No Habeas Error in Killer Cop’s Denied Defense

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A girlfriend-killing cop who was barred from using his desired defense after the law changed does not have a due process case, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
     Burt Lancaster was a former Detroit police officer with a long history of mental illness when he shot and killed his girlfriend, Toni King, in a shopping plaza parking lot on April 23, 1993.
     Lancaster asserted defenses of insanity and diminished capacity at the ensuing trial, but a jury convicted him in 1994 of first-degree murder and possessing a firearm in the commission of a felony.
     Finding that the state had committed an error in jury selection, however, the judgment was overturned.
     Before Michigan could retry Lancaster in 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the diminished-capacity defense in People v. Carpenter.
     Lancaster had been planning to limit his defense in the second trial to just diminished capacity, but trial court applied Carpenter retroactively and barred the defense. He was again convicted and sentenced to life plus two years in prison.
     A federal judge tasked with Lancaster’s subsequent habeas corpus petition concluded that the retroactive application of Carpenter did not violate the due process clause. A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit reversed in June 2012.
     Just five months after it took up the case, the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court sided with Michigan.
     Lancaster cannot obtain habeas relief under the Antiter­rorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) without establishing that the “state-court decision he assails ‘was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by [this] court,’ Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “We hold that Lancaster’s petition does not meet AEDPA’s requirement and that the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit erred in granting him federal habeas relief.”
     The ruling delves into the Michigan high court’s reasoning for throwing out the diminished capacity defense.
     “The statutory scheme enacted by the Michigan Legislature, the court held, ‘created an all or nothing insanity defense,'” Ginsburg wrote. “A defendant who is ‘mentally ill or retarded yet not legally insane,’ the court explained, ‘may be found “guilty but mentally ill,”‘ but the Legislature had foreclosed the use of ‘evidence of mental incapacity short of insanity … to avoid or reduce criminal responsibility by negating specific intent.'”
     “The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that applying Carpenter retroactively to Lancaster’s case did not violate due process, for Carpenter ‘concerned an unambiguous statute that was interpreted by the [Michigan] Supreme Court for the first time,'” she added.
     Lancaster’s case bears little resemblance to the unreasonable application of federal law that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed with Bouie v. City of Columbia in 1964, which involved black individuals convicted of trespass in South Carolina for trying to dine in the whites-only section of a drug store that otherwise permitted their entry.
     “In Bouie, the South Caro­lina Supreme Court had unexpectedly expanded ‘narrow and precise statutory language’ that, as written, did not reach the petitioners’ conduct,” Ginsburg wrote. “In Car­penter, by contrast, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected a diminished-capacity defense that the court reasonably found to have no home in a comprehensive, on-point stat­ute enacted by the Michigan Legislature. Carpenter thus presents the inverse of the situation this Court confronted in Bouie. Rather than broadening a statute that was narrow on its face, Carpenter disapproved lower court precedent recognizing a defense Michigan’s high court found, on close inspection, to lack statutory grounding. The situation we confronted in Bouie bears scant resem­blance to this case, and our resolution of that controversy hardly makes disallowance of Lancaster’s diminished­ capacity defense an unreasonable reading of this court’s law.”
     “This court has never found a due process violation in circumstances remotely resembling Lancaster’s case – i.e., where a state supreme court, squarely addressing a par­ticular issue for the first time, rejected a consistent line of lower court decisions based on the supreme court’s rea­sonable interpretation of the language of a controlling statute,” Ginsburg added. “Fair-minded jurists could conclude that a state supreme court decision of that order is not ‘unexpectedand indefensible by reference to [existing] law.’ Lancaster therefore is not entitled to federal habeas relief on his due process claim.”

%d bloggers like this: