Lambrix v. Singletary
520 U.S. 518 (1997)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

LAMBRIX v. SINGLETARY, SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 96-5658. Argued January 15, 1997-Decided May 12, 1997

In the sentencing phase of the trial at which petitioner Lambrix was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder, the Florida state-court jury rendered an advisory verdict recommending death sentences on both counts. Finding numerous aggravating circumstances in connection with both murders, and no mitigating circumstances as to either, the trial court sentenced Lambrix to death on both counts. Mter his conviction and sentence were upheld on direct and collateral review by the Florida courts, he filed a habeas petition in the Federal District Court, which rejected all of his claims. While his appeal was pending before the Eleventh Circuit, this Court decided in Espinosa v. Florida, 505 U. S. 1079, that if the sentencing judge in a "weighing" State (i. e., a State such as Florida that requires specified aggravating circumstances to be weighed against any mitigating circumstances at a capital trial's sentencing phase) is required to give deference to a jury's advisory sentencing recommendation, then neither the jury nor the judge is constitutionally permitted to weigh invalid aggravating circumstances. Since one of Lambrix's claims was that his sentencing jury was improperly instructed on the "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel" aggravator, Espinosa had obvious relevance to his habeas petition. The Eleventh Circuit held its proceedings in abeyance to permit Lambrix to present his Espinosa claim to the Florida Supreme Court, which rejected the claim without considering its merits on the ground that the claim was procedurally barred. Without even acknowledging the procedural bar, the Eleventh Circuit denied relief, ruling that Espinosa announced a "new rule" which cannot be applied retroactively on federal habeas under Teague v. Lane, 489 U. S. 288.

Held:

1. Although the question whether a federal court should resolve a claim of procedural bar before considering a claim of Teague bar has not previously been presented, the Court's opinions-most particularly, Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722-suggest that the procedural bar issue should ordinarily be considered first. The Court nonetheless chooses not to resolve this case on the procedural bar ground. Lambrix asserts several reasons why procedural bar does not apply, the validity


519

of which is more appropriately determined by the lower federal courts, which are more familiar with the procedural practices of the States in which they sit. Rather than prolong this litigation by a remand, the Court proceeds to decide the question presented. pp. 522-525.

2. A prisoner whose conviction became final before Espinosa is foreclosed from relying on that decision in a federal habeas proceeding. Pp. 525-540.

(a) To apply Teague, a federal habeas court must: (1) determine the date on which the defendant's conviction became final; (2) survey the legal landscape as it existed on that date to determine whether a state court then considering the defendant's claim would have felt compelled by existing precedent to conclude that the rule the defendant seeks was constitutionally required; and (3) if not, consider whether the relief sought falls within one of two narrow exceptions to nonretroactivity. Pp.525-527.

(b) A survey of the legal landscape as of the date that Lambrix's conviction became final shows that Espinosa was not dictated by thenexisting precedent, but announced a "new rule" as defined in Teague. It is significant that Espinosa, supra, at 1082, cited only a single case in support of its central conclusion, Baldwin v. Alabama, 472 U. S. 372, 382, and introduced that lone citation with a "cf."-an introductory signal indicating authority that supports the point in dictum or by analogy. Baldwin states, on the page that Espinosa cites, 472 U. S., at 382, that the defendant's Espinosa-like argument "conceivably might have merit" in circumstances not present in that case. The decisions relied on most heavily by Lambrix-Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U. S. 420; Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 U. S. 356; and Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U. S. 738do not dictate the result ultimately reached in Espinosa. Rather, a close examination of the Florida death penalty scheme, in light of cases such as Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U. S. 242, 253 (joint opinion); id., at 260-261 (White, J., concurring in judgment); and Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U. S. 447, 451, 466, indicates that a reasonable jurist considering the matter at the time Lambrix's sentence became final could have reached a result different from Espinosa. That conclusion is confirmed by Walton v. Arizona, 497 U. S. 639, 653-654. The fact that Espinosa was handed down as a per curiam without oral argument is insignificant, since the decision followed by just three weeks Sochor v. Florida, 504 U. S. 527, in which the identical issue was fully briefed and argued, but could not be decided for jurisdictional reasons. Pp. 527-539.

(c) Espinosa's new rule does not fall within either of the exceptions to this Court's nonretroactivity doctrine. The first exception plainly has no application, since Espinosa neither decriminalizes a class of conduct nor prohibits the imposition of capital punishment on a particular


520
Full Text of Opinion

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