Elmore v. Ozmint, No. 07-14

Decided: Nov. 22, 2011

Edward Lee Elmore filed a petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, seeking habeas corpus relief after the South Carolina supreme court denied his state postconviction relief (PCR) application.  Though Elmore’s petition asserted various claims, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether Elmore was entitled to habeas relief and found that Elmore’s trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment, and thus awarded habeas relief.

Elmore was twice convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court ultimately vacated the judgment and remanded for further consideration. During a subsequent trial limited to sentencing, Elmore again received a death sentence, which the state supreme court affirmed. The Supreme Court denied certiorari, prompting Elmore to file a state PCR application that was denied in its entirety. While Elmore’s appeal was pending, the prosecution revealed that it had found previously “missing” physical evidence; the evidence included “Item T,” an unmatched Caucasian hair found on the victim’s body, which could potentially exculpate the African American defendant. The state supreme court remanded for further proceedings, but the state PCR court denied relief. In 2005, Elmore filed a § 2254 petition asserting various claims, including an unexhausted mental retardation claim pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). The district court denied relief on the basis that the state PCR court’s conclusion that the suppression of the missing physical evidence by the prosecution during the 1984 trial “was immaterial to the … verdict.” Elmore appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which stayed proceedings pending the exhaustion of the mental retardation claim. In 2010, the state PCR court held that Elmore was mentally retarded, and thus could not be executed pursuant to Atkins. The prosecution did not appeal this finding and the court converted Elmore’s death sentence to a term of life imprisonment. Resolution of the Atkins issue dispensed with several of Elmore’s claims, but the Fourth Circuit still faced issues regarding Elmore’s entitlement to habeas relief.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed de novo the district court’s denial of habeas relief based only on the information contained in the state court record, pursuant to Tucker v. Ozmint, 350 F.3d 433, 438 (4th Cir. 2003). Furthermore, AEDPA required the Fourth Circuit to assess whether the state PCR court’s decisions were based on “an objectively unreasonable factual determination in view of the evidence before it, bearing in mind that factual determinations by state courts are presumed correct absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.”  Baum v. Rushton, 572 F.3d 198, 210 (4th Cir. 2009).

Despite giving deference to the state court’s findings, the Fourth Circuit held that the state PCR court incorrectly applied and acted contrary to the Strickland standard for ineffective assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Strickland imposes a duty to conduct an investigation into potential legal choices, measured against the investigation which a reasonable attorney would make. The state PCR court ruled that the attorneys’ “faith in the integrity and infallibility of the police” justified their failure to investigate the prosecution’s forensic evidence during the 1984 trial, and thus deemed the attorneys’ conduct reasonable. The Fourth Circuit, in contrast, found that the defense attorneys’ failure to conduct a reasonable investigation into the forensic evidence—an integral part of the prosecution’s case—constituted patent ineffective assistance of counsel. Furthermore, Strickland imposes a “contemporary assessment rule,” as acknowledged by the state PCR court, which prohibits the use of hindsight in assessing the reasonableness of an attorney’s performance. The Fourth Circuit emphasized that the state PCR court improperly relied on facts developed after the 1982 and 1984 trials to retroactively justify defense counsel’s performance—specifically, the decision against investigating the forensic evidence. Because of the egregious nature of defense counsel’s failure to investigate, “no amount of deference could compel any fair conclusion other than that Elmore has satisfied his burden under Strickland’s performance prong.”

As to the prejudice prong, the state PCR court stated that “a reviewing court…must look only at whether the error alleged resulted in a proceeding which was ‘fundamentally unfair or unreliable.’” Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 369 (1993). The Supreme Court previously rejected this interpretation and instead emphasized that courts must “‘consider the totality of the evidence before the … jury’ in determining whether there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, a different verdict would have been returned.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695. Thus, the state PCR court should have considered all of the evidence presented during trial and the PCR proceedings and impermissibly departed from the Strickland standard in considering “less than the totality of the evidence” and by “unduly minimizing its import and evaluating it piecemeal.” The Fourth Circuit proceeded to apply the totality-of-the-evidence standard and concluded that “there is a reasonable probability…that, but for his lawyers’ failure to investigate the State’s forensic evidence, Elmore would have been acquitted” in 1984, thus satisfying Strickland’s prejudice prong. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded to award Elmore a writ of habeas corpus.

Circuit Judge Wilkinson dissented on the basis that the majority’s decision “cannot be squared with the deferential standards required under AEDPA, the facts of [the] case, or Supreme Court precedent.” Judge Wilkinson stated that, “whatever defense counsel’s alleged failings, the outcome of Elmore’s 1984 trial would almost certainly have been the same,” thus Elmore failed to satisfy Strickland’s prejudice prong and counsel’s performance did not violate the Sixth Amendment. In arguing that the majority’s decision went too far, Judge Wilkinson emphasized that “even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court’s contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011). Furthermore, appellate judges are in “the worst possible position” to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses presented during trial and the PCR proceedings, thus the Fourth Circuit should be extremely deferential to state court determination. Judge Wilkinson also argues a policy point in that allowing Elmore to go free is a disservice to the victim of the heinous murder, because the evidence so overwhelmingly suggests Elmore’s guilt.

Full Opinion

-Michelle Theret

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