834 F.3d 1227 (11th Cir. 2016), 14-10681, Wilson v. Warden, Georgia Diagnostic Prison

Docket Nº:14-10681
Citation:834 F.3d 1227
Opinion Judge:WILLIAM PRYOR, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:Marion Wilson, Jr., Petitioner-Appellant, v. Warden, Georgia Diagnostic Prison, Respondent-Appellee.
Attorney:Brian Kammer, Georgia Resource Center, Atlanta, GA, Gabrielle Elizabeth Bina, Emily Jane Greb, David James Harth, Lissa Rose Koop, Autumn Noelle Nero, Perkins Coie, LLP, Madison, WI, for Petitioner-Appellant. Beth Attaway Burton, Sabrina Graham, Britt C. Grant, Attorney General’s Office, Atlanta,...
Judge Panel:Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, TJOFLAT, HULL, MARCUS, WILSON, WILLIAM PRYOR, MARTIN, JORDAN, ROSENBAUM, JULIE CARNES, and JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judges. JORDAN, Circuit Judge, joined by WILSON, MARTIN, ROSENBAUM, and JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judges, dissenting: JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judge, joined by WILSON...
Case Date:August 23, 2016
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
 
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834 F.3d 1227 (11th Cir. 2016)

Marion Wilson, Jr., Petitioner-Appellant,

v.

Warden, Georgia Diagnostic Prison, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 14-10681

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 23, 2016

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, D.C. Docket No. 5:10-cv-00489-MTT

Brian Kammer, Georgia Resource Center, Atlanta, GA, Gabrielle Elizabeth Bina, Emily Jane Greb, David James Harth, Lissa Rose Koop, Autumn Noelle Nero, Perkins Coie, LLP, Madison, WI, for Petitioner-Appellant.

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Beth Attaway Burton, Sabrina Graham, Britt C. Grant, Attorney General’s Office, Atlanta, GA, for Respondent-Appellee.

Adam Mortara, Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott, LLP, Chicago, IL, for Amicus Curiae Adam Mortara.

Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, TJOFLAT, HULL, MARCUS, WILSON, WILLIAM PRYOR, MARTIN, JORDAN, ROSENBAUM, JULIE CARNES, and JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

WILLIAM PRYOR, Circuit Judge:

This appeal requires us to decide whether, when a federal court reviews a state prisoner’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, it must “ look through” a summary decision on the merits by a state appellate court to review the last reasoned decision. Marion Wilson, Jr., a Georgia prisoner sentenced to death for the murder of Donovan Parks in 1996, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia. That court denied his petition in a written opinion. Wilson sought to appeal that decision, and the Supreme Court of Georgia summarily denied his application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal. The district court then denied Wilson’s federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and after reviewing the one-sentence decision of the Georgia Supreme Court, we affirmed. Wilson v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 774 F.3d 671, 681 (11th Cir. 2014), reh’ g en banc granted, op. vacated, No. 14-10681 (11th Cir. July 30, 2015).

We vacated our panel opinion to determine en banc whether federal courts must “ look through” the summary denial by the Supreme Court of Georgia and review the reasoning of the Superior Court of Butts County. We conclude that federal courts need not “ look through” a summary decision on the merits to review the reasoning of the lower state court. We remand to the panel all outstanding issues in this appeal.

I. BACKGROUND

In 1996, Marion Wilson, Jr., and Robert Earl Butts killed Donovan Parks in Milledgeville, Georgia. Wilson v. State, 271 Ga. 811, 525 S.E.2d 339, 343 (1999). The two men approached Parks in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store and asked him for a ride. Minutes later, Parks’s body was found on a nearby residential street.

Officers arrested Wilson. They searched Wilson’s residence and found a “ sawed-off shotgun loaded with the type of ammunition used to kill Parks.” Id. Wilson told the officers that Butts had shot Parks with a sawed-off shotgun. A jury convicted Wilson of malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery, hijacking a motor vehicle, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Id. at 342-43. At sentencing, trial counsel argued that Wilson was not the triggerman and presented evidence of his difficult childhood. Georgia presented evidence of Wilson’s extensive criminal history and gang activity. The trial court sentenced Wilson to death, and the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed his convictions and sentence on direct appeal. Id. at 343.

Wilson filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia, in which he argued that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in his investigation of mitigation evidence for the penalty phase of Wilson’s trial. At an evidentiary hearing, Wilson introduced lay testimony that he argued should have been used as evidence of his difficult childhood. He also introduced expert testimony that he argued could have explained his poor judgment skills.

The superior court denied Wilson’s petition in a written order. It examined the lay testimony and found it largely cumulative of other evidence at trial or inadmissible on evidentiary grounds. It found that the

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expert testimony would not have changed the outcome of the trial. For these reasons, it ruled that trial counsel’s performance was not deficient and, alternatively, that Wilson suffered no prejudice. Wilson filed an application for a certificate of probable cause to appeal, which the Georgia Supreme Court summarily denied in a one-sentence order.

Wilson then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and the district court denied him relief. It ruled that the state trial court reasonably applied clearly established federal law. But the district court granted Wilson a certificate of appealability on the issue of the effectiveness of his trial counsel at sentencing.

A panel of this Court affirmed. Wilson, 774 F.3d at 681. As an initial matter, the panel reasoned that “ the one-line decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia denying Wilson’s certificate of probable cause is the relevant state-court decision for our review because it is the final decision ‘ on the merits.’ ” Id. at 678 (quoting Newland v. Hall, 527 F.3d 1162, 1199 (11th Cir. 2008)). Under the test announced in Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011), the panel asked “ whether there was any ‘ reasonable basis for the [Supreme Court of Georgia] to deny relief.’ ” Wilson, 774 F.3d at 678 (alteration in original) (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 98, 131 S.Ct. 770). The panel concluded that the Supreme Court of Georgia “ could have looked at the overall mix of evidence, aggravating and mitigating, old and new, and reasonably determined that a jury would have still sentenced Wilson to death.” Id. at 680. The panel stated that the lay testimony “ presented a ‘ double-edged sword,’ ” Id. at 679 (quoting Evans v. Sec’ y, Dep’t of Corr., 703 F.3d 1316, 1324 (11th Cir. 2013)), and was “ largely cumulative” of evidence presented to the jury, id. (quoting Holsey v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 694 F.3d 1230, 1260-61 (11th Cir. 2012)). The panel stated that the Georgia Supreme Court could have found the new expert testimony to be unreliable and in conflict with other evidence. Id. at 680. For these reasons, the panel concluded that the decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia denying Wilson’s petition was neither “ contrary to, [nor] involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” Id. at 681 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)).

In his petition for rehearing en banc, Wilson argued that the panel erred when it reviewed the summary denial of his petition for a certificate of probable cause to appeal. Wilson argued that, under the decision in Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 111 S.Ct. 2590, 115 L.Ed.2d 706 (1991), the panel should have instead examined the last reasoned decision by a state court. We ordered Georgia to respond to the petition.

In its response to Wilson’s petition, Georgia argued that a court should “ look through a summary denial to a reasoned decision only to determine whether the state appellate court affirmed on procedural grounds or on the merits.” Georgia defended the panel decision that, under Richter, a federal court must defer to the summary denial of the Georgia Supreme Court by asking “ what argument or theories could have supported the affirmance.” Georgia urged this Court to deny Wilson’s petition.

On July 30, 2015, we vacated the panel opinion and granted Wilson’s petition for rehearing en banc. We directed the parties to brief the following issue: “ Is a federal habeas court required to look through a state appellate court’s summary decision that is an adjudication on the merits to the reasoning in a lower court decision when deciding whether the state appellate court’s decision is entitled to deference under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)?”

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Georgia then changed its position. In its en banc brief, Georgia argued that this Court should review the reasoned opinion of the superior court, not the summary denial by the Georgia Supreme Court.

To provide the Court with argument on both sides of the question, we appointed Adam Mortara as amicus curiae to argue that the question should be answered in the negative. We thank Mr. Mortara for his service to this Court on short notice and for his superb brief and oral argument in keeping with the highest tradition of the legal profession.

Wilson and Georgia also challenged our precedent that the denial of a certificate of probable cause by the Georgia Supreme Court is an adjudication on the merits for the purposes of section...

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