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Woodford v. Visciotti

November 04, 2002

JEANNE WOODFORD, WARDEN
v.
JOHN LOUIS VISCIOTTI



on petition for writ of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam.

537 U. S. ____ (2002)

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).

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 of both the "contrary to" and the "unreasonable application" conditions of ยง2254(d)(1), and affirmed the District Court's grant of relief. See 288 F. 3d, at 1118-1119. The State of California petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which ...


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