Recent US Supreme Court Decision Further Tightens Access to Habeas Relief

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.The Court began by noting that the Sixth Circuit reached its result “despite the substantial deference it must accord to state-court rulings in federal habeas proceedings.”  Later in the opinion, the Court observed that the applicable Federal statute, as well as the Court’s own precedents, “erect[] a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court … The Court of Appeals was required to apply this deferential standard to the state court’s analysis of [Wheeler’s] juror exclusion claim.”  In light of current Federal law governing habeas proceedings, the Court went on to state that habeas review of juror exclusion claims, like habeas review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims, are subject to a higher, doubly deferential standard.  And, of course, the Court noted that State courts have “broad discretion” as to such issues.

Further, and as if all of this was insufficient to make the point, the icing on the proverbial cake came in how the Court framed the issue that the Sixth Circuit should have considered:  Whether the State supreme court’s decision to affirm the trial court’s excusal of the juror for cause was “so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”

Finally, the Court observed that this standard applied in death penalty cases like any other case.  The fact that the prisoner was facing the death penalty had no effect upon the applicable analysis.

Wheeler, like a number of prior decisions, further closes the door to habeas relief for State prisoners seeking to attack their State convictions in Federal court.  The standard set (reiterated?) by the Wheeler Court is very strict, and can be met only by a very small number of defendants whose claims are sufficiently strong to overcome the substantial deference and broad discretion that Federal courts will accord State court rulings.

James S Friedman LLC represents defendants who seek to attack their criminal convictions by means of a motion for post-conviction relief, or a petition for habeas corpus.  If you or a member of your family are thinking about a PCR motion or habeas petition, contact the firm today to discuss your options.

Justia Lawyer Rating
New Jersey Bar Association Badge
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Badge
 ACDL - NJ Badge
Contact Information