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Woods v. Donald

United States Supreme Court

March 30, 2015



Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan.


[135 S.Ct. 1374] [191 L.Ed.2d 466] PER CURIAM.

Federal courts may grant habeas corpus relief if the underlying state-court decision was " contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by" this Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Here, the Sixth Circuit held that respondent Cory Donald's attorney provided per se ineffective assistance of counsel under United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 104 S.Ct. 2039, 80 L.Ed.2d 657 (1984), when he was briefly absent during testimony concerning other defendants. Because no decision from this [191 L.Ed.2d 467] Court clearly establishes that Donald is entitled to relief under Cronic, we reverse.


After a day of drinking and smoking marijuana, Cory Donald and four others--Seante Liggins, Rashad Moore, Dewayne Saine, and Fawzi Zaya--decided to rob a drug dealer named Mohammed Makki. Donald, Moore, and Liggins drove to Makki's home in Dearborn, Michigan, wearing black skull caps and coats. Moore and Donald entered the house, while Liggins waited in the car.

Michael McGinnis, one of Makki's drug runners, was in the house at the time. When Donald and Moore came through the door, McGinnis raised his hands and dropped face-down to the floor. He heard [135 S.Ct. 1375] a scuffle in the kitchen and two gunshots as someone said, " '[L]et it go.'" Donald v. Rapelje, 580 F.App'x 277, 279 (CA6 2014). After that, McGinnnis felt a gun on the back of his head while someone rifled through his pockets saying, " '[W]hat you got, what you got?'" Donald v. Rapelje, *7, 2012 WL 6047130, *3 (ED Mich., Dec. 5, 2012). He also heard one of the two men whisper to the other, " 'I got shot, I got shot.'" 580 Fed. Appx., at 279. After Moore and Donald left, McGinnis found Makki slumped against the refrigerator dying.

About seven minutes after they entered the house, Moore and Donald returned, guns in hand, to Liggins' car. Donald told the others that he had stolen $320 and that Moore had accidentally shot him during the crime. That night, Donald checked into a hospital for a gunshot wound to his foot. Police arrested him about three weeks later.

The State charged Donald with one count of first-degree felony murder and two counts of armed robbery. Liggins and Zaya pleaded guilty, and Donald was tried with Moore and Saine. His defense theory was that he was present at the scene of the crime but he did not participate. At trial, the government sought to admit a chart chronicling phone calls from the day of the crime among Moore, Saine, and Zaya. Moore and Saine's attorneys objected, but Donald's attorney declined, saying: " 'I don't have a dog in this race. It does not affect me at all.'" Id., at 280. The court admitted the exhibit and took a short recess.

When the trial resumed, Donald's counsel was not in the courtroom. At first, the judge indicated that he would wait for the attorney. But he then decided to proceed because Donald's counsel had already indicated that the exhibit and testimony did not apply to his client. About 10 minutes later, the lawyer returned. The judge informed him that " 'up until that point we only were discussing the telephone chart,'" to which the attorney replied, " '[ Y ]es, your Honor, and as I had indicated on the record, I had no dog in the race and no interest in that.'" Ibid.

The jury found Donald guilty on all three counts. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the felony-murder count and to concurrent prison terms of 10 1/2 to 20 years for each of the armed robbery counts. On appeal, Donald argued that he was entitled to a new trial because his attorney's absence during the phone call testimony denied him his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected his claim, and the Michigan Supreme Court denied review.

[191 L.Ed.2d 468] The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted federal habeas relief, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Sixth Circuit held that the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision was both contrary to and involved an unreasonable application of this Court's decision in Cronic. In the normal course, defendants claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must satisfy the familiar framework of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), which requires a showing that " counsel's performance was deficient" and " that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." And when reviewing an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim, " a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id., at 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674.

In Cronic, however, we held that courts may presume that a defendant has suffered unconstitutional prejudice if he " is denied counsel at a critical stage of his [135 S.Ct. 1376] trial." 466 U.S. at 659, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674. And in Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 696, 122 S.Ct. 1843, 152 L.Ed.2d 914 (2002), we characterized a " critical stage" as one that " held significant consequences for the accused." According to the Sixth Circuit, these statements should have compelled the Michigan court to hold that the phone call testimony was a " critical stage" and that counsel's absence constituted per se ineffective assistance. Without identifying any decision from this Court directly in point, the ...

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