Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Monday, September 22, 2008

Williams: Counsel Ineffective for Failing to Investigate Defendant's Life History

In Williams v. Allen, No. 07-11393 (Sept. 17, 2008), the Court (Birch, Dubina, Wilson) reversed the denial of habeas relief to an Alabama inmate sentenced to death for a 1988 murder.
The Court found that Williams’ counsel were ineffective at the sentencing stage in failing to broaden the scope of their investigation with regard to Williams’ life history. As a result, counsel "obtained an incomplete and misleading understanding of Williams’ life history." Minimal investigation would have led counsel to follow up on the information about Williams’ psychological problems chronicled in reports, and to interview family members who could corroborate evidence of abuse.
The Court found that Williams was prejudiced by counsel’s failure to investigate, because the evidence of Williams’ repeated beatings in childhood was not presented. Further, the murder here was not "highly aggravated," as evidenced by the fact that the jury recommended a life-sentence by a 9-3 vote (the judge nonetheless imposed the death sentence). The Court held that the Alabama Supreme Court decision, which found no prejudice, was an unreasonable application of Strickland, because the mitigating evidence, taken as a whole, "might have altered the trial judge’s appraisal of Williams’ moral culpability."

Antonelli: Parole Commission 2241 Challenge Not subject to gatekeeping

In Antonelli v. Warden, U.S.P. Atlanta, No. 08-10608 (Sept.17, 2008), the Court held that habeas petitions under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 that challenge denials of credit by the United States Parole Commission are not subject to the gatekeeping requirements of AEDPA (which require such petitioners to first obtain permission from the Court of Appeals before filed a "second or successive" petition).
As to Antonelli’s petition, however, the Court held that it was properly dismissed, because the issue it presented – whether his prior Illinois state convictions were unconstitutional – had been previously adjudicated in a prior federal habeas proceeding. Citing 28 U.S.C. § 2244(a).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wood: No Deficient Performance on Mental Deficiency Evidence

In Wood v. Hall, No. 06-16412 (Sept. 16, 2008) (2-1, Barkett, J., dissenting), the Court reversed the grant of habeas relief to an Alabama inmate sentenced to death for a 1993 murder.
The district court granted habeas relief based on counsel’s ineffective assistance in failing to put on evidence, during the sentencing phase, of the defendant’s diminished mental capacity.
Reversing, the district court noted that trial counsel had presented some mitigating evidence, and were entitled to deference in not presented further mitigating evidence in light of the downside of this evidence, e.g. a doctor’s evaluation concluded that despite Wood’s "borderline intellectual functioning," he "still had a complete memory of his behavior at the time of the murder." The Court added that even if counsel had been deficient, there was no prejudice to Wood, given evidence of Wood’s "adaptive functioning."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Blankenship: Counsel Not Ineffective to only address guilt,not mitigation

In Blankenship v. Hall, No. 08-10511 (Sept. 15, 2008), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate sentenced to death for a 1978 murder.
Blankenship claimed that his state trial counsel provided constitutionally deficient representation by failing to investigate and present evidence of Blankenship’s traumatic childhood at the sentencing phase.
The Court noted that Blankenship bore the burden of proof on this issue. The Court noted counsel’s vague memories, owing to the length of time that elapsed after the trial and before they were questioned about their performance. However, the record showed that counsel knew about Blankenship’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, the family history of schizophrenia, and his "difficult background." Further, Blankenship himself was "in the best position" to inform his counsel on such matters. In order to prove that his counsel was deficient, Blankenship had to show his counsel were unaware of these matters. Blankenship did not show this. Further, Blankenship instructed counsel not to contact his family.
Finally, the Court found that counsel’s strategy at sentencing was to create doubt about Blankenship’s guilt for the murder, to the exclusion of mitigating evidence regarding punishment. "[F]aced with a brutal rape and murder of an elderly woman," Counsel’s strategy was "far from baseless," and, in fact, "sensible."

Monday, September 08, 2008

Schwartz: Affidavit Admission Was Bruton Error

In U.S. v. Schwartz, No. 05-11715 (Sept. 5, 2008), the Court reversed a $30 million fraud conviction because the admission of one defendant’s incriminatory affidavit incriminated his co-defendant, in violation of Bruton v. U.S., 391 U.S. 123 (1968).
During its case in chief, the prosecution introduced in evidence a defendant’s affidavit which set forth the name of a corporation that was using investor monies to line the personal business coffers of the persons who controlled it. Then, in closing argument, the prosecutor expressly linked a co-defendant to this corporation, as the person who controlled the corporation.
The Court found that even if the affidavit itself was insufficient to compel an incriminatory inference against the co-defendant, the prosecutor’s closing statement made the inference inevitable – and therefore "devastating." Hence, a Bruton error occurred. Moreover, the error was not harmless because the affidavit and the closing argument, though repetitive of other testimony, summarized points contained in disparate parts of a lengthy trial, and had "singular credibility," coming as it did from an alleged participant in the fraud. The Court vacated this conviction.
As to another defendant, the Court rejected the argument that the government violated his use immunity agreement by using statements in the grand jury that the defendant gave to a law enforcement agent, to obtain his indictment. The Court noted that the use immunity agreement contained a "Kastigar waiver." A Kastigar waiver means that the defendant waived his right to challenge use of his statements before a grand jury because they were obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The Court inferred that by waiving the Kastigar remedy the defendant meant to waive challenges to the use of his statements before the grand jury.
The Court rejected the sufficiency of the evidence challenge of two other defendants. The Court found that the evidence showed that they knowingly participated in fraud conspiracy.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Moore: Career Offenders Not Eligible for Crack Amendment Reduction

In U.S. v. Moore, No. 08-11230 (Sept. 5, 2008), the Court ruled that career offenders are not eligible for a sentence reduction under the recent retroactive amendment to the crack quantity Guideline.
The Court noted that 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) only authorizes a sentence reduction if a defendant’s sentence is "based on a sentencing range that has subsequently been lowered." The Court ruled that this "plain language" made career offenders ineligible for a crack amendment sentence reduction. The Court explained that career offenders sentences are "based on the guideline ranges applied to career offenders under § 4B1.1." Thus the crack quantity amendments, which affected § 2D1.1, "played no role" in the calculation of career offender sentences. The Court noted that USSG § 1B1.1 "further support[ed]" this interpretation, because it provided that a retroactive amendment does not apply when it does not have the effect of lowering the a defendant’s sentence. The Court distinguished other cases in which career offenders did get the benefit of the retroactive amendment, noting that the original sentences in these cases were not based on the career offender guidelines. [Note: In relying on USSG § 1B1.1, the Court did not address whether the Guidelines are advisory in § 3582(c)(2) proceedings].

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Gonzalez: No basis for $250,000 fine

In U.S. v. Gonzalez, No. 06-15365 (Sept. 2, 2008), the Court reversed the imposition of a $250,000 fine on a defendant convicted of fraud.
The Court noted that the PSI concluded that the defendant lacked the ability to pay a fine. The district court at sentencing stated without explanation that Gonzalez was able to pay a fine, and imposed a $250,000 fine. This fine was three times the maximum provided by the Guidelines. The defendant objected.
Because the record provided no explanation regarding the basis for the fine, the Court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing.

Williams: Intent to distribute is not actual distribution

In U.S. v. Williams, No. 07-11707 (Aug. 29, 2008), the Court upheld a jury instruction that instructed the jury that it could take into consideration the defendant’s flight – Williams, when pursued by police, drove his car up to 90 miles per hour before eventually crashing into a metal pole – in determining guilt or innocence of his drug trafficking charge. The Court rejected the argument that the flight reflected nothing more than a generalized consciousness of guilt related to outstanding warrants, rather than guilt about the drugs found in his car.
Turning to the sentence, the Court reversed the imposition of a lifetime ban on receiving federal benefits. The Court noted that 21 U.S.C. § 862 only provides for a lifetime ban if the defendant is convicted of "distribution" of controlled substances. Williams was convicted under 21 U.S.C. § 841 of possession with intent to distribute. The Court concluded that possession with intent to distribute is not actual distribution. Moreover, "if there is ambiguity," the court was obliged to favor a lenient interpretation.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Johnson: Appeal Waiver of 90-day deadline valid

In U.S. v. Johnson, No. 08-10029 (Aug. 28, 2008), the Court held that the defendant, in his appeal waiver, waived his right to challenge an order requiring him to pay $30,000 in restitution, even though the district court entered this order 39 months after his sentence was imposed, well past the 90-day deadline of 18 U.S.C. § 3664(d)(5).
The Court noted that the untimeliness of the district court’s action did not give rise to a claim that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, because the 90-day period, like a statute of limitations, was subject to equitable tolling, and was therefore not jurisdictional. Hence, the defendant could waive his right to appeal the district court’s order. Moreover, the 39-month delay did not constitute an "extreme circumstance" which would defeat an appeal waiver, in part because the defendant’s plea agreement recognized his responsibility for a loss of $30,000. The Court recognized that different circumstances might lead to a different result, and it did not intend to give district courts "free reign" to disregard the 90-day deadline.