White v. Woodall

Decision Date23 April 2014
Docket NumberNo. 12–794.,12–794.
Citation134 S.Ct. 1697,188 L.Ed.2d 698,572 U.S. 415
Parties Randy WHITE, Warden, Petitioner v. Robert Keith WOODALL.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Susan R. Lenz, Frankfort, KY, for Petitioner.

Laurence E. Komp, appointed by Court, Ballwin, MO, for Respondent.

Jack Conway, Attorney General of Kentucky, Susan Roncarti Lenz, Counsel of Record, Assistant Attorney General, Ian G. Sonego, Special Assistant Attorney General, Frankfort, KY, for Petitioner.

Heather E. Williams, Federal Defender, David H. Harshaw III, Assistant Federal Defender, Sacramento, CA, Dennis J. Burke, Assistant Public Advocate, LaGrange, KY, Laurence E. Komp, Counsel of Record, Attorney at Law, Manchester, MO, for Respondent Robert Keith Woodall.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent brutally raped, slashed with a box cutter, and drowned a 16–year–old high-school student. After pleading guilty to murder, rape, and kidnaping, he was sentenced to death. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed the sentence, and we denied certiorari. Ten years later, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted respondent's petition for a writ of habeas corpus on his Fifth Amendment claim. In so doing, it disregarded the limitations of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) —a provision of law that some federal judges find too confining, but that all federal judges must obey. We reverse.


On the evening of January 25, 1997, Sarah Hansen drove to a convenience store to rent a movie. When she failed to return home several hours later, her family called the police. Officers eventually found the vehicle Hansen had been driving a short distance from the convenience store. They followed a 400–to 500–foot trail of blood from the van to a nearby lake, where Hansen's unclothed, dead body was found floating in the water. Hansen's "throat had been slashed twice with each cut approximately 3.5 to 4 inches long," and "[h]er windpipe was totally severed." Woodall v. Commonwealth, 63 S.W.3d 104, 114 (Ky.2002).

Authorities questioned respondent when they learned that he had been in the convenience store on the night of the murder. Respondent gave conflicting statements regarding his whereabouts that evening. Further investigation revealed that respondent's "fingerprints were on the van the victim was driving," "[b]lood was found on [respondent's] front door," "[b]lood on his clothing and sweatshirt was consistent with the blood of the victim," and "DNA on ... vaginal swabs" taken from the victim "was consistent with" respondent's. Ibid.

Faced with overwhelming evidence of his guilt, respondent pleaded guilty to capital murder. He also pleaded guilty to capital kidnaping and first-degree rape, the statutory aggravating circumstance for the murder. See App. 78; Ky.Rev.Stat. Ann. § 532.025(2)(a) (West Supp.2012). At the ensuing penalty-phase trial, respondent called character witnesses but declined to testify himself. Defense counsel asked the trial judge to instruct the jury that "[a] defendant is not compelled to testify and the fact that the defendant did not testify should not prejudice him in any way." App. 31. The trial judge denied the request, and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed that denial. Woodall v. Commonwealth,supra, at 115. While recognizing that the Fifth Amendment requires a no-adverse-inference instruction to protect a nontestifying defendant at the guilt phase, see Carter v. Kentucky, 450 U.S. 288, 101 S.Ct. 1112, 67 L.Ed.2d 241 (1981), the court held that Carter and our subsequent cases did not require such an instruction here. Woodall v. Commonwealth, supra, at 115. We denied respondent's petition for a writ of certiorari from that direct appeal. Woodall v. Kentucky, 537 U.S. 835, 123 S.Ct. 145, 154 L.Ed.2d 54 (2002).

In 2006, respondent filed this petition for habeas corpus in Federal District Court. The District Court granted relief, holding, as relevant here, that the trial court's refusal to issue a no-adverse-inference instruction at the penalty phase violated respondent's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Woodall v. Simpson, No. 5:06CV–P216–R (W.D.Ky., Feb. 24, 2009), App. to Pet. for Cert. 58a–61a, 2009 WL 464939, *12. The Court of Appeals affirmed and ordered Kentucky to either resentence respondent within 180 days or release him. Woodall v. Simpson, 685 F.3d 574, 581 (C.A.6 2012)1 Judge Cook dissented.

We granted certiorari. 570 U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 373, 187 L.Ed.2d 14 (2013).


Section 2254(d) of Title 28 provides that "[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim ... 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." "This standard," we recently reminded the Sixth Circuit, "is 'difficult to meet.' " Metrish v. Lancaster, 569 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1781, 1786, 185 L.Ed.2d 988 (2013)." '[C]learly established Federal law' " for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only " 'the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of this Court's decisions.' " Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. ––––, ––––, 132 S.Ct. 1181, 1187, 182 L.Ed.2d 17 (2012) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000) ). And an "unreasonable application of" those holdings must be " 'objectively unreasonable,' " not merely wrong; even "clear error" will not suffice. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75–76, 123 S.Ct. 1166, 155 L.Ed.2d 144 (2003). Rather, "[a]s a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. ––––, ––––, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786–787, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011).

Both the Kentucky Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals identified as the relevant precedents in this area our decisions in Carter, Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 1866, 68 L.Ed.2d 359 (1981), and Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 119 S.Ct. 1307, 143 L.Ed.2d 424 (1999). Carter held that a no-adverse-inference instruction is required at the guilt phase. 450 U.S., at 294–295, 300, 101 S.Ct. 1112.Estelle concerned the introduction at the penalty phase of the results of an involuntary, un-Mirandized pretrial psychiatric examination. 451 U.S., at 456–457, and n. 1, 101 S.Ct. 1866; id ., at 461, 101 S.Ct. 1866. And Mitchell disapproved a trial judge's drawing of an adverse inference from the defendant's silence at sentencing "with regard to factual determinations respecting the circumstances and details of the crime." 526 U.S., at 327–330, 119 S.Ct. 1307.

It is clear that the Kentucky Supreme Court's conclusion is not "contrary to" the actual holding of any of these cases. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The Court of Appeals held, however, that the "Kentucky Supreme Court's denial of this constitutional claim was an unreasonable application of" those cases. 685 F.3d, at 579. In its view, "reading Carter, Estelle, and Mitchell together, the only reasonable conclusion is that" a no-adverse-inference instruction was required at the penalty phase. Ibid. .2

We need not decide here, and express no view on, whether the conclusion that a no-adverse-inference instruction was required would be correct in a case not reviewed through the lens of § 2254(d)(1). For we are satisfied that the issue was, at a minimum, not "beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington, supra, at ––––, 131 S.Ct., at 787.

We have, it is true, held that the privilege against self-incrimination applies to the penalty phase. See Estelle, supra, at 463, 101 S.Ct. 1866; Mitchell, supra, at 328–329, 119 S.Ct. 1307. But it is not uncommon for a constitutional rule to apply somewhat differently at the penalty phase than it does at the guilt phase. See, e.g., Bobby v. Mitts, 563 U.S. ––––, ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1762, 1764–1765, 179 L.Ed.2d 819 (2011) (per curiam ). We have "never directly held that Carter applies at a sentencing phase where the Fifth Amendment interests of the defendant are different." United States v. Whitten, 623 F.3d 125, 131–132, n. 4 (C.A.2 2010) (Livingston, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc).

Indeed, Mitchell itself leaves open the possibility that some inferences might permissibly be drawn from a defendant's penalty-phase silence. In that case, the District Judge had actually drawn from the defendant's silence an adverse inference about the drug quantity attributable to the defendant. See 526 U.S., at 317–319, 119 S.Ct. 1307. We held that this ran afoul of the defendant's "right to remain silent at sentencing." Id., at 325, 327–328, 119 S.Ct. 1307 (citing Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 614, 85 S.Ct. 1229, 14 L.Ed.2d 106 (1965) ). But we framed our holding narrowly, in terms implying that it was limited to inferences pertaining to the facts of the crime: "We decline to adopt an exception for the sentencing phase of a criminal case with regard to factual determinations respecting the circumstances and details of the crime ." Mitchell, 526 U.S., at 328, 119 S.Ct. 1307 (emphasis added). "The Government retains," we said, "the burden of proving facts relevant to the crime ... and cannot enlist the defendant in this process at the expense of the self-incrimination privilege." Id., at 330, 119 S.Ct. 1307 (emphasis added). And Mitchell included an express reservation of direct relevance here: "Whether silence bears upon the determination of a lack of remorse, or upon acceptance of responsibility for purposes of the downward adjustment provided in § 3E1.1 of the United States Sentencing...

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