to the common law. Metrish argues, that because the Michigan Supreme Court has never acknowledged the diminished capacity defense and Michigan's 1975 insanity defense statute, Michigan law § 768.21a, expressly abolished the use of the defense, Lancaster does not have a constitutional right to present evidence demonstrating diminished capacity. Lancaster counters that he has a constitutional right to use the diminished capacity defense because Michigan common law recognized the validity of the diminished capacity defense at the time he committed his crime. The Supreme Court's decision will help to define the precise point at which the retroactive construction of state law becomes unconstitutional and will weigh prisoners' due process rights against the rights of states to establish and reevaluate their own common law.