Harrington v. Richter

PETITIONER: Kelly Harrington, Warden
RESPONDENT: Joshua Richter
LOCATION: Superior Court of the County of Sacramento

DOCKET NO.: 09-587
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 562 US 86 (2011)
GRANTED: Feb 22, 2010
ARGUED: Oct 12, 2010
DECIDED: Jan 19, 2011

Clifford Gardner - for the respondent
Harry Joseph Colombo - Deputy Attorney General of California, for the petitioner

Facts of the case

A California trial court convicted Joshua Richter of burglary and murder. He exhausted his state court remedies and filed for habeas corpus relief in a California federal district court. Mr. Richter argued that he was denied effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment. The district court denied the petition and was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

However, upon rehearing en banc, the Ninth Circuit granted the petition, holding that the state court's determination that Mr. Richter was not denied effective assistance of counsel was unreasonable. The court reasoned that under Strickland v. Washington the defendant must show that "counsel's performance was deficient." And, the defendant must show that "the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." Here, the requirements of Strickland were met when Mr. Richter's counsel failed to conduct sufficient pre-trial investigation to determine what forensic evidence or experts would be useful to the defense's theory when it was foreseeable what evidence the state would introduce.


Is a defense lawyer deficient for failing to consult blood evidence when planning strategy for trial?

Media for Harrington v. Richter

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 12, 2010 in Harrington v. Richter

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 19, 2011 in Harrington v. Richter

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The Court today decides two cases in which the Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit granted federal habeas corpus relief to persons convicted under state law.

In both cases, we find the Court of Appeals committed error.

The first of this is Harrington versus Richter, Number 09-587.

The respondent was Richter, claims he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial because his attorney did not consult experts in preparation for the trial or call experts to the stand during the trial.

The experts that Richter now says counsel should have consulted where experts in blood evidence.

In order to reach the legal issues, the opinion recites the details of the crime at some length, just a brief account is necessary here.

The crime occurred among four persons and they all knew each other.

The prosecution maintained that -- that there were two victims and two assailants and one of the assailants was -- was Richter.

The prosecution said Richter and the accomplice returned to the house where the four men had all been present earlier in the evening and Richter and his accomplice shot the other two.One survived, the other died.

Richter wanted the jury to believe that one of the victims had fired at his companion and that the companion had fired back in self-defense and that the deceased was killed in the crossfire.

And to support his version of the events, Richter suggested that after he and his friend left the scene of the shootings, the victim who survived moved the other victim's body to another room.

And according to Richter, this was the theory that the defense counsel should have supported, by consulting and offering testimony from experts, blood experts in serology and blood spatter patterns and -- and pathology.

Now, the jury did not hear any defense experts on blood nor did Richter's counsel consult blood experts in preparation for the trial.

The jury did not accept the self-defense theory.

They convicted Richter of first degree murder, he receives a life sentence.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, in agreement with the state courts and the Federal District Court, denied relief on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Sitting en banc, however, the Court of Appeals ordered the habeas relief be granted and we now reverse.

The controlling case on effective assistance of counsel, which contains the standards that we apply here today after reaching the procedural points, is Strickland versus Washington.

But in considering whether to order federal habeas corpus relief to vacate a state conviction, after the state courts have denied relief, federal courts are constrained by the limitation in a federal statute and that statute is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, commonly known as AEDPA and the relevant provision is 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d).

That statute limits federal habeas relief for any claim presented in the federal habeas petition that was adjudicated on the merits in state court.

In rejecting Richter's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the State Court, the Supreme Court of California, issued a one line order.

And the first question addressed in the opinion is whether the California Supreme Court order was an adjudication on the merits of Richter's ineffective assistance of counsel claim and we hope that it was.

The text of the statute requires only a state court adjudication on the merits, that's the statutory phrase, it had to be an adjudication on the merits but it doesn't require an -- an opinion.

On the basic issues in the case, the Court of Appeals failed to accord the deference required by AEDPA and by Strickland.

As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, AEDPA requires a state prisoner to show that the State's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification, that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement.

Now, this standard was meant to be difficult to meet.

Section 2254 stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings.

And it preserves the authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility, fair-minded jurors -- jurist could disagree with the state court's decision as conflicting with this Court's precedence.

But it goes no further.

And the reason for this approach -- the reasons for this approach are familiar.