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Shoop v. Hill

United States Supreme Court

January 7, 2019



          PER CURIAM.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that respondent Danny Hill, who has been sentenced to death in Ohio, is entitled to habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1) because the decisions of the Ohio courts concluding that he is not intellectually disabled were contrary to Supreme Court precedent that was clearly established at the time in question. In reaching this decision, the Court of Appeals relied repeatedly and extensively on our decision in Moore v. Texas, 581 U.S. ___(2017), which was not handed down until long after the state-court decisions.

         The Court of Appeals' reliance on Moore was plainly improper under §2254(d)(1), and we therefore vacate that decision and remand so that Hill's claim regarding intellectual disability can be evaluated based solely on holdings of this Court that were clearly established at the relevant time.


         In September 1985, 12-year old Raymond Fife set out on his bicycle for a friend's home. When he did not arrive, his parents launched a search, and that evening his father found Raymond-naked, beaten, and burned-in a wooded field. Although alive, he had sustained horrific injuries that we will not describe. He died two days later.

         In 1986, respondent Danny Hill was convicted for torturing, raping, and murdering Raymond, and he was sentenced to death. An intermediate appellate court affirmed his conviction and sentence, as did the Ohio Supreme Court. We denied certiorari. Hill v. Ohio, 507 U.S. 1007 (1993).

         After unsuccessful efforts to obtain postconviction relief in state and federal court, Hill filed a new petition in the Ohio courts contending that his death sentence is illegal under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), which held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of a death sentence on a defendant who is "mentally retarded." In 2006, the Ohio trial court denied this claim, App. to Pet. for Cert. 381a-493a, and in 2008, the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed, State v. Hill, 177 Ohio App.3d 171, 2008-Ohio-3509, 894 N.E.2d 108. In 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court denied review. State v. Hill, 122 Ohio St.3d 1502, 2009-Ohio-4233, 912 N.E.2d 107.

         In 2010, Hill filed a new federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. §2254, seeking review of the denial of his Atkins claim. The District Court denied the petition, App. to Pet. for Cert. 77a-210a, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted habeas relief under §2254(d)(1), which applies when a state-court adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States." See Hill v. Anderson, 881 F.3d 483 (2018). The Sixth Circuit found two alleged deficiencies in the Ohio courts' decisions: First, they "overemphasized Hill's adaptive strengths"; and second, they "relied too heavily on adaptive strengths that Hill exhibited in the controlled environment of his death-row prison cell." Id., at 492. In reaching these conclusions, the court relied repeatedly on our decision in Moore v. Texas, 581 U.S. ___. See 881 F.3d, at 486, 487, 488, n. 4, 489, 491, 492, 493, 495, 496, 498, 500. The court acknowledged that "[o]rdinarily, Supreme Court decisions that post-date a state court's determination cannot be 'clearly established law' for the purposes of [the federal habeas statute]," but the court argued "that Moore's holding regarding adaptive strengths [was] merely an application of what was clearly established by Atkins." Id., at 487.

         The State filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, contending that the Sixth Circuit violated §2254(d)(1) because a fundamental underpinning of its decision was Moore, a case decided by this Court well after the Ohio courts' decisions. Against this, Hill echoes the Court of Appeals' argument that Moore merely spelled out what was clearly established by Atkins regarding the assessment of adaptive skills.


         The federal habeas statute, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), imposes important limitations on the power of federal courts to overturn the judgments of state courts in criminal cases. The statute respects the authority and ability of state courts and their dedication to the protection of constitutional rights. Thus, under the statutory provision at issue here, 28 U.S.C. §2254(d)(1), habeas relief may be granted only if the state court's adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of," Supreme Court precedent that was "clearly established" at the time of the adjudication. E.g., White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 419-420 (2014); Metrish v. Lancaster, 569 U.S. 351, 357-358 (2013). This means that a state court's ruling must be "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). We therefore consider what was clearly established regarding the execution of the intellectually disabled in 2008, when the Ohio Court of Appeals rejected Hill's Atkins claim.

         Of course, Atkins itself was on the books, but Atkins gave no comprehensive definition of "mental retardation" for Eighth Amendment purposes.[1] The opinion of the Court noted that the definitions of mental retardation adopted by the American Association on Mental Retardation and the American Psychiatric Association required both "subaverage intellectual functioning" and "significant limitations in adaptive skills such as communication, self-care, and self-direction that became manifest before age 18." 536 U.S., at 318; see also id., at 308, n. 3 (quoting definitions). The Court also noted that state statutory definitions of mental retardation at the time "[were] not identical, but generally conform[ed] to the[se] clinical definitions." Id., at 317, n. 22. The Court then left "'to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction'" that the Court adopted. Id., at 317 (quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 416 (1986) (plurality opinion)).

         More than a decade later, we expounded on the definition of intellectual disability in two cases. In Hall v. Florida,572 U.S. 701 (2014), we considered a rule restricting Atkins to defendants with "an IQ test score of 70 or less." 572 U.S., at 704. We held that this rule violated the Eighth Amendment because it treated an IQ score higher than 70 as conclusively disqualifying and thus prevented consideration of other evidence of intellectual disability, ...

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