Murray v. Giarratano/Dissent John Paul Stevens

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John Paul Stevens

Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice BRENNAN, Justice MARSHALL, and Justice BLACKMUN join, dissenting.

Two Terms ago this Court reaffirmed that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution obligates a State " 'to assure the indigent defendant an adequate opportunity to present his claims fairly in the context of the State's appellate process.' " Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 556, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 1994, 95 L.Ed.2d 539 (1987) (quoting Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600, 616, 94 S.Ct. 2437, 2446, 41 L.Ed.2d 341 (1974)). The narrow question presented is whether that obligation includes appointment of counsel for indigent death row inmates who wish to pursue state postconviction relief. Viewing the facts in light of our precedents, we should answer that question in the affirmative.

* The parties before us, like the Court of Appeals en banc and the District Court below, have accorded controlling importance to our decision in Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72 (1977). [1] In that case, inmates had alleged that North Carolina violated the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to provide research facilities to help them prepare habeas corpus petitions and federal civil rights complaints. Stressing "meaningful" access to the courts as a "touchstone," id., at 823, 97 S.Ct., at 1495, we held:

"[T]he fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." Id., at 828, 97 S.Ct., at 1498.

Far from creating a discrete constitutional right, Bounds constitutes one part of a jurisprudence that encompasses "right-to-counsel" as well as "access-to-courts" cases. Although each case is shaped by its facts, all share a concern, based upon the Fourteenth Amendment, that accused and convicted persons be permitted to seek legal remedies without arbitrary governmental interference.

At the fountainhead of this body of law is Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 69, 53 S.Ct. 55, 64, 77 L.Ed. 158 (1932), which recognized that "[e]ven the intelligent and educated layman . . . requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him." The Court reversed the convictions and death sentences of seven black men, charged with the rape of two white women, because the state court failed to designate counsel until the morning of trial. Reasoning that the "notice and hearing" guaranteed by the Due Process Clause "would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel," id., at 68-69, 53 S.Ct., at 63-64, the Court held:

"[I]n a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him as a necessary requisite of due process of law; and that duty is not discharged by an assignment at such a time or under such circumstances as to preclude the giving of effective aid in the preparation and trial of the case." Id., at 71, 53 S.Ct., at 65.

Particular circumstances thus defined the degree to which the Fourteenth Amendment protected petitioners in Powell against arbitrary criminal prosecution or punishment. Similarly, in Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 18-19, 76 S.Ct. 585, 590-591, 100 L.Ed. 891 (1956), the Court focused on "[s]tatistics show[ing] that a substantial proportion of criminal convictions are reversed by state appellate courts" in concluding that once a State allows appeals of convictions, it cannot administer its appellate process in a discriminatory fashion. Finding no rational basis for requiring appellants to pay for trial transcripts, "effectively den[ying] the poor an adequate appellate review accorded to all who have money enough to pay the costs in advance," the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment required States to furnish transcripts to indigents. Id., at 18, 76 S.Ct., at 590. Accord, Burns v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 252, 79 S.Ct. 1164, 3 L.Ed.2d 1209 (1959) ($20 fee to file appeal). The principles articulated in Griffin soon were applied to invalidate similar restraints on state postconviction review. Lane v. Brown, 372 U.S. 477, 83 S.Ct. 768, 9 L.Ed.2d 892 (1963) (transcript); Smith v. Bennett, 365 U.S. 708, 81 S.Ct. 895, 6 L.Ed.2d 39 (1961) (filing fee).

On the same day in 1963, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed indigent defendants assistance of counsel both at trial, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S.Ct. 792, and on their first appeal as of right, Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 83 S.Ct. 814. Applying the Sixth Amendment's express right of counsel to the States, the Court in Gideon departed from the special circumstances analysis in favor of a categorical approach. [2] But because of the absence of a constitutional right to appeal, see McKane v. Durston, 153 U.S. 684, 14 S.Ct. 913, 38 L.Ed. 867 (1894), the Court decided Douglas by assessing the facts in light of the Fourteenth Amendment. [3] The Court's reasons for invalidating California's appellate procedure-by which the appellate court undertook an ex parte examination of "the barren record" to determine whether an appeal merited appointment of counsel, 372 U.S., at 356, 83 S.Ct., at 816-echoed its earlier statements in Griffin:

"When an indigent is forced to run this gantlet of a preliminary showing of merit, the right to appeal does not comport with fair procedure. . . . [T]he discrimination is not between 'possibly good and obviously bad cases,' but between cases where the rich man can require the court to listen to argument of counsel before deciding on the merits, but a poor man cannot. . . . The indigent, where the record is unclear or the errors are hidden, has only the right to a meaningless ritual, while the rich man has a meaningful appeal." Douglas, 372 U.S., at 357-358, 83 S.Ct., at 816-817.

In two subsequent opinions the Court rejected inmates' attempts to secure legal assistance. In Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600, 94 S.Ct. 2437, 41 L.Ed.2d 341 (1974), the Court held there was no right to appointment of counsel for discretionary state appeals or certiorari petitions to this Court. It later announced for the first time that a State has no obligation to provide defendants with any collateral review of their convictions, and that if it does, "the fundamental fairness mandated by the Due Process Clause does not require that the State supply a lawyer as well." Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S., at 557, 107 S.Ct., at 1994. Although one might distinguish these opinions as having a different legal basis than the present case, [4] it is preferable to consider them, like Powell, Griffin, Douglas, and Bounds, as applications of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees to particular situations. Indeed the Court reaffirmed in Ross:

"The Fourteenth Amendment . . . does require that the state appellate system be 'free of unreasoned distinctions,' Rinaldi v. Yeager, 384 U.S. 305, 310 [86 S.Ct. 1497, 1500, 16 L.Ed.2d 577] (1966), and that indigents have an adequate opportunity to present their claims fairly within the adversary system. Griffin v. Illinois, supra; Draper v. Washington, 372 U.S. 487, 83 S.Ct. 774, 9 L.Ed.2d 899 (1963). The State cannot adopt procedures which leave an indigent defendant 'entirely cut off from any appeal at all,' by virtue of his indigency, Lane v. Brown, 372 U.S., at 481, 83 S.Ct., at 771, or extend to such indigents merely a 'meaningless ritual' while others in better economic circumstances have a 'meaningful appeal.' Douglas v. California, supra, 372 U.S., at 358, 83 S.Ct., at 817. The question is not one of absolutes, but one of degrees." 417 U.S., at 612, 94 S.Ct., at 2445.

These precedents demonstrate that the appropriate question in this case is not whether there is an absolute "right to counsel" in collateral proceedings, but whether due process requires that these respondents be appointed counsel in order to pursue legal remedies. Three critical differences between Finley and this case demonstrate that even if it is permissible to leave an ordinary prisoner to his own resources in collateral proceedings, it is fundamentally unfair to require an indigent death row inmate to initiate collateral review without counsel's guiding hand. I shall address each of these differences in turn.

First. These respondents, like petitioners in Powell but unlike respondent in Finley, have been condemned to die. Legislatures conferred greater access to counsel on capital defendants than on persons facing lesser punishment even in colonial times. [5] Our First Congress required assignment of up to two attorneys to a capital defendant at the same time it initiated capital punishment; [6] nearly a century passed before Congress provided for appointment of counsel in other contexts. See Mallard v. United States District Court, 490 U.S. 296, 109 S.Ct. 1814, 104 L.Ed.2d 318 (1989) (interpreting Act of July 20, 1892, ch. 209, § 1, 27 Stat. 252, now codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d)). Similarly, Congress at first limited the federal right of appeal to capital cases. See Evitts v. Lucey, 469 U.S. 387, 409, 105 S.Ct. 830, 843, 83 L.Ed.2d 821 (1985) (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting). Just last year, it enacted a statute requiring provision of counsel for state and federal prisoners seeking federal postconviction relief-but only if they are under sentence of death. [7]

This Court also expanded capital defendants' ability to secure counsel and other legal assistance long before bestowing similar privileges on persons accused of less serious crimes. [8] Both before and after Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972), established that the Constitution requires channeling of the death-sentencing decision, various Members of this Court have recognized that "the penalty of death is qualitatively different from a sentence of imprisonment, however long." Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 305, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 2991, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (1976) (plurality opinion). [9]

The unique nature of the death penalty not only necessitates additional protections during pretrial, guilt, and sentencing phases, [10] but also enhances the importance of the appellate process. Generally there is no constitutional right to appeal a conviction. See, e.g., McKane v. Durston, 153 U.S. 684, 14 S.Ct. 913, 38 L.Ed. 867 (1894). "[M]eaningful appellate review" in capital cases, however, "serves as a check against the random or arbitrary imposition of the death penalty." Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 195, 206, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2935, 2940, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976) (opinion of Stewart, Powell, and STEVENS, JJ.). It is therefore an integral component of a State's "constitutional responsibility to tailor and apply its law in a manner that avoids the arbitrary and capricious infliction of the death penalty." Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 428, 100 S.Ct. 1759, 1764, 64 L.Ed.2d 398 (1980). [11]

Ideally, "direct appeal is the primary avenue for review of a conviction or sentence, and death penalty cases are no exception. When the process of direct review . . . comes to an end, a presumption of finality and legality attaches to the conviction and sentence." Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 887, 103 S.Ct. 3383, 3391, 77 L.Ed.2d 1090 (1983). There is, however, significant evidence that in capital cases what is ordinarily considered direct review does not sufficiently safeguard against miscarriages of justice to warrant this presumption of finality. [12] Federal habeas courts granted relief in only 0.25% to 7% of noncapital cases in recent years; in striking contrast, the success rate in capital cases ranged from 60% to 70%. [13] Such a high incidence of uncorrected error demonstrates that the meaningful appellate review necessary in a capital case extends beyond the direct appellate process.

Second. In contrast to the collateral process discussed in Finley, Virginia law contemplates that some claims ordinarily heard on direct review will be relegated to postconviction proceedings. Claims that trial or appellate counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance, for instance, usually cannot be raised until this stage. See Frye v. Commonwealth, 231 Va. 370, 345 S.E.2d 267 (1986). Furthermore, some irregularities, such as prosecutorial misconduct, may not surface until after the direct review is complete. E.g., Amadeo v. Zant, 486 U.S. 214, 108 S.Ct. 1771, 100 L.Ed.2d 249 (1988) (prosecutor deliberately underrepresented black people and women in jury pools); Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). Occasionally, new evidence even may suggest that the defendant is innocent. E.g., Ex parte Adams, 768 S.W.2d 281 (Tex.Cr.App., 1989); McDowell v. Dixon, 858 F.2d 945 (C.A.4 1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1033, 109 S.Ct. 1172, 103 L.Ed.2d 230 (1989). Given the irreversibility of capital punishment, such information deserves searching, adversarial scrutiny even if it is discovered after the close of direct review.

The postconviction procedure in Virginia may present the first opportunity for an attorney detached from past proceedings to examine the defense and to raise claims that were barred on direct review by prior counsel's ineffective assistance. A fresh look may reveal, for example, that a prior conviction used to enhance the defendant's sentence was invalid, e.g., Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578, 108 S.Ct. 1981, 100 L.Ed.2d 575 (1988); or that the defendant's mental illness, lack of a prior record, or abusive childhood should have been introduced as evidence in mitigation at his sentencing hearing, e.g., Curry v. Zant, 258 Ga. 527, 371 S.E.2d 647 (1988). Defense counsel's failure to object to or assert such claims precludes direct appellate review of them. [14] The postconviction proceeding gives inmates another chance to rectify defaults. [15] In Virginia, therefore, postconviction proceedings are key to meaningful appellate review of capital cases.

State postconviction proceedings also are the cornerstone for all subsequent attempts to obtain collateral relief. Once a Virginia court determines that a claim is procedurally barred, a federal court may not review it unless the defendant can make one of two difficult showings: that there was both cause for the default and resultant prejudice, or that failure to review will cause a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 485, 495, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 2644, 2649, 91 L.Ed.2d 397 (1986); Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 87, 97 S.Ct. 2497, 2506, 53 L.Ed.2d 594 (1977). If an asserted claim is tested in an evidentiary hearing, the state postconviction court's factual findings may control the scope of a federal court's review of a subsequent petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. [16]

Nor may a defendant circumvent the state postconviction process by filing a federal habeas petition. In Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 102 S.Ct. 1198, 71 L.Ed.2d 379 (1982), this Court held that in order to comply with the exhaustion provision of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(c), federal courts should dismiss petitions containing claims that have not been "fairly presented to the state courts," Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275, 92 S.Ct. 509, 512, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971), for both direct and postconviction review, Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 109 S.Ct. 1056, 103 L.Ed.2d 380 (1989). Given the stringency with which this Court adheres to procedural default rules, [17] it is of great importance to the prisoner that all his substantial claims be presented fully and professionally in his first state collateral proceeding. [18]

Third. As the District Court's findings reflect, the plight of the death row inmate constrains his ability to wage collateral attacks far more than does the lot of the ordinary inmate considered in Finley. [19] The District Court found that the death row inmate has an extremely limited period to prepare and present his postconviction petition and any necessary applications for stays of execution. 668 F.Supp. 511, 513 (E.D.Va.1986). Unlike the ordinary inmate, who presumably has ample time to use and reuse the prison library and to seek guidance from other prisoners experienced in preparing pro se petitions, cf. Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S.Ct. 747, 21 L.Ed.2d 718 (1969), a grim deadline imposes a finite limit on the condemned person's capacity for useful research. [20]

Capital litigation, the District Court observed, is extremely complex. 668 F.Supp., at 513. Without regard to the special characteristics of Virginia's statutory procedures, [21] this Court's death penalty jurisprudence unquestionably is difficult even for a trained lawyer to master. [22] A judgment that it is not unfair to require an ordinary inmate to rely on his own resources to prepare a petition for postconviction relief, see Finley, 481 U.S., at 557, 107 S.Ct., at 1994, does not justify the same conclusion for the death row inmate who must acquire an understanding of this specialized area of the law and prepare an application for stay of execution as well as a petition for collateral relief. [23] This is especially true, the District Court concluded, because the "evidence gives rise to a fair inference that an inmate preparing himself and his family for impending death is incapable of performing the mental functions necessary to adequately pursue his claims." [24] 668 F.Supp., at 513.

These three critical factors demonstrate that there is a profound difference between capital postconviction litigation and ordinary postconviction litigation in Virginia. The District Court's findings unequivocally support the conclusion that to obtain an adequate opportunity to present their postconviction claims fairly, death row inmates need greater assistance of counsel than Virginia affords them. Cf. id., at 514-515. Meaningful access, and meaningful judicial review, would be effected in this case only if counsel were appointed, on request, in time to enable examination of the case record, factual investigation, and preparation of a petition containing all meritorious claims, which the same attorney then could litigate to its conclusion.

Although in some circumstances governmental interests may justify infringements on Fourteenth Amendment rights, cf. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 334-335, 96 S.Ct. 893, 902-903, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976), Virginia has failed to assert any interest that outweighs respondents' right to legal assistance. The State already appoints counsel to death row inmates who succeed in filing postconviction petitions asserting at least one nonfrivolous claim; therefore, the additional cost of providing its 32 death row inmates competent counsel to prepare such petitions should be minimal. See 668 F.Supp., at 512, 515. Furthermore, multiple filings delay the conclusion of capital litigation and exacerbate the already serious burden these cases impose on the State's judicial system and the legal department. It seems obvious that professional preparation of the first postconviction petition, by reducing successive petitions, would result in a net benefit to Virginia. [25]

Of the 37 States authorizing capital punishment, at least 18 automatically provide their indigent death row inmates counsel to help them initiate state collateral proceedings. [26] Thirteen of the 37 States have created governmentally funded resource centers to assist counsel in litigating capital cases. [27] Virginia is among as few as five States that fall into neither group and have no system for appointing counsel for condemned prisoners before a postconviction petition is filed. [28] In Griffin, the Court proscribed I linois' discriminatory barrier to appellate review in part because many other States already had rejected such a barrier. 351 U.S., at 19, 76 S.Ct., at 590; cf. Gideon, 372 U.S., at 345, 83 S.Ct., at 798 (noting that 22 States supported right to trial counsel). Similarly, the trend in most States to expand legal assistance for their death row inmates further dilutes Virginia's weak justifications for refusing to do so, and "lends convincing support to the conclusion" of the courts below that these respondents have a fundamental right to the relief they seek. See Powell, 287 U.S., at 73, 53 S.Ct., at 67.

The basic question in this case is whether Virginia's procedure for collateral review of capital convictions and sentences assures its indigent death row inmates an ad quate opportunity to present their claims fairly. The District Court and Court of Appeals en banc found that it did not, and neither the State nor this Court's majority provides any reasoned basis for disagreeing with their conclusion. Simple fairness requires that this judgment be affirmed.

I respectfully dissent.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).

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