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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cone v. Bell: No defaults in habeas despite state court holdings to contrary

After the State discredited Cone’s defense that he killed two people while suffering from acute psychosis caused by drug addiction, he was convicted and sentenced to death. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed on direct appeal and the state courts denied postconviction relief. Later, in a second petition for state postconviction relief, Cone raised the claim that the State had violated Brady v. Maryland by suppressing witness statements and police reports that would have corroborated his insanity defense and bolstered his case in mitigation of the death penalty. The state postconviction court denied him a hearing on the ground that the Brady claim had been previously determined, either on direct appeal or in earlier collateral proceedings. The state court of appeals affirmed. Cone filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which was denied on two grounds, (1) The Brady claim was procedurally barred because the state courts’ disposition rested on adequate and independent state grounds that Cone had waived it by failing to present his claim in state court; (2) Even if he had not defaulted the claim, it would fail on its merits because none of the withheld evidence would have cast doubt on his guilt. The Sixth Circuit agreed with second point, but considered itself barred from reaching the claim’s merits because the state courts had ruled the claim previously determined or waived under state law. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the state courts’ rejection of Cone’s Brady claim does not rest on a ground that bars federal review. Neither of the State’s asserted justifications for such a bar–that the claim was decided by the State Supreme Court on direct review or that Cone had waived it by never properly raising it in state court–provides an independent and adequate state ground for denying review of Cone’s federal claim. The state court’s denial of the Brady claim on the ground it had been previously determined in state court rested on a false premise: Cone had not presented the claim in earlier proceedings and, consequently, the state courts had not passed on it. The Sixth Circuit’s rejection of the claim as procedurally defaulted because it had been twice presented to the Tennessee courts was thus erroneous. The Supreme Court found unpersuasive the State’s alternative argument that federal review is barred because the Brady claim was properly dismissed by the state courts as waived. Those courts held only that the claim had been previously determined, and the Supreme Court would not second-guess their judgment. Because the claim was properly preserved and exhausted in state court, it is not defaulted. Although the Court did not believe that the withheld evidence sustained Cone’s insanity defense at the guilt phase, it did hold the lower federal courts failed to adequately consider whether the withheld documents were material to Cone’s sentence. Both the quantity and quality of the suppressed evidence lend support to Cone’s trial position that he habitually used excessive amounts of drugs, that his addiction affected his behavior during the murders, and that the State’s contrary arguments were false and misleading. Because the suppressed evidence might have been material to the jury's assessment of the proper punishment, a full review of that evidence and its effect on the sentencing verdict is warranted.