In Cave v. Sec. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 09-15602 (April 12, 2010), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1982 murder.
Declining to decide whether the deference owed to the Florida state courts was governed by an “unreasonableness” standard or a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, the Court found no merit in Cave’s ineffective assistance of counsel claims.
The Court rejected the argument that counsel was ineffective because he labored under the mistaken impression that a death sentence could not be imposed if the State relied only on circumstantial evidence. The Court noted that Cave failed to show that he would have put on a different defense that would have changed the outcome. Moreover, defense counsel decided not to put on a mental health mitigation defense because the risks outweighed the benefits.
The Court also rejected the argument that defense counsel was ineffective for pursuing a defense based on Cave’s lack of criminal history, because it opened the door for the State to ask about Cave’s arrest for rape. The Court found the defense not unreasonable, because it was consistent with an overall theory that Cave had “nothing to hide.”
Recognizing that it presented a closer question, the Court found that defense counsel was not ineffective for failing to object when the prosecution elicited, on cross-examination, Cave’s testimony that his prior arrest was for rape. The Court deferred to the finding that even if deficient, the failure to object did not sufficiently prejudice Cave’s defense to warrant habeas relief.