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SCOTUS Vacates Grant of Habeas Relief, Citing Habeas ‘Deference’ to State Court Decisions

The case came before the Court when Arizona appealed the grant of habeas relief to death row prisoner George Kayer. He was convicted in state court of premeditated murder and sentenced to death over 20 years ago. Eventually, his petition for postconviction relief was denied by the state courts, and he filed for habeas corpus relief in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. One of his claims was ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) for failure to investigate mitigating circumstances to avoid the death penalty. The district court denied Kayer’s petition, ruling that he couldn’t show IAC because he was the one who prevented counsel from presenting mitigating factors.

He appealed, and a divided Ninth Circuit panel reversed the decision by the district court. “Kayer’s attorneys should have begun to pursue mitigation evidence promptly after their appointment,” the court said, and that Kayer’s push to rush sentencing didn’t affect that. The court compared Kayer’s case with other state cases and found that there was a “reasonable probability that the Arizona Supreme Court would have vacated Kayer’s death sentence on direct review had it been presented with the mitigating evidence offered at the state postconviction relief hearing.”

The U.S. Supreme Court then granted review and found the Ninth Circuit failed to apply the deference required by the AEDPA to the state court’s decision. Under § 2254(d)(1), a federal court is prohibited from granting habeas relief to a state prisoner unless the state court’s decision “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The “clearly established federal law” in Kayer’s case was the Supreme Court’s decision in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), establishing the two-part standard for showing IAC. For the Ninth Circuit (or the district court) to grant Kayer’s habeas petition, he had to show “far more than that the state court’s decision was merely wrong or even clear error,” the Court explained. He had to show that the state court’s decision was “so obviously wrong that its error lies beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”

Whether a “fairminded jurist” (that is, a judge) could disagree that the state court was wrong was the issue before the Supreme Court. The Court agreed with the state that the Ninth Circuit “essentially evaluated the merits [of Kayer’s claims] de novo,” instead of giving deference to the state court’s decision. In other words, the Court found that the Ninth Circuit compared what it would have done with Kayer’s case to what the state court did and concluded the state court wrongly applied Strickland.

The Ninth Circuit characterized the aggravating evidence against Kayer as “relatively weak” compared to other Arizona Supreme Court cases qualifying for the death penalty. And it “attributed considerable weight” to evidence questioning Kayer’s mental capacity for the death penalty.

“Perhaps some jurists would share those views, but that is not the relevant standard,” the Court admonished. “The question is whether a fairminded jurist could take a different view.” The Court went on to say how a “fairminded jurist” might evaluate the aggravating evidence differently or could have taken a different view of the mitigating evidence presented by Kayer.

In the end, the Supreme Court noted the “important” role of state courts in federal habeas corpus: “Under AEDPA, state courts play the leading role in assessing challenges to state sentences based on federal law.” Because the Ninth Circuit failed to give deference to the state court’s decision on Kayer’s claim, it “exceeded its authority in rejecting that determination, which was not so obviously wrong as to be beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement,” the Court concluded.

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Shinn v. Kayer



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