Dunn v. Reeves: State court did not apply per se rule that failure to call trial counsel to testify defeats ineffective assistance claim
The Eleventh Circuit erred in finding, on habeas review, that Alabama courts had adopted a per se rule that failure to call trial counsel to testify defeats an ineffective assistance claim, the U.S. Supreme Court held July 2 in Dunn v. Reeves.
Matthew Reeves was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
He sought postconviction relief on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.
At his state postconviction hearing, he did not call his trial attorneys to testify as to decisions they made in his case.
The Alabama courts denied relief on grounds that, “in this case,” failure to call trial counsel to testify was “fatal” to the ineffective assistance claims.
Reeves sought federal habeas review. The district court denied relief.
But the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the Alabama courts had unreasonably applied federal law because they applied a “per se rule that the petitioner must present counsel’s testimony.”
The Supreme Court reversed, in a 6-3 per curiam opinion.
“A federal court may grant habeas relief only if a state court violated ‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,” the Court said.
This means that “federal courts can correct only ‘extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice syste[m],” the Court the said. “[A] federal court may grant relief only if every ‘fair minded juris[t]’ would agree that every reasonable lawyer would have made a different decision.”
The Court held that in “context … the Alabama court did not apply a blanket rule, but rather determined that the facts of this case did not merit relief.”
“In particular, the [Alabama] court twice said that it would consider ‘all circumstances’ of the case, and it qualified its supposedly categorical rule [that not calling counsel was fatal] by explaining that ‘counsel should ordinarily be afforded an opportunity to explain his actions before being denounced as ineffective.’”
“Even more important, the actual analysis of the claim at issue here reflects a case-specific approach,” the Court said. “The court did not merely say, as the Eleventh Circuit wrongly suggested, that Reeves’ ‘failure to call his attorneys to testify was fatal to his claims,’” the Court said. “Rather, the opinion prefaced this quote with an important qualifier – ‘In this case.’”
“And, it certainly was not contrary to clearly established law given that this Court and the Eleventh Circuit have made the same observation that a silent record cannot discharge a prisoner’s burden” to overcome the presumption that counsel’s decisions were reasonable, the Court concluded.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, dissented.
“A per se rule that a habeas petitioner’s claim fails if his attorney did not testify at an evidentiary hearing is flatly incompatible” with Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), Sotomayor said. The Alabama courts “applied precisely such a rule in this case.”
“[N]o single type of evidence, such as counsel’s testimony, is a prerequisite for relief,” she said. “[T]his Court has found deficient performance without any testimony from trial counsel.”
“Today’s decision continues a troubling trend in which this Court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution,” she concluded.
Justice Breyer also dissented, without opinion.