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Third Circuit Rules Pennsylvania Courts’ Application of Federal Law Objectively Unreasonable, Overturns Conviction and Death Sentence, Grants Habeas Relief

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the grant of habeas corpus relief to a death-sentenced defendant based on the fact the state courts’ application of the governing federal law was objectively unreasonable regarding the defendant’s Sixth Amendment choice-of-counsel right.

It wasn’t that Samuel Randolph lacked the assistance of counsel for his first-degree murder trial. In fact, he had at least four lawyers representing him throughout the 2002 case. But it was the lawyer he retained just days before trial that became an issue. His court-appointed lawyer had requested and received two continuances, or delays, pushing the trial back several months. When the relationship between Randolph and appointed counsel eroded, he opted to go pro se with one of his initial attorneys as stand-by counsel, when the court refused to appoint another lawyer. However, just days before trial, Randolph was able to gather the funds to hire Samuel Stretton, who promptly requested a continuance to prepare for trial.

The trial court, though, refused to grant any more delays. It said that prior counsel had already received two delays and the trial had to proceed as scheduled. When Stretton requested just three hours so that he could attend another mandatory obligation the morning of jury selection, the trial court even rejected that request. The jury selection and trial commenced, all without Randolph’s counsel of choice—Stretton. Instead, he was left with the lawyer he had fired.

After he was convicted of every count charged and sentenced to death, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected his claim that his Sixth Amendment right to the counsel of his choice was violated by the trial court’s actions. The state’s high court said granting further delays would “clog the machinery of justice” and found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of a continuance. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in 2005.

Randolph headed to federal court, filing a habeas petition raising the same Sixth Amendment claim in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. This time, his claim was successful. The court ruled that Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s application of the governing federal law was objectively unreasonable regarding Randolph’s Sixth Amendment choice-of-counsel right. The court further ruled that the violation constituted structural error and thus not subject to harmless error analysis. The court granted his petition and ordered a new trial or otherwise his release. The Commonwealth appealed, and the Third Circuit affirmed the grant of relief.

The Court began by noting that a federal court cannot grant habeas relief unless the state court’s decision was “contrary to federal law then clearly established in the holdings of [the U.S. Supreme] Court;” “involved an unreasonable application of such law;” or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the record before the state court.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), (2)).

The second basis for habeas relief (i.e., unreasonable application of law) was at issue in the current case, according to the Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has instructed that this exists only “where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts with [the U.S. Supreme] Court’s precedents.” Richter. The Supreme Court has explained that this standard is “difficult to meet” because an “unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.” Id.

In addition to the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the Sixth Amendment also guarantees a defendant the right to retain the counsel of his choice. See Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932) (“It is hardly necessary to say that the right to counsel being conceded, a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice.”).

The Court cautioned that a defendant’s choice-of-counsel right is not absolute and provided several situations where the defendant’s right will not be honored (see opinion for full discussion). Limitation on the right is at issue in the present case, the Court stated and framed the issue as follows: “The question raised in this case is the extent to which a criminal defendant’s right under the Sixth Amendment to his chosen attorney is qualified by the state’s legitimate interest in the efficient and effective dispensation of criminal justice.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that a trial court’s “arbitrary insistence upon expeditiousness in the face of a justifiable request for delay violates the right to the assistance of counsel.” Morris v. Slappy, 461 U.S. 1 (1983). This was the “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law” that the state trial court (and state Supreme Court) was guilty of, the Court said. While a trial court has the authority to balance the right of counsel of choice with the right of the government to avoid delays in bringing a case to trial, the trial court here did not heed this balance, according to the Court.

The Court admonished that in reaching its conclusion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s “description of the state trial court’s denial of Stretton’s motion for a continuance mischaracterizes crucial details and omits others.” The Court then meticulous refuted the state Supreme Court’s recitation and characterization of the facts of the case in a blunt dismantling of the state court’s ruling based upon five separate reasons the court got it wrong (see full opinion for detailed and lengthy analysis and refutation of the state Supreme Court’s ruling).

To very broadly summarize the Court’s rationale, it cited several reasons why the state courts were wrong, including that the continuances granted earlier were valid with one of them the fault of the Commonwealth itself for failing to turn over evidence to the defense. In particular, the Court stressed that the trial court’s refusal to grant even a three-hour delay was unreasonable. But the overarching issue was that Randolph was refused his counsel of choice during a “critical phase” of the trial: jury selection. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a “trial commences at least from the time when the work of impaneling the jury begins.” Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 202 (1965).

The trial court refused to grant a continuance of a mere three hours to allow Randolph’s lawyer to be present and forced him to go through voir dire with a lawyer he had already fired. The Court stated that granting the requested three-hour continuance wouldn’t have been unfair to the prosecution, nor would it have interfered with the “swift and efficient administration of criminal justice.”

Based on the foregoing, the Court concluded that it was “satisfied that no fairminded jurist could disagree that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision conflicts with the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.” Thus, the Court held that “the state trial court’s error violated Randolph’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision holding otherwise was unreasonable under AEDPA, and that this violation is not subject to harmless-error analysis.” The Court acknowledged that the AEDPA standard for relief is “difficult to meet,” but Randolph met it.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the U.S. District Court and remanded the case to that court to issue a writ of habeas corpus. See: Randolph v. Sec’y Pa. Dept’t Corr., 5 F.4th 362 (3d Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

Randolph v. Sec’y Pa. Dept’t Corr.

Powell v. Alabama

287 U.S. 45; 53 S.Ct. 55; 77 L.Ed. 158





Nos. 98-100.
Argued Oct. 10, 1932.
Decided Nov. 7, 1932.

[287 U.S. 45, 47] Mr. Walter H. Pollak, of New York City, for petitioners.

Mr. Thomas E. Knight, Jr., of Montgomery, Ala., for the State of Alabama.

JUSTICES: Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo


1. The rule denying the aid of counsel to persons charged with felony, which (except as to legal questions) existed in England when our Constitution was formed, was rejected in this country by the Colonies before the Declaration of Independence, and is not a test of whether the right to counsel in such cases is embraced in the guarantee of "due process of law." P. 65.

2. The rule that no part of the Constitution shall be treated as superfluous is an aid to construction which, in some instances, may be conclusive, but which must yield to more compelling considerations whenever they exist. P. 67.

3. The fact that the right of an accused person to have counsel for his defense was guaranteed expressly (as respects the federal Government) by the Sixth Amendment, notwithstanding the presence of the due process clause in the Fifth Amendment, does not exclude that right from the concept "due process of law." Pp. 66-68.

4. The right of the accused, at least in a capital case, to have the aid of counsel for his defense, which includes the right to have sufficient time to advise with counsel and to prepare a defense, is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 68-71.

5. In a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable of making his own defense adequately because of ignorance, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time and under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case. P. 71.

6. In a case such as this, the right to have counsel appointed, when necessary, is a logical corollary to the right to be heard by counsel. P. 72.

7. In such circumstances, the trial court has power, even in the absence of statute, to appoint an attorney for the accused; and the attorney, as an officer of the court, is bound to serve. P. 73.

COUNSEL: Mr. Walter H. Pollak, with whom Messrs. Carl S. Stern and George W. Chamlee were on the brief, for petitioners.

Mr. Thomas E. Knight, Jr., Attorney General of Alabama, with whom Mr. Thos. Seay Lawson, Assistant Attorney General, was on the brief, for respondent.

The phrase "due process of law" antedates the establishment of our institutions. It embodies one of the broadest and most far reaching guaranties of personal and property rights. It is necessary for the enjoyment of life, liberty and property that this constitutional guaranty be strictly complied with. However, it is imperative that this Court under our system of government see that the States be not restricted in their method of administering justice in so far as they do not act arbitrarily and discriminatingly. Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309; Holden v. Hardy, 169 U.S. 366, 389; Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22, 31; Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516, 535.

A defendant in a criminal case has been accorded due process of law when there is a law creating or defining the offense, a court of competent jurisdiction, accusation in due form, notice and opportunity to answer the charge, trial according to the established course of judicial proceedings, and a right to be discharged unless found guilty. No particular form of procedure is required. The question of due process is determined by the law of the jurisdiction where the offense was committed and the trial was had. Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22; Hurtado v. California, 110 U.S. 516; Brown v. New Jersey, 175 U.S. 172; Jordan v. Massachusetts, 225 U.S. 167; Rogers v. Peck, 199 U.S. 425; Garland v. Washington, 232 U.S. 642; Missouri ex rel. Hurwitz v. North, 271 U.S. 40; Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535; Ong Chang Wing v. United States, 218 U.S. 272; Hodgson v. Vermont, 168 U.S. 262.

Here the trials were in accordance with the constitution and statutes of Alabama, the provisions of which are in no way attacked as being unconstitutional. They were conducted in compliance with the rules, practice, and procedure long prevailing in the State. The court of last resort decided these cases in compliance with those rules of appeal and error which they apply in all cases.

Under the laws of Alabama the petitioners were entitled to counsel. Const., Art. 1, § 6. When it appears that a defendant charged with a capital offense has not employed counsel, it is the duty of the court to appoint attorneys for his defense. Code (1923), § 5567. A compliance with this section is shown. At the time of the arraignment there were nine defendants; and while the record does not disclose the number of attorneys practising at the Scottsboro bar, we venture to say that there were not as many as eighteen attorneys at that bar, the number which the court could have appointed under the statute.

If there had been only one defendant, it does not seem plausible to us that he could correctly contend that he had been denied due process of law because the court appointed more than two lawyers to represent him. This was at most, a mere irregularity which would not invalidate a conviction.

The petitioners were represented by counsel from Chattanooga and by two members of the bar of Scottsboro. They were not put to trial until one week after counsel were appointed. The record affirmatively shows that counsel had conferred with them and had done everything that they knew how to do. Henry Ching v. United States, 264 Fed. 639, cert. den., 254 U.S. 630.

There was no demand or motion made for a continuance. The defendants were represented by capable counsel, one of whom has enjoyed a long and successful practise before the courts of Jackson County. Counsel, by their own statements, show that they not only had time for preparation of their case, but that they knew and proceeded along proper lines for a week prior to the trial.

JUDGES: Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo


OPINION: [*49] [**56] [***160] MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases were argued together and submitted for decision as one case.

[**57] The petitioners, hereinafter referred to as defendants, are negroes charged with the crime of rape, committed upon the persons of two white girls. The crime is said to have been committed on March 25, 1931. The indictment was returned in a state court of first instance on March 31, and the record recites that on the same day the defendants were arraigned and entered pleas of not guilty. There is a further recital to the effect that upon the arraignment they were represented by counsel. But no counsel had been employed, and aside from a statement made by the trial judge several days later during a colloquy immediately preceding the trial, the record does not disclose when, or under what circumstances, an appointment of counsel was made, or who was appointed. During the colloquy referred to, the trial judge, in response to a question, said that he had appointed all the members of the bar for the purpose [***161] of arraigning the defendants and then of course anticipated that the members of the bar would continue to help the defendants if no counsel appeared. Upon the argument here both sides accepted that as a correct statement of the facts concerning the matter.

There was a severance upon the request of the state, and the defendants were tried in three several groups, as indicated above. As each of the three cases was called for trial, each defendant was arraigned, and, having the [*50] indictment read to him, entered a plea of not guilty. Whether the original arraignment and pleas were regarded as ineffective is not shown. Each of the three trials was completed within a single day. Under the Alabama statute the punishment for rape is to be fixed by the jury, and in its discretion may be from ten years imprisonment to death. The juries found defendants guilty and imposed the death penalty upon all. The trial court overruled motions for new trials and sentenced the defendants in accordance with the verdicts. The judgments were affirmed by the state supreme court. Chief Justice Anderson thought the defendants had not been accorded a fair trial and strongly dissented. 224 Ala. 524; id. 531; id. 540; 141 So. 215, 195, 201.

In this court the judgments are assailed upon the grounds that the defendants, and each of them, were denied due process of law and the equal protection of the laws, in contravention of the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically as follows: (1) they were not given a fair, impartial and deliberate trial; (2) they were denied the right of counsel, with the accustomed incidents of consultation and opportunity of preparation for trial; and (3) they were tried before juries from which qualified members of their own race were systematically excluded. These questions were properly raised and saved in the courts below.

The only one of the assignments which we shall consider is the second, in respect of the denial of counsel; and it becomes unnecessary to discuss the facts of the case or the circumstances surrounding the prosecution except in so far as they reflect light upon that question.

The record shows that on the day when the offense is said to have been committed, these defendants, together with a number of other negroes, were upon a freight train on its way through Alabama. On the same train were seven white boys and the two white girls. A fight took [*51] place between the negroes and the white boys, in the course of which the white boys, with the exception of one named Gilley, were thrown off the train. A message was sent ahead, reporting the fight and asking that every negro be gotten off the train. The participants in the fight, and the two girls, were in an open gondola car. The two girls testified that each of them was assaulted by six different negroes in turn, and they identified the seven defendants as having been among the number. None of the white boys was called to testify, with the exception of Gilley, who was called in rebuttal.

Before the train reached Scottsboro, Alabama, a sheriff's posse seized the defendants and two other negroes. Both girls and the negroes then were taken to Scottsboro, the county seat. Word of their coming and of the alleged assault had preceded them, and they were met at Scottsboro by a large crowd. It does not sufficiently appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with, or that they were actually in danger of, mob violence; but it does appear that the attitude of the community was one of great hostility. The sheriff thought it necessary to call for the militia to assist in safeguarding the prisoners. Chief Justice Anderson pointed out in his opinion that every step taken from the arrest and arraignment to the sentence was accompanied by the military. Soldiers took the defendants to Gadsden for safekeeping, [***162] brought them back to Scottsboro for arraignment, returned them to Gadsden for safekeeping while awaiting trial, escorted them to Scottsboro for trial a few days later, and guarded the court house and grounds at every stage of the proceedings. It is perfectly apparent that the proceedings, from beginning to end, took place in an atmosphere of tense, hostile and excited public sentiment. During the entire time, the defendants were closely confined or were under military guard. The record does not disclose their ages, except that one of them [**58] was nineteen; but the [*52] record clearly indicates that most, if not all, of them were youthful, and they are constantly referred to as "the boys." They were ignorant and illiterate. All of them were residents of other states, where alone members of their families or friends resided.

[***HR1] However guilty defendants, upon due inquiry, might prove to have been, they were, until convicted, presumed to be innocent. It was the duty of the court having their cases in charge to see that they were denied no necessary incident of a fair trial. With any error of the state court involving alleged contravention of the state statutes or constitution we, of course, have nothing to do. The sole inquiry which we are permitted to make is whether the federal Constitution was contravened ( Rogers v. Peck, 199 U.S. 425, 434; Hebert v. Louisiana, 272 U.S. 312, 316); and as to that, we confine ourselves, as already suggested, to the inquiry whether the defendants were in substance denied the right of counsel, and if so, whether such denial infringes the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[***HR2] First. The record shows that immediately upon the return of the indictment defendants were arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Apparently they were not asked whether they had, or were able to employ, counsel, or wished to have counsel appointed; or whether they had friends or relatives who might assist in that regard if communicated with. That it would not have been an idle ceremony to have given the defendants reasonable opportunity to communicate with their families and endeavor to obtain counsel is demonstrated by the fact that, very soon after conviction, able counsel appeared in their behalf. This was pointed out by Chief Justice Anderson in the course of his dissenting opinion. "They were nonresidents," he said, "and had little time or opportunity to get in touch with their families and friends who were scattered throughout two other states, and time has demonstrated [*53] that they could or would have been represented by able counsel had a better opportunity been given by a reasonable delay in the trial of the cases, judging from the number and activity of counsel that appeared immediately or shortly after their conviction." 224 Ala., at pp. 554-555; 141 So. 201.

[***HR3] It is hardly necessary to say that, the right to counsel being conceded, a defendant should be afforded a fair opportunity to secure counsel of his own choice. Not only was that not done here, but such designation of counsel as was attempted was either so indefinite or so close upon the trial as to amount to a denial of effective and substantial aid in that regard. This will be amply demonstrated by a brief review of the record.

April 6, six days after indictment, the trials began. When the first case was called, the court inquired whether the parties were ready for trial. The state's attorney replied that he was ready to proceed. No one answered for the defendants or appeared to represent or defend them. Mr. Roddy, a Tennessee lawyer not a member of the local bar, addressed the court, saying that he had not been employed, but that people who were interested had spoken to him about the case. He was asked by [***163] the court whether he intended to appear for the defendants, and answered that he would like to appear along with counsel that the court might appoint. The record then proceeds:

"The Court: If you appear for these defendants, then I will not appoint counsel; if local counsel are willing to appear and assist you under the circumstances all right, but I will not appoint them.

"Mr. Roddy: Your Honor has appointed counsel, is that correct?

"The Court: I appointed all the members of the bar for the purpose of arraigning the defendants and then of course I anticipated them to continue to help them if no counsel appears.

[*54] "Mr. Roddy: Then I don't appear then as counsel but I do want to stay in and not be ruled out in this case



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