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Habeas Review – Sufficiency of Evidence – Prosecutorial Misconduct

Parker v. David Eugene Matthews, USSC No. 11-845, 6/11/12, reversing 651 F.3d 489 (6th Cir. 2011)

In this habeas case, the United States Court of Ap- peals for the Sixth Circuit set aside two 29-year-old murder convictions based on the flimsiest of rationales. The court’s decision is a textbook example of what the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) proscribes: “using federal habeas corpus review as a vehicle to second-guess the reasonable decisions of state courts.” Renico v. Lett, 559 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 12). We therefore grant the petition for certiorari and reverse.

Matthews, convicted of murder and sentenced to death by a Kentucky state court, argued on habeas review that the Commonwealth failed to prove absence of extreme emotional disturbance (which would mitigate the offense to manslaughter). The Sixth Circuit agreed (“because Petitioner satisfied his burden of going forward with respect to the EED element, and the prosecution neither undermined nor contravened Petitioner’s EED evidence, there remained a reasonable doubt regarding the EED element. Therefore, no rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Petitioner acted in the absence of EED, and convicting Petitioner violated the requirements articulated in In re Winship”). As noted, though, the Supreme Court now reverses: the state court concluded that the instructions adequately defined the issues, and the proof supported the finding of murder under those instructions. In short, the jury properly decided guilt with the burden assigned the Commonwealth, as upheld by the state court, but the Sixth Circuit erred in failing to defer to the state court determination. (Review here, the Court stresses, involves a “twice-deferential standard,” given that the issue is sufficiency of the evidence: deference in the sense that the evidence is reviewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, and in the separate sense that a state court decision may not be overturned on habeas unless “objectively unreasonable.”)

The Sixth also granted relief on a theory of prosecutorial misconduct, that the closing argument suggested collusion with an expert to manufacture the emotional disturbance defense. The Court says in effect that the lower court failed to construe the record properly, that the prosecutor did not truly argue collusion. (“With the prosecutor’s immediate clarification that he was not alleging collusion in view, the Sixth Circuit’s conclusion that this feature of the closing argument clearly violated due process is unsupportable. “) Nor did the prosecutor’s suggestion “that Matthews had a motive to exaggerate his emotional disturbance in his meetings with” the expert work a denial of due process. (“The Sixth Circuit cited no precedent of this Court in support of its conclusion that due process prohibits a prosecutor from emphasizing a criminal defendant’s motive to exaggerate exculpatory facts.”)

The lower court further “erred by consulting its own precedents, rather than those of this Court,” an error “identical” to one committed by the same Circuit in Renico, making the error “plain and repetitive.” And so the Sixth shall become the Ninth.

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