Jenkins v. Hutton: Supreme Court Reaffirms Sawyer Standard for Reviewing Defaulted Habeas Claims
In deciding whether a federal habeas petitioner can pursue a procedurally defaulted claim of improper jury instructions in a death penalty case, the question is whether, given proper instructions about aggravating circumstances, a reasonable jury could have decided that aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 19 in Jenkins v. Hutton.
The Court, in a per curiam opinion, reversed a Sixth Circuit ruling which allowed the petitioner’s claim to proceed. The Sixth Circuit had considered “whether, given the (alleged) improper instructions, the jury might have been relying on invalid aggravating circumstances when it recommended in a death sentence.”
This standard was wrong under Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333 (1992), the Court held, because it asked whether the alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict, not whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death.
In Sawyer, the Court held that a habeas petitioner may obtain review of a defaulted claim by showing by clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable jury would have found him eligible for the death penalty.
The Sixth Circuit’s approach is “incompatible with Sawyer” because it “would justify excusing default whenever an instructional error could have been relevant a jury’s decision,” the Court said.
All state courts which had reviewed the petitioner’s case had independently weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and concluded that the death penalty was justified, the Court noted. “On the facts of this case, the Sixth Circuit was wrong to hold that it could review [petitioner’s] claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default,” the Court concluded.