Willie B. Smith, III v. Commissioner (11th Cir. May 2019)

Eighth Amendment/Death Penalty – State court’s denial of an Atkins claim of ineligibility for the death penalty due to intellectual disability is not an unreasonable or contrary application of clearly established law where Atkins provides no guidance for how state courts should determine such ineligibility.

Eighth Amendment/Death Penalty – The Supreme Court’s requirement in Moore v. Texas that state courts consider the prevailing medical standards for determining intellectual disability was not retroactive under Teague v. Lane

Sixth Amendment/Batson Claims – There was no unreasonable or contrary application of federal law or determination of facts where the prosecutor used 14 of his 15 strikes in a death penalty trial on female prospective jurors but proffered that he did so because he thought their participation in religious activities might make them more sympathetic to arguments for mercy.

Willie B. Smith III, a death row inmate in Alabama, appealed the district court’s denial of his petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. At issue was whether Smith was ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia and Moore v. Texas due to his intellectual disability and whether the prosecutor at Smith’s trial improperly struck jurors on the basis of gender or national origin as prohibited by Batson v. Kentucky.

An Alabama jury found Smith guilty of capital murder and recommended the death penalty. Smith filed a rule 32 petition under Alabama law claiming he was ineligible for the death penalty due to an intellectual disability. He presented expert testimony that he had an IQ of 64 and other deficits, though his expert conceded that Smith’s scores on other tests were inconsistent with a diagnosis of an intellectual disability. The state called experts that claimed Smith’s IQ was higher. The trial court considered Smith’s adaptive strengths versus his adaptive defects in addition to his IQ.

Concerning the Batson claim, the prosecutor used 14 of his 15 peremptory strikes on women, include black and Hispanic jurors. After Smith’s counsel objected, the trial court held that Smith failed to make a prima facie showing of discrimination. The jury ultimately included five women and seven men.

On remand after the Alabama appellate court found there was a prima facie showing of discrimination, the prosecutor offered explanations for his strikes centering on the jurors’ employment, marital status, age, knowledge of criminal law, and work with various religious groups. The prosecutor specifically testified that he struck several religiously-affiliated individuals because they might be more amenable to the defense’s pleas for mercy during the death penalty phase of the trial. The trial court accepted these explanations and denied Smith’s Batson claims. Smith’s conviction was affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court.

The district court rejected Smith’s arguments in his §2254 petition, and Smith appealed. Regarding Smith’s claim under Atkins, the Court held that the Supreme Court’s holding in Moore v. Texas, where the Court held that state courts must consider the prevailing standards for diagnosing intellectual disabilities and are prohibited from weighing an individual’s adaptive strengths against their adaptive deficits, was not retroactively applicable to Smith under Teague v. Lane (since Moore was issued after the Alabama courts had decided Smith’s Atkins claim, he could not argue it was “contrary to clearly established federal law”). The Court explained that Moore’s requirements only went to the “manner of determining” whether to impose the death penalty for a given offense. Therefore, the rule in Moore was procedural and not substantive, and it did not constitute a new “watershed rule of criminal procedure” under Teague’s second prong for retroactivity.

Notwithstanding Moore, the Court also rejected Smith’s arguments that the Alabama Supreme Court had unreasonably applied Atkins based on Alabama law that only recognizes an Atkins claim if a defendant can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they have an IQ lower than 70 or have “significant or substantial deficits in adaptive behavior” that manifested before they turned 18 years old. The Court noted that Atkins did not provide a definitive test for determining intellectual disabilities, so the Alabama court could not have unreasonably applied Atkins. The Court noted, however, that, but for the timing of Moore being issued after his sentencing, Smith would have been able to show that the Alabama court’s consideration of his adaptive strengths versus adaptive deficits would have been contrary to the clearly established law in Moore.

The Court also denied Smith’s claim under Batson that the prosecutor struck jurors on the basis of gender and national origin. Under Batson, a defendant must make a prima facie case that the relevant facts behind a prosecutor’s strikes give rise to an inference of a discriminatory purpose. Then the State must provide an adequate non-discriminatory justification for the strikes before the trial court decides whether there was purposeful discrimination based on race, gender, or national origin.

The Court acknowledged that Smith presented a “strong prima facie case of gender discrimination” based on the prosecutor using 14 of his 15 strikes on women. The Court held, however, that the Alabama trial court had reasonably found that the prosecutor offered adequate non-discriminatory explanations for his strikes, including the trial court’s reasoning that excluding religious jurors from a death penalty trial was a “sound trial strategy.” Smith based his claim on the alleged existence of a male serving on a church board who was not excluded while similarly situated women were, though there was scant evidence reflecting this man’s identity or statements at voir dire.

Regarding the lone Hispanic prospective juror who was struck, the Court held that the prosecutor’s proffered reasons for the strike—the prospective juror’s youth and lack of participation in voir dire, were supported by the trial record and not unduly vague. Accordingly, the state court’s denial of Smith’s Batson claims was not an unreasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence presented in state court or contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established law.

Appeal from the Northern District of Alabama

Opinion by Wilson, joined by Martin and Jordan

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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