Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hill: Reasonable Doubt Standard does not unduly burden mentally retarded offenders

In Hill v. Humphrey, No. 08-15444 (Nov. 22, 2011) (en banc) (7-4), the Court denied habeas relief to a Georgia inmate, rejecting his constitutional challenge to Georgia’s requirement that he prove his mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt in order to avoid the death penalty. The Court found no “clearly-established” Supreme Court law supported the challenge.

The Court noted that Atkins v. Virginia held that it was unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded offenders, but left it to States to implement the procedural rules to prevent the execution of these offenders. The Court also noted that in Leland v. Oregon (1952), the Supreme Court held that Due Process was not violated when, for an insanity defense, a State required the defendant to prove his insanity beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court also rejected the argument that requiring a mentally retarded person to prove his mental retardation beyond a reasonable burdened the Eighth Amendment right not to be executed. The Court found no Supreme Court decision holding that such a right exists.

The Court further noted that Georgia law affords a mentally retarded offender procedural safeguards. The Court rejected the argument that creating a burden on a defendant to prove mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt creates too high a risk of erroneous executions, noting that any rule would allocate some risk to error to the defendant.

The Court rejected the dissent’s reliance on Pannetti v. Quarterman, finding that in an AEDPA habeas context, a court could not “import” a procedural burden of proof requirement from Panetti into the Atkins context.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fulford: "Minor" is not anyone the defendant believes is a minor

In U.S. v. Fulford, No. 10-12916 (Nov. 14, 2011), the Court (Carnes, Dubina, Sands b.d.) held that the five-level enhancement of USSG § 2G2.2(b)(3) for distribution of child pornography to a minor did not apply when there was no evidence that the person who received the materials was a minor. The district court had imposed the enhancement because the evidence indicated that the defendant believed that the person who was receiving the materials was a minor; this person, even if an adult, was posing as a minor.

Reversing, the Court noted that the plain language of the definition of a “minor” in the Guideline did not include “anyone the defendant believes is under the age of 18.” Consequently, this omission foreclosed inclusion of this category as a basis for a § 2G2.2(b)(3) enhancement.. “Even if expanding the guidelines definition to cover the facts of this case would be an improvement, it is not our function to modify, amend, or improve statutes or guidelines.”

The Court found unpersuasive the government’s attempts to extend the rationales of other child pornography cases, in which enhancements were applied even though the victim was not a minor but a police officer posing as a minor. The Court contrasted the “clear intent” of Guidelines enhancements to apply in such cases with the text of the Guidelines in § 2G2.2(b)(3). The Court also questioned the reasoning of one of its precedents in which the term “minor” was interpreted “more broadly” than the actual language of the Guidelines.

The Court remanded the case to the district court, for it to rule in the first instance on the government’s alternative argument that the evidence showed that Fulford’s victim was, in fact, a minor.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Walton: Second Florida petition not "properly filed"

In Walton v. Sec. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 11-10558 (Nov. 9, 2011), the Court affirmed on untimeliness grounds the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death in 1989.

After his first state petition for habeas relief was denied by the Florida Supreme Court, Walton filed a second state petition. However, this second petition was not “properly filed,” as required to toll the running of AEDPA’s one-year statute of limitations for federal habeas petitions. The second petition was not properly filed because it was not accompanied with a brief in appeal of the denial of his first motion for postconviction relief, as required by Florida law. Although the Florida Supreme Court did not find that the second petition was untimely, the Court found that it was untimely, under Florida law, and therefore failed to satisfy the “properly filed” requirement of AEDPA.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Augustin: Terrorism convictions affirmed

In U.S. v. Augustin, No. 09-15985 (Nov. 1, 2011), the Court affirmed terrorism-related convictions in connection with a plans to provide support to al Qaeda and bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago.
The Court rejected the argument that the government should not have been permitted to amend the indictment to delete surplusage, noting that the government is in fact permitted to do so.
The Court also rejected the argument that the Constitution’s Treason Clause, which requires a showing that the defendant owed allegiance to the United States, foreclosed conviction under certain counts, because they did not allege that the defendants swore an oath of allegiance to al Qaeda. The Court noted that the statutes at issue did not have as an element allegiance to the United States, and therefore did not implicate the Treason Clause.
Though recognizing that the proof was "far from overwhelming," the Court rejected challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, noting that the defendants photographed buildings as potential terrorist targets, and volunteered to serve under al Qaeda. Moreover, they participated in an oath ceremony.
The Court rejected the argument that the government’s involvement in creating the crime was so pervasive that it violated Due Process. The Court found that the conduct was not "outrageous."
The Court also rejected the argument that an FBI agent gave opinion testimony about the defendant’s criminal mind that was inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 704(b). Though recognizing that there is a "fine line" between testimony about what an observer "would take to be" the defendant’s intent and testimony about a defendant’s "actual state of mind," the Court concluded that the agent’s testimony left the ultimate issue of the defendant’s state of mind to the jury.
The Court found that the district court properly qualified a witness as an expert to testify about a criminal organization’s structure, noting the witness’ experience and qualifications.
The Court upheld the district court’s exclusion of testimony of a witness proffered by the defense to testify about gangs. The Court noted that, under Fed. R. Evid. 701, the testimony was only admissible to the extent it was based on perception, and impermissible if based on "expertise."
The Court found no error in the dismissal of a juror during deliberations. The district court has broad discretion in dealing with juror misconduct. Here, it questioned each of the other jurors individually, as well as the juror who was said not to want to follow the court’s instructions on the law.