US Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty Where Defendant’s Attorney Made Strategic Decision not to Present Evidence of Bipolar Mood Disorder

Cullen, Acting Warden v. Pinholster, ( Docket No. 09-1088), slip opinion found at:

On April 4, 2011, the United States Supreme Court reversed the en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that granted habeas corpus relief to a petitioner convicted on two counts of first degree murder, and reinstated the death penalty recommended by the jury and imposed by the California trial court.

The petitioner alleged that his trial counsel was ineffectual for failing to adequately investigate and present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of the trial to support his mental health claim that school, medical and legal records, and declarations from family members and another psychiatrist had diagnosed him with a bipolar mood disorder and a seizure disorder. The prosecution presented eight witnesses testifying to the defendant’s threatening and violent behavior. The petitioner’s trial counsel unsuccessfully sought to exclude the aggravating evidence on the grounds that the prosecution had not given the petitioner proper notice under California law. The petitioner therefore only called his mother as a witness in mitigation. The petitioner’s counsel had consulted a psychiatrist who had diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder, but did not call him as a witness.

The California Supreme Court twice reviewed the defendant’s claim, unanimously denying and dismissing the allegations each time. The United States District Court, however, heard evidence on the petitioner’s claim and granted habeas relief. The Ninth Circuit reviewing the federal district court’s decision en banc, considered the new evidence from the federal district court hearing and upheld the decision on the grounds that the State court had violated clearly established federal law.

Justice Thomas writing for the Court, held that review of habeas cases under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court cannot be granted unless 1) the decision was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, or 2) was based on an unreasonable determination of facts in light of the evidence presented in state court. The Supreme Court held that the record under review is therefore limited to the record in existence at that time. The Court determined that the state court record supported the idea that the petitioner’s counsel acted strategically to get the prosecution’s aggravation witnesses excluded for lack of notice. The Court noted that the petitioner was also an unsympathetic client who boasted about his criminal history during the guilt phase, leaving trial counsel with limited mitigation strategies. The Court held that there was no reasonable probability that the additional evidence would have changed the verdict. Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Kagan dissented. The other justices joined in the decision of the Court, but wrote multiple concurring opinions.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 4