Bell v. Thompson

PETITIONER: Ricky Bell, Warden
RESPONDENT: Gregory Thompson
LOCATION: Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 04-514
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 959 (2005)
GRANTED: Jan 07, 2005
ARGUED: Apr 26, 2005
DECIDED: Jun 27, 2005

Jennifer L. Smith - argued the cause for Petitioner
Matthew M. Shors - argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

A Tennessee trial court sentenced Thompson to death for murder. Thompson made unsuccesful appeals in state court based on the claim that his counsel had failed to adequately investigate his mental health. A federal district court also rejected Thompson's petition based on that claim. However, Thompson's habeas counsel had failed to include in the record the deposition and report of a psychologist who argued Thompson had suffered from serious mental illness. The counsel included the documents when Thompson appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which nevertheless dismissed Thompson's claim. Thompson then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Sixth Circuit stayed its mandate until the Court decided whether to hear the case. The Court denied the petition, but the Sixth Circuit stayed its mandate again, pending the Supreme Court's decision on Thompson's petition for rehearing, which the Court denied. The Sixth Circuit still did not issue its mandate. Five months later, Tennessee had set Thompson's execution date. The Sixth Circuit suddenly issued an amended opinion on Thompson's habeas petition, overturning the district court's dismissal of his ineffective counsel claim and ordering hearings based on that claim. The Sixth Circuit included in the appeal record the initially ommitted psychologist deposition. The circuit court argued its authority to issue an amended opinion five months after the Supreme Court denied Thompson's petition was based on its inherent power to reconsider an opinion before issuance of the the mandate.


After the U.S. Supreme Court had denied certiorari and a petition for rehearing to a death-row prisoner's case, did the Sixth Circuit abuse its discretion by withholding its mandate in the case for more than five months without entering a formal order?

Media for Bell v. Thompson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 2005 in Bell v. Thompson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 27, 2005 in Bell v. Thompson

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Count in Bell against Thompson will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In 1985, Gregory Thompson was convicted by a jury of first degree murder and was sentenced to death.

In his state postconviction petition, Thompson claimed his trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to conduct and adequate investigation into his mental health for use as mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of the trial, and the Tennessee Courts denied Thompson's claims.

Thompson renewed his ineffective assistance of counsel claim on federal habeas.

Dr. Faye Sultan is a psychologist and she was retained by Thompson for the federal habeas proceedings.

She examined Thompson and concluded that he was likely suffering serious mental illness at the time of the murder that would have been a mitigating circumstance under Tennessee Law.

Sultan prepared an expert report on Thompson's behalf and was also deposed by the state.

The District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denied habeas relief.

They held Thompson had not presented any significant probative evidence that he was suffering from a significant mental disease that should have been presented to the jury during the punishment phase.

Sultan's deposition and report although presented to the District Court as part of an untimely Rule 60(b) motion, had not been properly included in the District Court summary judgment record, apparently because of attorney negligence.

The Court of Appeals denied a petition for rehearing but state issuance of its mandate while this Court considered a petition for certiorari and a petition for rehearing.

After we denied the petition for rehearing in this Court, the Court of Appeals did not issue its mandate.

The state, under the apparent assumption that the federal habeas corpus proceedings have terminated scheduled Thompson's execution.

On June 23, 2004, some seven months after this Court denied certiorari, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an amended opinion in Thompson's federal habeas case.

The new decision vacated the District Court's judgment denying habeas relief and remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on Thompson's ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

The Court of Appeals relied on its equitable power to supplement the record based on Sultan's report and deposition.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit justified its amended opinion based on the court's inherent power to reconsider its own earlier opinion prior to issuance of mandate.

The state sought review of that decision and we granted certiorari.

We now hold, assuming arguendo that the Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 41 does authorize a stay of mandate following the denial of certiorari and also that the court may stay a mandate without entering a formal order that here the Court of Appeals abused its discretion in doing so.

Among our concerns is the length of time between this Court's denial of certiorari and the Court of Appeals issuance of its amended opinion.

The Court of Appeals delayed issuing its mandate for over five months after this Court denied rehearing.

The consequence of delay for the state's criminal justice system was compounded by the Court of Appeals failure to issue an order or otherwise give notice to the parties that the Court was reconsidering its earlier opinion.

This in turn, led the various proceedings in State and Federal Court to determine Thompson's present competency to be executed.

All of the steps were taken in reliance on the mistaken impression that Thompson's first federal habeas case was final.

The normal mechanism for correcting errors in the Courts of Appeals is the petition for rehearing.

Indeed, in this case, Thompson's petition for rehearing presented the same arguments based on the Sultan evidence that eventually were adopted by the Court of Appeals in the amended opinion.

Our review of the Sultan deposition reinforces our conclusion that the Court of Appeals abused its discretion but withholding a mandate.

Had the Sultan deposition report been fully considered in the federal habeas proceedings, it would have been relevant to the District Court's analysis.

Relevant though the Sultan evidence may be however, it is not of such a character as to warrant the Court of Appeals extraordinary departure from standard appellate procedures.

Sultan examined Thompson 13 years after his crime and conviction.