Mahdi v. Stirling

Decision Date20 December 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-3,19-3
Parties Mikal D. MAHDI, Petitioner - Appellant, v. Bryan STIRLING, Commissioner, South Carolina Department of Corrections; Michael Stephan, Warden of Broad River Correctional Institution, Respondents - Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Ernest Charles Grose, Jr., GROSE LAW FIRM, LLC, Greenwood, South Carolina, for Appellant. Melody Jane Brown, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Thania Charmani, New York, New York, for Appellant. Alan Wilson, Attorney General, Donald J. Zelenka, Deputy Attorney General, J. Anthony Mabry, Senior Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, AGEE, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Richardson joined. Chief Judge Gregory wrote a dissenting opinion.

AGEE, Circuit Judge:

In this death penalty case, Mikal Mahdi ("Mahdi") appeals from the district court's denial of his 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for habeas relief and his accompanying request for supplemental expert funding. We granted a Certificate of Appealability ("COA") on five issues. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253. For the following reasons, we affirm the district court's judgment in its entirety.


As a federal court reviewing a state court's decision under § 2254, we do so through a narrow lens, "carefully consider[ing] all the reasons and evidence supporting [it]." Mays v. Hines , ––– U.S. ––––, 141 S. Ct. 1145, 1149, 209 L.Ed.2d 265 (2021) (per curiam). We must examine the record in its entirety as it existed before the state post-conviction relief ("PCR") court at the time of its decision. Cullen v. Pinholster , 563 U.S. 170, 182, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 179 L.Ed.2d 557 (2011). Only upon a full review of the record may we consider whether that court's judgment was the result of "an error that lies beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Mays , 141 S. Ct. at 1146.1

Unsurprisingly, this case has an extensive procedural history. We begin by recounting Mahdi's conduct that gave rise to his convictions and provide an overview of the plea and sentencing hearings in the South Carolina state trial court (the "trial court"). We then turn to Mahdi's first PCR proceeding in state court—which resulted in the decision we are reviewing here—and focus on his claims alleging ineffective assistance of counsel ("IAC") under Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), and its progeny. After reviewing Mahdi's second state-court PCR proceeding, we summarize the federal district court's denial of his request for supplemental expert funding and his § 2254 petition.

A. The Underlying Conduct

Then-South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal described Mahdi's criminal acts as "particularly heinous," emphasizing that in her time as a jurist, she "ha[d] seen few cases where the extraordinary penalty of death was so deserved." Mahdi v. State , 383 S.C. 135, 678 S.E.2d 807, 808–09 (2009) (Toal, C.J., concurring). We recite the following from her opinion concurring in that court's rejection of Mahdi's direct appeal and affirming his death sentence:

On July 14, 2004, [Mahdi], then a resident of Virginia, embarked upon a crime spree that would span four states. [He] stole a .380 caliber pistol from his neighbor, a set of Virginia license plates, and a station wagon. [Mahdi] left Virginia and headed to North Carolina.
On July 15, [Mahdi] entered an Exxon gas station in Winston-Salem, North Carolina armed with the .380 pistol. [He] took a can of beer from a cooler and placed it on the counter. The store clerk, Christopher Jason Boggs, asked [Mahdi] for identification. As Boggs was checking [his] identification, [Mahdi] fatally shot him at point-blank range. [Mahdi] fired another shot into Boggs as he lay on the floor. [Mahdi] then attempted unsuccessfully to open the store's cash register. [He] left the store with the can of beer, and headed to South Carolina.
Early in the morning of July 17, [Mahdi] approached Corey Pitts as he sat at a traffic light in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. [Mahdi] stuck his gun in Pitts' face, forced him out of his car, and stole Pitts' Ford Expedition. [Mahdi] replaced the Expedition's license plates with the plates he had stolen in Virginia, and headed southeast on I-26.
About thirty-five minutes down the road, [Mahdi] stopped at a Wilco Hess gas station in Calhoun County and attempted to buy gas with a credit card. The pump rejected the card, and [Mahdi] spent forty-five minutes to an hour attempting to get the pump to work. Due to his suspicious behavior, the store clerks called the police. Aware that the clerks' suspicions had been alerted, [Mahdi] left the Expedition at the station and fled on foot through the woods behind the station.
About a quarter to half mile from the station, [Mahdi] came upon a farm owned by Captain James Myers, a thirty-one year veteran law enforcement officer and fireman. [Mahdi] broke into a work shop on the Myers property. Once inside the work shop, [Mahdi] watched television and examined Myers' gun collection. [Mahdi] found Myers' shotgun and used the tools in the shop to saw off the barrel and paint it black. [Mahdi] also took Myers' .22 caliber rifle and laid in wait for Myers.
That day, Myers had been at the beach celebrating the birthdays of his wife, sister, and daughter. Myers had visited with his father before returning to his farm. Upon arriving at the farm, Myers stopped by the work shop, where he was confronted by [Mahdi]. [Mahdi] shot Myers nine times with the .22 rifle. [Mahdi] then poured diesel fuel on Myer's [sic] body and set the body on fire. [Mahdi] stole Myers' police-issued truck, and left with Myers' shotgun, his .22 rifle, and Myers' police-issued assault rifle.
Later that evening, Myers' wife, also a law enforcement officer, became worried when Myers did not return home. Mrs. Myers drove to the work shop and discovered Myers' burned body lying in a pool of blood.
[Mahdi] escaped to Florida, where he was spotted by police on July 21 driving Myers' truck. Fleeing the police, [Mahdi] abandoned the truck [and proceeded] on foot in possession of the assault rifle. When cornered by police, [Mahdi] abandoned the rifle and was eventually taken into custody.

Id. at 809.

B. The Plea Hearing

On August 23, 2004, the Calhoun County, South Carolina, Grand Jury indicted Mahdi for Captain Myers' murder, second-degree burglary, and grand larceny. The State filed a Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty and a Notice of Evidence in Aggravation, alleging Mahdi killed Captain Myers: (1) "while in the commission of burglary"; (2) "while in the commission of robbery while armed with a deadly weapon"; and (3) "while in the commission of larceny with use of a deadly weapon." J.A. 935 (citing S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-20 ). The State later filed an amended Notice of Evidence in Aggravation, alleging an additional statutory aggravating factor: (4) the murder occurred during "the performance of [Captain] Myers' official duties as a law enforcement officer." J.A. 937.

In November 2006, Mahdi went to trial. Following three days of voir dire, the trial court judge, Judge Clifton Newman, empaneled a jury. Soon thereafter, the Solicitor announced "a security issue," explaining that court security had discovered "a homemade handcuff key" in Mahdi's pocket during a brief recess. J.A. 1167. Mahdi "indicated ... he had made [the key] in the department of corrections. He had been transporting it in his mouth and ha[d] attempted to use it at the jail, but he hadn't had the opportunity to use it [at the courthouse]." J.A. 1168. The Solicitor and Sheriff recommended—and Mahdi's counsel, Glen Walters, Sr., and Joshua Koger, Jr. (collectively "trial counsel") agreed—to put his legs in irons and chains for the duration of the trial.

After the trial court resolved the security issue and dismissed the jurors for the day, the proceedings continued in chambers at Mahdi's trial counsel's request for "an ex parte conversation ... concerning this case and a possible resolution." J.A. 1173–74. There, they informed the court that Mahdi was considering "whether he should proceed forward with trial or whether he should go in front of [the trial court] and plead guilty." J.A. 1179. To that end, Walters represented—in Mahdi's presence—the following:

[He] discussed with [his] client options that are available with regards to this case. Mr. Mahdi is very intelligent and in conveying the options to him, of course, he's aware of the fact that there are two phases to a trial, the guilt phase and also the sentencing phase, if it should reach that point.
One option that was discussed with Mr. Mahdi was with regards to the guilt phase. And, of course, there's been a discussion with regards to the balancing of options or the lesser of two evils in that process.
What's been conveyed to Mr. Mahdi is ... that there are no guarantees with regards to either process. We have a jury that's been empaneled and there are certain pluses and minuses with that jury. And, of course, Mr. Mahdi's in a position where he's saying, well, what about the judge. And, of course, Your Honor's conveyed from the beginning that there is no policy by this Court that they will agree to a plea or agree to a certain sentence being rendered.
So I've explained to him that there are no guarantees wherever you go. And, of course, he's pondering the issue of whether he should proceed forward with trial or whether he should go in front of Your Honor and plead guilty.
Of course, with the second phase with regards to the sentencing phase, he has been informed that the State will have to put up their case and information and, of course, he'll be allowed to put up information. The question is whether he will do that in

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