Cullen v. Pinholster

Citation131 S.Ct. 1388,179 L.Ed.2d 557,563 U.S. 170
Decision Date04 April 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09–1088.,09–1088.
Parties Vincent CULLEN, Acting Warden, Petitioner, v. Scott Lynn PINHOLSTER.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

563 U.S. 170
131 S.Ct.
179 L.Ed.2d 557

Vincent CULLEN, Acting Warden, Petitioner,

No. 09–1088.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Nov. 9, 2010.
Decided April 4, 2011.

James W. Bilderback, II, Los Angeles, CA, for petitioner.

Sean K. Kennedy, Los Angeles, CA, for respondent.

Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Attorney General of California, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Pamela C. Hamanaka, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Donald E. De Nicola, Deputy State Solicitor General, Lawrence M. Daniels, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Keith H. Borjon, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, James William Bilderback II, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Counsel of Record, Los Angeles, CA, for Petitioner.

Counsel of Record, Sean K. Kennedy, Federal Public Defender, Mark R. Drozdowski, Deputy Federal Public Defender, Central District of California, Los Angeles, CA, for Respondent.

Justice THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.*

563 U.S. 174

Scott Lynn Pinholster and two accomplices broke into a house in the middle of the night and brutally beat and stabbed to death two men who happened to interrupt the burglary. A jury convicted Pinholster of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death.

After the California Supreme Court twice unanimously denied Pinholster habeas relief, a Federal District Court held an evidentiary hearing and granted Pinholster habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The District Court concluded that Pinholster's trial counsel had been constitutionally ineffective at the penalty phase of trial. Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. Pinholster v. Ayers, 590 F.3d 651 (2009). Considering the new evidence adduced in the District Court hearing, the Court of Appeals held that the California Supreme Court's decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." § 2254(d)(1).

We granted certiorari and now reverse.



On the evening of January 8, 1982, Pinholster solicited Art Corona and Paul David Brown to help him rob Michael Kumar, a local drug dealer. On the way, they stopped at

563 U.S. 175

Lisa Tapar's house, where Pinholster put his buck knife through her front door and scratched a swastika into her car after she refused to talk to him. The three men, who were all armed with buck knives, found no one at Kumar's house, broke in, and began ransacking the home. They came across only a small amount of marijuana before Kumar's friends, Thomas Johnson and Robert Beckett, arrived and shouted that they were calling the police.

131 S.Ct. 1395

Pinholster and his accomplices tried to escape through the rear door, but Johnson blocked their path. Pinholster backed Johnson onto the patio, demanding drugs and money and repeatedly striking him in the chest. Johnson dropped his wallet on the ground and stopped resisting. Beckett then came around the corner, and Pinholster attacked him, too, stabbing him repeatedly in the chest. Pinholster forced Beckett to the ground, took both men's wallets, and began kicking Beckett in the head. Meanwhile, Brown stabbed Johnson in the chest, " ‘bury[ing] his knife to the hilt.’ " 35 Reporter's Tr. 4947 (hereinafter Tr.). Johnson and Beckett died of their wounds.

Corona drove the three men to Pinholster's apartment. While in the car, Pinholster and Brown exulted, " ‘We got ‘em, man, we got ‘em good.’ '' Ibid. At the apartment, Pinholster washed his knife, and the three split the proceeds of the robbery: $23 and one quarter-ounce of marijuana. Although Pinholster instructed Corona to "lay low," Corona turned himself in to the police two weeks later. Id., at 4955. Pinholster was arrested shortly thereafter and threatened to kill Corona if he did not keep quiet about the burglary and murders. Corona later became the State's primary witness. The prosecution brought numerous charges against Pinholster, including two counts of first-degree murder.


The California trial court appointed Harry Brainard and Wilbur Dettmar to defend Pinholster on charges of first-degree murder, robbery, and burglary. Before their appointment,

563 U.S. 176

Pinholster had rejected other attorneys and insisted on representing himself. During that time, the State had mailed Pinholster a letter in jail informing him that the prosecution planned to offer aggravating evidence during the penalty phase of trial to support a sentence of death.

The guilt phase of the trial began on February 28, 1984. Pinholster testified on his own behalf and presented an alibi defense. He claimed that he had broken into Kumar's house alone at around 8 p.m. on January 8, 1982, and had stolen marijuana but denied killing anyone. Pinholster asserted that later that night around 1 a.m., while he was elsewhere, Corona went to Kumar's house to steal more drugs and did not return for three hours. Pinholster told the jury that he was a "professional robber," not a murderer. 43 id., at 6204. He boasted of committing hundreds of robberies over the previous six years but insisted that he always used a gun, never a knife. The jury convicted Pinholster on both counts of first-degree murder.

Before the penalty phase, Brainard and Dettmar moved to exclude any aggravating evidence on the ground that the prosecution had failed to provide notice of the evidence to be introduced, as required by Cal.Penal Code Ann. § 190.3 (West 2008). At a hearing on April 24, Dettmar argued that, in reliance on the lack of notice, he was "not presently prepared to offer anything by way of mitigation." 52 Tr. 7250. He acknowledged, however, that the prosecutor "possibly ha[d] met the [notice] requirement." Ibid. The trial court asked whether a continuance might be helpful, but Dettmar declined, explaining that he could not think of a mitigation witness other than Pinholster's mother and that additional time would not "make a great deal of difference." Id., at 7257–7258. Three days later, after hearing testimony, the court found that Pinholster had received notice while representing himself and denied the motion to exclude.

The penalty phase was held before the same jury that had convicted Pinholster.

131 S.Ct. 1396

The prosecution produced eight witnesses,

563 U.S. 177

who testified about Pinholster's history of threatening and violent behavior, including resisting arrest and assaulting police officers, involvement with juvenile gangs, and a substantial prison disciplinary record. Defense counsel called only Pinholster's mother, Burnice Brashear. She gave an account of Pinholster's troubled childhood and adolescent years, discussed Pinholster's siblings, and described Pinholster as "a perfect gentleman at home." Id., at 7405. Defense counsel did not call a psychiatrist, though they had consulted Dr. John Stalberg at least six weeks earlier. Dr. Stalberg noted Pinholster's "psychopathic personality traits," diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder, and concluded that he "was not under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance" at the time of the murders. App. 131.

After 2 ½ days of deliberation, the jury unanimously voted for death on each of the two murder counts. On mandatory appeal, the California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment. People v. Pinholster, 1 Cal.4th 865, 4 Cal.Rptr.2d 765, 824 P.2d 571 (1992).


In August 1993, Pinholster filed his first state habeas petition. Represented by new counsel, Pinholster alleged, inter alia, ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase of his trial. He alleged that Brainard and Dettmar had failed to adequately investigate and present mitigating evidence, including evidence of mental disorders. Pinholster supported this claim with school, medical, and legal records, as well as declarations from family members, Brainard, and Dr. George Woods, a psychiatrist who diagnosed Pinholster with bipolar mood disorder and seizure disorders. Dr. Woods criticized Dr. Stalberg's report as incompetent, unreliable, and inaccurate. The California Supreme Court unanimously and summarily1 denied Pinholster's penalty-

563 U.S. 178

phase ineffective-assistance claim "on the substantive ground that it is without merit." App. to Pet. for Cert. 302.

Pinholster filed a federal habeas petition in April 1997. He reiterated his previous allegations about penalty-phase ineffective assistance and also added new allegations that his trial counsel had failed to furnish Dr. Stalberg with adequate background materials. In support of the new allegations, Dr. Stalberg provided a declaration stating that in 1984, Pinholster's trial counsel had provided him with only some police reports and a 1978 probation report. Dr. Stalberg explained that, had he known about the material that had since been gathered by Pinholster's habeas counsel, he would have conducted "further inquiry" before concluding that Pinholster suffered only from a personality disorder. App. to Brief in...

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