Bell v. Kelly

PETITIONER: Edward Nathaniel Bell
RESPONDENT: Loretta K. Kelly, Warden
LOCATION: Idaho Education Association: Region 5

DOCKET NO.: 07-1223
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 555 US 55 (2008)
GRANTED: May 12, 2008
ARGUED: Nov 12, 2008
DECIDED: Nov 17, 2008

Katherine Burnett - Senior Assistant Attorney General of Virginia, argued the cause for the respondent
Richard P. Bress - argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Edward Bell was convicted and sentenced to death in a Virginia state court for murdering a police sergeant. After unsuccessfully appealing his case through direct review and state habeas proceedings, Bell filed a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. Bell argued that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, suggesting that his lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence from five witnesses that may have reduced his death sentence to life in prison.

The Supreme Court, in Strickland, has previously stated that a petitioner must show (1) deficient performance and (2) prejudice in order to succeed on a claim for ineffective assistance. Based on these principles, the district court dismissed Bell's claim and, on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The Fourth Circuit found that the conclusions of the Virginia state courts were reasonable and that Bell had failed to show that he had suffered actual prejudice. According to the court, the aggravating testimony from the witnesses outweighed any mitigating effects the missing testimony may have had.


Under the Supreme Court's ruling in Strickland, is it reasonable for a court to determine that a defendant did not suffer actual prejudice in an ineffective assistance of counsel claim when his lawyer failed to introduce witness testimony that may have reduced the defendant's sentence from death to life in prison?

Media for Bell v. Kelly

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 2008 in Bell v. Kelly

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument next in Case 07-1223, Bell versus Kelly.

Mr. Bress.

Richard P. Bress:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: The problem at the heart of this case is construing subsections (d) and (e) of 28 U.S.C. 2254 together in a way that makes sense.

The last time that this Court construed those two provisions together was in Michael Williams.

Michael Williams presented a different issue.

But we believe that looking at how Michael Williams would play out with a small change in the facts will help frame the issue that's before the court today.

Now, as the Court recalls, in Michael Williams the Virginia Supreme Court denied Williams the investigative assistance he needed in order to help develop a claim based on his suspicions of jury misconduct.

He, therefore, didn't make the claim in State court.

On -- in Federal court he got investigative assistance; and, in speaking with the investigator, two of the jurors referred to the foreperson, Bonnie Stinette, as Bonnie Minehart.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Mr. Bress, before we get into that, could I just ask you a threshold question?

We took this case to decide a question, and one of the factual predicates of the question is that the State court refused to consider certain evidence.

And I'm puzzled about that.

What was the evidence that the State court -- do you say that the State court refused to consider evidence that was proffered to it?

Richard P. Bress:

No, Your Honor.

The State court did not refuse to consider evidence proffered to it.

The State court refused to permit the full development of the evidence.

And it -- I mean it misled the court--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

I didn't hear the -- the last part.

Richard P. Bress:

--The State court refused to permit the evidence to be fully developed, Your Honor.

They didn't refuse to consider evidence.

David H. Souter:

What do you mean by that?

What specifically did they--

Richard P. Bress:

Specifically, Your Honor, the State provided 120 days to develop the State habeas petition.

The Petitioners during that time developed 14 different claims, including the claim that's at issue here today.

In the course of that they interviewed, I think, 11 different witnesses.

For the ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim they got affidavits.

They also interviewed all 12 jurors for five different claims of juror misconduct.

They interviewed five different witnesses for Brady claims, et cetera.

They ran out of time, Your Honor, and they asked the court for more time on repeated occasions.

They asked the court to investigate--