Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

High court won’t let defendant reargue diminished capacity

High court won’t let defendant reargue diminished capacity

Listen to this article

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Michigan murder defendant’s due process rights were not violated when a change in state law following his 1994 conviction prevented him from reasserting a diminished-capacity defense when he later won a new trial.

“This Court has never found a due process violation in circumstances remotely resembling [Burt] Lancaster’s case — i.e., where a state supreme court, squarely addressing a particular issue for the first time, rejected a consistent line of lower court decisions based on the supreme court’s reasonable interpretation of the language of a controlling statute,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a unanimous court in Metrish v. Lancaster.

Attorney Kenneth Mogill, a partner at Mogill, Posner & Cohen, represented Lancaster, the defendant in the case. According to Mogill, the decision highlighted the fundamental unfairness facing criminal defendants seeking habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

“The problem is the AEDPA, not the Supreme Court,” Mogill said.

Monday’s ruling from the court reversed a 2012 decision from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granting habeas relief to Lancaster.

Lancaster, a former Detroit police officer, was charged with first-degree murder after he shot and killed his girlfriend in a Southfield, Mich., shopping center parking lot in 1993. He had a long history of mental illness, and presented a diminished-capacity defense at his 1994 trial in Michigan state court. The jury was not persuaded by his defense and he was convicted. A federal court later granted habeas relief after finding a constitutional error in jury selection.

At his retrial in 2005, Lancaster again raised the diminished-capacity defense. But in between the two trials, the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the defense in People v. Carpenter (627 N.W.2d 276). The judge presiding at Lancaster’s second trial applied the holding in Carpenter and disallowed renewal of Lancaster’s diminished-capacity defense. Following a bench trial, Lancaster was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

After exhausting his state court remedies Lancaster sought habeas relief in federal court, arguing that the state trial court retroactively applied a substantive change in state law in violation of the Due Process Clause.

The district court denied his petition. Because the defense had never been codified by the Michigan legislature or formally adopted by the state’s highest court, it was not a well-established law that could be the basis of a due process violation, the court ruled.

But the 6th Circuit reversed, holding that the diminished-capacity defense was well established in Michigan and therefore the retroactive application of Carpenter was unconstitutional.

In its appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, the state of Michigan argued that Lancaster failed to show his entitlement to habeas relief under the AEDPA. Under that standard, habeas relief is appropriate only if the underlying state-court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.”

Ginsburg concluded that Lancaster failed to meet the AEDPA’s demanding standard for habeas relief when he argued that it violated due process to retroactively apply the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter to his 1993 murder charge.

“Fairminded jurists could conclude that a state supreme court decision of that order is not ‘unexpected and indefensible by reference to [existing] law,’” Ginsburg wrote.

Despite the court’s decision, Mogill maintains that his client’s well-documented mental health problems prevented him from forming the necessary specific intent to commit first-degree murder.

Mogill urged Congress to take action on the issue.

“The court’s decision today underscores the unfairness of AEDPA,” he said. “If my client isn’t worthy of habeas relief, then the threshold under which the court is required to operate is too high to allow a meaningful interpretation of the Due Process Clause.”

Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch, who argued the case for the state, did not immediately return a call requesting comment.


Should Wisconsin Supreme Court rules be amended so attorneys can't appeal license revocation after 5 years?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Legal News

See All Legal News

WLJ People

Sea all WLJ People

Opinion Digests