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PRIETO v. ZOOK, NO. 14-4

Decided: June 30, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

This case was an appeal from the Virginia district court’s denial of Alfredo Rolando Prieto’s (“Prieto”) petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Prieto was originally convicted of two counts of capital murder, two counts of the use of a firearm in the commission of murder, grand larceny, and rape. Although juror misconduct at his first trial led to a mistrial, he was convicted again at a second trial, and although Prieto brought forth substantial evidence of an intellectual disability that would render him ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins, the jury still found him intellectually competent and sentenced him to death. Although the Supreme Court of Virginia vacated his death sentence and remanded, on remand a third jury sentenced him to death, and the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed. Prieto filed a habeas petition with the Supreme Court of Virginia, claiming, inter alia, that his counsel was ineffective and that his death sentence was prohibited under Atkins, but the court held that he could not bring his Atkins claim because he did not raise it on direct appeal of his original death sentence. Prieto then filed a habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, but the district court dismissed his Atkins claim as procedurally defaulted, and the rest of his claims as meritless. This appeal followed.

The Fourth Circuit first examined the standard for intellectually disabled criminals, specifically looking at the two-prong test for determining intellectual disability. Under the first prong, although Virginia courts require an IQ score of 70 or below, the Fourth Circuit looked to the recent decision in Hall that held that a specific number cutoff for intellectual disability was not the correct test. Instead, the court should consider both prongs because no one factor alone was sufficient to determine intellectual disability. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit determined that Virginia’s previous interpretation of the first prong violated the Eighth Amendment, and that a state could not “deny a defendant the opportunity to establish his intellectual disability based on evidence of ‘deficiency? in adaptive functioning over his lifetime,’ simply because that defendant has an IQ score above 70.” However, in order to resolve the question before it, the court needed to determine whether or not Prieto had procedurally defaulted on the Atkins claim.

In determining that question, the court first stated that it was not appropriate for it to review a question of federal law that had been decided by a state court “if the state court’s decision rests on an independent and adequate state ground.” Under a procedural rule established in a Virginia case, a “non-jurisdiction issue that could have been raised during the direct appeal process is not cognizable in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus,” and the court stated that this rule satisfied the state ground requirement for a denial of a habeas petition. Because Prieto procedurally defaulted, only the existence of one of the two exceptions to the procedural default rule would save his claim. Thus, Prieto would have had to establish either “cause and prejudice” for the default or that the default would work a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Prieto argued that both exceptions applied to his case. Since the district court held that his ineffective of assistance of counsel claim was without merit, that defeated his “cause and prejudice,” leaving only the “fundamental miscarriage of justice” exception. After examining the definition of “fundamental miscarriage of justice,” the court concluded that the “innocent of death” definition applied here, and that Prieto must show “through clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable juror would have found the petitioner eligible for the death penalty under the applicable state law.” After a thorough examination of the evidence that both Prieto and the State provided as to Prieto’s intellectual disability, the court concluded that Prieto could not meet the high burden required for the “actual innocence” exception, and that no reasonable juror would sentence him to death. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Jennie Rischbieter