Does a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-influence instruction during the sentencing phase of a capital punishment trial violate that defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when the defendant has pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances?
Robert Keith Woodall pled guilty to the murder, rape, and kidnapping of a sixteen-year-old victim. At the penalty phase, Woodall put on fourteen witnesses but did not himself testify. The trial court rejected his request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction regarding his decision not to testify. The jury recommended the death penalty, and the trial court accepted this recommendation. After exhausting state court avenues, Woodall filed for and received habeas corpus relief from a federal district court. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the trial court violated Woodall’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination by rejecting his request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction. In this case, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to consider whether the rejection of a request for a no-adverse-inference at the penalty phase of a trial, even where the defendant has pled guilty to all charged crimes, violates the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This case will impact the rights of criminal defendants charged with capital crimes and will clarify prior Supreme Court precedent.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Robert Keith Woodall, amidst overwhelming evidence of his guilt, pled guilty to kidnapping, raping, and murdering a 16-year-old child, and thus pled guilty to all aggravating circumstances. At the penalty phase trial, the prosecutor elected to present evidence of guilt and the circumstances of the crimes. Woodall did not testify; and his request that the jury be instructed not to draw any adverse inference from his decision not to testify (a "no adverse inference instruction") was denied. He was sentenced to death by a Kentucky jury. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed.
Even though this Court has never held that a defendant is entitled to a no adverse inference instruction at the sentencing phase of a trial where the defendant has pled guilty to the offense and all aggravating circumstances, the Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief to Woodall on the ground that the trial court's failure to provide such an instruction violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The questions presented are:
- Whether the Sixth Circuit, violated 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1) by granting habeas relief on the trial court's failure to provide a no adverse inference instruction even though this Court has not "clearly established" that such an instruction is required in a capital penalty phase when a non-testifying defendant has pled guilty to the crimes and aggravating circumstances.
- Whether the Sixth Circuit violated the harmless error standard in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), in ruling that the absence of a no adverse inference instruction was not harmless in spite of overwhelming evidence of guilt and in the face of a guilty plea to the crimes and aggravators.
A grand jury indicted Respondent Robert Keith Woodall for the murder, kidnapping, and rape of a sixteen-year-old female victim, and Woodall pled guilty in Kentucky state court to all of the charges and aggravating circumstances. Petitioner, the State of Kentucky, sought the death penalty. At the penalty trial, Woodall called fourteen witnesses to testify about his difficult life and upbringing. He also cross-examined all of Kentucky’s eleven witnesses. Significantly, Woodall did not himself testify. Woodall requested that the trial judge give the jury a no-adverse-inference instruction—where a judge instructs the jury not to draw any adverse inferences from a defendant’s decision not to testify. The trial judge rejected Woodall’s request on the grounds that Woodall’s guilty plea stripped him of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The jury recommended, and the trial court adopted, a death sentence for the murder, and two consecutive life sentences for the rape and kidnapping.
Woodall exhausted his state court remedies before filing a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas corpus petition in federal district court. The district court granted Woodall’s petition, concluding that by failing to give a no-adverse-inference instruction at the penalty trial—despite Woodall’s request for the instruction—the trial court had violated Woodall’s right against self-incrimination. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court, and concluded that the trial court’s violation of Woodall’s constitutional right was not a harmless error. Kentucky petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted on June 27, 2013.
Kentucky argues that the federal district court exceeded its statutory authority by granting Woodall habeas corpus relief. Specifically, Kentucky argues that the district court violated 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which Kentucky contends limits federal court intervention to state court decisions that are patently unreasonable. In response, Woodall argues that the state court was unreasonable in refusing to apply Supreme Court precedent that required a no-adverse-inference instruction regarding Woodall’s refusal to testify at his sentencing hearing. Woodall further argues that the instruction was necessary because in capital punishment cases, where the stakes are particularly high, there is an increased need for reliability.
USEFULNESS OF NO-ADVERSE-INFERENCE INSTRUCTIONS
In support of Kentucky, Arizona and a group of thirteen other states argue that there is simply no reason to give a no-adverse-inference instruction when a defendant has already admitted to doing everything he has been accused of doing. In these circumstances, the states contend, providing this instruction would be illogical and therefore create confusion among jurors.
In response, Woodall asserts that in his case, the instruction was necessary because there were still disputed issues that were relevant to his sentencing, such as whether Woodall was remorseful about his actions. In Woodall’s view, the court’s failure to give a no-adverse-inference instruction resulted in the jury imposing its own interpretation of Woodall’s silence, which Woodall argues is impermissible under the Court’s Fifth Amendment jurisprudence.
Several amici in support of Kentucky claim that the Sixth Circuit’s grant of habeas relief runs contrary to Congress’s intent in enacting AEDPA. For instance, Texas filed an amicus brief focusing on the term “unreasonable” in AEDPA; AEDPA provides that a federal court may grant habeas relief only where a state ruling was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Texas argues that the key factor in determining reasonableness is whether there were other arguments or theories that could have supported the state court’s conclusion, and whether a jury could have agreed with those arguments; in other words, AEDPA establishes a very deferential posture toward the state court’s ruling. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”) similarly argues on behalf of Kentucky that Congress intended to impose strict limits on federal courts by mandating this extremely deferential posture toward state court decisions when reviewing habeas corpus petitions. CJLF further argues that the “unreasonable application” provision is intended to prevent federal courts from substituting their own judgment for that of state courts.
In response, Woodall argues that taking CJLF’s position seriously would essentially convert the “unreasonable application” standard into one that allows federal courts to grant habeas relief only when a state court decision directly contradicts prior Supreme Court decisions. Woodall argues that this narrow interpretation would undermine Supreme Court precedent and Congress’s intent in enacting AEDPA.
COSTS OF RE-LITIGATION
CJLF further argues that a key part of AEDPA’s statutory mandate was curbing delays and avoiding retrials. In CJLF’s view, this goal has not been realized because federal courts have watered down the exceptions to AEDPA’s bar on relitigating claims that were “adjudicated on the merits” in state court.
Woodall, however, argues that the immense gravity of death requires that courts ensure that jurors do not entertain any improper considerations when deciding whether to impose the death penalty. Here, the trial’s court failure to give a no-adverse-inference instruction, Woodall argues, was a mistake that enabled the jury to consider an impermissible factor in determining whether he should be sentenced to death.
Under § 2254(d), a federal court may grant habeas corpus relief if the state court made a determination “that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Kentucky argues that no “clearly established federal law” prohibits a judge from denying a request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction at the penalty phase of a trial when the defendant has pled guilty to all crimes and aggravating circumstances. In opposition, Woodall argues that a trio of prior Supreme Court cases creates a clearly established right to a no-adverse-inference jury instruction during the penalty phase.
If the Court decides that the Kentucky Supreme Court violated § 2254(d), then the Court must decide whether this violation constituted a harmless error. If the error was harmless, then the federal district court should not have granted Woodall’s petition for habeas relief. While Woodall contends this error greatly prejudiced him, Kentucky argues the error did not harm Woodall.
CLEARLY ESTABLISHED FEDERAL LAW
Kentucky argues that no “clearly established federal law” prohibits a judge from denying a request for a no-adverse-inference jury instruction—also known as a Carter instruction—when the defendant has pled guilty to all crimes and aggravating circumstances at the penalty phase of a trial. Kentucky contends that Carter v. Kentucky (“Carter”), Estelle v. Smith (“Estelle”), and Mitchell v. United States (“Mitchell”) do not establish a constitutional right to a no-adverse-inference instruction during the penalty phase of a trial when the defendant has pled guilty to the charges and aggravating circumstances of the crime. Therefore, Kentucky claims, when the Sixth Circuit granted habeas relief, the Six Circuit violated § 2254(d) because the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision was not an objectively unreasonable application of federal law.
Conversely, Woodall argues that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Carter, Estelle, and Mitchell establish that at sentencing proceedings, a defendant has a right to a Carter instruction upon request even when the defendant has pled guilty. Thus, according to Woodall, the Kentucky Supreme Court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent and the Sixth Circuit correctly granted him habeas relief.
Kentucky asserts that Carter establishes a right to a no-adverse-inference instruction only during the guilt-innocence phase of a trial. Because Woodall pled guilty to all of the alleged crimes at the guilt-innocence trial, and then asked for the no-adverse-inference instruction at the penalty phase, Kentucky believes that Woodall does not fall under Carter’s holding.
Nevertheless, Woodall contends that Estelle and Mitchell actually extended Carter past the guilt-innocence phase to the penalty phase of a trial; accordingly, in Woodall’s view, defendants have a right to a no-adverse-inference instruction at the penalty phase of a trial. Woodall specifically points to the language in Estelle stating that the Court could “discern no basis to distinguish between the guilt and penalty phases of respondent’s capital murder trial so far as the protection of the Fifth Amendment privilege is concerned.” Woodall argues that through this language, Estelle establishes that Fifth Amendment privileges, including the right against self-incrimination, apply to capital sentencing proceedings.
On the other hand, Kentucky contends that this language was dicta. According to Kentucky, Estelle applies to the capital sentencing phase and prevents the prosecution from using statements made by the defendant if the defendant was not warned that his statements made during a court-mandated meeting with a psychiatrist could be used against him. Kentucky suggests that since Estelle dealt with a defendant’s statement and not a no-adverse-inference instruction, Estelle does not apply to the case at hand.
Kentucky and Woodall agree that Mitchell establishes that pleading guilty is not a waiver of a defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege at sentencing; moreover, the parties agree that Mitchell prohibits a sentencing court from making an adverse inference regarding a fact that, if true, would increase the sentencing range. However, only Woodall contends that Mitchell forbids an adverse inference from a defendant’s silence when the severity of punishment has yet to be determined. In opposition, Kentucky notes that the Court in Mitchell did not articulate an expansion of the Carter instruction to the penalty phase if the defendant does not testify, nor did it require a no-adverse-inference instruction when no facts are disputed. Kentucky thus argues that Woodall falls outside of Mitchell’s holding, pointing to the fact that Mitchell did not deal with a no-adverse inference instruction.
Kentucky also argues that in this case, the prosecution met its burden of proof before the penalty phase began. Accordingly, Kentucky argues, the “facts” in contention were actually mitigating circumstances that Woodall, not the prosecution, carried the burden to prove. Therefore, Kentucky contends, the absence of a no-adverse-inference instruction to the jury did not open up Woodall to a higher sentencing range due to his silence because the facts at issue could only lower, not increase, his sentencing range.
Woodall disagrees, contending that the Fifth Amendment privilege does not apply only to the facts of a crime. According to Woodall, the prosecution carried the burden to prove that the appropriate punishment in this case was death. Woodall asserts that because he had not pled guilty to every fact that the prosecution relied on during the capital sentencing phase, facts were still at issue during the capital sentencing trial. Specifically, Woodall notes that at sentencing the prosecutor relied on Woodall’s alleged lack of remorse and the testimony of a blood spatter expert who testified to certain aggravating circumstances.
Kentucky argues that even if the trial court erred in not giving a no-adverse-inference instruction, that error does not meet the “substantial and injurious effect” standard applied to habeas cases. Kentucky asserts that the combination of Woodall’s guilty plea, the brutality of the crime itself, Woodall’s post-crime conduct, and the evidence presented by Woodall regarding mitigating circumstances show that the absence of a no-adverse-inference instruction did not have a “substantial and injurious effect” on the jury’s recommendation for death. Furthermore, Kentucky contends that the Sixth Circuit incorrectly applied a standard of “possible-harm” rather than “substantial and injurious effect” to Woodall’s case. Kentucky argues that such a standard effectively guts harmless error review since no error could ever be completely harmless.
In opposition, Woodall contends that the trial court’s rejection of a no-adverse-inference instruction had a substantial and injurious effect. Woodall argues that Supreme Court precedent establishes that a defendant wins when a court is in “grave doubt” about whether a constitutional violation affected a verdict. Woodall asserts that several possible harms can stem from a defendant’s failure to testify, including the jury’s instinct (1) to hold silence against a defendant unless a court instructs them to the contrary, (2) to desire to hear a defendant express remorse, (3) to want to hear a defendant explain their conduct, and (4) to hear confirmation of mitigating circumstances directly from the defendant.
In this case, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to consider whether a trial court’s rejection of a non-testifying defendant’s request for a no-adverse-inference at the penalty phase of a capital trial violates the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, where the defendant has pled guilty to all the alleged crimes and aggravating circumstances. The Court has the opportunity to clearly establish whether defendants are entitled to a no-adverse-inference instruction at the penalty phase. Resolution of this issue will impact the rights of criminal defendants charged with capital crimes and clarify Supreme Court precedent.