Many defendants convicted in State court proceedings will, after exhausting their State level appeals and post-conviction applications, seek habeas relief in Federal court. Generally speaking, the process focuses upon violations of Federal constitutional law in the underlying State proceedings, and is commenced by filing a habeas petition and supporting papers in the appropriate Federal district court within the applicable limitations period. Habeas is often the final opportunity to attack a State court conviction. These applications frequently, but do not always, stem from allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel. For many years, the US Supreme Court has issued decisions restricting the availability of habeas relief to a State defendant. The latest case to do so is White v. Wheeler, No. 14-1372, decided on December 14, 2015.
A capital jury convicted defendant Wheeler of killing two individuals. The habeas petition arose from a claim that a judge improperly struck a prospective juror for cause during the selection process. The prosecutor moved to strike the juror for cause because his responses during voir dire indicated that he was not absolutely certain he could realistically consider the death penalty. The defense opposed the motion, arguing that the prospective juror’s responses indicated that he could consider all penalty options, regardless of any reservations he may have had about the death penalty. The trial judge struck the juror for cause because his inconsistent answers suggested that he could not consider the death penalty as part of the entire range of sentencing options.
The district court dismissed the petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted habeas relief as to defendant’s sentence. That Court found that excusing the prospective juror violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution. The US Supreme Court reversed, and its basis for doing so is clearly, unmistakably and repeatedly stated throughout the opinion. Continue reading