Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Owens: Burden shifting instruction harmless

In Owens v. McLauglin, No. 12-12590 (Oct. 24, 2013), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Georgia inmate convicted of a 1981 murder. The Court agreed with the petitioner that the Georgia trial court impermissibly shifted the burden of proof on the issue venue – under Georgia law, an essential element of the offense – when the jury was instructed that it “shall” consider the murder to have occurred in the place where the body was found. But the Court found the burden-shifting error harmless, in light of the overwhelming evidence regarding the place where the murder actually occurred. The Court also rejected the argument that Owens’ due process rights were violated because the state waited 25 years before ruling on his motion for a new trial. “The Supreme Court has never held that there is a constitutional right to a speedy direct appeal in a state criminal case.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Elliot: Alabama Juvenile Adjudication counts as prior conviction

In U.S. v. Elliot, No. 12-10553 (Oct. 18, 2013), the Court rejected a challenge to an eyewitness identification and affirmed the conviction of a defendant for robbery and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. The Court also rejected the argument that the district court erred by considering a prior Alabama youthful offender adjudication as a prior felony conviction for purposes of qualifying the defendant under the Guidelines as a “career offender.” The defendant claimed that a photo lineup from which an eyewitness identified him was unduly suggestive because the identification was tainted by her observation of photos of him on the internet and printed flyers. Rejecting this argument, the Court pointed out that the Constitution only prohibits identifications tainted by suggestive circumstances only when law enforcement activity is involved. Here, the witness’s observation of a surveillance videotape of the robbery prior to the lineup was not the result of police misconduct, and police officers were not involved in her independent viewing of photos on the internet. Turning to Elliot’s prior Alabama youthful offender adjudication, the Court recognized that it would not count as a conviction under Alabama law. However, federal law, not state law, determined whether a prior adjudication counted as a conviction for Guideline “career offender” purposes. The Court noted that, under its precedent, a plea of nolo contendere with adjudication withheld is a conviction for career offender purposes, and reasoned that a youthful offender adjudication “must also be considered” a conviction.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Puiatti: Counsel not ineffective for missing red flags of child abuse

In Puiatti v. Sec., Fla. Dep’t of Corrections, No. 12-15581 (Oct. 15, 2013), the Court affirmed the denial of habeas relief to a Florida inmate sentenced to death for a 1983 murder. The Court rejected the argument that defense counsel was ineffective at the penalty phase of the trial for ignoring “red flags” of child abuse. The Court noted that Puiatti’s attorney did not receive any document that suggested that Puiatti was abused as a child. Moreover, counsel asked questions about Puiatti’s background and childhood but received misleading answers. In addition, counsel could not be faulted for failing to link Puiatti’s history of drug abuse with an otherwise-undisclosed history of child abuse. Further, the Court found that even if counsel had been ineffective, this did not affect Puiatti’s substantial rights. “Although Puiatti’s childhood was far from ideal, the record does not establish that the jury or the state trial court here would have necessarily found it a mitigating factor or a strong one at that.” In addition, had Puiatti been portrayed as a sympathetic victim of his parents’ abuse, this would have invited the State to put on a rebuttal case showing that the murder was consistent with a pattern of antisocial behavior.