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Supreme Court Reverses 6th Circuit: Habeas Review of Capital Conviction not Deferential Enough

Although it may seem at odds with common sense, while a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury of his or her peers, those jurors must be Death Penalty Qualified (i.e. they can and are willing to impose the Death Penalty) before sitting on a capital (death penalty) case. This case is one where one particular juror, Juror 638, hemmed and hawed at the question of whether he could consider all the penalties but ultimately stated that "he was 'not absolutely certain whether [he] could realistically consider' the death penalty." Pp. 7 (citing App. to Pet. for Cert., 132a)..

The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned the Trial Court decision (which, the Supreme Court notes) that was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court. "During the jury selection process, the state trial court excused a juror after concluding he could not give sufficient assurance of neutrality or impartiality in considering whether the death penalty should be imposed." Pp. 1. The prosecution moved to strike the juror "for cause based on his inconsistent replies" (Pp.2) and the defense opposed the motion, noting that the juror could consider all the penalty options. The Judge presiding over the trial noted that she did not see the juror as problematic but, the next day, struck the juror for cause. The Defendant was tried and convicted of double homicide. The Kentucky Supreme Court held that there was no state or federal constitutional violation.

"After exhausting available state postconviction procedures, respondent sought a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U. S. C. §2254 from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky." Pp. 3. "While acknowledging the deferential standard required on federal habeas review of a state conviction, the Court of Appeals held that allowing the exclusion of Juror 638 was an unreasonable application of Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U. S. 510 (1968), Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U. S. 412 (1985), and their progeny." Pp.3. The Supreme Court disagrees and reverses.

Standard: Habeas relief is authorized if the state court's decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(1). Habeas is the last ditch effort here for the defendant to get relief from Federal Court. Under §2254(d)(1), “ ‘a state prisoner must show that the state court’s ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.’” White v. Woodall, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 4) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U. S. 86, 103 (2011)).

Application: The Supreme Court states that the Sixth Circuit failed to follow the appropriate standard of review, that being the two above mentioned cases, Witherspoon and Wainright, which detail the appropriate guidelines for excluding a juror for cause in regards to death penalty. Further, the Court of Appeals was to be deferential to the trial court decision to strike the juror. Pp. 5. Indeed, "the federal court must accord an additional and independent, high standard of deference," Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted), or be Doubly Deferential.

The Supreme Court faults the 6th Circuit with failing to see that the trial judge's exchange were diligent and thoughtful, the trial judge considered the juror's testimony with care, that the trial judge was fair in her exercise of discretion and that "Juror 638’s answers during voir dire were at least ambiguous as to whether he would be able to give appropriate consideration to imposing the death penalty." Pp. 6 (citing Uttecht v. Brown, 551 U. S. 1, 9 (2007), the Supreme Court reiterates that the trial judge was entitled to resolve this ambiguity in favor of the prosecution.

Of particular importance and one should pay careful attention to page seven to eight of the decision:

The Court of Appeals’ conclusion conflicts with the meaning and holding of Uttecht and with a common-sense understanding of the jury selection process. Nothing in Uttecht limits the trial court to evaluating demeanor alone and not the substance of a juror’s response. And the implicit suggestion that a trial judge is entitled to less deference for having deliberated after her initial ruling is wrong. In the ordinary case the conclusion should be quite the opposite. It is true that a trial court’s contemporaneous assessment of a juror’s demeanor, and its bearing on how to interpret or understand the juror’s responses, are entitled to substantial deference; but a trial court ruling is likewise entitled to deference when made after a careful review of a formal transcript or recording. If the trial judge chooses to reflect and deliberate further, as this trial judge did after the proceedings recessed for the day, that is not to be faulted; it is to be commended.

Pp. 7-8 (external quotation marks omitted). The Supreme Court implies that a decision close to the edge, where the trial court judge changes her mind, is one that is to be afforded deference based on common-sense understanding of the jury selection process. As some constitutional scholars note, there is a paucity of the Supreme Court judges who presided over trials or were trial lawyers themselves.

Holding: " The Kentucky Supreme Court was not unreasonable in its application of clearly established federal law when it concluded that the exclusion of Juror 638 did not violate the Sixth Amendment… [The Supreme] Court again advises the Court of Appeals that the provisions of AEDPA apply with full force even when reviewing a conviction and sentence imposing the death penalty" Pp. 8.

The Case is White v. Wheeler, No. 14-1372, 577 U.S. ___ (Dec. 14, 2015).

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