SCOTUS Preview: Wood v. Allen

November 3, 2009
Guest Post

By Emily Garcia Uhrig, Associate Professor of Law, University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

The Supreme Court will hear argument tomorrow in Wood v. Allen, an Alabama state capital case in which the petitioner, Holly Wood, challenges his death sentence for fatally shooting his ex-girlfriend out of jealousy while she was sleeping in her home.

Mr. Wood's challenge stems from defense counsel's failure to investigate and develop mitigation evidence for the penalty phase of his trial based on his substantial mental deficiencies. (To begin with, Mr. Wood has an IQ estimated in the 60s.) Mr. Wood was represented by three attorneys - two, experienced and one, just out of law school. Experienced counsel assumed responsibility for the guilt phase of Mr. Wood's trial and put new counsel, who had no prior criminal trial or capital case experience, in charge of the penalty phase.

Defense counsel learned from a pretrial competency evaluation that Mr. Wood functioned "in the borderline range of intellect." But despite the fact that issues pertaining to mental capacity often provide fertile ground for mitigation during the penalty phase of capital cases, counsel did not investigate further Mr. Wood's limited intellectual functioning nor introduce any evidence on the subject during the penalty phase. The jury recommended death by a 10-2 margin, the statutory minimum for such recommendation in Alabama. The judge abided by the jury's recommendation and sentenced Mr. Wood to death by electrocution.

Mr. Wood challenged his sentence in state post-conviction proceedings on the ground that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington during the penalty phase of his trial, in violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. He argued that (1) defense counsel was deficient in failing to develop and introduce the mitigation evidence; and (2) there was a reasonable probability that but-for that deficiency, he would not have received a death sentence. The evidence adduced at two state evidentiary hearings on the claim strongly suggested that counsel's omission was due more to professional inexperience and poor communication among defense counsel, than a calculated, tactical decision by the defense team. (Experienced defense counsel's testimony was largely unhelpful in this regard in that, due to the passage of time, they recalled little, if any, of the actual tactical decisions made during the penalty phase.)

Nonetheless, the state court denied the ineffective assistance claim on the ground that Mr. Wood had not shown deficiency, instead concluding that "counsel thoroughly reviewed [the competency] report and determined that nothing in that report merited further investigation," and "could have decided against seeking another mental health evaluation, in order to prepare other, more promising, defenses for trial." The court also held that there was no reasonable probability that introduction of evidence of Mr. Wood's mental deficiencies would have changed the jury's recommendation. Alabama's appellate court affirmed and the state supreme court denied a request for review.

Mr. Wood turned next to federal court for relief, filing a habeas corpus petition in federal district court raising the same ineffective assistance claim. After reviewing the state record, the district court granted the writ, finding "nothing in the record to even remotely support a finding that counsel made a strategic decision not to let the jury at the penalty stage know about Wood's mental condition." Thus, the district court ordered the state either to vacate Mr. Wood's death sentence and resentence him to life without the possibility of parole, or to the conduct a new sentencing hearing consistent with Strickland.

A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding (1) the evidence "amply supports" the state courts' finding that the decision not to introduce mitigation evidence based on mental deficiency was an informed, tactical one, and (2) regardless, Mr. Wood suffered no prejudice. The dissent noted that the majority's conclusion was "pure speculation" that disregarded direct evidence to the contrary and, given the close margin of the jury's death penalty vote, there is a reasonable probability that the failure to introduce the mitigation evidence impacted the sentence he received.

In granting certiorari, the Supreme Court agreed to evaluate the merits of the Eleventh Circuit's ruling. But in order to do so, the Court also agreed to consider a threshold issue regarding the level of deference federal courts must give to state factual findings in resolving federal habeas petitions. This issue of statutory interpretation has vexed and divided lower federal courts since the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") rewrote the standards that govern federal habeas review. Remarkably, until now, the Court has not provided guidance on the matter.

The debate on the level of deference centers on the interaction of two sections of AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(d)(2) and 2254(e)(1). Section 2254(d)(2) provides that a federal court may grant a writ of habeas corpus where the state court's adjudication of the claim "resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." Section 2254(e)(1), by contrast, provides that "a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct" by a federal court and "the applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." The parties, as well as circuit courts, disagree as to how to reconcile these two provisions.

In reversing the district court's grant of the writ, the Eleventh Circuit interpreted the two provisions as supplementing one another. In other words, in determining whether the state court's adjudication of Mr. Wood's ineffective assistance claim was "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts" within the meaning of § 2254(d)(2), the court presumed, under § 2254(e)(1), those factual findings to be correct absent Mr. Wood's ability to rebut that presumption by clear and convincing evidence. Because, the majority determined, Mr. Wood could not rebut the presumption of correctness of the state courts' factual findings regarding the tactical nature of counsel's performance, the claim failed on the ground that the state courts' ruling was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Respondents argue that this interpretation of the interplay between §§ 2254(d)(2) and 2254(e)(1) is correct and consistent with AEDPA's purpose to restrict federal habeas review of criminal judgments.

Mr. Wood, and the ACLU as amicus curiae, on the other hand, argue that the two provisions are independent, though complementary: § 2254(d)(2) should govern federal review when, as here, all of the relevant factual findings occurred in state court, either at trial or in postconviction proceedings; § 2254(e)(1)'s heightened deference should govern review of state factual findings only when the petitioner seeks to rebut those findings in federal court by introducing new evidence. In the latter case, the petitioner has the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. Thus, petitioner and amicus argue, the Eleventh Circuit erred in conflating the standards set forth under the two provisions. To interpret the provisions as the Eleventh Circuit has, the ACLU further argues, restricts federal habeas review beyond what is constitutionally permissible under the Suspension Clause.

The issue is a tricky one, with both parties finding support from the canons of statutory interpretation. Guidance from the Court on the issue is long overdue and, though seemingly academic, may have a significant impact on litigants such as Mr. Wood: While the state courts' factual finding that defense counsel's decision not to investigate evidence of his mental deficiencies was tactical may qualify as "unreasonable" under § 2254(d)(2), it may be a more difficult task to rebut that finding by clear and convincing evidence under § 2254(e)(1), particularly where defense counsel, themselves no longer recall their own decision-making. Thus, for Mr. Wood and others like him, the availability of habeas relief - a literal matter of life or death - may ultimately turn on the level of deference given to state court factual findings, as articulated by the relationship between these two statutory provisions.