Crawford v. Cain

Decision Date15 December 2022
Docket Number20-61019
Citation55 F.4th 981
Parties Charles Ray CRAWFORD, Petitioner—Appellant, v. Burl CAIN, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections; Earnest Lee, Superintendent, Mississippi State Penitentiary, Respondents—Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Vanessa Carroll, Southern Center for Human Rights, Atlanta, GA, for Petitioner - Appellant.

Bridgette Grant, Office of the Attorney General for the State of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, for Respondents - Appellees.

Before Smith, Duncan, and Oldham, Circuit Judges.

Andrew S. Oldham, Circuit Judge:

Charles Crawford petitions for habeas relief. As a prisoner held under a state court judgment, Crawford must overcome the strictures of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). He also must prove that "law and justice require" relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2243. Crawford does neither. We affirm.


Crawford was convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl (Kelly Roberts), assaulting a 16-year-old girl (Nicole Cutberth) with a hammer, and raping and murdering a 20-year-old woman (Kristy Ray). The series of gruesome crimes began on April 13, 1991.

On that fateful day, Roberts and Cutberth were riding around Walnut, Mississippi. The girls went to a store to purchase fluid for the car. When they left, they saw Crawford—who at that time was Roberts's brother-in-law—and asked him to help put the fluid in the car. Crawford agreed.

Crawford then began his scheme to lure the girls to his house. He told Roberts that he needed to talk to her about something important but refused to say what. Roberts insisted he tell her. Eventually, Crawford agreed to tell her if she met him at a cemetery outside the city. Roberts reluctantly agreed.

Later that evening, the girls met Crawford at the cemetery. There, Crawford told Roberts that her boyfriend had pictures of her that were "pretty bad," that Crawford had gotten the pictures from her boyfriend, and that Crawford planned to get rid of them. Roberts told Crawford she wanted the pictures. Crawford replied that the pictures were at his house and that he would take her there. Roberts and Cutberth then got into Crawford's truck, and he drove them to his house.

Crawford drove the girls to an abandoned house near his and parked. He told Cutberth to stay in the car while he and Roberts got the photos. Once Crawford and Roberts entered the house, Crawford told Roberts to stay by the door so he could make sure nobody was home. When Crawford returned, he pulled a gun and put it to Roberts's head. Crawford told her to do what he said and no one would get hurt.

He ordered Roberts to get onto the floor. Roberts obeyed. Crawford taped her mouth shut. He then commanded her to put her hands behind her back. Roberts again obeyed. Crawford taped her hands together. Crawford then forced Roberts into a bedroom and onto a bed. He undressed her. And then he raped her.

Afterwards, Roberts begged Crawford not to hurt her friend. But Crawford didn't listen. He went outside and bludgeoned Cutberth on the back of the head with a hammer. Roberts heard the assault happen. Crawford then went back inside the house, grabbed Roberts, and forced her into his truck.

Eventually, Crawford let Roberts go and turned himself in to the police. The police found Cutberth alive, recovered the gun, and found Roberts's and Crawford's hair on used pieces of duct tape in Crawford's house. Crawford was charged with the rape and kidnapping of Roberts and the aggravated assault of Cutberth.

But this was not the end of Crawford's crimes. Crawford was let out on bond. While out on bond, Crawford kidnapped 20-year-old Kristy Ray. He took Ray to a secluded barn in the woods, where he raped and murdered her. The police quickly arrested Crawford. And Crawford admitted to raping and murdering Ray and led the police to Ray's body. He was charged with capital murder, kidnapping, burglary of an occupied dwelling, rape, and sexual battery.

Crawford received three separate trials, which occurred in the following order: (1) the aggravated assault of Cutberth, (2) the rape and kidnapping of Roberts, and (3) the murder of Ray. For each, Crawford pressed an insanity defense. At the aggravated-assault trial (1) and the murder trial (3), Crawford had an expert testify that he was insane at the time of the incidents. At the rape trial (2), Crawford pressed a substantively identical insanity defense but only had lay witnesses testify. He also challenged the kidnapping charge on the facts and the rape charge on the theories that Roberts consented, or alternatively, that Roberts and Crawford never had sex. Crawford was convicted of raping Roberts (but acquitted of kidnapping) and was sentenced to 46 years of imprisonment. Crawford was convicted of assaulting Cutberth and was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment. Crawford was convicted of murdering Ray and was sentenced to death.


The present appeal involves only Crawford's conviction for raping Roberts. Crawford directly appealed his rape conviction in state court and almost succeeded in getting a new trial: The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed his conviction by a 5–4 vote. See Crawford v. State , 192 So. 3d 905 (Miss. 2015).

Crawford next tried his luck at state postconviction relief. Again, he failed. Crawford argued for the first time that the trial court violated his procedural due process right to expert assistance in his insanity defense under Ake v. Oklahoma , 470 U.S. 68, 105 S.Ct. 1087, 84 L.Ed.2d 53 (1985), along with many other claims. The Supreme Court of Mississippi held that Crawford procedurally defaulted his Ake claim because it "could have been raised in the direct appeal." The court also denied Crawford's ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims and found the rest of Crawford's claims to be "without merit."

Crawford next filed a habeas petition in federal district court, raising thirteen claims. The district court denied Crawford's petition but granted Crawford a certificate of appealability ("COA") on all thirteen claims. Crawford timely appealed.


Crawford raises only three claims on appeal.1 First, Crawford claims that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance by failing to raise an Ake claim on direct appeal. Second, Crawford raises an Ake claim and argues that the claim is not procedurally barred because his appellate counsel's ineffectiveness establishes cause and prejudice. Third, Crawford claims that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance.

All fail. We first (A) provide some background on (1) AEDPA and (2) ineffectiveness claims. We then (B) conclude that Crawford failed to establish ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. We last (C) determine that Crawford has not established ineffective assistance of trial counsel.


AEDPA first. Everyone agrees AEDPA's strictures—including its relitigation bar in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) —apply to each of Crawford's ineffectiveness arguments. See Lucio v. Lumpkin , 987 F.3d 451, 465 (5th Cir. 2021) (en banc) (plurality op.). Section 2254(d) "restores the res judicata rule" that long underpinned habeas "and then modifies it" by providing "narrow exceptions." Langley v. Prince , 926 F.3d 145, 155 (5th Cir. 2019) (en banc). As relevant here, Crawford must show the state court's adjudication of the claim "resulted in a decision that ... 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).

To meet the unreasonable-application exception to the relitigation bar, "a prisoner must show far more than that the state court's decision was merely wrong or even clear error." Shinn v. Kayer , ––– U.S. ––––, 141 S. Ct. 517, 523, 208 L.Ed.2d 353 (2020) (per curiam) (quotation omitted). "Rather, the relitigation bar forecloses relief unless the prisoner can show the state court was so wrong that the error was ‘well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.’ " Langley , 926 F.3d at 156 (quoting Shoop v. Hill , ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S. Ct. 504, 506, 202 L.Ed.2d 461 (2019) (per curiam)). "In other words, the unreasonable-application exception asks whether it is ‘beyond the realm of possibility that a fairminded jurist could’ agree with the state court." Ibid. (quoting Woods v. Etherton , 578 U.S. 113, 118, 136 S.Ct. 1149, 194 L.Ed.2d 333 (2016) (per curiam)).

To apply the relitigation bar, we first "must identify the relevant state-court ‘decision.’ " Lucio , 987 F.3d at 465. Here, the relevant decision is the sole state court opinion involving ineffectiveness: the Mississippi Supreme Court's order denying Crawford's application for leave to file a motion to vacate his conviction and sentence. ROA.3167–68. All agree that the court's denial of leave is a decision "adjudicat[ing] ... the merits" of Crawford's ineffectiveness claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). And for good reason. The Mississippi Supreme Court plainly rejected those claims on the merits: "The Court further finds that the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fail to meet the Strickland v. Washington standard." ROA.3167; cf. Harrington v. Richter , 562 U.S. 86, 100, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011) ("This Court now holds and reconfirms that § 2254(d) does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been ‘adjudicated on the merits.’ ").

But the Mississippi Supreme Court did not explain why it rejected Crawford's Strickland claim. This is significant. When "a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief." Richter , 562 U.S. at 98, 131 S.Ct. 770. We "must determine what arguments or theories ... could have supported [ ] the state court's decision; and then [we] must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are...

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