In a divided decision announced today, the U. S. Supreme Court reversed a ruling of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and reinstated the death sentence of a habitual sex offender who had pled guilty to the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl.
At issue, in White v. Woodall, was the trial judge's refusal to instruct the sentencing jury to avoid any inference regarding the defendant's refusal to testify. The Sixth Circuit had held in July 2012 that this violated the defendant's constitutional rights. In an earlier review, the Kentucky Supreme Court had upheld the trial judge's ruling and affirmed the sentence.
At the invitation of the Kentucky Attorney General, the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation joined this case to encourage a decision overturning the Sixth Circuit's ruling. "The Federal Appeals Court took it upon itself to take a jury instruction, required in the guilt phase of a trial, and announce that it was also required in the sentencing phase, creating a new rule of law and overturning the death sentence of a brutal murderer," said the Foundation's Legal Director Kent Scheidegger. "As today's decision makes clear, the federal courts of appeals do not have the authority to impose new rules on the states, and they must defer to the judgments of the state courts on unsettled questions of law," he added.
In the court's majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the Act of Congress governing these cases "does not require state courts to extend [Supreme Court] precedent or license federal courts to treat failure to do so as error," citing Mr. Scheidegger's 1998 law review article.
The crime occurred on the evening of January 25, 1997. That evening, Sarah Hansen drove her parents' minivan to a nearby convenience store to rent a movie to watch with her parents and boyfriend. Sarah was a high school cheerleader, an honor student, and a medal-winning swimmer. Robert Keith Woodall was in the convenience store when Sarah arrived. Woodall had recently been released from prison for sexual abuse and had previously abused his two young cousins.
When Sarah failed to return home after several hours, her parents called the local police. A short time later officers found the van near a lake 1.5 miles from the store. The van's interior was bloody and a blood-stained box cutter was found nearby. Police followed a bloody trail to the lake and found Sarah's unclothed body floating in the water. Her throat had been cut and there were multiple bruises all over her body.
When police learned that Woodall had been at the convenience store, they questioned him. While he initially gave conflicting statements, when confronted with the evidence he agreed to plead guilty to the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Sarah Hansen. The evidence included a match of Woodall's DNA on Sarah's body, his fingerprints on and in the van, his shoe prints where Sarah's body was thrown into the lake, and Sarah's blood found on his muddy jeans and sweatshirt.
At the sentencing hearing, Woodall's attorney cross-examined several of the prosecution witnesses and presented 14 witnesses who testified in support of a life sentence, but Woodall did not take the stand. Woodall's attorney requested the judge to give a "no adverse inference" instruction to the jury before they began deliberations. The judge declined, noting that Woodall's guilty plea removed any question of guilt and that his failure to testify was relevant to the issue of remorse for the crime or lack of it.
Both Woodall's conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal in the Kentucky Supreme Court. His state habeas corpus claims were reviewed and denied by two state courts and the state Supreme Court. In 2006, Woodall filed 30 mostly frivolous claims on federal habeas corpus. They included unsupported claims that he was mentally retarded and that his lawyers should have introduced an insanity defense. A magistrate judge recommended that all the claims be denied, but the Federal District Court accepted the "no adverse inference" instruction claim, a claim on jury selection and one on the jury instruction on mitigation. The Sixth Circuit upheld the "no adverse inference" instruction claim and declined to decide the others. In its ruling, the court held that the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination extends to the sentencing hearing, even though the defendant pled guilty to the crimes. When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the state's appeal, the Kentucky Attorney General's Office invited CJLF to file argument in the case.
In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger argued that there is no Supreme Court precedent requiring a "no adverse inference" instruction claim at a sentencing hearing. Because of this, the Kentucky Supreme Court was well within its authority to decide this unresolved question in favor of affirming the sentence. By misusing the writ of habeas corpus to overturn an entirely reasonable decision of the state Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit exceeded the limits that Congress placed on its authority. Today the Supreme Court agreed.
"The limits on federal court authority enacted by Congress were designed specifically to prevent the kind of ruling that the Sixth Circuit handed down in this case," said Scheidegger. "This is a well-deserved sentence in a case with no question of guilt. It should have been carried out years ago," he added.
CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.