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Court denies habeas relief without ruling on AEDPA interpretation

Below, Tiffany Cartwright, a student at Stanford Law School, analyzes the opinion in Wood v. Allen (08-9156), which was issued on Wednesday.  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:  how to interpret the provisions at issue.  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.  In his federal habeas petition, he challenged a state court finding that his lawyers’ decision not to present mitigating evidence of his mental impairments resulted from a strategic choice rather than ineffective assistance.  AEDPA has two subsections that govern challenges to state factual findings: under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), a federal court may grant relief if the state decision “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding”; and under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct” unless the habeas petitioner rebuts the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.

The Court granted Wood’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 “unreasonable,” 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 Wood’s claim failed under any interpretation of the statute.  Even if only subsection (d)(2) applied, the Court explained, it was not “unreasonable” to determine that Wood’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 “strategic” decision.  Yes, Wood’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 “strategic” in the sense of being “a conscious choice between two legitimate and rational alternatives.”  Rather, the decision “was the product of inattention and neglect.”

Cases: Wood v. Allen