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SCOTUS Reaffirms Habeas Court Must Consider Entire Record Before ‘Disturbing’ a State Criminal Judgment

The case goes back to the 1985 stabbing death of a motel clerk in Nashville, Tennessee, for which Anthony Hines was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Years after his conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal, Hines discovered that another man at the motel who discovered the clerk’s body had lied in court, and Hines’ counsel knew that he lied but never said anything. Hines claimed ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) for his lawyer’s failure to expose the man’s real story of why he was at the motel, which was that he was cheating on his wife with another woman. Hines argued that the truth would have weakened the witness’ credibility before the jury, but counsel said he strategically chose not to expose the man’s secret because it would not have helped the case.

The state trial court pointed to the “strength of proof” against Hines and dismissed his claim as “farfetched” that counsel should have accused the witness of being the murderer. After all, the court noted, Hines had admitted to family that he stabbed someone, he was found with the victim’s car, he came home with a load of cash after borrowing money to get to Nashville (the clerk was robbed of a bag of money), and the witnesses who picked him up after the car died said he was covered in blood and gave conflicting stories as to why. His postconviction motion was denied.

After a tortured procedural history in state and federal courts, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in 2020 that the state court should have granted postconviction relief to Hines. The court reasoned that a better investigation “could have helped the defense to credibly cast [the witness] as an alternative suspect, or at the very least seriously undermine his testimony.” The court granted Hines’ habeas petition, ordering a new trial—35 years after his conviction. The state petitioned SCOTUS for a writ of certiorari, which was granted.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a state prisoner may file a habeas petition in federal court challenging his criminal judgment after exhausting his state postconviction remedies and any appeals. However, a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the state court’s decision on the merits was an “unreasonable” determination of the facts or law. § 2254(d). The issue before SCOTUS was whether the Sixth Circuit skipped the unreasonableness determination under § 2254(d).

“The term ‘unreasonable’ [under § 2254(d)] refers not to ordinary error or even to circumstances where the petitioner offers a strong case for relief,” the Supreme Court said, “but rather to extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice system.” SCOTUS reiterated that this means the state-court decision has to be so lacking in justification as to be “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Shinn v. Kayer, 592 141 S. Ct. 517 (2020). SCOTUS has acknowledged that this standard is “difficult to meet.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011).

What the Sixth Circuit got wrong, SCOTUS said, was that it didn’t consider the “overwhelming” evidence of Hines’ guilt. Instead, the lower court essentially evaluated the merits of Hines’ IAC claims de novo or anew. SCOTUS explained that this method of analysis did not give the deference required under the AEDPA to the state court’s postconviction ruling. “Nowhere in its 10-page discussion of Hines’ theory did the majority consider the substantial evidence linking him to the crime,” SCOTUS said in detailing the evidence the state court had relied on. “The court instead focused on all the reasons why it thought [the witness] could have been a viable alternative suspect.” In effect, the Sixth Circuit decided Hines’ petition as if there were no state court decision, according to SCOTUS.

Had the Sixth Circuit considered the “entire record” before the state court, it would have had little trouble deferring to the state trial court, SCOTUS stated. The question wasn’t whether the Sixth Circuit itself could have found counsel was ineffective, but whether the state court had “still managed to blunder so badly that every fairminded jurist would disagree.”

SCOTUS concluded that the state court had not blundered and called its description of Hines’ claim as “farfetched” a “straightforward, commonsense analysis.” It admonished that “the Sixth Circuit had no license to hypothesize an alternative theory of the crime in which [the witness] became a suspect 35 years after the fact.” For good measure, SCOTUS also observed that the witness’ testimony in court wasn’t even what placed Hines at the scene of the crime—“ample other evidence was what did that.”

Accordingly, SCOTUS reversed the grant of federal habeas corpus by the Sixth Circuit. See: Mays v. Hines, 141 S. Ct. 1145 (2021).  


Writer’s note: While disheartening, the SCOTUS’ blunt analysis in this case shows that federal courts still struggle with the stranglehold that the AEDPA places on them in granting habeas relief to state prisoners (this decision does not apply to federal prisoners). The lesson here for state prisoners filing for federal habeas relief is that the focus of their petition should be on the unreasonableness of the state court’s decision, as defined by SCOTUS in this case and its line of cases discussed in the opinion (see opinion for citations). Rearguing state claims in federal court is a waste of time if the “unreasonableness” standard under § 2254(d) to allow a federal court to grant relief is not met. 

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Mays v. Hines



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