Allen v. Stephan

Decision Date26 July 2022
Docket Number20-6
Citation42 F.4th 223
Parties Quincy J. ALLEN, Petitioner - Appellant, v. Michael STEPHAN, Warden, Broad River Correctional Institution, Respondent - Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Aren Kevork Adjoian, FEDERAL COMMUNITY DEFENDER OFFICE, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for Appellant. Melody Jane Brown, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Joshua Snow Kendrick, KENDRICK & LEONARD, P.C., Greenville, South Carolina; E. Charles Grose, Jr., GROSE LAW FIRM, Greenwood, South Carolina, for Appellant. Alan Wilson, Attorney General, Donald J. Zelenka, Deputy Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellee.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, HARRIS, and RUSHING, Circuit Judges.

Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Chief Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, in which Judge Harris joined. Judge Rushing wrote a dissent.

GREGORY, Chief Judge:

Quincy Allen was convicted of two capital murders and sentenced to death in a South Carolina state court. During the penalty phase, the government and defense experts agreed that Allen suffered persistent childhood abuse; they also agreed that he had at least one mental illness—rumination disorder—and disagreed as to another—schizophrenia. Yet, the sentencing judge concluded that "Allen was [not] conclusively diagnosed as mentally ill" and found no "conclusive proof of mitigating circumstances." Allen exhausted his state court direct appeal and post-conviction remedies in seeking to overturn his death sentence. He then filed the instant federal petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, raising several claims. The district court dismissed his petition, and Allen appealed.

We granted a certificate of appealability on five issues, including whether the sentencing judge committed constitutional error by "[(i)] fail[ing] to find that any mitigating circumstance had been established and [(ii)] us[ing] an impermissibly high standard for determining whether [ ] Allen suffered from mental illness."

As explained below, we conclude that the state court's conclusion that the sentencing judge "considered Allen's mitigation evidence as presented" was an unreasonable determination of the facts and its conclusion that the sentencing judge gave "proper" consideration was contrary to clearly established federal law. Because we have grave doubt that the state court's errors did not have a substantial and injurious effect, we reverse and remand.


Quincy Allen's childhood was marked by severe abuse and neglect. He also has a lengthy history of mental health issues, including major mental illness diagnoses and a history of commitments. Because both forms of mitigating evidence are important to resolution of his claims, we go into some detail about them here.

Allen is the product of a short-term relationship between a 19-year-old soon-to-be deployed military man who "never really thought about [the] family thing" and a woman who confesses "never bonded" with any of her five children. S.J.A. 1804, 1807, 1809, 1819. "[P]atterns of intergenerational abuse and neglect go back at least to [Allen's] maternal great-grandfather's large and chaotic family and bear strong similarities to the abuse and neglect" that branded Allen's childhood. S.J.A. 1804.1

Allen's early hospital emergency room and pediatric notes show an ingestion of a bottle of perfume (twelve months of age) and a burn on his foot that his mother said came from a babysitter (fifteen months of age). S.J.A. 1807. At nineteen months, Allen was hospitalized for a week after an untreated fever progressed to pneumonia

. Noting signs of medical neglect, emergency room personnel referred Allen's case to Protective Services. S.J.A. 1807–08.

Allen witnessed and suffered physical abuse throughout his childhood as well. His earliest memories are of when his mother was married to his stepfather. S.J.A. 1808. He remembers his stepfather beating him and his mother. Id. On one occasion, Allen's stepfather entered his room, picked up a gun from the floor and returned to another room where he pistol-whipped Allen's mother. Id. ; J.A. 1262. During another incident, while in the backyard, Allen's stepfather held Allen up, placed a gun to his face, aligned the gun site with Allen's eye, and pulled the trigger—his stepfather needed "target practice." J.A. 294; S.J.A. 1808. When Allen was three, his stepfather hit him so hard that he fractured Allen's tibia. S.J.A. 1808. About one year later, his mother got a restraining order against Allen's stepfather; his stepfather found them, attacked his mother with a knife and hammer, and repeatedly broke into their home and stole things. S.J.A. 1809. Allen hid under the bed with a telephone so he could call 911 if his stepfather showed up. Id. By this point, Allen's mother had four children and all of them were "accidents," according to Allen's stepfather. S.J.A. 1810. He said Allen's mother would have sold Allen if she could have made money off him. Id.

Allen's grade school career would include fifteen school changes before it ended. S.J.A. 1811. When Allen was elementary school-age and did something wrong, his mother forced him into a dark closet. Id. She also punished him by pushing him down, then kicking or stomping on him, or forcing him to sleep in the bathroom with no clothes, pillow, or blanket. S.J.A. 1815–16. She also stripped him naked, used an extension cord to tie him up to the end of the bunk beds "kind of like Jesus," and beat him with a belt, switch, or her hands. S.J.A. 1811, 1815. When she got tired, she walked off to rest awhile and eventually came back to beat him some more. S.J.A. 1811. Allen's aunt said that he "stayed ... [getting] beat half to death," sometimes for insignificant transgressions. S.J.A. 1816. On one occasion, she threw him into a large trashcan—"the kind with wheels and a swing shut lid" that "trash men pick up with a machine and dump over," Allen described. S.J.A. 1811. She shut the lid on him. Id. At some point during his childhood, after seeing a television show during which a guy survived being in ice cold water in Alaska by convincing himself that the water was warm, Allen decided that pain is all in the mind. S.J.A. 1811–12. As an adult, he told some friends this and they beat him with a wire hanger: "[He] didn't feel it." S.J.A. 1812.

During this time, Allen's mother began denying Allen and his siblings food. Id. She stacked and stored the food by type, so she immediately knew if something went missing; she marked all containers, so she could tell if food was removed; and she punished Allen by withholding food for several days in a row. S.J.A. 1812, 1815–16. According to his aunt, Allen always looked "scrawny and half starved." S.J.A. 1812. He stole Kool-aid, cookies, and Little Debbie's snacks from nearby stores, and hoarded food. Id. During family gatherings, he ate so much that he threw up. Id. And a neighbor once observed Allen and his siblings drinking rainwater as it came down the gutter. J.A. 299. Around the second grade, Allen began ruminating. S.J.A. 1812. About half an hour after eating, he would push his food back up by contracting his stomach muscles, fill his mouth until his cheeks puffed out, re-chew the food, swallow it, and then bring it up again and again. S.J.A. 1812–13. He smelled of vomit all the time. J.A. 308. Allen states he continues to do this daily; it's a compulsion. S.J.A. 1813. "Now its just like getting up in the morning," he said. Id.

Allen also experienced a highly unstable home environment, marked by his mother locking and kicking him out of the house as early as second grade and attempting to give up custody of him. When Allen was in the second grade, his mother warned him to come straight home from school. Id. One day, he went to a friend's house instead. Id. When he got home, his mother put him in the car, drove him to Social Services, and placed him in foster care. Id. His first set of foster parents hit their own kids with pots and pans. Id. Eventually, his mother signed over custody to a family friend, with whom Allen lived for about half a year. Id. At the beginning of third grade, Allen returned home and, when he was in fourth grade, Allen's mother began kicking him out of the house. Id. She would open the door, tell him to get out, and he slept outside in whatever he happened to have on. Id. Allen ran away from home with his sister in the fifth grade. Id. They left immediately after school and kept running until night hit. Id. A sheriff took them home. Id. Allen's mother was not happy to see him back: She said, "[i]f you run away again, leave your sister here." Id. And she yelled a lot, saying things like, "I hate you. When you're 18, you're getting out of this house." S.J.A. 1815.

In the sixth grade, Allen's mother locked him out overnight on the first of what would become countless occasions. S.J.A. 1816. He would sleep on the porch, where he feared the neighborhood dogs might attack him. Id. By this time, Allen's mother had also thrown a chair at him, shoved him against a stove, tried to hit him with a hammer, and choked him with a tie until he fainted. S.J.A. 1818. His mother, his siblings, and the neighborhood kids beat, teased, and picked on Allen, calling him "Alien," "Waterhead," "Mr. Spock," and "Elephant Ears." S.J.A. 1814-15, 1822. In the seventh grade, he got caught with a knife on school property. S.J.A. 1817. On a different occasion, he brought a large glass bottle to school intending to go after one of his bullies. Id. He was eventually suspended, taken to court, and sent to a juvenile correctional center for over a month. Id. He then lived in a group home for two weeks; with his uncle in Rock Hill, South Carolina for half a year; with his father in Georgia for over three months; and eventually made his way back to his mother's home. S.J.A. 1819.

Allen lived...

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