Woodford v. Visciotti, No. 02-137.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtPer Curiam
Citation537 U.S. 19
Decision Date04 November 2002
Docket NumberNo. 02-137.
PartiesWOODFORD, WARDEN v. VISCIOTTI.
537 U.S. 19
WOODFORD, WARDEN
v.
VISCIOTTI.
No. 02-137.
Supreme Court of United States.
Decided November 4, 2002.

Respondent killed one person and seriously wounded another during a robbery. A California jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death. The State Supreme Court affirmed. In subsequently denying his state habeas corpus petition, that court assumed that respondent's trial counsel provided constitutionally inadequate representation during the trial's penalty phase, but found that it did not prejudice the jury's sentencing decision. The Federal District Court later granted respondent federal habeas relief as to his sentence, finding that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel during the penalty phase. In affirming, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the State Supreme Court's decision ran afoul of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) because it was "contrary to" Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, and an "unreasonable application" of this Court's clearly established principles.

Held: The Ninth Circuit's decision exceeds § 2254(d)'s limits on federal habeas review. First, that court erred in holding that the state court applied the wrong standard for evaluating prejudice. Under Strickland, a defendant need only establish a "reasonable probability" that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of his sentencing proceeding would have been different. Id., at 694. Strickland specifically rejected a higher standard: that the defendant must prove it more likely than not that the outcome would have been altered. Id., at 693. The Ninth Circuit erred in finding that the State Supreme Court held respondent to this higher standard because it used "probable" without the modifier "reasonably" in three places in its opinion. The Ninth Circuit's readiness to attribute error is inconsistent with the presumption that state courts know and follow the law, and is incompatible with § 2254(d)'s highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings. The Ninth Circuit also erred in finding that the state-court decision involved an unreasonable application of this Court's clearly established precedents. There is no support for the conclusion that the state court failed to take into account the totality of the available mitigating evidence and to consider the prejudicial impact of counsel's actions. The state court found that, because the aggravating factors were so severe, respondent suffered no prejudice from trial counsel's (assumed) inadequacy. Whether or not a federal habeas court would have reached that same

[537 U.S. 20]

conclusion, habeas relief is not permissible under § 2254(d) unless the state court's decision is objectively unreasonable.

Certiorari granted; 288 F.3d 1097, reversed.

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

PER CURIAM.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the grant of habeas relief to respondent John Visciotti after concluding that he had been prejudiced by ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. 288 F.3d 1097 (2002). Because this decision exceeds the limits imposed on federal habeas review by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), we reverse.

I

Respondent and a co-worker, Brian Hefner, devised a plan to rob two fellow employees, Timothy Dykstra and Michael Wolbert, on November 8, 1982, their payday. They invited the pair to join them at a party. As the four were driving to that supposed destination in Wolbert's car, respondent asked Wolbert to stop in a remote area so that he could relieve himself. When all four men had left the car, respondent pulled a gun, demanded the victims' wallets (which turned out to be almost empty), and got Wolbert to tell him where in the car the cash was hidden. After Hefner had retrieved the cash, respondent walked over to the seated Dykstra and killed him with a shot in the chest from a distance of three or four feet. Respondent then raised the gun in both hands and shot Wolbert three times, in the torso and left shoulder, and finally, from a distance of about two feet, in the left eye. Respondent and Hefner fled the scene in Wolbert's car. Wolbert miraculously survived to testify against them.

Respondent was convicted by a California jury of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery, with a special-circumstance finding that the murder was committed during the commission of a robbery. The same jury determined that respondent should suffer death. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. People v. Visciotti, 2 Cal. 4th 1, 825 P.2d 388 (1992).

537 U.S. 21

Respondent filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. That court appointed a referee to hold an evidentiary hearing and make findings of fact—after which, and after briefing on the merits, it denied the petition in a lengthy opinion. In re Visciotti, 14 Cal. 4th 325, 926 P.2d 987 (1996). The California Supreme Court assumed that respondent's trial counsel provided constitutionally inadequate representation during the penalty phase, but concluded that this did not prejudice the jury's sentencing decision. Id., at 353, 356-357, 926 P.2d, at 1004, 1006.

Respondent filed a federal habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. That court determined that respondent had been denied effective assistance of counsel during the penalty phase of his trial, and granted the habeas petition as to his sentence. The State appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Court of Appeals correctly observed that a federal habeas application can only be granted if it meets the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which provides:

"An 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—

"(1) 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; or

"(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."

The Court of Appeals found that the California Supreme Court decision ran afoul...

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4710 practice notes
  • Detrich v. Ryan, No. 08–99001.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • May 2, 2012
    ...had committed a pre-planned armed robbery that involved an execution-style killing and another attempted killing. Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 26–27, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002). There, the mitigating evidence that counsel failed to present was far weaker than that here: th......
  • Lebar v. Thompson, CIVIL NO. 3:CV-08-0072
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • May 13, 2013
    ...544 U.S. 133, 141, 125 S.Ct. 1432, 161 L.Ed.2d 334 (2005)(citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405,120 S.Ct. 1495, and Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-25, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002)). Of course, a state court's resolution of a question that the Supreme Court has not resolved can b......
  • Waterford v. Washburn, No. 3:19-cv-00651
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • April 21, 2020
    ..., 563 U.S. 170, 181, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 179 L.Ed.2d 557 (2011) (quoting Richter , 562 U.S. at 102, 131 S.Ct. 770, and Woodford v. Visciotti , 537 U.S. 19, 24, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002) (per curiam)). Petitioner carries the burden of proof. Pinholster , 563 U.S. at 181, 131 S.Ct. 13......
  • Fautenberry v. Mitchell, No. 05-3568.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • January 25, 2008
    ...case." Id. "An unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 25, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002) (quotations omitted). We may not issue the writ "simply because [we] conclude[ ] in [our] independ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
4717 cases
  • Detrich v. Ryan, No. 08–99001.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)
    • May 2, 2012
    ...had committed a pre-planned armed robbery that involved an execution-style killing and another attempted killing. Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 26–27, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002). There, the mitigating evidence that counsel failed to present was far weaker than that here: th......
  • Lebar v. Thompson, CIVIL NO. 3:CV-08-0072
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • May 13, 2013
    ...544 U.S. 133, 141, 125 S.Ct. 1432, 161 L.Ed.2d 334 (2005)(citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405,120 S.Ct. 1495, and Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-25, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002)). Of course, a state court's resolution of a question that the Supreme Court has not resolved can b......
  • Waterford v. Washburn, No. 3:19-cv-00651
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • April 21, 2020
    ..., 563 U.S. 170, 181, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 179 L.Ed.2d 557 (2011) (quoting Richter , 562 U.S. at 102, 131 S.Ct. 770, and Woodford v. Visciotti , 537 U.S. 19, 24, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002) (per curiam)). Petitioner carries the burden of proof. Pinholster , 563 U.S. at 181, 131 S.Ct. 13......
  • Fautenberry v. Mitchell, No. 05-3568.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • January 25, 2008
    ...case." Id. "An unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 25, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002) (quotations omitted). We may not issue the writ "simply because [we] conclude[ ] in [our] independ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
4 books & journal articles
  • Institutionalizing the Culture of Control
    • United States
    • International Criminal Justice Review Nbr. 24-4, December 2014
    • December 1, 2014
    ...v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. ___ (2010)Wong v. Belmontes, 558 U.S. ___ (2009)Wood v. Allen, 130 S. Ct. 1942 (2010)Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19 (2002)Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976)Yates v. Aiken, 484 U.S. 211 (1988)Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862 (1983)340 International Crimina......
  • THE REASONABLENESS OF THE "REASONABLENESS" STANDARD OF HABEAS CORPUS REVIEW UNDER THE ANTITERRORISM AND EFFECTIVE DEATH PENALTY ACT OF 1996.
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    • Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 72 Nbr. 3, March 2022
    • March 22, 2022
    ...533 U.S. 167, 178 (2001)); see also, e.g., Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 945 (2007) (per curiam). (114.) Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam); see also, e.g., Dunn v. Reeves, 141 S. Ct. 2405, 2411 (2021) (per (115.) 28 U.S.C. [section] 2254(d). (116.) See Bell v......
  • Weekly Case Digests September 7, 2021 September 10, 2021.
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Law Journal Nbr. 2021, March 2021
    • September 10, 2021
    ...733, 744747 (2020). It was the Eleventh Circuit, however, that went astray in its "readiness to attribute error." Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U. S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam). Federal habeas courts must defer to reasonable state-court decisions, 28 U. S. C. 2254(d), and the Alabama court's t......
  • Habeas Relief Sufficiency of Evidence.
    • United States
    • Wisconsin Law Journal Nbr. 2021, March 2021
    • September 9, 2021
    ...733, 744747 (2020). It was the Eleventh Circuit, however, that went astray in its "readiness to attribute error." Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U. S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam). Federal habeas courts must defer to reasonable state-court decisions, 28 U. S. C. 2254(d), and the Alabama court's t......

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