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SCOTUS summarily reverses grant of habeas relief

White v. Wheeler, USSC No. 14-1372, 2015 WL 8546240, 12/14/15 (per curiam), reversing Wheeler v. Simpson, 779 F.3d 366 (6th Cir. 2015); docket

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals failed to give proper deference to the state courts’ rulings when it granted habeas relief on the ground that the state courts unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent regarding removal of a juror in a death penalty case.

The judge at Wheeler’s trial struck a juror for cause after concluding the juror couldn’t give sufficient assurance he would consider imposing the death penalty. The state supreme court held the trial judge acted appropriately. On habeas review the Sixth Circuit held that allowing the exclusion of the juror was an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent, citing Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412 (1985), and their progeny.

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), state court rulings excluding a death penalty juror must be given “double deference”: The state prisoner must show the state supreme court’s ruling “‘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)); and the trial court’s conclusions about the juror’s attitude are likewise entitled to deference, even in the absence of explicit analysis by the judge or clear statements by the juror, Uttecht v. Brown, 551 U.S. 1, 7, 10 (2007). (Slip op. at 4-5). The Sixth Circuit failed to apply this standard:

The Court of Appeals did not properly apply the deference it was required to accord the state-court ruling. A fairminded jurist could readily conclude that the trial judge’s exchange with Juror 638 reflected a “diligent and thoughtful voir dire ”; that she considered with care the juror’s testimony; and that she was fair in the exercise of her “broad discretion” in determining whether the juror was qualified to serve in this capital case. Uttecht, 551 U.S., at 20. 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. And as this Court made clear in Uttecht, “when there is ambiguity in the prospective juror’s statements,” the trial court is “ ‘entitled to resolve it in favor of the State.’ “ Id., at 7 (quoting Witt, supra, at 434). (Slip op. at 6).

Not much here for the Wisconsin practitioner. Just another reminder—were it needed—of what the Court says it has “time and time again” advised lower courts: That AEDPA’s “erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief” (slip op. at 4). The Court also reminds the Court of Appeals that AEDPA applies “with full force even when reviewing a conviction and sentence imposing the death penalty” (slip op. at 8). As examples the Court pointedly cites a number of recent cases in which it has reversed Sixth Circuit habeas grants. One of the examples is White v. Woodall, cited above. Other examples are discussed here, here, herehere, and here.

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