Justice Thomas Opinion is a Rebuke to the Ninth Circuit and District Court in this Death Penalty Case

Justice Thomas Opinion is a Rebuke to the Ninth Circuit and District Court in this Death Penalty Case

This Justice Thomas opinion is a rebuke to the Ninth Circuit and District Court grant of post conviction relief to a California Death Penalty inmate Scott Pinholster. The Supreme Court essentially found that the California state court process was not flawed enough to be in violation of federal law.


The short facts: In 1982 Scott Pinholster and two others broke into a house at night and brutally beat and stabbed to death two men who interrupted the burglary.  A jury convicted Pinholster of first-degree mur­der, and he was sentenced to death. After the California Supreme Court twice denied Pinholster habeas relief,  a Federal District  Court held an evidentiary hearing and granted Pinholster ha­beas relief  under 28 U. S. C. §2254. The  District Court concluded that Pinholster’s trial counsel had been consti­tutionally ineffective at the penalty phase of trial. The Court of  Appeals for the Ninth Circuit af­firmed.  Consid­ering the new evidence adduced in the District  Court hearing, the Court of Appeals held that  the California Supreme Court’s decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.”  §2254(d)(1). The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.


Lack of mitigation evidence presented is the substantial claim behind these ineffective assistance of counsel appeals.  At the penalty phase, counsel did not call a psychiatrist, though they had consulted Dr. John Stalberg at least six  weeks earlier.  Dr. Stalberg noted Pinholster’s “psychopathic personality traits,” diagnosed him with antisocial personality disorder, and concluded that he “was not under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance” at the time of the murders. 


This is a lengthy opinion with several justices sharing in parts but not all of the decision but the majority says that: "Even if the Court  of Appeals might have reached a different conclusion as an initial matter, it was  not an unreasonable application of our precedent for the California Supreme Court to con­clude that Pinholster did not establish prejudice." The Court said that reviewing federal courts are limited to the record of what was raised in and by the state courts under 28 U. S. C. §2254. The Ninth Circuit is Reversed.
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