Knowles v. Mirzayance

PETITIONER: Michael A. Knowles, Warden
RESPONDENT: Alexandre Mirzayance
LOCATION: The Ookhtens Residence

DOCKET NO.: 07-1315
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2008
ARGUED: Jan 13, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 24, 2009

Charles M. Sevilla - argued the cause for the respondent
Steven E. Mercer - argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Alexandre Mirzayance was convicted of first-degree murder in a California state court. He was subsequently denied post-conviction relief by the trial court and the California Court of Appeals. Mr. Mirzayance then petitioned for federal habeas corpus relief in a California federal district court. He maintained that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel because at trial, his attorney advised him to abandon his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI). The federal district court denied Mr. Mirzayance's petition, but was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ordered an evidentiary hearing limited to determining whether "there were tactical reasons for abandoning the defense."

At the hearing, the Magistrate Judge found that Mr. Mirzayance's counsel had "nothing to lose" by going forward with the NGI plea and thus found his performance ineffective. The federal district court accepted this finding and granted Mr. Mirzayance's petition for habeas corpus relief. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that Mr. Mirzayance's attorney's advice to withdraw his NGI plea was unreasonable because there was "reasonable probability" the jury would find Mr. Mirzayance insane. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the Ninth Circuit's decision, and remanded the case for consideration in light of Carey v. Musladin. On remand, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its decision stating that Mr. Mirzayance's attorney's failure to pursue the NGI defense constituted ineffective counsel because it "secured no tactical advantage."


1) Did the Ninth Circuit exceed it authority by granting habeas corpus relief without considering whether state court adjudication of Mr. Mirzayance's claim was "unreasonable" under 28 U.S.C. Section 2254(d)?

2) May a federal appellate court substitute factual findings of the district court without determining whether the district court's findings were "clearly erroneous?"

Media for Knowles v. Mirzayance

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 2009 in Knowles v. Mirzayance

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 24, 2009 in Knowles v. Mirzayance

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has our opinion this morning in case 07-1315, Knowles versus Mirzayance.

Clarence Thomas:

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

Respondent confessed that he stabbed his 19-year old cousin nine times and shot her four times.

She died.

At trial, he entered pleas not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity which under state law required a bifurcated trial.

During the first phase, respondent attempted to avoid first-degree murder conviction and instead obtain a second-degree murder conviction by presenting medical testimony that he was insane at the time of the crime and thus incapable of premeditation or deliberation.

The jury nonetheless convicted respondent a first-degree murder.

Respondent's counsel then recommended that he abandon his not guilty by reason of insanity plea.

Counsel believed that the jury was unlikely to accept an insanity defense which would have been based on medical testimony similar to evidence presented in the first phase.

Also, counsel's plan to supplement the medical evidence during the second phase with testimony from respondent's parents failed when the parents refused to testify.

Respondent accepted his attorney's advice and withdrew his insanity defense.

In state post-conviction proceedings, respondent alleged that the recommendation to withdraw the insanity defense constituted ineffective assistance of counsel under the Court -- this Court's decision in Strickland versus Washington.

The state trial court denied relief and the California Court of Appeals affirmed. Respondent next applied for federal habeas which the District Court denied.

The Court of Appeals reversed ordering an evidentiary hearing on counsel's recommendations to withdraw the insanity defense.

On remand, the Magistrate Judge found that counsel had made a carefully reasoned decision not to proceed with the insanity defense.

The Magistrate Judge nonetheless concluded that the District Court was bound by the Court of Appeals' remand order to determine only whether counsel had tactical reason for abandoning the defense.

Because the Magistrate Judge found that respondent had “nothing to lose by proceeding with the insanity defense” the Magistrate Judge held that counsel's performance was deficient.

As to prejudice, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the District Court was similarly bound by the remand order because the Court of Appeals had described the insanity defense as remaining viable and strong.

The Court of Appeal -- the District Court accepted the Magistrate Judge's recommendation and granted the writ of habeas corpus.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In 2007, we granted the state's petition for writ of certiorari, vacated the Court of Appeals' opinion and remanded for further consideration in light of our decision in Carey versus Musladin which addressed the proper method for evaluating whether a state court decision “involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court for the purposes of granting federal habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, AEDPA.

On remand, the Court of Appeals concluded that its decision was unaffected by Musladin and again, affirmed the grant of habeas corpus.

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

We conclude that the state court's denial of respondent's ineffective assistance of counsel claim did not violate clearly established federal law.

The Court of Appeals reached a contrary result in large part because it blamed counsel for abandoning the insanity defense when there was “nothing to lose” by pursuing it.

But this Court has not established anything akin to a nothing to lose standard.

Thus, habeas corpus is warranted only if the state court decision unreasonably apply the general Strickland standard for ineffective assistance claims.

It did not.

Furthermore, respondent's ineffective assistance of counsel claim would fail even under de novo review.

Strickland requires a defendant to establish efficient performance and prejudice.