Winston v. Pearson, Nos. 11-4, 11-5

Decided: June 25, 2012

A Virginia jury convicted Winston of capital murder.  During the sentencing phase, Winston’s attorney presented evidence of his psychological evaluations and family history to illustrate his troubled childhood and subaverage intelligence, which did not amount to mental retardation.  Winston received a death sentence and, when direct appeals failed and his conviction was final, sought habeas relief in state court.  The Virginia Supreme Court rejected requests for discovery and an evidentiary hearing and denied relief. Winston filed a habeas petition in federal district court pursuant, which granted an evidentiary hearing to explore whether his trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to raise the claim that his mental retardation categorically barred imposition of a death sentence pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S.  304 (2002).

During the initial evidentiary hearing in federal district court, Winston produced a 1997 IQ test reflecting a score of 66.  State law mandates that a claim of mental retardation be reflected by an IQ of 70 or below.  Winston’s trial attorneys testified at the hearing, both of whom admitted that neither read Winston’s completed education records, which included a form reclassifying Winston as mentally retarded.  Instead, the attorneys sent the records to Dr. Evan Nelson, a mental health expert, who was not called to testify at trial, but testified at the evidentiary hearing that Winston likely did not satisfy the criteria for mental retardation.  However, Nelson stated that, had the reclassification and information from school teachers and counselors been closely reviewed, it was possible Winston would be found to be mentally retarded.  Nelson was not called to testify at trial because the attorneys believed his testimony would damage Winston’s case.  Though he testified at trial, the district court ultimately concluded that it could not consider evidence adduced during the federal proceeding.

The Fourth Circuit vacated in part and ordered the district court to conduct a de novo review of Winston’s ineffectiveness claim while entertaining new evidence because the district court’s deference to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision was unwarranted, as it had not adjudicated Winston’s claims on the merits.  Winston v. Kelly (Winston I), 592 F.3d 535, 553 (4th Cir. 2010).  The determination that a case was not adjudicated on the merits is fact-specific.  In Winston’s case, the Supreme Court of Virginia failed to adjudicate his Atkins ineffectiveness claim on the merits because, while the state court had the opportunity to consider a more complete record, it chose to deny Winston’s request for an evidentiary hearing.

On remand, the district court granted the habeas petition as to his Atkins ineffectiveness claim and vacated Winston’s death sentence.  Winston v. Kelly, 784 F. Supp. 623, 626 (W.D. Va. 2011).  The district court found that Winston’s trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to review school records.  This ineffectiveness was prejudicial because there was a “reasonable probability that but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the outcome of Winston’s proceeding would have been different.”  Winston, 784 F. Supp. at 626.  The district court ordered Virginia to conduct a trial on the question of whether Winston was mentally retarded and either sentence him accordingly or otherwise resentence him without the possibility of death.  Winston moved to alter or amend the judgment so that the court would expressly grant a full sentencing retrial, but the court denied the motion, as it lacked authority to mandate the steps to be taken by Virginia to comply with its order.  Virginia appealed, claiming that relevant Supreme Court precedent compelled the Fourth Circuit to give substantial deference to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s denial of habeas relief, premised on the argument that Winston’s habeas petition lacked merit.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of habeas relief for the following reasons.

The AEDPA carefully regulates federal review of habeas claims of state prisoners, providing that such review can only be had when the adjudication of the claim “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court… or resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”

Virginia argues that Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388 (2011) and Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct 770 (2011), establish that the Supreme Court of Virginia’s denial of Winston’s habeas claims was an adjudication on the merits entitled to substantial deference under AEDPA.  In Pinholster, the Supreme Court of California unanimously and summarily dismissed two habeas petitions, prompting Pinholster to seek federal habeas relief.  His petition was granted, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed en banc, holding that new evidence adduced at a federal evidentiary hearing could be considered.  The Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s decision and reversed, stating that the record under review was limited to the record available to the state court.  Sotomayor dissented from the Pinholster decision, stating that some federal courts, including the Fourth Circuit in Winston I, advance the theory that a federal court may review a habeas claim de novo, a theory which Sotomayor rejected as undermining the AEDPA. Sotomayor’s rejection was limited to claims that were adjudicated on the merits by the state court, but the majority declined to distinguish between claims adjudicated on the merits and new claims.  Richter stands for the proposition that the state court’s failure to attach an explanation to its decision does not preclude its classification as adjudication on the merits.

The Fourth Circuit found that Pinholster and Richter did not affect its analysis in Winston I.  In Pinholster, the Supreme Court simply acknowledged the claims had been adjudicated on the merits in state court, and expended no real energy assessing whether § 2254(d)’s requirements were fulfilled.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court made clear that its analysis and interpretation of § 2254(d) applied only to claims that had been adjudicated on the merits in state court. The Fourth Circuit’s holing in Winston I was premised upon the fact that there was no adjudication on the merits by the state court, thus no deference was owed to the state court’s decision.  Pinholster only affects Winston I if it rejected the Fourth Circuit’s finding that there was no adjudication on the merits, which it did not.  Similarly, Richter does not change the analysis as Winston contests only the denial of his requests for discovery and an evidentiary hearing.

Virginia relied heavily upon Sotomayor’s citation of Winston I in her dissent in Pinholster in support of the proposition of de novo approach to review.  The state claims that because the majority specifically rejected this view, it effectively overruled Winston I.  Sotomayor’s views on the ramifications of the majority opinion are insufficient to compel the Fourth Circuit to reject Winston I.  The Fourth Circuit did not hold in Winston I that § 2254(d)(1) does not apply at all, but rather does not apply to Winston’s case as it was not adjudicated on the merits in state court.  The Fourth Circuit also approved of Winston I’s in holding that the state-court decision was not an adjudication on the merits in  Richardson v. Branker, 668 F.3d 128 (4th Cir. 2012).

Virginia also claimed that Jackson v. Kelly, 650 F.3d 477 (4th Cir. 2011) implicitly determined that Pinholster overruled Winston I.  Jackson characterized Pinholster as instructing that where a claim has been adjudicated on the merits, the factual record cannot be supplemented with evidence adduced for the first time at the federal proceeding.  Jackson did not shed any light on the adjudicated-on-the-merits requirement.  In contrast, this case turns upon whether there was adjudication on the merits.  Virginia finally argued that Atkins v. Clarke, 642 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2011) recognized that Pinholster overruled Winston I.  This contention is erroneous because, in Clarke, the petitioner’s claim had in fact been adjudicated on the merits, thus reliance on Winston I was misplaced.  However, the First Circuit did not suggest that Pinholster overruled the Fourth Circuit’s analysis in Winston I.

Because § 2254(d) does not apply to Winston’s Atkins ineffectiveness claim, the Fourth Circuit proceeded to review de novo the claim and the district court’s decision to grant habeas relief.  Applying the Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel, Winston must demonstrate deficient performance and resulting prejudice.  Deficient performance requires showing that the representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, but the Fourth Circuit will imply a presumption that counsel’s conduct was reasonable.  That being said, attorneys have an affirmative duty to investigate their client’s case in order to make informed legal choices.  In this case, Winston’s attorneys failed to review his school records and interview school officials about his mental acumen, which amounted to deficient performance.  Reviewing Winston’s records and interviewing school officials could have revealed that Winston was mentally retarded, barring the imposition of the death penalty.  This deficient performance resulted in prejudice, as the attorneys’ failure to conduct a reasonable investigation precluded an accurate diagnosis from Dr. Nelson, who admitted that, had he had the requisite information, his opinion might have been different.  The Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that, had this information been included in counsel’s investigation, the outcome of the proceeding could have been different, and thus Winston was entitled to habeas relief.

Winston also requested a full resentencing hearing as part of the district court’s remedy order.  However, the district court has no authority to order a resentencing and can only order a trial on the mental retardation issue, after which the state should sentence accordingly.  For the foregoing reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of habeas relief.

Full Opinion

-Michelle Theret

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