Mitchell v. Esparza, No. 02-1369.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPer Curiam
Citation540 U.S. 12
PartiesMITCHELL, WARDEN v. ESPARZA.
Docket NumberNo. 02-1369.
Decision Date03 November 2003
540 U.S. 12
MITCHELL, WARDEN
v.
ESPARZA.
No. 02-1369.
Supreme Court of United States.
Decided November 3, 2003.

Respondent was sentenced to death for felony murder. On state postconviction review, he argued that he had not been convicted of an offense for which a death sentence could be imposed because the indictment did not charge him as a "principal offender" under the relevant Ohio statute. The Ohio appellate court, however, held that literal compliance with the statute was not required where, as here, only one defendant is named in the indictment. That court also rejected respondent's second state postconviction petition, which alleged, inter alia, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel for not arguing that the State's failure to comply with its sentencing procedures violated the Eighth Amendment. In granting respondent's subsequent federal habeas petition, the District Court concluded that the state court's decision was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Eighth Amendment precluded respondent's death sentence and that harmless-error review was inappropriate.

Held: The Sixth Circuit exceeded the limits imposed on federal habeas review by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which permits federal habeas relief only if the State's adjudication on the merits resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. This Court's precedents do not support the Sixth Circuit's conclusion that Ohio's failure to charge respondent as a "principal" was the functional equivalent to dispensing with the reasonable-doubt requirement. In noncapital cases, this Court has often held that the trial court's failure to instruct a jury on all of the statutory elements is subject to harmless-error analysis. The Court's precedents do not require the opposite result where the violation occurs in a capital sentencing proceeding. Indeed, a number of this Court's harmless-error cases have involved capital defendants. Because the Ohio appellate court's decision does not conflict with the reasoning or holdings of this Court's precedent, it is not contrary to clearly established federal law. Nor is it an unreasonable application of federal law. Habeas relief is appropriate only if the state court applied harmless-error review in an "objectively unreasonable" manner. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U. S. 63, 75-77. That is not the case here. The Ohio Supreme Court has defined a principal offender as the actual killer, and the jury instructions

[540 U.S. 13]

show that the verdict would surely have been the same had the jury been instructed to find the respondent a "principal" in the offense. After all, he was the only person charged in the indictment, and there was no evidence that anyone else was involved.

Certiorari granted; 310 F. 3d 414, reversed and remanded.

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT.

PER CURIAM.


The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the grant of habeas relief to respondent Gregory Esparza after concluding that, because the Eighth Amendment requires the State to narrow the class of death eligible defendants, the Ohio Court of Appeals had improperly subjected respondent's claims to harmless-error review. 310 F. 3d 414 (2002). This decision ignores the limits imposed on federal habeas review by 28 U. S. C. § 2254(d), and we therefore grant the petition for certiorari and reverse.

In February 1983, respondent Esparza entered a store in Toledo, Ohio, and approached two employees, Melanie Gerschultz and James Barailloux. No one else was in the store. At gunpoint, he ordered Gerschultz to open the cash register. Barailloux meanwhile fled the store through a rear door, entering the attached home of the storeowner, Evelyn Krieger. As Barailloux was alerting Krieger to the robbery, he heard a gunshot. Barailloux and Krieger returned to the store and found Gerschultz lying on the floor, fatally wounded by a single gunshot to her neck. The cash register was open and approximately $110 was missing.

Respondent was charged with aggravated murder during the commission of an aggravated robbery, Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2903.01 (Anderson 2002), and aggravated robbery, § 2911.01. He was convicted on both counts, and the trial judge accepted the jury's recommendation that he be sentenced to death for the murder conviction. The trial judge additionally sentenced respondent to 7 to 25 years' imprisonment for aggravated robbery, plus 3 years for the firearm specification. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the convictions

540 U.S. 14

and the sentences. State v. Esparza, 39 Ohio St. 3d 8, 529 N. E. 2d 192 (1988), cert. denied, 490 U. S. 1012 (1989).

On state postconviction review, respondent argued, for the first time, that he had not been convicted of an offense for which a death sentence could be imposed under Ohio law. Although the indictment charged him with aggravated murder in the course of committing aggravated robbery, it did not charge him as a "principal offender."1 The Ohio Court of Appeals rejected his claim, holding that literal compliance with the statute was not required: "[W]here only one defendant is named in an indictment alleging felony murder, it would be redundant to state that the defendant is being charged as a principal offender. Only where more than one defendant is named need the indictment specify the allegation `principal offender.'" State v. Esparza, No. L-90-235, 1992 WL 113827, *9 (May 29, 1992), cause dism'd, 65 Ohio St. 3d 1453, 602 N. E. 2d 250 (1992).

Respondent then filed a second petition for state postconviction relief alleging, inter alia, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel because his attorney did not argue that the State's failure to comply with its sentencing procedures violated the Eighth Amendment. The Ohio Court of Appeals in a conclusory opinion denied his claim, referring back to its previous decision. State v. Esparza, No. L-84-225, 1994 WL 395114, *5 (July 27, 1994), cause dism'd, 70 Ohio St. 3d

540 U.S. 15

1473, 640 N. E. 2d 845 (1994). The import of the court's decision was clear: Respondent failed to prove he was prejudiced because any error committed by counsel was harmless. In respondent's words, "The state court ... determined that since [respondent]...

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2079 practice notes
  • Moore v. Quarterman, Civil No. SA-03-CA-405-RF.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • 20 Diciembre 2007
    ...Supreme Court on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. at 141, 125 S.Ct. at 1438; Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16, 124 S.Ct. 7, 10, 157 L.Ed.2d 263 (2003)("A state court's decision is `contrary, to' our clearly established law if it `applies a rule t......
  • Ayala v. Wong, No. 09–99005.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit
    • 29 Agosto 2012
    ...2321. In its opinion in Fry, the Supreme Court reconciled the Brecht standard with AEDPA. The Court explained: In Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 [124 S.Ct. 7, 157 L.Ed.2d 263] (2003) ( per curiam ), we held that, when a state court determines that a constitutional violation is harmless, a......
  • Thomas v. Warren, No. CIV. 04-CV-40196-FL.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)
    • 2 Noviembre 2005
    ...from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [this] precedent.'" Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16, 124 S.Ct. 7, 157 L.Ed.2d 263 (2003) (per curiam) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000))......
  • Acker v. Director, CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:06-cv-469
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District Texas
    • 14 Junio 2016
    ...of materially indistinguishable facts." Nelson v. Quarterman, 472 F.3d 287, 292 (5th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (quoting Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16, 124 S. Ct. 7, 157 L. Ed. 2d 263 (2003)). "[R]eview under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adj......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2101 cases
  • Moore v. Quarterman, Civil No. SA-03-CA-405-RF.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Western District of Texas
    • 20 Diciembre 2007
    ...Supreme Court on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. at 141, 125 S.Ct. at 1438; Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16, 124 S.Ct. 7, 10, 157 L.Ed.2d 263 (2003)("A state court's decision is `contrary, to' our clearly established law if it `applies a r......
  • Ayala v. Wong, No. 09–99005.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit
    • 29 Agosto 2012
    ...2321. In its opinion in Fry, the Supreme Court reconciled the Brecht standard with AEDPA. The Court explained: In Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 [124 S.Ct. 7, 157 L.Ed.2d 263] (2003) ( per curiam ), we held that, when a state court determines that a constitutional violation is harmless, a......
  • Thomas v. Warren, No. CIV. 04-CV-40196-FL.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)
    • 2 Noviembre 2005
    ...from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [this] precedent.'" Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16, 124 S.Ct. 7, 157 L.Ed.2d 263 (2003) (per curiam) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2......
  • Acker v. Director, CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:06-cv-469
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Court of Eastern District Texas
    • 14 Junio 2016
    ...materially indistinguishable facts." Nelson v. Quarterman, 472 F.3d 287, 292 (5th Cir. 2006) (en banc) (quoting Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16, 124 S. Ct. 7, 157 L. Ed. 2d 263 (2003)). "[R]eview under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court t......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • 1 Diciembre 2014
    ...v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231 (2005)Mills v. Maryland, 486 U.S. 367 (1988)Minnick v. Mississippi, 498 U.S. 146 (1990)Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 (2003)Montejo v. Louisiana, 556 U.S. 778 (2009)Moore v. Illinois, 408 U.S. 786 (1972)Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719 (1992)Mumin v. Virginia, 500 ......

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