OCTOBER TERM, 2002
WOODFORD, WARDEN v. VISCIOTTI
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 02-137. 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
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.
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.
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 firstdegree 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).