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White v. Woodall

United States Supreme Court

April 23, 2014


Argued December 11, 2013.


[134 S.Ct. 1699] Syllabus [*]

Respondent pleaded guilty to capital murder, capital kidnaping, and first-degree rape, the statutory aggravating circumstance for the murder. He was sentenced to death after the trial court denied defense counsel's request to instruct the jury not to draw any adverse inference from respondent's decision not to testify at the penalty phase. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the Fifth Amendment's requirement of a no-adverse-inference instruction to protect a nontestifying defendant at the guilt phase, see Carter v. Kentucky, 450 U.S. 288, 101 S.Ct. 1112, 67 L.Ed.2d 241, is not required at the penalty phase. Subsequently, the Federal District Court granted respondent habeas relief, holding that the trial court's refusal to give the requested instruction violated respondent's privilege against self-incrimination. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Held: Because the Kentucky Supreme Court's rejection of respondent's Fifth Amendment claim was not objectively unreasonable, the Sixth Circuit erred in granting the writ. Pp. 1701 – 1707, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 704-709.

(a) The difficult-to-meet standard of 28 U.S.C. §2254(d) permits a court to grant federal habeas relief on a claim already "adjudicated on the merits in State court" only if that adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by [this] Court." "'[C]learly established Federal law'" includes only "'the holdings" of the Court's decisions, '" Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. __, __, 132 S.Ct. 1181, 1187, 182 L.Ed.2d 17; and an "unreasonable application of" those holdings must be " 'objectively unreasonable, '" Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76, 123 S.Ct. 1166, 155 L.Ed.2d 144. The state-court ruling must rest on "an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. __, __, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786-787, 178 L.Ed.2d 624, 641.

Here, the Kentucky Supreme Court's conclusion was not "contrary to" the [134 S.Ct. 1700] Court's holdings in Carter, supra, which required a no-adverse-inference instruction at the guilt phase; in Estelle v. Smith, 451 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 1866, 68 L.Ed.2d 359, which concerned the introduction at the penalty phase of the results of an involuntary, un-Mirandized pretrial psychiatric examination; or in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 327-330, 119 S.Ct. 1307, 143 L.Ed.2d 424, which disapproved a trial judge's drawing of an adverse inference from the defendant's silence at sentencing "with regard to factual determinations respecting the circumstances and details of the crime." Nor was the Kentucky Supreme Court's conclusion an unreasonable application of the holdings in those cases. This Court need not decide whether a no-adverse-inference instruction is required in these circumstances, for the issue before the Kentucky Supreme Court was, at a minimum, not "beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement, " Harrington, supra, at __, 131 S.Ct, at 787, 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624, 641. Mitchell in particular leaves open the possibility that some inferences might permissibly be drawn from a defendant's penalty-phase silence. Thus, it cannot be read to require the type of blanket no-adverse-inference instruction requested and denied here. Moreover, because respondent's own admissions of guilt had established every relevant fact on which Kentucky bore the burden of proof, Mitchell's narrow holding, which implied that it was limited to inferences pertaining to the facts of the crime, does not apply. Pp. 1701 – 1705, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 704-707.

(b) Respondent contends that the state court was unreasonable in refusing to extend a governing legal principle to a context in which it should have controlled, but this Court has never adopted such a rule. Section 2254(d)(1) provides a remedy for instances in which a state court unreasonably applies this Court's precedent; it does not require state courts to extend that precedent or license federal courts to treat the failure to do so as error. The appropriate time to consider, as a matter of first impression, whether Carter, Estelle, and Mitchell require a penalty-phase no-adverse-inference instruction would be on direct review, not in a habeas case governed by § 2254(d). Pp. 1705-1707, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 188 L.Ed.2d, at 707-709.

685 F.3d 574, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined.

Susan R. Lenz, Frankfort, KY, for Petitioner.

Laurence E. Komp, appointed by Court, Ballwin, MO, for Respondent.

Jack Conway, Attorney General of Kentucky, Susan Roncarti Lenz, Counsel of Record, Assistant Attorney General, Ian G. Sonego, Special Assistant Attorney General, Frankfort, KY, for Petitioner.

Heather E. Williams, Federal Defender, David H. Harshaw III, Assistant Federal Defender, Sacramento, CA, Dennis J. Burke, Assistant Public Advocate, La-Grange, KY, Laurence E. Komp, Counsel of Record, Attorney at Law, Manchester, MO, for Respondent Robert Keith Woo-dall.


Scalia, Justice.

Respondent brutally raped, slashed with a box cutter, and drowned a 16-year-old [134 S.Ct. 1701] high-school student. After pleading guilty to murder, rape, and kidnaping, he was sentenced to death. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed the sentence, and we denied certiorari. Ten years later, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted respondent's petition for a writ of habeas corpus on his Fifth Amendment claim. In so doing, it disregarded the limitations of 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)—a provision of law that some federal judges find too confining, but that all federal judges must obey. We reverse.


On the evening of January 25, 1997, Sarah Hansen drove to a convenience store to rent a movie. When she failed to return home several hours later, her family called the police. Officers eventually found the vehicle Hansen had been driving a short distance from the convenience store. They followed a 400- to 500-foot trail of blood from the van to a nearby lake, where Hansen's unclothed, dead body was found floating in the water. Hansen's "throat had been slashed twice with each cut approximately 3.5 to 4 ...

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