Appellate Law, Criminal Defense, Criminal Appeals & Criminal Appellate Review and Post Conviction Relief in Florida Courts, Federal District Courts and the 11th Circuit for Criminal Attorneys, Criminal Lawyers & Appellate Lawyers
In the case of Kenneth Loggins v. Thomas, No. 09-13267, 2011 WL 3903402 (11th Cir. Sept. 7, 2011), the Eleventh Circuit held that sentencing a person to life without parole for committing a homicide while under the age of 18 (a juvenile) does not violate the United States Constitution. While the 61 page opinion is lengthy, the Court dealt with some important issues.
As for the facts, a word of warning: the murder, which Loggins and several friends committed when he was 17, is quite brutal, and the Eleventh does not hold back in its description of the crime. Loggins’ original sentence of death was reversed in light of the United States Supreme Court opinion of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (holding that it is unconstitutional to execute criminals who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes). After Loggins was resentenced to life without parole, he appealed that sentence, arguing that the sentence was unconstitutional. Loggins lost all his appeals in the Alabama state courts, and eventually filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under section 2254 in Federal Court, raising the same issue. The District Court denied Loggins’ 2254 petition, and he appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
The Court’s analysis of the core issue, the constitutionality of a sentence of life without parole for the crime of homicide committed while a juvenile, begins on page 35. Although Loggins argued that there was a national and international consensus against such a sentence, the Court quickly rejected such arguments based on some interesting criminal sentencing statistics. As a Florida criminal appeals attorney, I was saddened to read, on page 45, that Florida stands out as the State that has the highest number of people sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide crimes committed while the people were juveniles. Out of the 123 inmates imprisoned nationwide, 77 are imprisoned in Florida.
In addition to the main issue of the constitutionality of the sentence of life without parole, the Loggins opinion is also worth reading because it contains a good discussion of other issues that arise in 2254 habeas proceedings, such as the deference owed to State court decisions, whether claims were adjudicated on the merits, what constitutes clearly established federal law, and retroactivity.
Turning back once more to the topic of petitions for writ of habeas corpus, if a court determines that all the procedural requirements have been met, the court may then proceed to review the merits of the petition. Under section 2254(d) (1)-(2), the petition shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court, unless the adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” or, “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”
The Eleventh Circuit opinion of Childers v. Floyd, No. 08-15590, 2011 WL 2162083 (11th Cir. June 2, 2011), illustrates how difficult it can be to prevail on the merits of a habeas petition. In 2001, while Childers had been serving as a County Commissioner for Escambia County, Childers and a fellow County Commissioner, Willie Junior, became involved in a kick-back scheme relating to the construction of a soccer complex owned by one Joe Elliot. Junior entered a plea agreement with the State, and testified against Childers at Childers’ trial. After Childers was convicted of bribery and unlawful compensation for official behavior, Childers was sentenced to 42 months’ incarceration. Elliot was acquitted. See Childers, 2011 WL 2162083 at *1-*6
Childers moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court erred in part by violating his 6th Amendment confrontation rights. The trial court disagreed, and Childers pursued his 6th Amendment claim through direct appeal and in his petition for writ of habeas corpus. Even though Childers initially won a victory in his appeal to the Eleventh, the Court voted to rehear the case en banc, and ultimately affirmed the district court’s denial of Childers’ petition. See Childers, 2011 WL 2162083 at *9-10. In its rationale, the Court emphasized the long-standing principles of comity, and determined that the state court had properly adjudicated Childers’ claim on the merits. See Childers, 2001 WL 2162083 at *10-*13. Proceeding to the merits of the petition, the Court recalled the parameters of review under section 2254(d)(1), as well as the highly deferential review of state court factual findings. See Childers, 2001 WL 2162083 at *13-*21. After analyzing Childers’ claims in light of the “multiple layers of deference owed to the state court’s determination,” 2011 WL 2162083 at *22, the Court ultimately found that Childers was not entitled to habeas relief because Childers failed to show that the District Court of Appeal unreasonably applied federal law, or that the decision was contrary to clearly established federal law.
People should take two things away from the Childers opinion. First, while prevailing on a petition for habeas corpus in the Eleventh Circuit is extremely difficult, it is possible. Unfortunately, any victory may be short-lived.
As I mentioned in my last post on petitions for writ of habeas corpus, petitions have to be timely filed. In addition to timeliness, petitioners also have to consider the issues of exhaustion and procedural bar.
Exhaustion is a concept based on comity and federalism. Although the Federal courts are available to consider Federal constitutional questions, the Federal courts do not sit in a strict appellate capacity over the State courts. Generally, for the exhaustion element to be met, the petitioner must have presented any Federal constitutional claims to the State court, thereby allowing the State court the opportunity to review the claims first. If the claims have not been presented to the State court, a Federal court may find that the claims have not been exhausted. In such instance, the Federal court may dismiss the Federal 2254 petition without prejudice, so as to allow the petitioner to present, or exhaust, his claims in State court. In addition, if a 2254 petition contains both exhausted and unexhausted claims, (otherwise known as a “mixed petition”), the 2254 petition may likewise be dismissed without prejudice. A good discussion of these principles can be found in Thompson v. Wainwright, 714 F.2d 1495, 1503-1504 (11th Cir. 1983); Snowden v. Singletary, 135 F.3d 732, 736 (11th Cir. 1998); and, Bailey v. Nagle, 172 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 1999).
With regard to procedural bar, where a 2254 petitioner has failed to raise his or her Federal claims properly in State court, the Federal court may find that the petitioner is procedurally barred from raising the claims in Federal court, unless a petitioner can make a showing of cause for and actual prejudice from the default, or by establishing a fundamental miscarriage of justice. See Bailey, 172 F.3d at 1306. As noted in Bailey, 172 F.3d at 1302-1303, claims are generally procedurally defaulted in two ways: (1) where the State court correctly applies a procedural default principle of state law and determines that the Federal claims are barred; or, (2) where the petitioner never raised the claim in State court, and it is obvious that the unexhausted claim would be procedurally barred based on a State law procedural default. Where unexhausted claims would be procedurally barred in State court, the Federal court may determine that such claims do not provide a basis for Federal habeas relief. See Snowden, 135 F.3d at 736.
Nevertheless, where it would be futile for a petitioner to return to State court because procedural defaults bar any right to relief, the Federal court may determine that such futility is an exception to the exhaustion requirement, and decline to dismiss the petition. See Bailey, 172 F.3d at 1306-1307 (Carnes, J. dissenting).
A recent opinion issued by the Eleventh Circuit is the latest example of how difficult it can be for a criminal defendant to win a petition for writ of habeas corpus. On May 26, 2011, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Mark Duke’s 2254 petition, finding that the Alabama prosecutor’s statements made in closing argument did not impermissibly comment on Duke’s right to remain silent. However, in a strong dissent, Circuit Judge Wilson pointed out the logical flaws of the majority opinion’s analysis of the prosecutor’s statements. The slip opinion can be found here.