McCleskey v. Zant

LOCATION:Where police chase began

DOCKET NO.: 89-7024
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 499 US 467 (1991)
ARGUED: Oct 31, 1990
DECIDED: Apr 16, 1991

John Charles Boger – on behalf of the Petitioner
Mary Beth Westmoreland – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for McCleskey v. Zant

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 31, 1990 in McCleskey v. Zant

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 16, 1991 in McCleskey v. Zant

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 89-7024, Mccleskey against Zant will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This is a habeas corpus case which comes to us on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

It requires us to explain in considerable detail what the courts have called the doctrine of abuse of the writ.

That doctrine defines the circumstances in which Federal Courts decline to entertain a claim for habeas corpus relief, on the grounds that it is presented for the first time in a second or subsequent federal petition.

The facts can be summarized in brief.

Petitioner, Warren McCleskey, was tried for the murder of a policeman in a Georgia Trial Court in 1978.

At trial, one officer Evans who had occupied a cell next to McCleskey testified that Mccleskey had admitted and boasted about the murder while in jail.

On the basis of this and other evidence, the jury convicted McCleskey and sentenced him to death.

In his first state habeas proceeding, McCleskey alleged the statements he made to Evans while in jail were elicited without assistance of counsel in violation of our ruling in Massiah versus United States.

The Massiah rule is that once a suspect has a lawyer, the police cannot circumvent the lawyer-client relation by using an informant to elicit statements from the suspect.

McCleskey was denied habeas relief in State Court.

He then filed his first federal habeas corpus petition without raising the Massiah claim.

After lengthy petitions on a first federal habeas petition, the District Court denied McCleskey relief.

Mccleskey applied for a habeas relief a second time in State Court, again omitting the Massiah claim.

He was denied all relief.

In 1987, McCleskey filed a second federal habeas action, this time raising the Massiah claim.

The state responded to the 1987 federal petition by conteding that McCleskey’s assertion of the Massiah claim for the first time was an abuse of the writ.

The District Court rejected the State’s abuse of the writ contention and found the Massiah violation.

Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and held that McCleskey had abused the writ.

In an opinion filed today, we affirm the Court of Appeals.

Our opinion is lengthy and does not admit of easy summary.

It begins by examining the historical, statutory, and judicial principles that inform the equitable doctrine of abuse of the writ.

We conclude from this examination that a claim raised for the first time in a second or subsequent petition constitutes an abuse of the writ if it was omitted from the prior petition through inexcusable neglect.

We define inexcusable neglect.

We determine that the same cause and prejudice standard used to determine whether to excuse state procedural defaults should govern the determination of inexcusable neglect in the context of the abuse of the writ doctrine.

Both our procedural default rules and the abuse of the writ doctrine imply a background norm of procedural regularity binding on petitioners.

The power to excuse both types of defaulted claims derives from the court’s equitable discretion.

The doctrines of procedural default and abuse of the writ implicate nearly identical concerns flowing from the significant costs of federal habeas corpus review.

One of the law’s very objectives is the finality of its judgments.

Neither innocence nor just punishment can be vindicated until the final judgment is known.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The writ strikes its finality and multiple habeas proceedings burdens scarce federal judicial resources and may give litigants the incentive to manipulate claims.

Of course, the writ overrides all these considerations as essential as they are to the rule of law, when a petitioner raises a meritorious claim in a proper manner in a federal habeas petition.

Cause and prejudice standard for the doctrines of procedural default and, by today’s decision, abuse of the writ, define this dimension of procedural regularity.

Applying the standards to the facts of the case before us, we hold that McCleskey lacked cause failing to raise his Massiah claim in his first federal petition.

And so, he abused the writ by deferring the claim until his second habeas action.

In reaching this conclusion, we assume that McCleskey did not at the time of his first federal petition know about certain evidence relating to the Massiah claim.

This lack of knowledge does not establish that McCleskey had cause for failure to raise the Massiah claim in his first federal action however.

But the evidence he did possess did not present him from raising the claim.

Indeed, the very evidence on which he places primary reliance was discovered after he raised the Massiah claim in the second federal action.

The narrow miscarriage of justice exception to the cause requirement is of no avail to McCleskey.

He cannot demonstrate that the alleged Massiah violation caused the conviction of an innocent person because the Evans’ statement that he now seeks to embrace confirms his guilt.

Justice Marshall files a dissenting opinion in which Justices Blackmun and Stevens join.