January 19, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Harrington v. Richter

On January 19, 2011 the Supreme Court decided Harrington v. Richter, No. 09–587, holding that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)'s prohibition on re-litigation of habeas claims applies even if the state court issues only a summary denial, and the Ninth Circuit erred in concluding that defendant had demonstrated an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington by the California Supreme Court.

In 1994, deputies were called to the home of a drug dealer where they discovered two men who had been shot twice. One recovered; the other died. Defendant Joshua Richter was arrested on murder and other charges and ultimately was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. At trial, Richter's trial counsel argued that that Richter's co-defendant shot one victim in self-defense and that the other victim was killed in the crossfire. In response, the prosecution called an expert in blood-pattern evidence. The prosecution also called a serologist, who testified that the blood sample taken near a blood pool could be the surviving victim's, but not the dead victim's.

Richter sought habeas relief from the California Supreme Court on grounds that his counsel provided ineffective assistance when he failed to present expert testimony on blood evidence. The California court denied the petition. Richter then reasserted his claims in a federal habeas petition, which the district court denied. A Ninth Circuit panel then affirmed, but an en banc court reversed, holding that trial counsel was deficient in failing to consult blood evidence experts in planning a trial strategy and in preparing to rebut expert evidence the prosecution offered.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, applied to Richter's petition and precluded the habeas relief ordered by the Ninth Circuit.  Section 2254(d) bars re-litigation of claims adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court decision involved an "unreasonable application" of "clearly established Federal law."

The Court first rejected the argument that § 2254(d) did not apply because the California Supreme Court issued only a summary denial, stating that nothing in the statute's text requires a statement of reasons. It then held that the Ninth Circuit failed to accord the required deference to the decision of the California Supreme Court and that its opinion showed an improper understanding of § 2254(d)'s unreasonableness standard. According to the Supreme Court, as long as "fair-minded jurists could disagree" on the correctness of the state court's decision, federal habeas relief is unavailable. Finally, the Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred in concluding that Richter demonstrated an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington. It held that a competent attorney might elect a strategy that did not require using blood evidence experts and that the Ninth Circuit erred in concluding that Richter had established the prejudice prong of Strickland.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Ginsburg filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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