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Jefferson v. Upton, USSC No. 09-8852, 5/24/10

United States Supreme Court per curiam decision

Habeas Review

Petitioner Lawrence Jefferson, who has been sentenced to death, claimed in both state and federal courts that his lawyers were constitutionally inadequate because they failed to investigate a traumatic head injury that he suffered as a child.  The state court rejected that claim after making a finding that the attorneys were advised by an expert that such investigation was unnecessary. Under the governing federal statute, that factual finding is presumed correct unless any one of eight exceptions applies. See 28 U. S. C. §§2254(d)(1)–(8) (1994 ed.). But the Court of Appeals considered only one of those exceptions (specifically §2254(d)(8)). And on that basis, it considered itself “duty-bound” to accept the state court’s finding, and rejected Jefferson’s claim. Because the Court of Appeals did not fully consider several remaining potentially applicable exceptions, we vacate its judgment and remand.

Very briefly put, the state court made a crucial finding of fact adverse to Jefferson’s claim; on federal habeas review, the court of appeals ruled that, because the finding had support in the record, it must be respected. However, as the block quote suggests, the lower court neglected to determine whether the finding was undermined under other analyses. The Court determines that the procedure by which the state court derived the finding — an ex parte contact with the prosecutor — fit such an exception: “In treating §2254(d)(8) as the exclusive statutory exception, and by failing to address Jefferson’s argument that the state court’s procedures deprived its findings of deference, the Court of Appeals applied the statute and our precedents incorrectly.” Keep in mind that the case was filed before AEDPA’s effective date “and is therefore governed by federal habeas law as it existed prior to that point.” AEDPA requires among other things that the habeas court apply law clearly established by Supreme Court precedent. And note that the Court in this very case recognizes that, while it has criticized the practice, the Court has also “stated that a court’s “verbatim adoption of findings of fact prepared by prevailing parties’ should be treated as findings of the court.”

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