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Holly Wood v. Allen, USSC NO. 08-9156, 1/20/10

US Supreme Court decision

Habeas – Effective Assistance of Counsel
The state court finding that counsel made a strategic decision not to pursue mitigation of sentence on a theory of mental limitations was “not unreasonable,” and thus not subject to reversal.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 contains two provisions governing federal-court review of state-court factual findings. Under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(2), a federal court may not grant a state prisoner’s application for a writ of habeas corpus based on a claim already adjudicated on the merits in state court unless that adjudication “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.” Under §2254(e)(1), “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct,” and the petitioner “shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” In this case, petitioner, a capital defendant, challenges the key factual finding made by the Alabama state court that denied his application for postconviction relief: that his attorneys’ failure to pursue and present mitigating evidence of his borderline mental retardation was a strategic decision rather than a negligent omission. Petitioner argues that the state court’s finding was unreasonable under §2254(d)(2) and that, in denying his federal habeas petition, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit erroneously conflated this standard with that of §2254(e)(1), which petitioner contends is not applicable in cases, such as this one, not involving a separate federal habeas evidentiary hearing.

We granted certiorari to address the relationship between §§2254(d)(2) and (e)(1). We conclude, however, that the state court’s factual determination was reasonable even under petitioner’s reading of §2254(d)(2), and therefore we need not address that provision’s relationship to §2254(e)(1). Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals on that basis.

Factual issues resolved by the state court are presumptively correct on habeas review. The decision, while narrowly upholding the challenged fact on the particular record, holds open the broader “questions of how and when §2254(e)(1) applies in challenges to a state court’s factual determinations under §2254(d)(2).”

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