Court denies habeas relief without ruling on AEDPA interpretation
on Jan 22, 2010 at 3:13 pm
Below, Tiffany Cartwright, a student at Stanford Law School, analyzes the opinion in Wood v. Allen (08-9156), which was issued on Wednesday.Â Her piece now appears on the case’s SCOTUSwiki page, with a link to the opinion.
After an oral argument in November that suggested much confusion and little agreement regarding the interaction of two provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), on Wednesday the Supreme Court denied habeas relief to petitioner Holly Wood without resolving the very issue on which it had granted certiorari:Â how to interpret the provisions at issue.Â The opinion thus demonstrates the difficulty of obtaining federal post-conviction relief and leaves unsettled a clear circuit split in a confusing area of the law.
Wood was convicted and sentenced to death in Alabama for the 1993 murder of his ex-girlfriend.Â In his federal habeas petition, he challenged a state court finding that his lawyersâ€™ decision not to present mitigating evidence of his mental impairments resulted from a strategic choice rather than ineffective assistance.Â AEDPA has two subsections that govern challenges to state factual findings: under 28 U.S.C. Â§ 2254(d)(2), a federal court may grant relief if the state decision â€œwas based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceedingâ€; and under 28 U.S.C. Â§ 2254(e)(1) â€œa determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correctâ€ unless the habeas petitioner rebuts the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.
The Court granted Woodâ€™s petition for certiorari to determine whether subsection (e)(1) applies to all challenges brought under subsection (d)(2): in other words, in addition to showing that a state-court factual determination was â€œunreasonable,â€ must every habeas petitioner rebut a presumption that the determination was correct with clear and convincing evidence?
Ultimately, however, in a majority opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that Woodâ€™s claim failed under any interpretation of the statute.Â Even if only subsection (d)(2) applied, the Court explained, it was not â€œunreasonableâ€ to determine that Woodâ€™s lawyers made a strategic decision not to present evidence of his mental impairments.
In dissent, Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Kennedy, argued that the majority had overlooked the true meaning of a â€œstrategicâ€ decision.Â Yes, Woodâ€™s lawyers had decided not to further investigate or present evidence of his mental impairments, but there was no evidence in the record to support a finding that the decision was â€œstrategicâ€ in the sense of being â€œa conscious choice between two legitimate and rational alternatives.â€Â Rather, the decision â€œwas the product of inattention and neglect.â€