Recent Federal Cases of Interst Related to Post-Conviction Relief

The Seventh Circuit held, as a matter of first impression, that mental incompetence could satisfy the standard for tolling the AEDPA one-year limitations period. Davis v. Humphreys, 747 F.3d 497, 498 (7th Cir. 2014). The court declined, however, to articulate a legal standard, instead directing the parties to brief the subject in the district court, thereby allowing the federal circuit court to “tackle it on the next direct appeal with a greater likelihood of reaching a sound conclusion.” See also Ata v. Scutt, 662 F.3d 736, 742 (6th Cir. 2011); Bills v. Clark, 628 F.3d 1092, 1097 (9th Cir. 2010); Riva v. Ficco, 615 F.3d 35, 40 (1st Cir. 2010); Bolarinwa v. Williams, 593 F.3d 226, 231 (2d Cir. 2010); Hunter v. Ferrell, 587 F.3d 1304, 1309-10 (11th Cir. 2009);
The Seventh Circuit held that the rule established in Martinez v. Ryan, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 1309, 182 L.Ed.2d 272 (2012) (holding that inadequate assistance of counsel at an initial-review collateral proceeding may establish “cause” for a prisoner’s procedural default of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel), did not constitute an “extraordinary circumstance” warranting relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6). The court reasoned that the present case involved “the ‘mundane’ and ‘hardly extraordinary’ situation in which the district court applied the governing rule of procedural default at the time of its decision and the caselaw changed after judgment became final.” Nash v. Hepp, 740 F.3d 1075, 1078-79 (7th Cir. 2014);

The Fifth Circuit authorized petitioner to file a successive habeas claim based on his ineligibility to receive the death penalty because of a purported intellectual disability, even though the claim could be untimely. The court recognized that it had the authority to deny the motion to file a successive claim based on untimeliness (citing In re Lewis, 484 F.3d 793, 795-96 (5th Cir. 2007), but concluded that it would be inappropriate to deny the motion because petitioner had “brought forth a viable basis for equitable tolling that merit[ed] further factual development.” Because it was unclear whether equitable tolling was warranted, the court held that it was premature to address the question of equitable tolling. In re Campbell, 750 F.3d 523, 532-33 (5th Cir. 2014).

The Sixth Circuit held that the Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne v. U.S., ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 2158, 186 L.Ed.2d 314 (2013) (holding that any fact increasing the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime is an “element” of that crime, not a sentencing factor, and therefore, the “element” must be submitted to the jury for determination), does not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. In re Mazzio, 756 F.3d 487, 490-91 (6th Cir. 2014)

The Eleventh Circuit declined to consider petitioner’s argument that the state court’s decision was not entitled to AEDPA deference because the state court misunderstood his claim. Petitioner had acknowledged in the district court habeas proceedings that AEDPA governed the analysis of his claims, and he was precluded from arguing on appeal a different standard. Mendoza v. Secretary, Florida Dept. of Corrections, 761 F.3d 1213, 1236-37 (11th Cir. 2014)

The Harmless Error Standard
Other than as just described, a petitioner is not entitled to relief for the violation of a federal right absent harm. The extent of harm needed to trigger relief depends on the stage of the court proceeding in which the prejudice determination is being made. On direct appeal, both state and federal courts apply the Chapman harmless-error test. Under this standard, the prosecution must carry the burden of showing that a constitutional error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. This principle originates from the case by that name, Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, 87 S.Ct. 824, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 (1967).
On collateral review, a more relaxed harmless error standard applies. In this setting, the government’s burden is lessened, and an error is deemed harmless unless it had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 638, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993). This standard applies “in virtually all § 2254 cases,” Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 117, 127 S.Ct. 2321, 2325, 168 L.Ed.2d 16 (2007), with the possible exception for the “unusual case” involving “a deliberate and especially egregious error of the trial type, or one that is combined with a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct that . . . infect[s] the integrity of the proceeding,” Brecht, 507 U.S. at 638 n.9. “When a federal judge in a habeas proceeding is in grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict,’ that error is not harmless.” O’Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436, 115 S.Ct. 992, 130 L.Ed.2d 947 (1995). “‘[G]rave doubt’ means that, in the judge’s mind, the matter is so evenly balanced that he feels himself in virtual equipoise as to the harmlessness of the error.” Id. at 435.

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