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Habeas Review – Guilty Plea – Ineffective Assistance

Premo v. Moore, USSC No. 09-659, 1/19/11, vacating grant of habeas relief, in 574 F.3d 1092

Moore, who admitted brutalizing the victim and shooting him in the temple, accepted a plea bargain on advice of counsel: he pleaded guilty to felony-murder, and received the minimum allowable sentence, thus avoiding a capital-offense charge. He raised a postconviction challenge to counsel’s failure to seek suppression of his statement to the police, and after the Oregon state court denied relief, the 9th Circuit on habeas review held that, even though Moore had made the same admissions to two other witnesses as to the police, counsel was ineffective for not pursuing suppression of the custodial statement. The Supreme Court now reverses, holding that counsel did not perform deficiently and, separately, that Moore suffered no prejudice in any event. Highlights:

Deferential review. The habeas scheme (AEDPA), 28 USC § 2254, requires that the state court decision be given a high degree of deference. And, an ineffective-assistance claim requires that “a most deferential” standard for judging counsel’s performance. These are separate inquiries, and must not be conflated.

“Establishing that a state court’s application of Strickland was unreasonable under §2254(d) is all the more difficult. The standards created by Strickland and §2254(d) are both ‘highly deferential,’ id. , at 689; Lindh v. Murphy , 521 U. S. 320, 333, n. 7 (1997) , and when the two apply in tandem, review is ‘doubly’ so, Knowles , 556 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11). The Strickland standard is a general one, so the range of reasonable applications is substantial. 556 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11). Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under §2254(d). When §2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel’s actions were reasonable. The question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland ’s deferential standard.”

Slip op., pp. 5-6, quoting, at length, Harrington v. Richter, also decided this date. The court of appeals erroneously “accorded(ed) scant deference to counsel’s judgment, and doubly wrong” to find the state court decision unreasonable. Counsel determined that suppression of Moore’s in-custody statement would be pointless, because the same confession of guilt to his brother and accomplice’s girlfriend would have been admissible regardless. The state court’s acceptance of this tactical justification wasn’t unreasonable, therefore under AEDPA review must be sustained. Slip op., p. 7.

Plea bargaining and IAC claims. The court discusses at some length how the process of negotiating plea bargains is “suffused with uncertainty,” the thrust being to fortify still more in this context the regime of deferential review. “In determining how searching and exacting their review must be, habeas courts must respect their limited role in determining whether there was manifest deficiency in light of information then available to counsel.” Counsel’s judgment is not merely entitled to deference; ” at different stages of the case that deference may be measured in different ways.” Slip op., p. 9.

Moore’s prospects at trial were thus anything but certain. Even now, he does not deny any involvement in the kidnaping and killing. In these circumstances, and with a potential capital charge lurking, Moore’s counsel made a reasonable choice to opt for a quick plea bargain. At the very least, the state court would not have been unreasonable to so conclude. Cf. Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U. S. 652, 664 (2004) (explaining that state courts enjoy “more leeway” under AEDPA in applying general standards).

Slip op., p. 11. The 9th Circuit went astray by relying on a non-IAC case for the idea that an “additional confession ordinarily” prejudices the defense. That principle, the Court says, “may not be … incorporated into the Strickland performance inquiry.” Slip op., pp. 11-12.

IAC-prejudice and guilty pleas. Prejudice requires showing a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the defendant wouldn’t have pleaded guilty but instead would have insisted on going to trial. Slip op., p. 12, citing Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). AEDPA deference is heightened in this context:

Deference to the state court’s prejudice determination is all the more significant in light of the uncertainty inherent in plea negotiations described above: The stakes for defendants are high, and many elect to limit risk by forgoing the right to assert their innocence. A defendant who accepts a plea bargain on counsel’s advice does not necessarily suffer prejudice when his counsel fails to seek suppression of evidence, even if it would be reversible error for the court to admit that evidence.

… Thus, the question in the present case is not whether Moore was sure beyond a reasonable doubt that he would still be convicted if the extra confession were suppressed. It is whether Moore established the reasonable probability that he would not have entered his plea but for his counsel’s deficiency, Hill, supra , at 59, and more to the point, whether a state court’s decision to the contrary would be unreasonable.

Slip op., pp. 13, 14. The ensuing discussion more or less makes the point that the confession didn’t appear to be crucial to the prosecution’s case. Nor can Moore argue that he might have obtained a still-better plea bargain had counsel pursued suppression, because the test, again,

was established in Hill, which held that a defendant who enters a plea agreement must show “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” 474 U. S., at 59. Moore’s failure to make that showing forecloses relief under AEDPA.

Slip op., p. 15.

As to the references to Hill, and considering that, having concluded there was no deficient performance the Court simply had no need to discuss prejudice at all, you can bet it’s an unfavorable augury for Missouri v. Frye. Otherwise, in this case and the companion Richter, the Court took the 9th Circuit to task. As one observer put it,  Richter “begins with what is (for [Justice Kennedy] at least) unusually strong language, accusing the Ninth Circuit of ‘judicial disregard’ of the principles governing issuance of the writ.” Whether that message was intended only for the 9th, it is sure to be heard in the other Circuits.

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