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Hall v. Thomas

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 26, 2014

STEVEN WAYNE HALL, JR., Petitioner,
v.
KIM THOMAS, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, Respondent.

ORDER

CALLIE V. S. GRANADE, District Judge.

In 1993, Petitioner Steven Wayne Hall, Jr., was convicted of murder and condemned to die. He has been fighting that conviction ever since. Last year, Hall won a round in that fight when this court conditionally granted his habeas petition and instructed Respondent Kim Thomas, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections (hereinafter the "State"), to give Hall a new trial or else let him go. (Doc. 35.) The matter is before the court on the State's Rule 59 Motion to Alter or Amend Order on Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. (Doc. 36.) For the reasons that follow, the State's motion is due to be denied.

DISCUSSION

When the court conditionally granted Hall's habeas petition, it did so on limited grounds. Of the forty claims Hall pursued, the court rejected all but one: Hall's claim that the prosecution violated his rights when it used a peremptory strike to dismiss a black member of the jury venire, Minie Lett. After a de novo review of the record, the court found that "the State's use of a peremptory strike in this case to dismiss Lett from the jury venire constituted intentional discrimination and violated Hall's rights under the Equal Protection Clause and the clearly established law as determined by the Supreme Court in Batson. " (Doc. 35 at 44.) On that basis alone, the court conditionally granted Hall's habeas petition.

The State thinks that was a mistake, and that the court never should have conducted a de novo review of Hall's Batson claim in the first place. Instead, the State insists that this court should have decided Hall's Batson claim under the deferential standard set out in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). But as the court explained in its order, no such deference was warranted because "the state court decision on direct appeal was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law and an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding." (Doc. 35 at 38.) And as the following discussion will show, none of the arguments the State raises in its Rule 59 motion change that conclusion.

I. The court's analysis under § 2254(d)(1) does not conflict with Lee.

The State's first argument is that the court's analysis under § 2254(d)(1) conflicts with the Eleventh Circuit's recent decision in Lee v. Commissioner, 726 F.3d 1172 (11th Cir. 2013), cert denied 134 S.Ct. 1542, 188 L.Ed.2d 557 (2014), so the court starts its analysis with a short review of that decision.

In Lee, a habeas petitioner argued that § 2254(d)(1) requires state courts deciding Batson appeals to "show [they] considered every relevant circumstance (and every relevant argument) by explicitly mentioning each one" in a written opinion. Id. at 1211. According to that petitioner, failure to abide by that opinion-writing requirement would automatically amount to an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law within the meaning of § 2254(d)(1).

The circuit court disagreed, finding that § 2254(d)(1) does not require state courts to "show [their] work by explicitly mentioning all relevant circumstances argued by a defendant in a Batson appeal." Id. at 1211. Instead, the court read § 2254(d)(1) as establishing a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'" See id. at 1212 (quoting Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002)). Thus, according to Lee, habeas courts must consider both the explicit findings in a state court's opinion and any "implicit findings the state court could have made in its denial of a federal claim, " Lee, 726 F.3d at 1172, before finding that the state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent. Lee referred to this rule as the implicit-findings principle. Lee, at 1216.

The State says this court's order violated that principle. The State's argument is founded largely on short quotations from this court's opinion that the State says follow the precise "mode of reasoning that the Eleventh Circuit repudiated in Lee. " (Doc. 36 at 7.) In other words, the State argues that this court faulted the state court for violating an opinion-writing requirement that does not exist.

But this court's opinion was not so one-dimensional as the State suggests. Though the court indeed criticized the state court's failure to include an important fact in its written opinion, that criticism followed a finding that "the Court of Criminal Appeals failed to follow clearly established law when it did not consider all relevant circumstances in its analysis of the trial court's ruling." (Doc. 35 at 25 (emphasis added and quotation marks omitted).) Thus, this court's opinion ultimately faulted the state court for failing to even consider a relevant circumstance in its analysis of Hall's Batson claim, not on a mere failure to mention that fact in writing. And that conclusion is consonant with Lee, which recognizes that "a state court assuredly must evaluate the totality of the evidence and consider all relevant circumstances" when it decides a Batson challenge. Lee, 726 F.3d at 1212.

Of course, repeating that conclusion does not fully answer the State's objection. The State's motion does not merely fault the court's reasoning; it also quibbles with the court's conclusion. For the sake of thoroughness (and at the risk of redundancy), the court will explain once again why the court concluded that the state court unreasonably applied Batson.

The problem lies with the prosecutor's reason for striking Lett, viz., her opposition to the death penalty. (Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7232-33.) To prove that Lett was opposed to the death penalty, the prosecutor stated as follows:

She, in questioning, direct questioning, had strong reservations about the death penalty. Said she'd never given it much thought. She said that she would have great reservation in doing that. She said that her choice would be life without parole, generally. And we struck her for that reason. We made notes of all these questionnaires, my associates did, during the questioning, by the way, Your Honor. And our notes indicated that Mrs. Lett had a strong resistance to the death penalty. We struck her for that reason.

(Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7232-33.) In response to a question from the trial judge, the prosecutor also mentioned Lett's "uneasiness about the questions and also her easiness[1] about the death penalty and her strong reservations that she expressed about the death penalty." (Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7234.) Thus, although the prosecutor supported his explanation for striking Lett with several facts, he ultimately struck her for a single reason: "... Mrs. Lett had a strong resistance to the death penalty. We struck her for that reason. " (Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7233 (emphasis added).)

There is strong evidence in the record showing that that reason is false. Lett never expressed any strong reservations about the death penalty; the closest she ever got was to admit that she had mixed feelings. But that admission was followed by "an unambiguous affirmation that she could listen to the evidence and base her descision on the evidence presented at trial." (Doc. 35 at 41.) Likewise, Lett didn't say that she would generally choose life without parole over a death sentence. To the contrary, the record shows that every statement Lett made was either ambiguous ("Well, I think the death penalty, to me, I couldn't really say, but, if it be a threat to the public.") or unambiguously supportive of the death penalty ("They took a life, ...


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