Monday, July 30, 2007

Fourth Circuit reverses grant of SC PCR relief for failure to request plain meaning charge for "life imprisonment"

In WILLIAMS v. OZMINT, Williams filed two applications for state post-conviction relief, the second of which was granted by the circuit court (PCR court). The PCR court concluded that Williams was denied effective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to request a jury instruction that the term "life imprisonment" should be understood in its ordinary and plain meaning. According to the PCR court, the instruction was necessary to ensure that the jury understood the nature of its life imprisonment option. The PCR court therefore granted Williams a new sentencing proceeding. The state then petitioned the Supreme Court of South Carolina for a writ of certiorari, and that court reversed the decision of the PCR court. Although the state supreme court concluded that Williams’s counsel was ineffective for failing to request a plain meaning instruction, it ultimately determined that Williams was not prejudiced

Next, Williams filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S.District Court, and that court granted relief. First, the district court agreed with the Supreme Court of South Carolina that Williams’s counsel was ineffective for failing to request a plain meaning instruction. Second, the court determined that counsel’s ineffectiveness "was reasonably likely to have affected the outcome of [Williams’s] capital sentencing hearing" because, among other things, Williams’s "prior history contained a number of mitigating factors," including no criminal record.

The Fourth Circuit reversed. The panel concluded that the Supreme Court of South Carolina did not unreasonably apply Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), when it determined that Williams’s defense was not prejudiced by the lack of a plain meaning instruction. The aggravating factors found by the jury (two murders and a financial motive) are not ones that indicate that the jury was concerned about how long Williams would serve if he received a life sentence or whether he would be a danger to society if he was paroled at some future date. There was no indication in the record that a plain meaning instruction would have prompted the jury to give more weight to the mitigating evidence. The aggravating factors — a double murder planned in cold blood for financial gain — simply outweighed the mitigating factors, such as bond compliance and lack of a prior criminal record.

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