Deck v. Jennings

Decision Date19 October 2020
Docket NumberNo. 17-2055,17-2055
Citation978 F.3d 578
Parties Carman L. DECK, Petitioner - Appellee v. Richard JENNINGS ; Eric S. Schmitt, Respondents - Appellants Linda Long Davis; Karen Long; Erica Adkins, Amici on Behalf of Appellants
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellant and appeared on the brief was Katharine Dolin, AAG, of Jefferson City, MO.

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellee was Elizabeth Unger Carlyle, of Kansas City, MO. The following attorney also appeared on the appellee brief; Kevin L. Schriener, of Saint Louis, MO.

The following attorneys appeared on the amicus brief; Kent S. Scheidegger, of Sacramento, CA., Kymberlee C. Stapleton, of Sacramento, CA.

Before SMITH, Chief Judge, COLLOTON and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

STRAS, Circuit Judge.

After Carman Deck killed an elderly couple in their home, a Missouri jury convicted him of several offenses, including two counts of first-degree murder. He received the death penalty on both counts, twice successfully appealed, and 10 years after he was first convicted, received the same sentence for a third time. He now claims in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus that counsel at his third penalty-phase trial was ineffective for failing to argue that the passage of time had undermined his mitigation case. Although the district court granted relief, we reverse because Deck has no excuse for his failure to raise this claim in state court.


During a robbery in the summer of 1996, Deck killed James and Zelma Long. Deck waited until after dark, knocked on their door, and asked for directions. After the Longs offered to help and invited him inside, Deck pulled out a .22-caliber pistol and ordered the couple to lie face down on their bed. He told Mrs. Long to retrieve money and valuables from another room. Then, for about 10 minutes, Deck considered his options. Ultimately, he put the gun to Mr. Long's head and fired twice. Mrs. Long suffered the same fate. Neither survived.

A Missouri jury found Deck guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, among other crimes. He received two death sentences, one for each murder, and the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed. See State v. Deck , 994 S.W.2d 527 (Mo. banc 1999). Deck received a new penalty-phase trial, however, after he filed a postconviction petition claiming that counsel had been ineffective by offering "faulty instructions" on mitigation. Deck v. State , 68 S.W.3d 418, 429 (Mo. banc 2002).

The second penalty-phase trial started just over a year later, and Deck once again received two death sentences. See State v. Deck , 136 S.W.3d 481 (Mo. banc 2004). This time, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed on the ground that the jury should not have seen Deck in shackles. See Deck v. Missouri , 544 U.S. 622, 632–35, 125 S.Ct. 2007, 161 L.Ed.2d 953 (2005).

Following a series of continuances, Deck's third penalty-phase trial did not begin until almost three-and-a-half years later—over 10 years since a Missouri jury had found him guilty of murder. Yet again, Deck received two death sentences, one for each murder count. The Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the sentence, and later, the denial of postconviction relief. See State v. Deck , 303 S.W.3d 527 (Mo. banc 2010) ; Deck v. State , 381 S.W.3d 339 (Mo. banc 2012).

Not long after, Deck filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Of the 32 claims in the petition, the court granted relief on only two, each related to the lengthy delay between Deck's conviction and the third penalty-phase trial.1 The first was that the delay violated due process and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. See U.S. Const. amends. VIII, XIV. The other was that trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to raise the argument. See Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668, 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). The only remedy for these constitutional violations, at least in the court's view, was to "vacate[ ]" the "death penalty" and impose a sentence of "life in prison without the possibility of parole."


Before a federal court can consider a claim that a state prisoner "is in custody in violation of the Constitution," all available state-court remedies must be exhausted. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), (b)(1). To avoid "procedural default," in other words, a "petitioner must fairly present" the claim in state court before seeking habeas relief in federal court. Morris v. Norris , 83 F.3d 268, 270 (8th Cir. 1996).

Here, although Deck advanced a number of arguments in state postconviction proceedings, the two constitutional claims based on the 10-year delay were not among them. The upshot is that, unless Deck can establish "cause for the default and actual prejudice," we cannot consider either one. Coleman v. Thompson , 501 U.S. 722, 750, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640 (1991).2 Applying de-novo review, we agree with Missouri that he has not done so. See Murphy v. King , 652 F.3d 845, 848 (8th Cir. 2011) (applying de-novo review) ; Becht v. United States , 403 F.3d 541, 545 (8th Cir. 2005) (requiring the petitioner to establish "cause" and "prejudice").


The district court, however, thought Deck had established both. The "cause" was state postconviction counsel's failure to raise a substantial claim that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by not objecting to the long delay, which "prejudice[d]" Deck because there was a reasonable probability that the argument would have succeeded had postconviction counsel raised it. Coleman , 501 U.S. at 750, 111 S.Ct. 2546.


Ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel does not usually provide cause for a procedural default, id. at 755, 111 S.Ct. 2546, except for one "narrow exception," Martinez v. Ryan , 566 U.S. 1, 9, 132 S.Ct. 1309, 182 L.Ed.2d 272 (2012). In Martinez , the Supreme Court held that postconviction counsel's ineffectiveness can provide "cause" for excusing a defaulted ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim. See id. at 14, 132 S.Ct. 1309 ; see also Trevino v. Thaler , 569 U.S. 413, 429, 133 S.Ct. 1911, 185 L.Ed.2d 1044 (2013) (explaining that the claim must also be "substantial," and that the state judicial system must not have provided a "meaningful opportunity to raise" it on direct appeal (quotation marks omitted)).

The district court held that Deck's case fell squarely under the Martinez exception. In its view, the defaulted claim was substantial, because counsel at Deck's third penalty-phase trial had a difficult time mounting a mitigation case because of the passage of time. Specifically, some of Deck's witnesses from the first two penalty-phase trials were unable or unwilling to provide in-person testimony the third time around. In light of this difficulty, the court believed it was obvious that counsel should have raised Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment objections before the trial began. It was so obvious, in fact, that postconviction counsel was ineffective for failing to recognize it later.

The district court then took the cause analysis one step further. Relying on Edwards v. Carpenter , 529 U.S. 446, 120 S.Ct. 1587, 146 L.Ed.2d 518 (2000), it concluded that the newly excused ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim provided cause for the default of the underlying Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims. See id. at 453, 120 S.Ct. 1587 (leaving open the possibility that a petitioner who can overcome the default of an ineffective-assistance claim can use it to show cause for the default of another claim). This Martinez -plus- Edwards approach allowed the court to grant habeas relief for both the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim and the underlying constitutional claims, even though Deck never raised them in state court.


Every step in this analysis, however, still depends on getting through the Martinez gateway first. This means that the key question is whether postconviction counsel was ineffective. If not, there is no excuse for the failure to raise trial counsel's ineffectiveness during state postconviction proceedings. See Martinez , 566 U.S. at 14, 132 S.Ct. 1309. And if trial counsel's ineffectiveness is defaulted without excuse, then so are Deck's underlying Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims. See Edwards , 529 U.S. at 452–53, 120 S.Ct. 1587. Without Martinez , Deck never gets to Edwards .

Focusing on the narrow question of postconviction counsel's performance, as Martinez instructs us to do, we must determine whether the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim was "substantial enough" that the failure to raise it on postconviction review was itself ineffective. Dansby , 766 F.3d at 838. Notwithstanding the district court's contrary conclusion, we do not believe that Deck's claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is "substantial enough" to excuse his procedural default.

As we have explained, failing to make an argument that would "require the resolution of unsettled legal questions" is generally not "outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Id. at 836 (quotation marks omitted); see Parker v. Bowersox , 188 F.3d 923, 929 (8th Cir. 1999) (explaining that it is not objectively unreasonable for counsel to "fail[ ] to anticipate a change in the law"). When postconviction counsel filed Deck's petition in 2010, the law was far from settled that a 10-year delay between conviction and sentencing would give rise to a constitutional claim, much less that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the argument two years earlier.3 See New v. United States , 652 F.3d 949, 953 (8th Cir. 2011) (concluding that the absence of "controlling authority" supporting a legal argument doomed an ineffective-assistance claim).

It is no answer to rely, as the district court did, on Betterman v. Montana , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1609, 194 L.Ed.2d 723 (2016), which was not decided until six years...

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18 cases
  • Daniels v. Iowa
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • January 4, 2021
    ...Defaulting on an ineffective assistance claim without excuse means the underlying claims are also defaulted. See Deck v. Jennings, 978 F.3d 578, 582 (8th Cir. 2020) ("And if trial counsel's ineffectiveness is defaulted without excuse, then so are Deck's underlying Eighth and Fourteenth Amen......
  • Dorsey v. Vandergriff
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit
    • April 7, 2022
    ...We review de novo whether a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel is substantial under Martinez . See Deck v. Jennings , 978 F.3d 578, 581 (8th Cir. 2020). Subject to exceptions inapplicable here, see Gray v. Netherland , 518 U.S. 152, 165-66, 116 S.Ct. 2074, 135 L.Ed.2d 457 (199......
  • Buford v. Falkenrath
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri
    • October 15, 2021
    ...enough that post-conviction's counsel's failure to raise the issue constituted ineffectiveness. Martinez, 566 U.S. at 14; Deck, 978 F.3d at 582. A claim “substantial” when it has “some merit.” Martinez, 566 U.S. at 14. Although Petitioner was acquitted on the counts involving M.W. and H.S.,......
  • Clark v. United States
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri
    • December 15, 2021
    ... ... relief from 'exorbitant' sentencing delays, not that ... it necessarily does." Deck v. Jennings, 978 ... F.3d 578, 583 (8th Cir. 2020) (quoting id. at 1612, ... 1617), petition for cert, filed No. 20-833 ... ...
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1 books & journal articles
  • Review Proceedings
    • United States
    • Georgetown Law Journal No. 110-Annual Review, August 2022
    • August 1, 2022
    ...claim” of ineffective assistance of counsel); Canales v. Stephens, 765 F.3d 551, 568 (5th Cir. 2014) (same); Deck v. Jennings, 978 F.3d 578, 582 (8th Cir. 2020) (same); Dickinson v. Shinn, 2 F.4th 851, 858-59 (9th Cir. 2021) (same); Clark v. Comm’r, Ala. Dep’t of Corr., 988 F.3d 1326, 1330 ......

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