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May 14, 2007

Another murderer getting all the attention

I cannot find much (if anything) of broad jurisprudential significance in the Landrigan decision from the Supreme Court today (basics here).  Though others may see something important in this ruling, Landrigan strikes me as another example of the Court simply deciding to be in the business of error correction in a capital case.

For this reason, I cannot help but yet again express my frustration about how much energy and judicial resources federal courts devote to state capital cases and to state defendants who have committed the most awful of crimes.  Here is how courts have described the defendant at issue in today's ruling: "before he was 30 years of age, Landrigan had murdered one man, repeatedly stabbed another one, escaped from prison, and within two months murdered still another man." 

Not surprisingly, and seemingly justifiably under applicable state law, this behavior landed Landrigan on Arizona's death row.  But, after state court review, Landrigan's federal habeas action prompts hordes of federal judges to give his case copious attention.  Seeking some finality, the district court denied Landrigan an evidentiary hearing trying to extend his attack on the state court outcome; a Ninth Circuit panel unanimously affirmed this decision.  But, apparently with nothing better to do, the full Ninth Circuit decided to review Landrigan's case en banc and ordered the district court to conduct an evidentiary hearing.  Thereafter, rather than leave well enough alone, the Supreme Court decided this case was so important that it merited cert, full argument and lengthy opinions to determine that, in the end, the district court acted within its discretion when denying an evidentiary hearing.

Meanwhile, as dozens of federal judges and lawyers obsess over the whether double-murderer Landrigan should get an evidentiary hearing to extend his attack on the state court outcome, thousands of non-violent federal offenders languish in prison without being able to get even a trio of circuit judges to explore thoroughly their non-capital sentencing arguments.

May 14, 2007 at 11:46 AM | Permalink


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What's even worse are the contortions of the law wreaked by judges wanting to save these guys. The three Texas cases are a perfect case in point.

I do think however that the Supreme Court ought to focus resources on wrongly overturned death sentences. It is readily apparent that many federal courts are blowing off AEDPA, and the Court needs to do all it can to put a stop to this.

Posted by: federalist | May 14, 2007 12:19:04 PM

In a Colorado case potentially impact by this case, state review has been denied in an ineffective assistance of counsel DP case.


Posted by: ohwilleke | May 14, 2007 12:23:19 PM

This case addresses an issue arising in all federal habeas cases those -- the standard to get an evidentiary hearing in federal court. And more importantly, it addresses (well, the dissent addresses) the important issue of when a defendant can knowingly and intelligently waive his rights. These issues are not confined to death penalty cases.

The dissent gets it right here. And the majority gets it wrong, very wrong.

Posted by: Elson | May 14, 2007 1:42:09 PM

I do agree that the decision in this case will affect all Federal habeas cases, not merely those involving "obviously guilty" murderers with death sentences.

But I agree with Doug that the Supreme Court accepts death cases in a much higher proportion to their statistical relevance. And the Court seems far more likely to accept those cases on a pure "error-correction" basis.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 14, 2007 2:30:25 PM

Kennedy's been the deciding vote on every death case this term. He's also the Circuit Justice for the 9th.

Posted by: rothmatisseko | May 14, 2007 2:53:40 PM

Doug, you've got a perfect platform to bring attention to the non-capital habeas and conditions cases. And you should.

Posted by: rothmatisseko | May 14, 2007 2:55:41 PM

It is disappointing that such an obviously wrong Ninth Circuit opinion was only reversed 5-4. The Ninth held that the state habeas judge took the sentencing judge's questioning of Landrigan "out of context," ignoring the fact that it was the same judge.

The state court finding that Landrigan waived any mitigation evidence at all was valid. The federal district court correctly deferred to it, and the federal case should have ended right there. No certificate of appealability should have been granted.

The Ninth continues to spit in the face of the law Congress enacted to curb its authority. Cases like this are exactly why that law was necessary.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 14, 2007 3:13:02 PM

Kent, could you explain to me how the defendant knowingly waived his rights when his counsel could not have explained to him the nature of the right he was waiving?

Posted by: Elson | May 14, 2007 4:39:55 PM

The Ninth continues to spit in the face of the law Congress enacted to curb its authority.

You can't exactly call it spitting, when four out of the nine Justices endorsed their position. You might say that had it been a 9-0 smackdown. The Ninth Circuit has had some of those, but this was not one of them.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 14, 2007 4:42:07 PM

Landrigan understood he was giving up the right to present mitigating evidence that would weigh against a death sentence. That is all that is required to understand the "nature" of the right relinquished. There is no requirement that he have explained to him each item of evidence that might be proffered.

Yes, I can call it spitting, because this is exactly what Congress intended to prohibit. The fact that four Justices are willing to endorse it is the most disappointing aspect of the decision.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 14, 2007 5:39:06 PM

Very disappointing, but not surprising.

This murderer interfered with his sentencing hearing by going on tirades, and now he wants, years later, to undo the result. It's hard to take seriously the bleatings of Stevens et alia about "guesswork" and psychological problems giving rise to his interference with his own sentencing hearing. This guy, presumed competent, basically sandbagged his own sentencing hearing. And Stevens and the other members of the Gang of Four struggle mightily to help a sandbagging murderer. No other litigant would get such solicitousness--why a murderer?

Posted by: federalist | May 14, 2007 6:21:12 PM

And Stevens and the other members of the Gang of Four struggle mightily to help a sandbagging murderer. No other litigant would get such solicitousness--why a murderer?I>

I happen to think the majority got this one right, but I also think you've mischaracterized the minority position.

The Supreme Court decides law, not fact. Once decided, the case will govern (unless overruled) all future cases presenting the same question of law. Having decided to grant cert., the Justices need to answer that question without regard to the abhorrent facts of this particular case.

If you can manage to think of it as a legal problem only, it's colorably a close call — which of course explains why it was close in the Ninth Circuit, and was close in the Supreme Court.

I do agree with Doug that this was a rather poor cert. vehicle, and it didn't belong in the Supreme Court at all. Having granted it, for whatever reason, the Court reached the correct result.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | May 14, 2007 7:01:18 PM

Kent, is it your position, then, that an attorney does not need to do any factual investigation when advising a client about his rights?

If the trial counsel would have done his job -- and everybody seems to agree that his investigation was not constitutionally acceptable -- none of this would have happened.

Posted by: Elson | May 14, 2007 7:32:03 PM

Elson, this case was decided on the prejudice prong of Strickland. The Court did not decide the performance prong. As Strickland quite expressly holds, if prejudice is obviously lacking, there is no need to decide performance.

Marc, I agree that the case was "a colorably close call" in the state court on state habeas. That is why it was not close on federal habeas under the deference standard. Whenever the underlying question is close and the state court decided on the merits, the deference question is clear.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 14, 2007 8:41:46 PM

Kent, every Ninth Circuit judge who opined on performance agreed that it was not acceptable, including the conservatives like Bea who dissented.

You also never answered my question: is it your position that an attorney does not need to do any factual investigation when advising a client about his rights?

Posted by: Elson | May 15, 2007 2:09:59 AM

The view is that you do not have "but for" causation--an eminently reasonable conclusion, which deserved deference from federal courts under AEDPA.

Posted by: federalist | May 15, 2007 7:28:53 AM

Well, Elson, this thread is about the Landrigan decision, and I have explained why the performance prong of Strickland is not material to the case. You can go off on a tangent if you like, but I'm not going with you.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | May 15, 2007 12:30:16 PM

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