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Application of AEDPA to Review of State Determinations of Fact (Wood v. Allen Argument Preview)

Below, Tiffany Cartwright, a 3L at Stanford Law School, previews Wood v. Allen, one of two cases to be heard by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, November 4. Check the Wood v. Allen (08-9156) SCOTUSwiki page for additional updates.

On November 4th, the Court will hear arguments in Wood v. Allen, a capital habeas case that questions how a federal court should review the facts determined in a state criminal proceeding under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

Petitioner Holly Wood was convicted in Alabama of murdering his former girlfriend.  Two of Wood’s appointed attorneys were experienced criminal trial lawyers; the third was a novice with no criminal experience. The less experienced lawyer handled the penalty phase, during which he failed to present mitigation evidence, obtained from a competency evaluation, of Wood’s significant mental impairments. By a vote of ten to two, the jury recommended a death sentence, which the trial judge imposed.

Wood’s conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal.  The state courts rejected his petition for post-conviction relief, in which he alleged that his trial counsel’s failure to investigate and present evidence of his mental impairments at the penalty phase constituted ineffective assistance.  Instead, the state court held, the failure to present evidence of Wood’s mental impairments was a strategic decision made by Wood’s more experienced counsel.

Wood then filed a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the section of AEDPA that governs petitions by state prisoners.  Section 2254 contains two subsections that relate to state court factual findings:  subsection (d)(2), which precludes relief unless the state court proceeding “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding”; and subsection (e)(1), which creates a presumption that “a determination of a factual issue made by a state court” is correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.

The district court granted relief, concluding that a “finding by the state courts that a strategic decision was made not to investigate or introduce . . . evidence of mental retardation is an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the clear and convincing evidence presented in the record.”  The court found that Wood’s less experienced lawyer was left unsupervised to investigate mitigating evidence; moreover, the failure to introduce evidence of Wood’s mental impairments stemmed from his counsel’s inexperience rather than a strategic decision.

On appeal, a divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed.  In the majority’s view, there was ample evidence to support the state court’s finding that Wood’s more experienced counsel made a strategic decision not to present mental health evidence.  In a footnote, the court reasoned that under AEDPA it was required only to “examin[e] whether there is evidence to support the state courts’ findings”; here, the state court’s determination of the facts was not unreasonable because “Wood has not presented evidence, much less clear and convincing evidence,” that his counsel’s decision was not strategic.  The dissent disagreed sharply, arguing that the majority “ignore[d] specific and direct evidence of ineffectiveness of of counsel in favor of nothing but pure speculation that the failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence was a ‘strategic decision.’”

In his petition for certiorari, Wood argued that there is a circuit split regarding the interaction between subsections (d)(2) and (e)(1).  The Eighth and Eleventh Circuits, he claimed, apply both subsections to all petitions, holding that the state court’s determination of the facts is unreasonable only if the petitioner has rebutted the factual findings by clear and convincing evidence.  In contrast, the Third and the Ninth Circuits have held that the two subsections instead apply in two different scenarios challenging a state court’s factual findings: subsection (d)(2)’s “reasonableness determination” applies to challenges – such as Wood’s – based solely on evidence within the state record, while the “clear and convincing evidence” standard applies when a challenge relies on extrinsic evidence.

Opposing certiorari, the State of Alabama did not dispute that the courts of appeals were divided on the question whether the court of appeals had misapplied Sections 2254(d)(2) and 2254(e)(1), but it contended that certiorari was not warranted because Wood had failed to raise this issue below.  In any event, the State argued, Wood’s claim is foreclosed by Miller-El v. Cockrell, which it characterized as holding that both subsections apply to all habeas cases which turn on a state court’s determination of the facts.

In his merits brief, Wood begins not with the interaction of AEDPA’s provisions regarding state determinations of fact, but instead with an argument based on a third subsection of Section 2254: subsection (d)(1), which provides that relief may be granted if the state court decision “involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law.”  Even if the state court’s finding that his counsel made a strategic choice were correct, Wood argues, that finding was an unreasonable application of the Court’s decisions in Strickland v. Washington and Wiggins v. Smith, which hold that even a strategic decision is still constitutionally ineffective if it was made after a failure to investigate properly or an unjustified termination of the investigation.

Turning to his argument that the state court’s decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, Wood first argues that the Eleventh Circuit misapplied subsection (d)(2) by examining only isolated pieces of the state court record, rather than the totality of the evidence.  Second, and returning to the issue that dominated the cert. petition, Wood urges the Court to adopt the interpretation of Section 2254 used in the Third and Ninth Circuits.  He argues that in a case such as his, which is based only on evidence within the state court record, courts should apply only subsection 2254(d)(2), and reserve subsection (e)(1) for cases that involve extrinsic evidence.  In other words, he should not have to rebut the state court’s factual findings by clear and convincing evidence; instead, he should only be required to show that the findings were objectively unreasonable in light of the entire state court record.

In response, Alabama argues that the plain text of subsection (e)(1) provides the correct standard in every habeas case, requiring a petitioner to rebut the state’s factual findings with clear and convincing evidence regardless whether that evidence is in the state record.  A different reading would be contrary to Congress’s intent to increase deference to state courts, Alabama argues, because the vast majority of habeas proceedings do not involve extrinsic evidence.  The State advances what it describes as the proper construction of Section 2254:  when a habeas petitioner claims that a state court decision is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, the federal court first determines whether there is clear and convincing evidence in the state record to rebut the presumption that the state’s findings are correct.  If such clear and convincing evidence exists, the court must then determine both whether the state court’s legal conclusion was in fact “based on” the erroneous facts and whether the factual determination was not only erroneous but also “objectively unreasonable.”

Finally, Alabama urges the Court to disregard Wood’s argument that the state court unreasonably applied Strickland and Wiggins.  The State contends that the argument is both outside the question presented and, in any event, meritless because Wood’s counsel had a legitimate reason to end further investigation of his mental impairments.

Cases: Wood v. Allen