Michael Wade Nance v. Warden (11th Cir. April 2019)

28 U.S.C. § 2254/Ineffective Assistance of Counsel – The state court’s decision rejecting petitioner’s ineffective assistance claim was objectively reasonable where the petitioner challenged strategic decisions by his counsel regarding what mitigation evidence to present and how.

28 U.S.C. § 2254/Clearly Established Federal Law – The state court’s holding that the trial court did not violate the defendant’s rights by requiring him to wear a stun belt under his clothes during trial was not contrary to clearly established federal law as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, since the Supreme Court has only prohibited visible security restraints.

Michael Nance was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Georgia. His death sentence was initially reversed by the Georgia Supreme Court after it held that a juror was improperly qualified to serve. Nance was resentenced to death.

Nance then filed a motion with the district court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing 1) that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in presenting his case in mitigation at his resentencing, and 2) that the trial court violated his rights by requiring him to wear a “stun belt” during his resentencing trial. The district court denied his claims, and Nance appealed.

Since the Georgia Supreme Court had rejected Nance’s claims in prior judicial proceedings, Nance had the heavy burden of showing that the decisions rejecting his claims were: 1) contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law as set out by the U.S. Supreme Court; or 2) based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Regarding Nance’s ineffective assistance claim, the Court detailed trial counsel’s extensive efforts to present mitigating evidence at Nance’s resentencing, remarking that counsel’s actions were “as thorough an investigation into mitigating circumstances as we have ever seen.” Nance’s claim, however, was that his prior counsel was ineffective “in how they used or failed to use all that they learned in their extensive investigation,” including their decisions not to present all of the evidence or expert testimony they had obtained.

The Court held that counsel’s decisions regarding which experts to call and which issues to press at sentencing were, “without a doubt, strategic” under Strickland. With the additional “layer of deference” under AEDPA, Nance could not establish that the state court’s rejection of his ineffective assistance claim was objectively unreasonable.

Clearly Established Federal Law

The Court also rejected Nance’s claim that the state trial court went against clearly established federal law set out by the U.S. Supreme Court when it required Nance to wear a stun belt under his clothes at his resentencing trial without first holding a hearing to determine that the restraint was necessary. The Court observed that there was no Supreme Court decision on point, since the Supreme Court decisions Nance offered were limited to prohibiting visible security restraints that could prejudice the defendant in the eyes of the jury.

Accordingly, since Nance had not offered any evidence that the stun belt was visible to jurors, the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision was not contrary to clearly established federal law or based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. The Court noted that its prior holding involving stun belts and defendants, United States v. Durham, 287 F.3d 1297 (11th Cir. 2002), was of no avail to Nance since it was not a Supreme Court case and therefore could not be a basis for relief under AEDPA.

Appeal from Northern District of Georgia

Opinion by E. Carnes, joined by Tjoflat and W. Pryor

Click here to read the opinion.


Tom Church

Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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