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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Justices Question Habeas Relief in Murder Case

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court improperly refused to consider the award of habeas relief to a convicted murderer based on a misunderstanding of precedent, dissenting justices said Monday.

After he was convicted in Michigan of first-degree murder, Tyrik McClellan persuaded a federal judge that his trial counsel had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance.

The court granted McClellan habeas relief after excusing excuse his failure to raise the ineffective-assistance claims earlier.

A divided panel of the 6th Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court refused to grant the state's petition for a writ of certiorari Monday.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, explained in a separate dissent why they thought the case merits review.

"The decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in this case was based on a serious mis­reading of our decision in Harrington v. Richter, and if left uncorrected, it is likely to interfere with the proper handling of a significant number of federal habeas petitions filed by Michigan prisoners," Alito wrote. "Under Harrington, when a state court summarily rejects an appeal without clearly indicating whether the disposition was based on the merits of the claims presented or instead on procedural grounds, a federal habeas court must pre­sume that the decision was on the merits, but the pre­sumption may be overcome under certain circumstances. By contrast, when the state court makes it clear that a summary disposition was on the merits, Harrington's rebuttable presumption has no application. A federal court may not probe beyond the state court's order to inquire whether the court accurately characterized its own decision.

"In this case, the Sixth Circuit overlooked that im­portant rule. The panel majority relied on a prior Sixth Circuit decision that had recognized - based on a long line of Michigan Court of Appeals cases - that the form of order used by the Michigan Court of Appeals in the present case invariably reflects a disposition on the merits. But the panel understood that prior decision nevertheless to allow it to look past the order to determine whether the state appellate court had meant what it said and actually based its disposition on the merits.

"This was a fundamental error - and an important one. I would therefore grant the petition for a writ of certiorari."

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