Eleventh Circuit Finds Deferential Standard Under AEDPA Precludes Granting a Death Row Inmate Federal Habeas Relief for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

In Terrell v. Warden, No. 11-13660 (March 11, 2013), the Eleventh Circuit reviewed de novo the district court’s conclusions regarding a death row inmate’s federal habeas petition for ineffective assistance of counsel and ultimately found that the district court’s ruling was neither contrary to nor involved an unreasonable application of federal law, thus affirming a denial of habeas relief.

At the conclusion of a third trial in 2001, the Petitioner was convicted of malice murder and ten counts of first-degree forgery for stealing and forging checks as well as shooting and beating a man to death. Additionally, the Petitioner received the death penalty after the jury found him guilty of two aggravating factors to the murder conviction: armed robbery and depravity of mind.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (“AEDPA”) imposes the highly deferential standard of clear error for reviewing a state court’s ruling on the merits of constitutional claims. As such, a federal habeas court can grant relief only in the instance that the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. §2254(d). Specifically, to establish an ineffective assistance of counsel claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688 (1984), the petitioner has the burden to show that his counsel’s assistance was deficient, such that it “[falls] below an objective standard of reasonableness,” and that the deficient performance prejudiced the petitioner to the point that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

First, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that the state Supreme Court did not unreasonably apply Strickland when it determined that trial counsel’s alleged failure to obtain a forensic pathologist did not prejudice the Petitioner because even if the Petitioner presented expert testimony that the victim was dead when he received blows to the head and face, the jury would still have found depravity of mind due to the “repulsive and significant” injuries to the victim. As such, the likelihood of a different result was not substantial.

Second, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that the state Supreme Court reasonably determined that trial counsel did not perform deficiently by effectively failing to challenge the aggravator of armed robbery in the third trial when he used a different defense than he had previously in the first two trials. The Court, in considering the “powerful circumstantial evidence” and the Petitioner’s inability to clear error of the state Supreme Court’s factual findings, determined that even if trial counsel did perform deficiently, the Petitioner was not necessarily prejudiced.

Thus, the standard set forth in the AEDPA ultimately precluded granting habeas relief since the state Supreme Court’s factual findings were supported in the record, and that the state Supreme Court did not unreasonably apply Strickland to the facts of this case.

The Concurrence agreed with the ruling but argued that the state Supreme Court’s inquiry should have been how trial counsel’s concession of the armed robbery in the third trial “affected the jury’s decision to sentence the petitioner to death—not whether the jury would have, or could have, found the armed robbery aggravating factor in any event.”

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