Cullen v. Pinholster

PETITIONER: Vincent Cullen, Acting Warden
RESPONDENT: Scott Lynn Pinholster
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Central District of California

DOCKET NO.: 09-1088
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 563 US 170 (2011)
GRANTED: Jun 14, 2010
ARGUED: Nov 09, 2010
DECIDED: Apr 04, 2011

James W. Bilderback II - Supervising Deputy Attorney General of California, for the petitioner
Sean K. Kennedy - for the respondent

Facts of the case

A California state court convicted Scott Lynn Pinholster of double murder and sentenced him to death. After exhausting his state court remedies, he petitioned for habeas corpus relief in a California federal district court, arguing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel at both the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial. The district court upheld Pinholster's conviction but granted habeas relief on his death sentence. The district court affirmed the conviction but reversed the grant of habeas relief on the death sentence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court order, holding that the denial of habeas relief during the guilt phase was appropriate, but not during the penalty phase. The court noted that Strickland v. Washington requires trial counsel to investigate mitigating evidence at the penalty phase. Here, the court reasoned that Pinholster's counsel failed meet to meet his obligations.


Can a federal court overturn a state criminal conviction on the basis of facts the defendant could have alleged, but did not, in state court?

Media for Cullen v. Pinholster

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 2010 in Cullen v. Pinholster

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 04, 2011 in Cullen v. Pinholster

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Scott Pinholster and two accomplices broke into a house in the middle of the night.

They brutally beat and stabbed to death two men who happened to interrupt the burglary.

A California jury convicted Pinholster of first degree murder and he was sentenced to death.

Pinholster twice sought habeas relief in the California Supreme Court.

One of his claims was that his trial counsel had failed to adequately investigate and present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of his trial.

Both times, the California Supreme Court unanimously and summarily denied Pinholster's claim on the merits.

Later, a Federal District Judge held in evidentiary hearing and granted Pinholster Federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2254.

Sitting en banc, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Considering new evidence introduced in the District Court, the Court of Appeals held that the California Supreme Court's decision, “Involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under Section 2254(d)(1).”

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

The Ninth Circuit was wrong to consider the evidence introduced in the District Court under Section 2254(d)(1) when a Federal Court reviews whether a state court unreasonably applied federal law, the Federal Court may consider only the record that was before the state court although state prisoners may sometimes submit new evidence in Federal Court, any new evidence is not relevant to review under Section 2254(d)(1).

Looking only at the state record, we find that the California Supreme Court reasonably applied, clearly established federal law.

The clearly established law here is Strickland versus Washington which provides that counsel is constitutionally ineffective only when a defendant shows both defective performance and prejudice.

The California Supreme Court could have reasonably concluded on the record before it that Pinholster could not satisfy either requirement.

Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan both are -- both only joined Part II of the opinion.

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

Justice Breyer has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.Justice Sotomayor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan joined in part.