Below, Ray Seilie of Harvard Law School previews Berghuis v. Thompkins, one of three cases scheduled for oral argument on Monday, March 1.  Check the Berghuis v. Thompkins (08-1470) SCOTUSwiki page for additional updates.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) substantially limited the extent to which federal courts can grant habeas relief to criminal defendants convicted in state courts.  On March 1, in Berghuis v. Thompkins, No. 08-1470, the Court will consider AEDPA's effect on a defendant's Fifth and Sixth Amendment claims.  At issue in the case first is whether a criminal defendant waives his Fifth Amendment rights when he is given a Miranda warning and verbally acknowledges that he understands his rights, but he neither invokes nor waives them explicitly.  The second question presented is whether the Sixth Circuit accorded sufficient deference to the state court when it held that the failure by Thompkins's lawyer to seek a limiting instruction specifying that a witness's acquittal in a separate case could only be used to make credibility determinations constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

In 2001, two police officers from Southfield, Michigan interviewed respondent Van Chester Thompkins about his role in a shooting incident that left one man dead and another wounded.  Although he generally remained silent throughout the questioning, Thompkins verbally acknowledged that he understood his rights; however, he refused to sign a document confirming that understanding.  After approximately two hours of unsuccessful questioning, one officer adopted a "spiritual tact [sic]," asking Thompkins whether he had sought forgiveness for "shooting that boy down."  Thompkins answered "yes."

At Thompkins's trial on charges that included first-degree murder and assault with intent to commit murder, prosecutors introduced evidence of Thompkins's statement at his interview.  They also introduced the testimony of Eric Purifoy, who "“ prosecutors told the jury "“ had been acquitted of the same crimes in a separate trial and who testified that he heard gunshots but did not see what had happened.  However, Thompkins's lawyer failed to request a limiting instruction specifying that the jury should consider Purifoy's acquittal only in the context of assessing his credibility.  Thompkins was convicted of all charges.

On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals (that state's intermediate appellate court) affirmed, and the Michigan Supreme Court denied discretionary review.  Thompkins then sought federal habeas relief, raising several objections to his state conviction.  The district court denied his federal habeas petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded.  Addressing Thompkins's Miranda claim, it held that the Michigan Court of Appeals had both unreasonably determined the facts and unreasonably applied clearly established state law.  Turning to his ineffective assistance claim, the court of appeals held that the failure to request a limiting instruction was both deficient performance and prejudicial insofar as blaming Purifoy for the murder had been a key part of Thompkins's strategy at trial.

Michigan filed a petition for certiorari, which the Court granted on September 30, 2009.  In its opening brief on the merits, Michigan maintained not only that the Sixth Circuit's holdings were legally erroneous, but also that, at a minimum, they failed to defer sufficiently to the state courts' factual and legal conclusions.

First, the state argued, Thompkins had impliedly waived his Miranda rights by failing to invoke them after acknowledging that he understood them.  Although the Sixth Circuit held to the contrary, the Supreme Court's caselaw does not require anything more.  In North Carolina v. Butler, the Court clarified that, although there is a presumption that a criminal defendant had not waived his Miranda rights, that presumption can be overcome even without an explicit waiver.  And in Davis v. United States, the Court rejected the idea that police were required to obtain clarification about ambiguous requests for counsel before continuing their questioning.  Although the Court in those cases did not clarify what would or would not constitute an implied waiver, the state argued that the state court's decision certainly did not violate "clearly established Supreme Court precedent" "” a requirement for federal habeas relief under AEDPA.  Moreover, the state continued, the Sixth Circuit also committed a basic legal error:  as a straightforward legal matter, a suspect who is informed of his Miranda rights and acknowledges that he understands them impliedly waives those rights when he chooses to answer questions.

Second, Michigan argued, because its court of appeals did not act unreasonably in rejecting Thompkins's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, its decision was thereby entitled to AEDPA deference.  As a result, the Sixth Circuit's Strickland analysis was flawed in two respects.  First, it improperly relied on the assumption that the jury failed to adhere to its oath and instructions when it rendered its verdict against Thompkins.  Second, there was no reasonable probability that Thompkins would have been acquitted but for his lawyer's alleged error.

In his merits brief, Thompkins defended the Sixth Circuit's decision.  He argued that "clearly established federal law" required the interrogating officer to cease questioning whenever a suspect indicated "in any manner" that he wished to invoke his rights, including by remaining silent.  Moreover, the burden of demonstrating an implied waiver falls on the state, which was unable to meet it in this case.  Thus, the interrogating officer's repeated and eventually successful attempts to elicit a response from Thompkins were improper.  Thompkins also argued that Michigan's position would effectively require the Court to overrule all of Miranda except for the requirement that questioning officers inform suspects of their rights.

Turning to his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Thompkins asserted that in determining whether he was prejudiced by his counsel's ineffective assistance, the Michigan court of appeals had improperly applied a "fundamental fairness" test rather than relying on the test required by Strickland "“ whether there was a "reasonable probability of a different outcome."  Although state court judgments are entitled to "wide latitude," the court's reliance on an erroneous standard entitled him to habeas relief.

Posted in Berghuis v. Thompkins, Merits Cases, Uncategorized