Groseclose v. Bell

Decision Date02 December 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95-6262,95-6262
Citation130 F.3d 1161
PartiesWilliam E. GROSECLOSE, Petitioner-Appellee, v. Ricky BELL, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Larry D. Woods (argued and briefed), Woods & Woods, Nashville, TN, for Petitioner-Appellee.

Gordon W. Smith, Asst. Attorney Gen. (argued and briefed), Glenn R. Pruden (briefed), Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Justice Division, Michael E. Moore (briefed), Office of the Attorney General, Nashville, TN, for Respondent-Appellant.

Before: KEITH, RYAN, and SUHRHEINRICH, Circuit Judges.

RYAN, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which KEITH, J., joined. SUHRHEINRICH, J. (pp. 1171-1179), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.

RYAN, Circuit Judge.

Ricky Bell, the warden of the Tennessee Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and the respondent in these proceedings, appeals from the district court's judgment granting a writ of habeas corpus to petitioner William E. Groseclose pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Although the State of Tennessee presents numerous allegations of error with respect to the various bases for the district court's issuance of the writ, we find only one issue necessary to the resolution of this appeal. Because we conclude that the district court correctly found that Groseclose was unconstitutionally denied effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, we will affirm.


In February 1978, William E. Groseclose was convicted in the Shelly County, Tennessee, Circuit Court of murder in the first degree in connection with the killing of his wife, Deborah Lee Groseclose, on June 29, 1977. Groseclose was alleged to have contacted Barton Wayne Mount, a naval recruit Groseclose met while Groseclose was employed in the Navy Recruiting Service, in an effort to find someone to murder Mrs. Groseclose. State v. Groseclose, 615 S.W.2d 142, 144 (Tenn.1981). Mount referred Groseclose to an acquaintance, Phillip Michael Britt, who in turn contacted Ronald Eugene Rickman, Britt's former brother-in-law. Rickman agreed to commit the murder in cooperation with Britt. Groseclose agreed to pay a certain price, in which Rickman, Britt, and Mount would all share. During its prosecution of the case, the State never ascribed one particular motive to Groseclose, but instead pointed to evidence that "[h]is motives may have been apprehension that [his wife] was about to sue him for divorce, desire to obtain [substantial] life insurance proceeds, or interest in another woman." Id.

The Tennessee Supreme Court described the murder as "one of the most atrocious and inhuman conceivable." Id. at 145. According to the evidence presented by the State at trial, the scheme was for Rickman to accost Deborah the day before the murder and, in an attempt to divert suspicion for the later murder from her husband, "to frighten her to the point that she would report ... the incident to the police." Id. The next morning, Groseclose left his house with the couple's infant son, leaving the back door unlocked. Rickman and Britt then entered the house; each raped Deborah Groseclose, and then told her "there was a 'contract' on her life." Id.

After listening to Deborah plead for her life by offering money to her assailants, Rickman "proceeded to strangle Mrs. Groseclose into unconsciousness," and then, because he detected a pulse, to stab her three or four times in the back. Id. Rickman and Britt placed Deborah in the trunk of her car, apparently believing her to be dead, "and drove the vehicle to a parking lot adjacent to the main Memphis Public Library." Id. During the trip, Rickman learned that she was not in fact dead because he "could hear her cries for help from the trunk." Id. Rickman and Britt nonetheless left her in the trunk of her car; she was discovered five days later, and the medical testimony at trial suggested that while she would not have died from her injuries alone, the excessive heat in her car trunk caused her death.

During the subsequent investigation, police were led to Rickman and Mount through information given by Rickman's roommate. Although Rickman, Britt, and Mount all gave statements to the police, Groseclose did not. Groseclose, Rickman, and Britt were all charged with murder in the first degree, tried jointly, and convicted.


Jury selection began on February 13, 1978, and was completed on February 17. Groseclose, along with Rickman and Britt, pleaded not guilty. The trial began on February 18 and was concluded on February 28. The sentencing hearing was held between March 1 and March 3. The State presented 39 witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial. None of the defendants testified during the guilt phase. All three defendants were convicted of murder in the first degree. Groseclose and Rickman were then sentenced to death, while Britt received a sentence of life imprisonment.

Groseclose appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which affirmed his conviction in 1981. Groseclose, 615 S.W.2d 142. The U.S. Supreme Court then denied Groseclose's petition for writ of certiorari. Groseclose v. Tennessee, 454 U.S. 882, 102 S.Ct. 366, 70 L.Ed.2d 193 (1981). Groseclose next filed a petition for post-conviction relief in January 1982, arguing, inter alia, that he had received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the petition in December 1982. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the denial in February 1984. Groseclose v. Tennessee, No. 9 (Tenn.Crim.App. Feb. 16, 1984). The Supreme Court of Tennessee denied a subsequent application for permission to appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for writ of certiorari. Groseclose v. Tennessee, 469 U.S. 1066, 105 S.Ct. 549, 83 L.Ed.2d 436 (1984).

Groseclose filed a second and third petition for post-conviction relief in the state court, both of which proceeded through the system and were denied. Groseclose also filed a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus, which was denied.

Groseclose filed his petition for writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in August 1989. In February and November 1990, the State filed two motions for judgment on the pleadings, alleging that Groseclose had procedurally defaulted on several of his claims. In November 1994, the district court denied these motions. In January 1995, Groseclose filed a motion for summary judgment as to some of his claims. The district court granted summary judgment with respect to many of Groseclose's claims, but denied it with respect to others, instead granting it, sua sponte, to the State. Groseclose has not filed an appeal from those latter rulings, and they are not at issue.

On April 10, 1995, the district court conducted an evidentiary hearing on Groseclose's claims that remained following the summary judgment disposition, and in due course, issued an order directing that a writ issue unless the State afforded Groseclose a new trial within 120 days. Groseclose v. Bell, 895 F.Supp. 935 (M.D.Tenn.1995). The court based its granting the writ on the constitutionally ineffective assistance of Groseclose's trial counsel, and, as an alternative basis, on the cumulative effect of the errors for which the court had earlier granted summary judgment. The court declined to reach, however, an argument by Groseclose that the Shelby County Circuit Court systematically discriminated against blacks and women in the selection of grand jury foremen.

The State filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, which was denied by the district court in August 1995, and then filed this timely appeal. The district court stayed its judgment pending this appeal.


This court reviews de novo a district court's disposition of a petition for writ of habeas corpus, but nonetheless reviews the district court's factual findings only for clear error. See McQueen v. Scroggy, 99 F.3d 1302, 1310 (6th Cir.1996), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 117 S.Ct. 2422, 138 L.Ed.2d 185 (1997). Further, federal courts must defer to state court factual findings, according a presumption of correctness that the petitioner may rebut only with clear and convincing evidence. Id. "The presumption ... applies to implicit findings of fact, logically deduced because of the trial court's ability to adjudge the witnesses' demeanor and credibility." Id. However, "[t]he presumption only applies to basic, primary facts, and not to mixed questions of law and fact," which receive de novo review. Id.

An ineffective assistance of counsel claim presents a mixed question of law and fact, for which both the state-court and district-court determinations are subject to de novo review by this court. See Sims v. Livesay, 970 F.2d 1575, 1579 (6th Cir.1992); Smith v. Jago, 888 F.2d 399, 407 (6th Cir.1989).

[I]n a federal habeas challenge to a state criminal judgment, a state court conclusion that counsel rendered effective assistance is not a finding of fact binding on the federal court to the extent stated by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Ineffectiveness is not a question of "basic, primary, or historical fac[t.]" Rather, ... it is a mixed question of law and fact. Although state court findings of fact made in the course of deciding an ineffectiveness claim are subject to the deference requirement of § 2254(d), and although district court findings are subject to the clearly erroneous standard of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), both the performance and prejudice components of the ineffectiveness inquiry are mixed questions of law and fact.

Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 698, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2070, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) (citations omitted); accord McQueen, 99 F.3d at 1310-11.

In setting forth this applicable standard of review, we take note of the disagreement expressed in the parties' briefs as to the effect of the recent amendments to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 set...

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