LOCATION: Erie City Council
DOCKET NO.: 98-8384
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
CITATION: 529 US 362 (2000)
ARGUED: Oct 04, 1999
DECIDED: Apr 18, 2000
John J. Gibbons - Argued the cause for petitioner
Robert Q. Harris - Richmond, Virginia, argued the cause for respondent
Facts of the case
After Terry Williams was convicted of robbery and capital murder; his punishment was fixed at death. In state habeas corpus proceedings a judge determined that his conviction was valid. However, the judge also found that Williams' counsel's failure to discover and present significant mitigating evidence violated his right to effective counsel and recommended that he be re-sentenced. Rejecting this, the Virginia Supreme Court held that Williams had not suffered sufficient prejudice to warrant relief. In habeas corpus proceedings under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), a federal trial judge also found that the death sentence was constitutionally weak on ineffective-assistance grounds. The court, under the AEDPA, concluded that the Virginia Supreme Court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." In reversing, the Court of Appeals determined that it could not conclude that the Virginia Supreme Court's decision on prejudice was an unreasonable application of standards established by the Supreme Court.
Was Terry Williams' constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel violated? Was the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court refusing to set aside Williams' death sentence "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States?"
Media for Williams v. TaylorAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 04, 1999 in Williams v. Taylor
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 18, 2000 in Williams v. Taylor
William H. Rehnquist:
The second Williams against Taylor will be announced Justice Stevens.
John Paul Stevens:
This case also comes to us from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
After a jury trial, the petitioner Terry Williams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence.
Williams then filed for collateral relief in State Court alleging that his trial counsel had been ineffective, primarily because they failed to present important mitigating evidence to the jury.
The Virginia trial judge who had imposed the death sentence concluded that a new sentencing hearing should be held because there was a reasonable probability that the result of the first trial would have been different if the mitigating evidence had been presented to the jury.
The Virginia Supreme Court disagree, it held that even if counsel’s performance were deficient, there was no fundamental unfairness in the sentencing proceedings.
Williams then filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus.
Since the petition was filed after the enactment of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which amended the habeas corpus statute, the District Court applied the amended version of section 2254(d).
The new 2254(d) bars Federal Courts from granting habeas relief unless the State Court judgment subject a challenge, “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved in unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."
Relying on the standard that this Court stated in Strickland against Washington for determining whether counsel’s assistance is constitutionally ineffective, the Federal Trial Court found as had the Virginia Trial Court that counsel’s performance well below the reasonable standard required by the Constitution, and that counsel’s ineffectiveness had prejudiced the outcome of Williams’ sentencing.
The District Court concluded that the Virginia Supreme Court had incorrectly held that our decision in Lockhart against Fretwell modified the Strickland standard, and that the State Supreme Court had unreasonably found that the additional mitigating evidence barely would have altered the jury’s impression of Williams character.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the new 2254(d) prohibited the ground of habeas relief unless the State Court decided the question by interpreting or applying the relevant precedent, in this case the standard for ineffective assistance of counsel.
In a manner that reasonable jurists would all agree is unreasonable.
Under that standard the Appeals Court found, it could not say that the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision an ineffective assistance of counsel was either contrary too or an unreasonable application of the standard developed in this Court’s Sixth Amendment case law.
In the decision filed with a Clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings.
We hold that the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision denying Williams’ habeas relief was both contrary to and an unreasonable application of this Court’s clearly established federal law.
The court however is divided about the correct interpretation of the amended section 2254(d).
The controlling opinion on that issue has been filed by Justice O’Connor.
Her discussion of section 2254(d) is joined by the Chief Justice and justices Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas.
Despite our disagreement about the precise meaning of that section however the majority of the court concludes that under either standard the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision was erroneous and the emendate 2254(d) does not foreclose relief.
The opinion that I have filed has joined in its entirely by justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, and in part by justices O’Connor and Kennedy.
Justice Kennedy joins all of Justice O’Connor’s opinion and the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas join her exposition of the meaning of Section 2254(d).
The Chief Justice has filed an opinion concurring in part and descending in part, in which Justices as Scalia and Thomas join.