286 F.3d 230 (5th Cir. 2002), 99-60511, Neal v. Puckett

Docket Nº:99-60511
Citation:286 F.3d 230
Party Name:Neal v. Puckett
Case Date:March 15, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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286 F.3d 230 (5th Cir. 2002)

Howard Monteville NEAL, Petitioner-Appellant,


Steve W. PUCKETT, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections; James Anderson, Superintendent, Mississippi State Penitentiary, Respondents-Appellees.

No. 99-60511.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 15, 2002

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James William Craig (argued), Phelps Dunbar, Jackson, MS, for Petitioner-Appellant.

Marvin L. White, Jr. (argued), Leslie S. Lee, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jackson, MS, for Respondents-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.



Howard Neal was sentenced to death by the state courts of Mississippi for the brutal rape and murder of his thirteen-year-old niece, Amanda Joy Neal. He also shot and killed his brother, Bobby Neal, and he raped and murdered his niece's fourteen-year-old friend, all during the same episode. He now seeks federal habeas corpus relief on the grounds of ineffective aineltance of counsel. Neal argues that his counsel failed to thoroughly investigate Neal's background--including his horrid childhood of rejection, abandonment, and mental institutions, plus his torturous prison experience--to uncover evidence of mitigating circumstances that he could have presented to the jury during the sentencing phase of his trial. Neal raised this ineffective counsel claim before the Mississippi Supreme Court. That court denied relief, concluding that the additional evidence would have been cumulative of what actually was presented. Because we conclude that the Mississippi Supreme Court's conclusion, although incorrect, was not an unreasonable application of Strickland v. Washington, we deny Neal's request for a writ of habeas corpus.


The facts of this case are discussed in detail in the published opinion by the Mississippi Supreme Court on Neal's direct appeal. Neal v. State, 451 So.2d 743, 747-51 (Miss.1984). We restate the facts briefly here.

Neal is a moderately retarded man, with an IQ of between 54 and 60. The record indicates that he had a nightmarish childhood and young adulthood. We will discuss these facts in more detail in the body of this opinion. In short, as a youth he was discarded by his family, spent eight years in Mississippi state mental institutions, and then some time in an Oklahoma prison for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, where, as a helpless individual, he apparently suffered sexual abuse by fellow prisoners.

In January 1981, Neal drove to the home of his half-brother, Bobby Neal, against whom he may have had a longstanding resentment. Bobby, Bobby's thirteen-year-old daughter, Amanda Joy, and her friend, Melanie Sue Polk, were together in the house. The three left with Neal in Neal's car, perhaps by force (but this is uncertain). During the drive, while

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they were on a logging road, Neal, according to his confession, began fondling Amanda Joy. Bobby told Neal to stop, and an argument ensued. Neal stopped the car, and he and Bobby got out and walked some distance away. At that point, Neal shot Bobby, killing him. Neal then returned to the car and drove to another deserted area with the two girls. He pulled a blanket from his car and proceeded to rape Amanda Joy. He then raped Melanie Sue and shot both girls.

After the bodies were found, the pathologist's examination of Amanda Joy revealed bruises and lacerations about her face, head, and left wrist, and evidence of manual strangulation, in addition to the bullet hole in her abdomen. The pathologist concluded that Amanda Joy could have survived between five and thirty minutes given her wound.

The police began by canvassing the nearby communities. As part of their investigation, they showed some people a photograph of Neal and asked whether he looked familiar. The owner of a nearby motel said that he remembered Neal renting a room about the time of the murder. By this time, however, Neal was in California, where he was later arrested for shoplifting. During a standard background check, the California police discovered that Neal was wanted for questioning in Mississippi. After several days of interrogation in California, Neal admitted to the California authorities that he had committed the murders.

Neal was tried and convicted for Amanda Joy's murder based on the confession he gave police, 1 and the jury sentenced him to death. Under Mississippi law, the jury is required to balance statutorily-defined aggravating factors against any mitigating factors in determining whether the death penalty is warranted. Billiot v. Puckett, 135 F.3d 311, 315 (5th Cir. 1998). In Neal's case, the jury found that two aggravating circumstances--that the murder was committed in the course of a kidnaping and was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel"--were sufficient to impose the death penalty and were not outweighed by mitigating circumstances. See Miss.Code Ann. § 99-19-101(5)(d) and (h).

Neal appealed this conviction and sentence, both of which the Mississippi Supreme Court ultimately affirmed. Neal, 451 So.2d 743. Neal then sought habeas corpus relief. The Mississippi Supreme Court granted Neal an evidentiary hearing on whether he had been denied the opportunity to testify on his own behalf, Neal v. State, 525 So.2d 1279, 1283 (Miss.1987), but after this hearing, that court denied relief. Neal v. State, 687 So.2d 1180 (Miss.1996). Neal then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi on July 7, 1997. In an unpublished order, the district court denied Neal's petition on January 7, 1999, and then denied his request for a Certificate of Appealability ("COA") on October 7, 1999. Neal then filed a motion seeking a COA in this court. We denied his motion on all claims but one. We did grant a COA to determine whether Neal's trial counsel was ineffective at the sentencing phase of the trial for failing to investigate evidence of mitigating circumstances and to present that evidence during the sentencing hearing. We now address that issue on the merits.



Neal contends that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate

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and gather, and consequently failing to present, mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. The Sixth Amendment requires defense counsel to conduct a reasonably thorough pretrial inquiry into the defenses that might be offered in mitigation of punishment. Baldwin v. Maggio, 704 F.2d 1325, 1332-33 (5th Cir. 1983). Neal argues that his lawyers failed to do so and, as a result, called only two witnesses during sentencing--Neal's mother and a psychologist.

Neal argues that his lawyer should have interviewed members of the staff at the two institutions where Neal spent time as a youth, Ellisville and Whitfield.2 He also contends that his lawyer should have obtained the records from the prison in Oklahoma where Neal was incarcerated as a young man or at least consulted officials or medical personnel from that prison regarding his mental capabilities and character. Finally, he contends that he should have been evaluated by a neurologist to explain further his mental state. None of this occurred, so any possible mitigating evidence from these sources was unavailable to the jurors deciding his sentence. Neal further argues that he was prejudiced by his counsel's performance because there is a reasonable probability that if this evidence had been before the jury, he would have received a life sentence instead of death.


Our first responsibility is to determine the standard of review. Because Neal filed his petition for habeas corpus relief on July 7, 1997, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") governs this appeal. See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 324-26, 117 S.Ct. 2059, 2062-63, 138 L.Ed.2d 481 (1997)(confirming that the AEDPA applies to federal habeas corpus petitions filed on or after April 24, 1996). The AEDPA standard for granting habeas corpus relief with respect to an adjudication on the merits in state court is stated in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d):

"(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim--

(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...."

In the context of federal habeas proceedings, adjudication "on the merits" is a term of art that refers to whether a court's disposition of the case was substantive as opposed to procedural. Green v. Johnson, 116 F.3d 1115, 1121 (5th Cir. 1997). In the present case, the state supreme court denied habeas corpus relief on the grounds that any additional evidence that Neal could have uncovered and presented would have been "substantially redundant or cumulative when compared with the evidence Neal offered at trial." Neal v. State, 525 So.2d 1279, 1281 (Miss.1987). Thus, that court's disposition of this issue was substantive and therefore qualifies as a decision "on the merits."

In this case, the "clearly established Federal law" is the Supreme Court's decision in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), and its progeny, which govern ineffective assistance of counsel claims...

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