Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions
Thursday, November 20, 2014
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
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.