126 F.3d 843 (6th Cir. 1997), 96-5754, Austin v. Bell

Docket Nº:96-5754.
Citation:126 F.3d 843
Party Name:Richard H. AUSTIN, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Ricky BELL, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
Case Date:October 02, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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126 F.3d 843 (6th Cir. 1997)

Richard H. AUSTIN, Petitioner-Appellee,


Ricky BELL, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 96-5754.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

October 2, 1997

Argued April 23, 1997.

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Larry D. Woods (argued), Woods & Woods, Michele D. Collins (briefed), Law Office of Michele D. Collins, Nashville, TN, for Petitioner-Appellee.

Gordon W. Smith, Asst. Attorney General (briefed), Glenn R. Pruden (briefed), Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Justice Division, John H. Baker, III, Office of the Attorney General, Michael E. Moore (argued and briefed), Office of the Attorney General, Nashville, TN, for Respondent-Appellant.

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Before: MARTIN, Chief Judge; MERRITT and SUHRHEINRICH, Circuit Judges.


SUHRHEINRICH, Circuit Judge.

Respondent Warden Ricky Bell ("Warden Bell") appeals from summary judgment for Petitioner Richard H. Austin ("Austin") on his application for a writ of habeas corpus. Austin was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death by a jury in a Tennessee state court for contracting the murder of an undercover police agent. Warden Bell raises three issues: (1) whether the reasonable doubt instruction unconstitutionally lowered the state's burden of proof; (2) whether Austin was denied effective assistance of counsel in both the liability and penalty phases of his trial; and (3) whether the sentencing instruction unconstitutionally required the jury to agree unanimously on mitigating circumstances.

This Court finds that the reasonable doubt jury instruction was constitutional. We also find that Petitioner received effective assistance of counsel during the guilt phase of his trial but not during the sentencing phase. Therefore, this Court will remand to the state court for resentencing. Consequently, we need not decide whether the instruction on mitigating circumstances was constitutional. However, we caution the state court to insure that the instruction on mitigating circumstances in resentencing permits each juror to consider all relevant mitigating evidence. Accordingly, this Court AFFIRMS in part, REVERSES in part, and REMANDS for resentencing.


A jury found Austin guilty of hiring Jack Charles Blankenship, an escaped convict, to kill Julian C. Watkins, an undercover agent for the Memphis Police Department and sentenced Austin to death. 1 Austin's conviction and death sentence were affirmed on direct appeal in the state courts. State v. Austin, 618 S.W.2d 738 (Tenn.1981). The denials of his requests for post-conviction relief in state court were also affirmed. Austin v. State, No. 02C01-9102-CR-00009, 1991 WL 153016 (Tenn.Crim.App., Aug. 14, 1991), Austin v. State, No. 02C01-9310-CR-00238, 1995 WL 263930 (Tenn.Crim.App., May 03, 1995).

Austin petitioned for a federal writ of habeas corpus and then moved for summary judgment. The district court partially granted Austin's motion for summary judgment and issued the writ, holding that: (1) Austin's trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in both the liability and sentencing phases of the trial; (2) the reasonable doubt instruction at Austin's trial was unconstitutional; and (3) it was reasonably likely that the jury interpreted the instructions as preventing any juror from considering a mitigating circumstance unless the jury unanimously found that circumstance. Austin v. Bell, 938 F.Supp. 1308 (M.D.Tenn.1996). 2

Warden Bell appeals from the summary judgment for Austin and challenges the district court's holdings on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim and the jury instructions on reasonable doubt and mitigating

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circumstances. 3 Austin has not cross appealed.


The district court found that the reasonable doubt instruction was unconstitutional because it lowered the constitutional burden of proof of "beyond a reasonable doubt" by requiring merely "moral certainty" and by allowing the jury to base its verdict on something other than the prosecutor's proof. Austin, 938 F.Supp. at 1318-19. Warden Bell argues that the district court erred because the instruction does not lower the burden of proof to convict Austin. We find that Austin's claim is without merit.

To warrant habeas relief, jury instructions must not only have been erroneous, but also, taken as a whole, so infirm that they rendered the entire trial fundamentally unfair. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 72, 112 S.Ct. 475, 482, 116 L.Ed.2d 385 (1991); Henderson v. Kibe, 431 U.S. 145, 154, 97 S.Ct. 1730, 1736-37, 52 L.Ed.2d 203 (1977); Wood v. Marshall, 790 F.2d 548, 551-52 (6th Cir.1986). If an instruction is ambiguous and not necessarily erroneous, it violates the Constitution only if there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the instruction improperly. Estelle, 502 U.S. at 72, 73 n. 4, 112 S.Ct. at 482 n. 4; Boyde, 494 U.S. 370, 380, 110 S.Ct. 1190, 1197-98, 108 L.Ed.2d 316 (1990).

Austin alleges that the following jury instruction violated his constitutional rights:

Reasonable doubt is that doubt engendered by an investigation of all the proof in the case and an inability after such investigation to let the mind rest easily upon the certainty of guilt. Reasonable doubt does not mean a doubt that may arise from possibility. Absolute certainty of guilt is not demanded by the law to convict of any criminal charge, but moral certainty is required and this certainty is required as to every proposition of proof requisite to constitute the offense.


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