Mitchell v. Esparza

Decision Date03 November 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-1369.,02-1369.
Citation540 U.S. 12
PartiesMITCHELL, WARDEN v. ESPARZA.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

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 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 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 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] was the only individual charged, the jury must have determined that [respondent] was the principal offender." Brief in Opposition 2.

Having exhausted his avenues for relief under state law, respondent filed a habeas petition in the District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The District Court concluded that the Ohio Court of Appeals' decision was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law because it was contrary to our opinions in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275 (1993). In light of this error, as well as others not relevant to this opinion, the court granted respondent's petition in part and issued a writ of habeas corpus as to the death sentence. Esparza v. Anderson, No. 3:96-CV-7434 (Oct. 13, 2000), App. to Pet. for Cert. 41a-240a. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court, holding that the Eighth Amendment precluded respondent's death sentence and that harmless-error review was inappropriate. The State of Ohio petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which we now grant, along with respondent's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis.

A federal court may grant a state habeas petitioner relief for a claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court only if that adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." 28 U. S. C. § 2254(d)(1). The Court of Appeals, however, failed to cite, much less apply, this section.

A state court's decision is "contrary to" our clearly established law if it "applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in our cases" or if it "confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of this Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from our precedent." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U. S. 362, 405-406 (2000); see also Price v. Vincent, 538 U. S. 634, 640 (2003); Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 7-8 (2002) (per curiam). A state court's decision is not "contrary to . . . clearly established Federal law" simply because the court did not cite our opinions. Id., at 8. We have held that a state court need not even be aware of our precedents, "so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts them." Ibid.

According to the Sixth Circuit, Ohio's failure to charge in the indictment that respondent was a "principal" was the functional equivalent of "dispensing with the reasonable doubt requirement." 310 F. 3d, at 421 (citing Sullivan v. Louisiana, supra, at 280). Our precedents, however, do not support its conclusion. In noncapital cases, we have often held that the trial court's failure to instruct a jury on all of the statutory elements of an offense is subject to harmless-error analysis. E. g., Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 19 (1999); California v. Roy, 519 U. S. 2 (1996) (per curiam); Carella v. California, 491 U. S. 263, 266 (1989) (per curiam); Pope v. Illinois, 481 U. S. 497 (1987). In Neder, for example, we held that such an error "differs markedly from the constitutional violations we have found to defy harmless-error review." 527 U. S., at 8. In so holding, we explicitly distinguished Sullivan because the error in Sullivan—the failure to instruct the jury that the State must prove the elements of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt—"`vitiat[ed] all the jury's findings,'" 527 U. S., at 11, whereas the trial court's failure to instruct the jury on one element of an offense did not, see id., at 13-15. Where the jury was precluded...

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