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Knight v. Florida Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 30, 2019

RICHARD KNIGHT, Petitioner-Appellant,

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, No. 0:17-cv-61921-RNS

          Before Tjoflat, Jordan, and Grant, Circuit Judges.

          Grant, Circuit Judge.

         Richard 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.



         According 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.

         Both 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.

         Knight 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.

         Shortly 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 his hand.

         Knight 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).


         Knight 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.

         The 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.[1] 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.


         Knight 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.



         Federal 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.

         First, 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)).

         A 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.").

         Second, 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 ...

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