Cone v. Bell

PETITIONER: Gary Bradford Cone
RESPONDENT: Ricky Bell, Warden
LOCATION: Brodnax Jewelry Store

DOCKET NO.: 07-1114
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Jun 23, 2008
ARGUED: Dec 09, 2008
DECIDED: Apr 28, 2009

Jennifer L. Smith - argued the cause for the respondent
Thomas C. Goldstein - argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

This is the third habeas corpus appeal of petitioner Gary Bradford Cone after his 1982 conviction in a Tennessee state court on several felony counts including first degree murder and robbery by use of deadly force. The jury found that Cone had bludgeoned two elderly people to death while hiding out after a robbery. Cone's initial appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court soon following his conviction fell on deaf ears: the court ruled that although errors had been committed during the trial, each of them had been "harmless" and did not warrant overturning Cone's conviction. He responded by twice filing habeas corpus petitions alleging violations of several constitutional rights, appealing both all the way up to the Court but both times having his case remanded with, in his view, several of his claims still unresolved.

In his third appearance before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Cone raised two main points of contention. First, he claimed that he was entitled to relief because the jury in his trial had weighed invalid aggravating factors during his sentencing hearing, thereby entitling him to a new hearing. This argument was rejected by the Sixth Circuit, which found that the Tennessee Supreme Court had conducted a satisfactory harmless error test on the issue. The court pointed out that habeas petitions should be granted only after finding that a state court ruling has "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law." Because Tennessee had not abridged any federal laws, the Sixth Circuit denied Cone relief on this first issue.

Cone also argued that the Sixth Circuit had erred when, in a previous appeal, it had held that his claims relating to the prosecutor's improper withholding of evidence had been procedurally defaulted. Cone argued that his case met the Court's "exceptional circumstances" test as set out in Westside Mothers v. Olszewski for overruling the procedural default rule and rehearing the issue. The Sixth Circuit once again disagreed, ruling that Cone had failed to show "cause and prejudice" on the part of the prosecutor. The Sixth Circuit denied Cone's habeas appeal on all counts.


1) Is Mr. Cone entitled to federal habeas review of his claim that the state suppressed material evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland?

2) Is Mr. Cone's federal habeas corpus claim "procedurally defaulted" because it has been presented twice at the state court level?

Media for Cone v. Bell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 2008 in Cone v. Bell

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 28, 2009 in Cone v. Bell

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Stevens has our opinion this morning in case 07-1114, Cone versus Bell.

John Paul Stevens:

Twenty seven years ago, petitioner Gary Cone was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Much of the delay in the execution of his sentence is attributable to the pretrial decision of Tennessee prosecutors not to disclose various police reports and witness statements that Cone contends were subject to disclosure under this Court's decision in Brady against Maryland.

Cone first raised his Brady claim in a petition for state postconviction relief.

The state court denied relief on the incorrect ground that the claim had been resolved in earlier state court proceedings.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.

Cone then sought relief in the federal court by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

The District Court held that Cone could not obtain federal relief on his Brady claim because the state court had denied the claim on procedural grounds.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed concluding that the state court's dismissal of Cone's claim was barred on an inadequate and independent state ground -- ground but -- ground.

We granted certiorari to answer the question whether a federal habeas claim is “procedurally defaulted” when it is twice presented to the state courts.

We now hold that the state court's rejection of Cone's Brady claim does not rest on a ground that bars federal review.

We therefore vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case to the District Court to make a full review of the suppressed evidence and to consider whether if it had not -- if it had been disclosed, it might have persuaded the jury to impose a noncapital sentence.

The Chief Justice has found an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Alito has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia has joined.