O'sullivan v Boerckel

Decision Date07 June 1999
Docket Number972048
Citation526 U.S. 838,119 S.Ct. 1728,144 L.Ed.2d 1
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Justice O'Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

Federal habeas relief is available to state prisoners only after they have exhausted their claims in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1), (c) (1994 ed., Supp. III). In this case, we are asked to decide whether a state prisoner must present his claims to a state supreme court in a petition for discretionary review in order to satisfy the exhaustion requirement. We conclude that he must.


In 1977, respondent Darren Boerckel was tried in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Illinois, for the rape, burglary, and aggravated battery of an 87-year-old woman. The central evidence against him at trial was his written confession to the crimes, a confession admitted over Boerckel's objection. The jury convicted Boerckel on all three charges, and he was sentenced to serve 20 to 60 years' imprisonment on the rape charge, and shorter terms on the other two charges, with all sentences to be served concurrently.

Boerckel appealed his convictions to the Appellate Court of Illinois, raising several issues. He argued, among other things, that his confession should have been suppressed because the confession was the fruit of an illegal arrest, because the confession was coerced, and because he had not knowingly and intelligently waived his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Boerckel also claimed that prosecutorial misconduct denied him a fair trial, that he had been denied discovery of exculpatory material held by the police, and that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. The Illinois Appellate Court, with one justice dissenting, rejected Boerckel's claims and affirmed his convictions and sentences. People v. Boerckel, 68 Ill. App.3d 103, 385 N. E.2d 815 (1979).

Boerckel next filed a petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. In this petition, he raised only three issues. Boerckel claimed first that his confession was the fruit of an unlawful arrest because, contrary to the Appellate Court's ruling, he was under arrest when he gave his confession. Boerckel also contended that he was denied a fair trial by prosecutorial misconduct and that he had been erroneously denied discovery of exculpatory material in the possession of the police. The Illinois Supreme Court denied the petition for leave to appeal, and this Court denied Boerckel's subsequent petition for a writ of certiorari. 447 U.S. 911 (1980).

In 1994, Boerckel filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. The District Court appointed counsel for Boerckel, and Boerckel's counsel filed an amended petition in March 1995. The amended petition asked for relief on six grounds: (1) that Boerckel had not knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights; (2) that his confession was not voluntary; (3) that the evidence against him was insufficient to sustain the conviction; (4) that his confession was the fruit of an illegal arrest; (5) that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial and on appeal; and (6) that his right to discovery of exculpatory material under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), was violated.

In an order dated November 15, 1995, the District Court found, as relevant here, that Boerckel had procedurally defaulted his first, second, and third claims by failing to include them in his petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. No. 94 3258 (CD Ill.), pp. 4 10. Boerckel attempted to overcome the procedural defaults by presenting evidence that he fell within the "fundamental miscarriage of justice" exception to the procedural default rule. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). At a hearing on this issue, Boerckel argued that he was actually innocent of the offenses for which he had been convicted and he presented evidence that he claimed showed that two other men were responsible for the crimes. In a subsequent ruling, the District Court concluded that Boerckel had failed to satisfy the standards established in Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995), for establishing the "fundamental miscarriage of justice" exception, and thus held that Boerckel could not overcome the procedural bars preventing review of his claims. No. 94 3258 (CD Ill., Oct. 28, 1996), pp. 14 15. After rejecting Boerckel's remaining claims for relief, the District Court denied his habeas petition. Id., at 18.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit considered one question, namely, whether Boerckel had procedurally defaulted the first three claims in his habeas petition (whether he knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights, whether his confession was voluntary, and whether the evidence was sufficient to support a verdict) by failing to raise those claims in his petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court denying Boerckel's habeas petition and remanded for further proceedings. 135 F.3d 1194 (1998). The court concluded that Boerckel was not required to present his claims in a petition for discretionary review to the Illinois Supreme Court to satisfy the exhaustion requirement. Id., at, 1199 1202. Thus, according to the Court of Appeals, Boerckel had not procedurally defaulted those claims. Id., at 1202.

We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict in the Courts of Appeals on this issue. 525 U.S. ___ (1998). Compare e.g., Richardson v. Procunier, 762 F.2d 429 (CA5 1985) (must file petition for discretionary review), with Dolny v. Erickson, 32 F.3d 381 (CA8 1994) (petition for discretionary review not required), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1111 (1995).


Before a federal court may grant habeas relief to a state prisoner, the prisoner must exhaust his remedies in state court. In other words, the state prisoner must give the state courts an opportunity to act on his claims before he presents those claims to a federal court in a habeas petition. The exhaustion doctrine, first announced in Ex parte Royall, 117 U.S. 241 (1886), is now codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1) (1994 ed., Supp. III). This doctrine, however, raises a recurring question: What state remedies must a habeas petitioner invoke to satisfy the federal exhaustion requirement? See Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 349 350 (1989); Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 78 (1977). The particular question posed by this case is whether a prisoner must seek review in a state court of last resort when that court has discretionary control over its docket.

Illinois law provides for a two-tiered appellate review process. Criminal defendants are tried in the local circuit courts, and although some criminal appeals (e.g., those in which the death penalty is imposed) are heard directly by the Supreme Court of Illinois, most criminal appeals are heard first by an intermediate appellate court, the Appellate Court of Illinois. Ill. Sup. Ct. Rule 603 (1998). A party may petition for leave to appeal a decision by the Appellate Court to the Illinois Supreme Court (with exceptions that are irrelevant here), but whether "such a petition will be granted is a matter of sound judicial discretion." Rule 315(a). See also Rule 612(b) (providing that Rule 315 governs criminal, as well as civil, appeals). Rule 315 elaborates on the exercise of this discretion as follows:

"The following, while neither controlling nor fully measuring the court's discretion, indicate the character of reasons which will be considered: the general importance of the question presented; the existence of a conflict between the decision sought to be reviewed and a decision of the Supreme Court, or of another division of the Appellate Court; the need for the exercise of the Supreme Court's supervisory authority; and the final or interlocutory character of the judgment sought to be reviewed." Rule 315(a).

Boerckel's amended federal habeas petition raised three claims that he had not included in his petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. To determine whether Boerckel was required to present those claims to the Illinois Supreme Court in order to exhaust his state remedies, we turn first to the language of the federal habeas statute. Section 2254(c) provides that a habeas petitioner "shall not be deemed to have exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State . . . if he has the right under the law of the State to raise, by any available procedure, the question presented." Although this language could be read to effectively foreclose habeas review by requiring a state prisoner to invoke any possible avenue of state court review, we have never interpreted the exhaustion requirement in such a restrictive fashion.

See Wilwording v. Swenson, 404 U.S. 249, 249 250 (1971) (per curiam). Thus, we have not interpreted the exhaustion doctrine to require prisoners to file repetitive petitions. See Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 447 (1953) (holding that a prisoner does not have "to ask the state for collateral relief, based on the same evidence and issues already decided by direct review"). We have also held that state prisoners do not have to invoke extraordinary remedies when those remedies are alternatives to the standard review process and where the state courts have not provided relief through those remedies in the past. See Wilwording v. Swenson, supra, at 249 250 (rejecting suggestion that state prisoner should have invoked "any of a number of possible alternatives to state habeas including 'a suit for injunction, a writ of prohibition, or mandamus or a declaratory judgment in the state courts,' or...

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