Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Velazco: no evidentiary hearing on counsel's ineffectiveness

In Velazco v. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 13-12525 (Dec. 16, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of an evidentiary hearing to a habeas petitioner who claimed that counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate two defense witnesses to the murder whose credibility was impeached at trial. The Court found that the Florida courts could have reasonably concluded that Velazco failed to establish prejudice regarding his trial counsel’s failure to investigate, because these two witnesses were, in fact, helpful to the defense, and because of the overwhelming evidence that defeated his defense of self-defense.

Wilson: Counsel not ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence

In Wilson v. Warden, No. 14-10681 (Dec. 15, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for a 1996 murder. The Court rejected the argument that trail counsel were ineffective because they failed to investigate his background and present mitigation evidence at sentencing. The Court found that Supreme Court of Georgia could have reasonably concluded that new evidence of Wilson’s background would not have changed the overall mix of evidence at his trial. For example, evidence that Wilson was more of a follower than a leader was contradicted that he had “risen to the rank of ‘God damn chief enforcer’” of a local gang.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Cruanes: Youth Offender Act required automatic set aside of prior conviction

In U.S. v. Cruanes, No. 13-15057 (Dec. 5, 2014), the Court issued a writ of mandamus ordering a district court to set aside a defendant’s conviction as of December 1, 1983. The Court noted that under the (then effective, now-repealed) Federal Youth Corrections Act, the conviction of a youth offender is “automatically set aside” when the offender is discharged by the Parole Commission or by the court. Here, Cruanes had been discharged in 1983, but the district court never issued a certificate setting aside his conviction. The Court noted that the district court erred in ruling only the Parole Commission was authorized to issue this certificate.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Brown: Upward variance supported by depraved online chats

In U.S. v. Brown, No. 13-13670 (Nov. 25, 2014), the Court affirmed a 240-month sentence for possession and receipt of child pornography. The Court recognized that as a result of an upward variance, the 240-month sentence was well above the applicable Guidelines range of 78 to 97 months. But Brown failed to show that the upward variance was unreasonable. The Court noted the district court’s reference to the self-evident danger to society posed by Brown, as demonstrated by his “depraved” online chats and interest in the abduction, sexual molestation, murder, and cannibalization of children.

McIlwain: Prior Commitment to mental institution satisfies 922(g)(4)

In U.S. v. McIlwain, No. 14-10735 (Nov. 25, 2014), the Court held that the defendant, prior to possession of a firearm, had been “committed to a mental institution” within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), and therefore affirmed his conviction under this statute. The Court noted that McIlwain received a formal hearing before the state probate court, was represented by counsel, and the court heard sworn testimony and made substantive findngs of fact that it included in its formal order of commitment. The Court further noted that, just as a convicted felon could not mount a collateral attack on the validity of a prior state conviction under § 922(g)1), McIlwain was not allowed to mount a collateral attack on an underlying state order of commitment under § 922(g)(4).

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tanzi: Counsel not ineffective in failing to present evidence of XYY abnormality

In Tanzi v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 13-12421 (Nov. 19, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a murder committed in 2000. The Court rejected the argument that counsel was ineffective in failing, among other things, to present evidence of Tanzi’s XYY abnormality. The Court noted that men with XYY chromosones tend to have diminished socialization skills, but do not automatically become antisocial. The Court also noted a defense mental expert’s testimony that knowledge that Tanzi had an extra & chromosome would not have changed any of the opinions he expressed during the penalty phase. Tanzi therefore failed to satisfy the prejudice prong of Strickland’s ineffective assistance of counsel standard.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Spencer: Misapplication of Career Offender Guideline is not cognizable under 2255.

In Spencer v. U.S., No. 10-10686 (Nov. 14, 2014), the Court (en banc) (5-4) held that a defendant cannot attack a misapplication of the career offender Guideline in a collateral attack on his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The Court first noted that it had erroneously granted Spencer a certificate of appealability, because such a certificate may only issue if the applicant has made a “substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” Here, there was no underlying constitutional issue. Nevertheless, the Court declined to vacate the certificate “at this late hour,” because the matter had been litigated before a panel and was now before the en banc Court. The Court warned that it would not be so lenient in the future. Turning to the merits, the Court noted that under § 2255, a district court lacks the authority to correct a claimed sentencing error unless the claimed error constitutes a “fundamental defect” which inherently results in a “complete miscarriage of justice.” The Court held that the Guideline error Spencer alleged did not qualify as a complete miscarriage of justice. The Court pointed out that Spencer’s sentence was below the statutory maximum sentence for his offense. The sentence was therefore “lawful.” Because the Guidelines are advisory, the district court could reimpose the same sentence on remand, and the error therefore cannot be a complete miscarriage of justice. The Court noted that even if Spencer’s sentence on direct appeal would be viewed as “substantively unreasonable” – the incorrect application of the career offender Guideline nearly doubled his Guideline range, from a range of 70-87 months to a range of 151-180 months – this would not qualify as a “complete miscarriage of justice” because the sentence was still below the statutory maximum. The Court declined to equate “legal innocence” of a prior qualifying conviction under the career offender Guideline with “factual innocence,” because Spencer still committed a “serious” prior crime: felony child abuse (at the age of 18, Spencer had sex with a 14-year old). The sentencing judge could still consider the seriousness of this conviction at resentencing. The Court distinguished cases where a prior conviction had been vacated, finding that this vacatur constitutes a "new fact" with which the petitioner can challenge his sentence. Spencer merely presented an argument of "legal innocence." (Martin, J,, dissenting noted that the ruling will increase costs in the criminal justice system to the extent that the U.S. taxpayer will have to spend dozens of thousands of dollars incarcerating Spencer for time he should not be in prison). (Jordan, J., dissenting, argued that the mistaken career offender designation was a complete miscarriage of justice, noting that the 81-month increase in Spencer's sentence is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lucas: No requirement for affirmative instruction that jury unanimity is not required for mitigating factor

In Lucas v. Warden, No. 13-11909 (Nov. 12, 2014), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for three 1998 murders. The Court rejected Lucas’ ineffective assistance of counsel claim, finding that counsel did not fail to develop expert testimony that Lucas’ intoxication on the day of the murders rendered his confession unreliable. The Court pointed out that Lucas professed and exhibited a memory of the murders during his videotaped confession. The Court also rejected the argument that counsel failed to present Lucas life history as mitigation, finding that quite the opposite counsel presented substantial testimony of family history. The Court also rejected Lucas’ Brady claim, agreeing with the Georgia state courts that the testimony of a witness would have been cumulative at best. The Court rejected the request for a new trial based on the prosecutor’s improper statement during cross-examination during the penalty phase that prison escapes happen “every day.” The Court noted that the defense witness challenged this statement, and that the statement was “far less egregious” than what said by prosecutors in other cases in which no prejudice was held to have occurred. The Court rejected the argument that the jury should have been instructed that mitigating factors need not be found unanimously. The Court recognized that it is error to instruct a jury that it must agree unanimously on mitigating factors. But it found no requirement that an affirmative instruction must be given when the trial court has not otherwise suggested that unanimity is mandatory.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Cole: Habeas petition untimely

In Cole v. Warden, Georgia State Prison, No. 13-12635 (Oct. 6, 2014), the Court held that a habeas petition was correctly dismissed for being untimely. Cole claimed that a habeas petition filed more than fifteen years after the limitations period had expired should be deemed timely, because he only discovered a violation at his guilty plea at this time. The Court noted that the written plea form Cole signed referred to the constitutional rights that Cole claimed were not mentioned at his plea colloquy. Cole failed to establish due diligence in discovering the violation. The Court also rejected Cole’s equitable tolling argument, again finding he failed to exercise reasonable diligence.