from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Florida, No. 0:17-cv-61921-RNS
Tjoflat, Jordan, and Grant, Circuit Judges.
Knight, a Florida prisoner sentenced to death for the murders
of Odessia Stephens and her daughter, Hanessia Mullings,
appeals the district court's denial of his federal habeas
corpus petition. At this stage-almost 20 years after the
crimes were committed and more than a decade after a Florida
jury found Knight guilty of the murders and recommended a
death sentence-Knight's claims have been winnowed down to
two: first, that his death sentence is invalid under
Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (2016), and second,
that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial.
Because Hurst does not apply retroactively to
Knight, any challenge to his death sentence on that basis is
beyond our reach on federal habeas review. Nor can Knight
find success in his other challenge; the Florida Supreme
Court's rejection of his ineffective-assistance claim was
not an unreasonable application of Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). We therefore affirm.
to evidence introduced at his murder trial, Knight lived in
an apartment with his cousin, Hans Mullings, and Hans's
girlfriend, Odessia. Hans and Odessia's four-year-old
daughter, Hanessia, also lived with them in the apartment.
Odessia was tired of supporting Knight and one evening while
Hans was out she argued with Knight, insisting that he move
out the next day. After the argument got heated, Knight left
the house to walk around. But as he later confessed to
another inmate, instead of getting less angry with Odessia
once he got some air, Knight became increasingly irate. He
returned to the apartment and after exchanging more words
with Odessia, he got a knife from the kitchen. When he went
back to the master bedroom, he found Odessia and her little
girl in the bed. He began stabbing Odessia and continued his
attack until she stopped resisting and curled up on the
bedroom floor. He then moved on to little Hanessia, stabbing
her until his knife broke and cutting his hand in the
process. As he was leaving the bedroom, he heard
"popping noises" from where Hanessia lay on the
floor, and he thought that the little girl was "drowning
in her own blood." Apparently not considering his
revenge complete, he retrieved a second knife from the
kitchen and returned to continue his attack on Odessia. In
the meantime, Odessia had crawled from the bedroom to the
living room, where she had collapsed. Knight turned her over,
saw that she was still alive, and started stabbing her again.
Odessia and Hanessia died that night. In total, Odessia had
21 stab wounds, including 14 in the neck, 24 puncture or
scratch wounds, bruising and ligature marks consistent with
having been hit and strangled with a belt, defensive wounds,
and bruises from being hit or punched in the mouth and head.
Little Hanessia had four stab wounds in her upper body and
neck, a deep defensive wound on her hand, bruises on her neck
consistent with manual strangulation, and bruises on her arms
consistent with having been grabbed.
showered and changed after completing his brutal acts, then
headed to the living room with a rag to wipe off the knives.
Interrupted by a knock on the front door-it was police
responding to a neighbor's 911 call-Knight ran to his
room and climbed out the window.
after they arrived, police encountered Knight near the
apartment. He told them that he lived there, but that he did
not have a key. This was odd; the officers had already found
that all the doors to the apartment were locked. Knight was
also visibly wet-but it was not raining. Knight explained to
police that he had been jogging, a remarkable contention from
a person who was wearing long pants and dress shoes. He did
not appear to be sweating, in any event. And Knight's
personal appearance subsequently revealed even more clues-he
had blood on the back of his shirt, scratches on his chest
and midsection, a scrape on his shoulder, and fresh cuts on
was arrested and indicted for two counts of first-degree
murder. A Florida jury found him guilty as charged. That same
jury heard evidence and argument at the penalty phase and
unanimously recommended two death sentences-one for each
murder. Consistent with Florida's then-current death
penalty sentencing procedure, the judge held an additional
hearing, made his own findings regarding aggravating and
mitigating circumstances, and sentenced Knight to death. The
Florida Supreme Court affirmed Knight's convictions and
sentences on direct appeal. Knight v. State, 76
So.3d 879, 890 (Fla. 2011). The United States Supreme Court
denied his petition for certiorari. Knight v.
Florida, 566 U.S. 998, 998 (2012).
filed motions for state collateral relief raising the two
claims at issue here, as well as others that have already
been resolved. Specifically, he argued that the state court
should vacate his death sentence in light of Hurst v.
Florida, in which the Supreme Court held-four years
after Knight's conviction was final- that Florida's
death penalty sentencing scheme violated the Sixth Amendment.
136 S.Ct. at 622. The problem identified by the Supreme Court
in Hurst, and argued by Knight in his
post-conviction pleadings, was that the jury's role in
sentencing was to make a non-binding recommendation; the
judge alone made the ultimate findings of fact necessary to
impose the death penalty. Id. at 619, 621-22. Knight
also argued that his guilt-phase counsel was constitutionally
ineffective for failing to call an available DNA expert.
Florida Supreme Court rejected his postconviction claims on
the merits. Knight v. State, 225 So.3d 661, 668
(Fla. 2017) (per curiam). A plurality of the court agreed
with Knight that the sentencing procedure used in his case
violated the Sixth Amendment under Hurst, but also
concluded that the Hurst error was harmless.
Id. at 682. The plurality explained that under the
facts of Knight's case the penalty-phase jury had
necessarily made the factual findings necessary to impose the
death penalty-that "sufficient aggravators existed"
and that "the aggravation outweighed the
mitigation"-when it returned a unanimous vote
recommending death. Id. at 682-83 (citation omitted).
As for his ineffective-assistance claim, the court held that
Knight had failed to meet his burden under
Strickland because he had not shown that his
attorney's decision not to call his DNA expert
constituted deficient performance, or that there was any
reasonable probability that that decision negatively affected
the outcome of his trial. Id. at 673-74.
filed a petition for federal habeas review in the Southern
District of Florida, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The
district court denied relief but granted a certificate of
appealability on the two claims now before us.
courts may grant habeas corpus relief to prisoners who are
being detained "in violation of the Constitution or laws
or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C.
§§ 2241(c)(3); 2254(a). But our authority to award
this kind of relief to state prisoners is limited-by both
statute and Supreme Court precedent.
the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)
limits our authority to award habeas relief. A federal court
may not grant a state prisoner's habeas petition on any
issue that was decided on the merits by the state court
unless the state court's ruling "(1) 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 (2)
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." 28 U.S.C. §
2254(d). And as the Supreme Court has explained,
"clearly established" federal law means "the
holdings, as opposed to the dicta" from its controlling
precedents at the time of the relevant state court decision.
Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71 (2003) (quoting
Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)).
decision is "contrary to" clearly established
federal law "if the state court arrives at a conclusion
opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question
of law or if the state court decides a case differently than
[the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially
indistinguishable facts." Williams, 529 U.S. at
413. A state court decision involves an unreasonable
application of federal law "if the state court
identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the
Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that
principle to the facts of the prisoner's case."
Id. To justify issuance of the writ under the
"unreasonable application" clause, the state
court's application of Supreme Court precedent must be
more than just wrong in the eyes of the federal court; it
"must be 'objectively unreasonable.'"
Virginia v. LeBlanc, 137 S.Ct. 1726');">137 S.Ct. 1726, 1728 (2017)
(quoting Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376
(2015)); see also Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694
(2002) (explaining that "an unreasonable application is
different from an incorrect one.").
Supreme Court precedent demands that in any federal habeas
proceeding-including collateral proceedings in capital
cases-where the petitioner seeks the benefit of a
"new" rule of constitutional law, we must first
determine whether the rule actually qualifies as new, and
then whether that rule applies retroactively to the case.
See Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 300-01 (1989)
(plurality opinion); Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302,
313-14 (1989) (stating that the retroactivity approach from
Teague applies in capital cases), abrogated on
other grounds by Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304,
312-16, 321 (2002). In most cases, we cannot disturb a state
conviction based on a constitutional rule announced after a
conviction became final. Teague, 489 U.S. at 310.
Only two narrow exceptions pierce this general principle of
nonretroactivity: new rules that are "substantive rather
than procedural," and "watershed rules of criminal
procedure implicating ...