Bell v. Cone
535 U.S. 685 (2002)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 2001

Syllabus

BELL, WARDEN v. CONE

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

No. 01-400. Argued March 25, 2002-Decided May 28, 2002

Respondent was tried in a Tennessee court for the murder of an elderly couple, whose killings culminated a 2-day crime rampage in which respondent also committed robbery and shot a police officer and another citizen. At his trial, the prosecution adduced overwhelming evidence that respondent perpetrated the crimes and killed the couple in a brutal and callous fashion. His defense that he was not guilty by reason of insanity due to substance abuse and posttraumatic stress disorders related to his Vietnam military service was supported by expert testimony about his drug use and by his mother's testimony that he returned from Vietnam a changed person. The jury found him guilty on all charges. The next day, during opening statements at the sentencing hearing for the murders, the prosecution said that it would prove four aggravating factors warranting the death penalty, and the defense called the jury's attention to the mitigating evidence already before it. Defense counsel cross-examined prosecution witnesses, but called no witnesses. Mter the junior prosecutor gave a low-key closing, defense counsel waived final argument, which prevented the lead prosecutor, by all accounts an extremely effective advocate, from arguing in rebuttal. The jury found four aggravating factors and no mitigating circumstances, which, under Tennessee law, required a death sentence. The State Supreme Court affirmed. Mter a hearing in which respondent's trial counsel testified, the State Criminal Court denied his petition for postconviction relief, rejecting his contention that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance during the sentencing phase by failing to present mitigating evidence and waiving final argument. In affirming, the State Court of Criminal Appeals found counsel's performance within the permissible range of competency under the attorney-performance standard of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668. Subsequently, the Federal District Court denied respondent's federal habeas petition, ruling that he did not meet 28 U. S. C. § 2254(d)(1)'s requirement that a state decision be "contrary to," or involve "an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." The Sixth Circuit reversed with respect to the sentence, finding that respondent suffered a Sixth Amendment violation for which prejudice should be presumed under United States v. Cronic, 466 U. S. 648, because his counsel, by not asking for mercy after the prosecutor's


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Syllabus

final argument, did not subject the State's death penalty call to meaningful adversarial testing; and that the state court's adjudication of respondent's claim was therefore an unreasonable application of the clearly established law announced in Strickland.

Held: Respondent's claim was governed by Strickland, and the state court's decision neither was "contrary to," nor involved "an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law" under § 2254(d)(1). Pp. 693-702.

(a) Section 2254(d)(1)'s "contrary to" and "unreasonable application" clauses have independent meaning. A federal habeas court may grant relief under the former clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in this Court's cases, or if it decides a case differently than this Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U. S. 362,405-406. The federal court may grant relief under the latter clause if the state court correctly identifies the governing legal principle from this Court's decisions but unreasonably applies it in the particular case. Id., at 407-410. Such application must be objectively unreasonable, which is different from incorrect. To satisfy Strickland's two-part test for evaluating claims that counsel performed so incompetently that a defendant's sentence or conviction should be reversed, the defendant must prove that counsel's representation fell below an objective reasonableness standard and that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional error, the proceeding's result would have been different. In Cronic, this Court identified three situations in which it is possible to presume prejudice to the defense. Respondent argues that his claim fits within the exception for cases where "counsel entirely fails to subject the prosecution's case to meaningful adversarial testing," 466 U. S., at 659 (emphasis added), because his counsel failed to mount a case for life imprisonment after the prosecution introduced evidence in the sentencing hearing and gave a closing statement. Under Cronic, the attorney's failure to test the prosecutor's case must be complete. Here, respondent argues not that his counsel failed to oppose the prosecution throughout the sentencing proceeding, but that he failed to do so at specific points. The challenged aspects of counsel's performancefailing to adduce mitigating evidence and waiving closing argumentare plainly of the same ilk as other specific attorney errors subject to Strickland's performance and prejudice components. See, e. g., Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 168, 184. Because the state court correctly identified Strickland's principles as those governing the analysis of respondent's claim, there is no merit in his contention that the state


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Full Text of Opinion

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