Justices Decline to Hear Death Row Habeas Case

     (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a habeas appeal by a death row inmate in Georgia convicted of killing and dismembering a U.S. Navy shipmate.
     In April 1992, Travis Clinton Hittson and Edward Vollmer, both enlisted men in the U.S. Navy serving on the Pensacola, Fla.-based training carrier Forrestal, killed, mutilated and dismembered their shipmate, Conway Utterbeck.
     The murder occurred after Hittson and Vollmer, who were staying at Vollmer’s parents house with Utterbeck, went out for a night of drinking and then decided the other man was “out to get them.”
     According to court documents, Hittson and Vollmer beat Utterbeck with an aluminum baseball back, dragged him into the kitchen, then shot the 21-year-old point blank in the head as he begged for his life.
     Hittson and Vollmer then went to a nearby Waffle House to get something to eat, before finally returning to the murder scene and dismembering Utterbeck with a serrated steak knife and a hacksaw.
     Hittson confessed to the crime, and in February 1993, he was convicted of murder in the Houston County, Ga. Superior Court.
     During the penalty phase of his trial, Hittson tried to show that Vollmer planned the murder and had manipulated him into helping to carry it out. The jury was not persuaded and returned an unanimous death sentence, finding the murder “was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman.”
     After Hittson exhausted his direct appeal and collateral attack remedies in the Georgia courts, he petitioned the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia for a writ of habeas corpus.
     In his petition, Hittson presented twenty separate claims for relief. These included claims that the trial court erred in letting a psychologist to testify about statements Hittson made during a court-ordered mental-health examination; that his attorneys failed to properly present expert testimony about his background and mental condition; and that the state withheld exculpatory evidence, thereby violating his due process rights.
     The district court found that Hittson was entitled to habeas relief from his death sentence based on the state psychologist’s testimony. The state appealed, acknowledging that admission of the testimony was a mistake, but arguing that it was a harmless error. Hittson also cross-appealed the district court’s denial of some of his penalty phase challenges.
     On review, the 11th Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of habeas relief setting aside Hittson’s death sentence based on the state psychologist’s testimony, affirmed the lower court’s denial of several of Hittson’s other claims, and ruled the death row inmate cannot now raise new claims he failed to litigate in state court.
     The majority of justices did not explain their rationale for rejecting the case, but in a concurring opinion in Justice Elena Kagan joined, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said consideration of the case raised an important point for clarification — how federal courts consider why a state court has rejected a state prisoner’s federal claims.
     “The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 directs a federal habeas court to train its attention on the particular reasons – both legal and factual — why state courts rejected a state prisoner’s federal claims,” Ginsburg wrote.
     “Only if the state court’s decision ‘was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law’ or ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of facts in light of the evidence presented,’ may a federal court grant habeas relief premised on a federal claim previously adjudicated on the merits in state court,” she said.
     This, Ginsburg continued, is easy to do when the state court issues an opinion explaining its decision; not so much when it doesn’t.
     She goes on to explain that with its decision in Ylst v. Nunnemaker , high court outlined how federal courts should deal with the more-challenging circumstance.
     In this case, the Georgia Supreme Court denied – without explanation – a certificate of probably cause to appeal.
     But the 11th Circuit declined to apply Ylst, instead believing that a more recent Supreme Court decision, Harrington v. Richter, superseded it.
     “With no reasoned opinion to look through to, the Court had no occasion to cast doubt on Ylst,” Ginsburg wrote. “On the contrary, the Court cited Ylst approvingly in Richter … and did so again two years later in Johnson v. Williams.
     From Ginsburg’s perspective, the 11th Circuit believed Richter superseded Ylst and required the appeals court to hypothesize reasons that might have supported the state court’s unexplained order.
     “But Richter makes clear that where the state court’s real reasons can be ascertained, the Ylst analysis can and should be based on the actual ‘arguments or theories that supported the … state court’s decision,'” the justice wrote.
     “In short, Richter instructs that federal habeas courts should continue to ‘look though’ even nondiscretionary adjudications to determine whether a claim was procedurally defaulted. There is no reason not to ‘look through’ such adjudications, as well, to determine the particular reasons why the state court rejected the claim on the merits,” Ginsburg said.
     The justice noted that an en banc rehearing on the petition raising the Ylst issue is currently pending before the 11th Circuit. “That petition affords the 11th Circuit an opportunity to correct its error without the need for this court to intervene,” she said.

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