143 F.3d 865 (4th Cir. 1998), 97-25, Green v. French

Docket Nº:97-25.
Citation:143 F.3d 865
Party Name:Harvey Lee GREEN, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. James B. FRENCH, Warden, Central Prison, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:May 13, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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143 F.3d 865 (4th Cir. 1998)

Harvey Lee GREEN, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

James B. FRENCH, Warden, Central Prison, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 97-25.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 13, 1998

Argued Jan. 29, 1998.

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ARGUED: Gretchen Marie Engel, Center for Death Penalty Litigation, Durham, NC, for Appellant. Valerie Blanche Spalding, Special Deputy Attorney General, North Carolina Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Henderson Hill, Ferguson, Stein, Wallas, Adkins, Gresham & Sumter, P.A., Charlotte, NC, for Appellant. Michael F. Easley, Attorney General of North Carolina, William N. Farrell, Jr., Senior Deputy Attorney General, North Carolina Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Appellee.

Before ERVIN and LUTTIG, Circuit Judges, and BUTZNER, Senior Circuit Judge.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge LUTTIG wrote the opinion, in which Judge BUTZNER joined. Judge ERVIN concurred separately.

OPINION

LUTTIG, Circuit Judge:

Petitioner-appellant Harvey Green, who has been sentenced to death by the state of North Carolina on two counts of first-degree felony murder, appeals the decision of the district court dismissing his petition habeas corpus. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

The tragic facts of this case, which we need only summarize here, have been fully set forth by the North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Green, 336 N.C. 142, 153-57, 443 S.E.2d 14, cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1046, 115 S.Ct. 642, 130 L.Ed.2d 547 (1994). On December 19, 1983, while committing a robbery at Young's Cleaners in Bethel, North Carolina, petitioner Green bludgeoned to death Sheila Bland, a seventeen-year-old high school student who was working as the store cashier, and John Edmondson, a thirty-three-year-old church organist who was a

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store customer at the time. Within a matter of weeks, Green confessed to the crimes to the police. He also showed the police where he hid the murder weapon, which tested positively for blood and the victims' hair, and he turned over to the police the pair of blood-splattered pants that he wore at the time of the killings. On January 16, 1984, the grand jury of Pitt County, North Carolina, returned an indictment of Green on two counts of first-degree felony murder. Green subsequently pled guilty to both counts.

Pursuant to North Carolina law, a capital sentencing proceeding was conducted at which the jury recommended the death penalty for each murder, and the trial court entered judgment accordingly. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the case for a hearing to determine whether Green's death sentences were unconstitutionally tainted by racial discrimination in jury selection in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). A Batson hearing was held, after the conclusion of which the lower court determined that there had been no racial discrimination in the selection of Green's jury. The North Carolina Supreme Court subsequently remanded for a second Batson hearing, at which the trial court made more detailed findings of fact and again found no Batson error.

While Green's sentence was being appealed for the third time, the North Carolina Supreme Court remanded for resentencing in light of the intervening United States Supreme Court case of McKoy v. North Carolina, 494 U.S. 433, 110 S.Ct. 1227, 108 L.Ed.2d 369 (1990), which held that it violated the Eighth Amendment for North Carolina to instruct a capital sentencing jury--as had occurred in Green's case--that it must unanimously find the existence of any mitigating circumstances.

At Green's second capital sentencing hearing, the jury found three statutory aggravating circumstances: (1) that Green had been previously convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence, (2) that the murders of Sheila Bland and Michael Edmondson were for pecuniary gain, and (3) that those murders were part of a course of conduct in which Green committed another crime of violence against another person. Although the jury also found seven mitigating circumstances, it ultimately recommended death sentences for each of the two first-degree felony murders. Judgment, again, was entered accordingly. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court, in a thorough, fifty-eight page opinion, affirmed Green's death sentences against various assignments of error. State v. Green, 336 N.C. 142, 443 S.E.2d 14 (1994). The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari on December 5, 1994. Green v. North Carolina, 513 U.S. 1046, 115 S.Ct. 642, 130 L.Ed.2d 547 (1994).

Green then unsuccessfully sought to challenge his sentences through a motion for appropriate relief under North Carolina's post-conviction relief procedures, and, after that motion was denied, on October 3, 1996, Green filed the instant petition in federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court dismissed Green's habeas petition, Green v. French, 978 F.Supp. 242 (E.D.N.C. July 16, 1997), and Green appealed.

II.

Green's petition for federal habeas relief was filed after the date on which the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub.L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214, was signed into law. Accordingly, Green's claims are governed by the new standards for federal habeas corpus as amended by the AEDPA. See Lindh v. Murphy, --- U.S. ----, ----, 117 S.Ct. 2059, 2068, 138 L.Ed.2d 481 (1997) (holding that the provisions of the AEDPA amending 28 U.S.C. § 2254 only govern habeas petitions filed after April 24, 1996, the effective date of enactment of the AEDPA); Breard v. Pruett, 134 F.3d 615 (4th Cir.1998) (holding that the provisions of the AEDPA amending 28 U.S.C. § 2254 apply to habeas petitions filed after April 24, 1996).

Section 2254 provides that "a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court" upon a showing that his custody is in

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violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Section 2254(d)(1), as amended by the AEDPA, now provides, in relevant part, that such an application

shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claims--(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 ...

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Amended section 2254(d)(1) therefore places at least three limitations upon the availability of federal habeas relief: the petitioner must demonstrate that the state court's adjudication of his federal claim was (1) contrary to or an unreasonable application of (2) clearly established federal law (3) as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. The proper constructions of these limitations are matters of first impression in this circuit.

A.

As a prerequisite to obtaining habeas relief under amended section 2254(d)(1), a petitioner must demonstrate that the state court's adverse adjudication of the merits of his federal claim was "contrary to" or an "unreasonable application of" clearly established law as determined by the Supreme Court.

Correctly defining "contrary to" and "unreasonable application of," and distinguishing between the two terms for purposes of section 2254(d)(1), at first blush appears relatively simple. Upon reflection, however, it is evident that this appearance is deceptive, and that the intended meaning of these terms is not so clear at all. For, at least in common legal parlance and practice, not only is each of these terms invoked to describe various kinds and degrees of relationship between inferior and supreme court decisions, but, as well (or as a consequence), there is overlap between the phrases.

A lower court's decision, for example, certainly is said to be "contrary to" supreme court precedent when, through resolution of a question of pure law, that decision reaches a legal conclusion or a result opposite to that reached in a supreme court opinion which addresses the identical question of law. A lower court's decision is likewise "contrary to" a higher court's precedent when that decision correctly identifies the governing legal principle from the precedent but applies that principle to facts that are indistinguishable in any material respect from those on the basis of which the precedent was decided in such a way as to reach a conclusion different from that reached by the higher court. It is also common to characterize a lower court decision as "contrary to" supreme court precedent when that decision applies a precedent in a factual context different from the one in which the precedent was decided and one to which extension of the legal principle of the precedent is indisputably unjustified, or, conversely, when that decision fails to apply a precedent in a different context to which the precedent's principle clearly does apply.

The phrase "unreasonable application of" supreme court precedent is similarly invoked to describe various kinds and degrees of relationships between an inferior court decision and a superior court decision. A lower court is said to have unreasonably applied a higher court's precedent when it extends the legal principle of that precedent to a new context in which the application of that principle is not reasonable, or conversely, as above, when, unreasonably, it fails to extend a principle to a context to which the principle should be extended. But it is also considered to be an "unreasonable application...

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