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Harrington v. Richter - 562 U.S. 86, 131 S. Ct. 770 (2011)


As amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. It preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with U.S. Supreme Court precedents. It goes no farther. Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal. As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.


For the assault and murder of another in a drug dealer's California home, defendant Joshua Richter was convicted. Based upon the drug dealer's claims that Richter's codefendant, Branscombe, shot him and that his gun safe, a pistol, and cash were missing, law enforcement arrested defendant Richter after a search of Richter's home turned up the safe and ammunition matching evidence at the scene. The prosecution initially built its case on the drug dealer's testimony, which was corroborated by evidence at the scene, including spent shell casings, blood spatters, and blood pooled near a bedroom doorway, but adjusted its approach after Richter's counsel, in his opening statement, outlined the theory that Branscombe shot the drug dealer in self-defense and that other victim was killed in the crossfire. Defense counsel stressed the lack of forensic support for the prosecution's case. The prosecution then decided to call an expert in blood pattern evidence who, under cross-examination, conceded that she had not tested the sample for cross-contamination. Rejecting Richter's testimony that told his conflicting version of events, a jury convicted Richter and he was sentenced to life without parole.  Richter sought habeas relief asserting, inter alia, that his counsel provided ineffective assistance, when he failed to present expert testimony on blood evidence because it could have bolstered Richter's theory. He also offered affidavits from forensic experts to support his claim. The Supreme Court of California denied the habeas petition in a one-sentence summary order. Subsequently, Richter reasserted his claims in a federal habeas petition, which the district court denied. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted habeas relief following a rehearing en banc, concluding that Richter's trial counsel had been deficient for failing to consult experts on blood evidence in determining and pursuing a trial strategy. Certiorari was granted.


Was the application by the California courts of the Strickland standard for ineffective counsel unreasonable?





The United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment granting habeas relief. Even though the California Supreme Court's decision was unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still had to be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. There was no merit in Richter's argument that 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254(d) was inapplicable because the California Supreme Court did not say it was adjudicating his claim on the merits. It did not say it was denying the claim for any other reason. The pivotal question was whether the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable. The Ninth Circuit conducted a de novo review. It gave § 2254(d) no operation or function in its reasoning. Its analysis illustrated a lack of deference to the state court's determination and an improper intervention in state criminal processes. The conclusion that because the inmate trial's attorney had not consulted forensic blood experts or introduced expert evidence, the California Supreme Court could not reasonably have concluded counsel provided adequate representation was erroneous. The Ninth Circuit erred in suggesting counsel had to be prepared for any contingency. The case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

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