Hall v. Alabama Department of Corrections et al
ORDER DENYING State's 36 Rule 59 Motion to Alter or Amend as set out. Signed by Judge Callie V. S. Granade on 9/26/2014. (tot)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
STEVEN WAYNE HALL, JR.,
KIM THOMAS, Commissioner,
Alabama Department of Corrections,
Case No. 1:07-cv-00731-CG-C
In 1993, Petitioner Steven Wayne Hall, Jr., was convicted of murder and
condemned to die. He has been fighting that conviction ever since. Last year, Hall
won a round in that fight when this court conditionally granted his habeas petition
and instructed Respondent Kim Thomas, the Commissioner of the Alabama
Department of Corrections (hereinafter the “State”), to give Hall a new trial or else
let him go. (Doc. 35.) The matter is before the court on the State’s Rule 59 Motion to
Alter or Amend Order on Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus. (Doc. 36.) For the
reasons that follow, the State’s motion is due to be denied.
When the court conditionally granted Hall’s habeas petition, it did so on
limited grounds. Of the forty claims Hall pursued, the court rejected all but one:
Hall’s claim that the prosecution violated his rights when it used a peremptory
strike to dismiss a black member of the jury venire, Minie Lett. After a de novo
review of the record, the court found that “the State’s use of a peremptory strike in
this case to dismiss Lett from the jury venire constituted intentional discrimination
and violated Hall’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause and the clearly
established law as determined by the Supreme Court in Batson.” (Doc. 35 at 44.) On
that basis alone, the court conditionally granted Hall’s habeas petition.
The State thinks that was a mistake, and that the court never should have
conducted a de novo review of Hall’s Batson claim in the first place. Instead, the
State insists that this court should have decided Hall’s Batson claim under the
deferential standard set out in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). But as the court explained in its
order, no such deference was warranted because “the state court decision on direct
appeal was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law and an
unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the
state court proceeding.” (Doc. 35 at 38.) And as the following discussion will show,
none of the arguments the State raises in its Rule 59 motion change that
The court’s analysis under § 2254(d)(1) does not conflict with Lee.
The State’s first argument is that the court’s analysis under § 2254(d)(1)
conflicts with the Eleventh Circuit’s recent decision in Lee v. Commissioner, 726
F.3d 1172 (11th Cir. 2013), cert denied 134 S.Ct. 1542, 188 L.Ed.2d 557 (2014), so
the court starts its analysis with a short review of that decision.
In Lee, a habeas petitioner argued that § 2254(d)(1) requires state courts
deciding Batson appeals to “show [they] considered every relevant circumstance
(and every relevant argument) by explicitly mentioning each one” in a written
opinion. Id. at 1211. According to that petitioner, failure to abide by that opinionwriting requirement would automatically amount to an unreasonable application of
clearly established federal law within the meaning of § 2254(d)(1).
The circuit court disagreed, finding that § 2254(d)(1) does not require state
courts to “show [their] work by explicitly mentioning all relevant circumstances
argued by a defendant in a Batson appeal.” Id. at 1211. Instead, the court read
§ 2254(d)(1) as establishing a “‘highly deferential standard for evaluating statecourt rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the
doubt.’” See id. at 1212 (quoting Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002)). Thus,
according to Lee, habeas courts must consider both the explicit findings in a state
court’s opinion and any “implicit findings the state court could have made in its
denial of a federal claim,” Lee, 726 F.3d at 1172, before finding that the state court
unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent. Lee referred to this rule as the
implicit-findings principle. Lee, at 1216.
The State says this court’s order violated that principle. The State’s
argument is founded largely on short quotations from this court’s opinion that the
State says follow the precise “mode of reasoning that the Eleventh Circuit
repudiated in Lee.” (Doc. 36 at 7.) In other words, the State argues that this court
faulted the state court for violating an opinion-writing requirement that does not
But this court’s opinion was not so one-dimensional as the State suggests.
Though the court indeed criticized the state court’s failure to include an important
fact in its written opinion, that criticism followed a finding that “the Court of
Criminal Appeals failed to follow clearly established law when it did not consider all
relevant circumstances in its analysis of the trial court’s ruling.” (Doc. 35 at 25
(emphasis added and quotation marks omitted).) Thus, this court’s opinion
ultimately faulted the state court for failing to even consider a relevant
circumstance in its analysis of Hall’s Batson claim, not on a mere failure to mention
that fact in writing. And that conclusion is consonant with Lee, which recognizes
that “a state court assuredly must evaluate the totality of the evidence and consider
all relevant circumstances” when it decides a Batson challenge. Lee, 726 F.3d at
Of course, repeating that conclusion does not fully answer the State’s
objection. The State’s motion does not merely fault the court’s reasoning; it also
quibbles with the court’s conclusion. For the sake of thoroughness (and at the risk of
redundancy), the court will explain once again why the court concluded that the
state court unreasonably applied Batson.
The problem lies with the prosecutor’s reason for striking Lett, viz., her
opposition to the death penalty. (Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7232–33.) To prove that Lett
was opposed to the death penalty, the prosecutor stated as follows:
She, in questioning, direct questioning, had strong reservations about
the death penalty. Said she’d never given it much thought. She said
that she would have great reservation in doing that. She said that her
choice would be life without parole, generally. And we struck her for
that reason. We made notes of all these questionnaires, my associates
did, during the questioning, by the way, Your Honor. And our notes
indicated that Mrs. Lett had a strong resistance to the death penalty.
We struck her for that reason.
(Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7232–33.) In response to a question from the trial judge, the
prosecutor also mentioned Lett’s “uneasiness about the questions and also her
easiness1 about the death penalty and her strong reservations that she expressed
about the death penalty.” (Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7234.) Thus, although the prosecutor
supported his explanation for striking Lett with several facts, he ultimately struck
her for a single reason: “. . . Mrs. Lett had a strong resistance to the death penalty.
We struck her for that reason.” (Trial Tr. Vol. 42 at 7233 (emphasis added).)
There is strong evidence in the record showing that that reason is false. Lett
never expressed any strong reservations about the death penalty; the closest she
ever got was to admit that she had mixed feelings. But that admission was followed
by “an unambiguous affirmation that she could listen to the evidence and base her
descision on the evidence presented at trial.” (Doc. 35 at 41.) Likewise, Lett didn’t
say that she would generally choose life without parole over a death sentence. To
the contrary, the record shows that every statement Lett made was either
ambiguous (“Well, I think the death penalty, to me, I couldn’t really say, but, if it be
a threat to the public.” ) or unambiguously supportive of the death penalty (“They
took a life, willing to give up their own.” ). Thus, the actual evidence strongly
contradicted the reason the prosecutor gave for striking Lett. The state court should
have considered that in its Batson analysis.
Sic, presumably for ‘uneasiness.’
But it did not. At the end of its Batson analysis, the state court wrote that
there was “no evidence that the reasons advanced by the prosecutor were a sham.”
Hall v. State, 820 So. 2d 113, 131 (Ala. Crim. App. 1999) (emphasis added). Given
that language, this court cannot infer that the state court implicitly considered the
contradictions between the prosecutor’s explanation and the record evidence. After
all, while reasonable jurists might disagree about the significance of those
contradictions, no reasonable jurist could deny that they constitute evidence that
the prosecutor’s reasons were false. The state court’s conclusion therefore
affirmatively shows a failure to consider those contradictions.
The problem apparently stems from the state court’s misunderstanding of the
prosecutor’s reason for striking Lett. Although the record unambiguously shows
that the prosecutor said he struck Lett because of her strong resistance to the death
penalty, the state court analyzed Hall’s Batson claim under the mistaken belief that
the prosecutor struck Lett for having “mixed feelings about the death penalty,”
Hall, 820 So. 2d at 130. Had the state court properly understood the prosecutor’s
reason for striking Lett, it would have surely recognized the contradiction between
that reason and the evidence in the record. But because the state court
misunderstood the prosecutor’s reason, it also failed to consider that contradiction.
That mistake cannot, however, excuse the state court’s error, because clearly
established Supreme Court precedent requires courts applying Batson to examine
the reasons that prosecutors actually give for their strikes, not ones imagined on
appeal “that might not have shown up as false.” See Miller-El v. Dretke (Miller-El
II), 545 U.S. 231, 252 (2005) (noting that a potentially valid explanation for a strike
thought up by an appellate court can do “nothing to satisfy the prosecutors’ burden
of stating a racially neutral explanation for their own actions”).
Lee instructs that federal habeas courts must not infer an unreasonable
application of federal law from a state court’s silence. But it also says that a
“‘conspicuous misapplication of Supreme Court precedent,’” Lee, 726 F.3d at 1212
(quoting Parker v. Sec’y for Dep’t of Corr., 331 F.3d 764, 785–86 (11th Cir.2003)), is
something that this court cannot ignore. See also Lee, 726 F.3d at 1213 n.24 (noting
that AEDPA deference cannot apply to a state court’s decision on a claim “where the
state court's opinion itself makes clear that” it did not rule on that claim). In other
words, Lee requires habeas courts to give state courts the benefit of doubt; it does
not authorize habeas courts to create doubt where there is none. Because Lee’s
implicit-findings principle does not require (or allow) this court to assume that the
state court considered a circumstance when the state court’s written opinion
affirmatively shows otherwise, this court must conclude again that “the Court of
Criminal Appeals failed to follow clearly established law when it did not consider all
relevant circumstances in its analysis of the trial court’s ruling.” (Doc. 35 at 25
(quotation marks omitted).)
Before moving on, the court notes that the State’s arguments about other
implicit findings the state court might have made do not change the analysis here.
As discussed above, the state court’s main error was its failure to consider a
relevant circumstance. Lee, 726 F.3d at 1212 (“[U]nder Batson a state court
assuredly must evaluate the totality of the evidence and consider ‘all relevant
circumstances’ . . . .” (emphasis added).) That’s an unreasonable application of
Batson even if the state court did consider other factors like Lett’s demeanor and a
mistake in the prosecutor’s notes. On Hall’s direct appeal, the state court was bound
to consider all relevant circumstances when it applied Batson’s third step, and the
possibility that the state court might have considered some relevant circumstances
does not cure its failure to consider the contradiction between the prosecutor’s
reasons for striking Lett and the evidence in the record.
The court’s de novo review of Hall’s Batson claim did not overlook
any relevant aspects of the record.
All of the State’s remaining arguments share a common flaw: They are all
premised upon § 2254’s deferential standard. But in light of the court’s conclusion in
Part I of this opinion, that is a mistake. Once a federal court concludes that a state
court unreasonably applied federal law, it becomes “unconstrained by § 2254’s
deference” and a de novo review of the record is appropriate. See McGahee v.
Alabama Dep’t Of Corrections, 560 F.3d 1252, 1266 (11th Cir. 2009) (noting that
§ 2254’s deference places no constraints on federal courts that have “determined
that a state court decision is an unreasonable application of federal law . . .”). As a
result, the State cannot rely on § 2254’s deferential standard to show a mistake in
this court’s order.
But that does not necessarily dispose of the state’s remaining arguments,
which all point to “important aspects of the record” that this court’s order
supposedly overlooked. Even without the advantage of § 2254’s deferential
standard, the state’s arguments all point to facts that purportedly undermine Hall’s
Batson claim. If any of those facts were to change the outcome of the court’s de novo
review, then perhaps the State’s motion would be due to be granted. Accordingly,
the court will discuss each of the State’s remaining arguments to explain why they
do not change the court’s ultimate conclusion.
First, the State argues that this court’s opinion failed to take into account the
trial court’s findings about Lett’s demeanor at voir dire. The problem with that
argument is that nothing in the record suggests the trial court ever made such a
finding. Lett’s demeanor was hardly mentioned at the trial level: the prosecutor
mentioned it twice, but only when prompted by the trial judge. And although the
trial judge did inquire about Lett’s demeanor, he never made an on-the-record
determination about it, opting instead to deny Hall’s Batson challenge without
explanation. Faced with similar circumstances, the Supreme Court was unable to
“presume that the trial judge credited the prosecutor’s assertion” about a juror’s
demeanor, Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472, 479 (2008), and this court runs into
the same problem here. As a result, the State’s argument about Lett’s demeanor
does not sway the outcome of the court’s de novo review.
Second, the state says that the prosecutor’s decision to strike Lett might have
been based on a good-faith mistake. In support of that argument, the state points to
the “ample evidence in the record supporting an inference that the prosecutor was,
at most, honestly mistaken about Lett’s feelings on the death penalty.” (Doc. 41 at
But instead of “ample evidence,” the State offers only conjecture. The State
bases its speculation on three circumstances: (1) the passage of several days
“between the questioning of [Lett’s] panel and the time that the parties struck the
jury” (Doc. 41 at 9), (2) the prosecutor’s reliance on his notes, and (3) the trial
judge’s “opportunity to look the prosecutor in the eyes” while the prosecutor
explained his decision to strike Lett (Doc. 41 at 9).
But on a de novo review, those circumstances do not provide a sufficient basis
for this court to infer a good-faith mistake by the prosecutor. The passage of a few
days is not so long a time that the court will presume the prosecutor’s memory
failed him, especially since the prosecutor himself said nothing to suggest he had a
hard time remembering why he struck Lett. And with respect to the prosecutor’s
notes and the trial judge’s chance to look the prosecutor in the eyes, the court finds
nothing in the record to support those arguments. Despite Hall’s repeated requests,
the prosecutor’s notes do not appear in the record, so they cannot factor in to this
court’s de novo review. And if the trial judge knew of the prosecutor’s mistake, it is
quite unlikely that he would have ruled on Hall’s objection without commenting on
Given the absence of any evidence in the record that suggests the prosecutor
made an innocent mistake, the court will not make an affirmative finding to that
effect. To do otherwise would depart from the evidentiary record and enter the
realm of pure speculation.
Lett Compared to Jurors Chandler and Hutto
Third, the State says that the court overlooked important differences between
Lett and two other jurors when it concluded that those three jurors all expressed
similar views. And in fairness, the State does mention some facts that superficially
distinguish Lett from the two white jurors the prosecution did not strike. But none
of those facts reveal a difference that meaningfully alters the court’s conclusions.
See Miller-El II, 545 U.S. at 247 n.6 (“A per se rule that a defendant cannot win a
Batson claim unless there is an exactly identical white juror would leave Batson
inoperable; potential jurors are not products of a set of cookie cutters.”).
At the outset, the court concedes that the State caught an error in the court’s
order. When Hutto said that “[l]ife without parole would be more appropriate than
the death penalty,” she was answering a question posed by Hall’s attorney, not, as
the court mistakenly wrote, the prosecutor. But that mistake doesn’t change the
analysis; the importance of that statement comes from what Hutto said, not who
she said it to.
Nor do Hutto’s other statements show a meaningful difference between her
and Lett. Hutto’s statement that she would “not vote for the death penalty without
considering the circumstances” (Trial Tr. Vol. 34 at 5682) is substantially similar to
Lett’s affirmance that she could “listen to the evidence and base [her] decision on
that issue on the evidence” as it came to her (Trial Tr. Vol. 33 at 5414–15).
Likewise, Hutto’s statement that “life without parole would be more appropriate in
certain circumstances” (Trial Tr. Vol. 34 at 5693) is not meaningfully different from
Lett’s summary of her feelings on the death penalty as “it depends, maybe it’s the
right thing” (Trial Tr. Vol 62 at 261–62). And to the extent the State claims that
Lett and Hutto expressed different views on the concepts of age-based mitigation
and accomplice liability, there’s no evidence of such a difference because no one ever
asked Lett about those concepts.
The State’s brief does, however, appear to note one meaningful difference
between Hutto and Lett. According to the State, Hutto said that she might vote for
the death penalty in a case of “‘murder and robbery or robbery and murder,’ which
are the facts of Hall’s case.” (Doc. 36 at 16 (quoting Trial Tr. Vol. 34 at 5682).) But
the only support for that claim is a citation to an exchange that actually reveals the
. . . [I]f the state was able to prove to your satisfaction that Steve
Hall killed someone and that he killed them during the course of
a burglary and you were satisfied that that happened, you
believed that happened, you believed it well enough that you
voted him guilty and in that set of circumstances, would you
vote for the death penalty, without considering other evidence?
What other evidence would you be looking for?
The circumstances of what? The circumstances of the crime?
If it was murder and robbery or robbery and murder.
If the State proved that it was a murder and a burglary—
—and you were sure of that, you were sure of that to the extent
that you voted to convict him and the other eleven jurors were
also equally convinced, strong evidence, would, in that situation,
would you vote for the death penalty for Mr. Hall?
You would not?
(Trial Tr. Vol. 34 at 5682–83 (questioning by defense counsel).) Thus, Hutto
ultimately came right out and said that she would not vote to give Hall the
death penalty even if she decided that he was guilty. Lett, on the other hand,
never said anything of the sort. Instead, she committed to “listen to the
evidence and base [her] decision on that issue on the evidence.” (Trial Tr. Vol.
33 at 5414–15).
But the prosecutor struck Lett instead of Hutto. That decision cannot
be explained by the difference between Hutto’s and Lett’s views on the death
penalty. As discussed above, to the extent Hutto and Lett differed on that
point, Hutto expressed more reluctance to vote for the death penalty on the
facts of Hall’s case than Lett did. As a result, the court finds that the
prosecutor’s decision to strike Lett rather than Hutto “makes the prosecutor’s
race neutral reason unconvincing and implausible and suffice[s] for the
determination that there was a Batson error.” (Doc. 35 at 43.)
Before moving on, the court notes that Hutto was not the only white
juror with views similar to Lett who ended up serving on the jury. The
prosecutor also declined to strike Anne Chandler, whose similarities to Lett
are described in the court’s earlier order. (See Doc. 35 at 42–43.) In a different
case, those differences might tip the scales in the State’s favor. But combined
with the similarities between Hutto and Lett (which the court finds sufficient
on their own to discredit the prosecutor’s race-neutral reasons for striking
Lett), the similarities between Chandler and Lett only heap further doubt on
the prosecutor’s explanation for his decision to strike Lett. Thus, in light of
all the relevant circumstances, the court finds that the State’s arguments
differentiating Hutto, Chandler, and Lett, do not require the court to alter its
Finally, the State makes a number of poorly developed arguments under the
heading “other circumstances.” But those arguments do nothing to alter the
To begin with, the court attaches little significance to the fact that the
prosecutor struck eleven jurors before he struck Lett. Likewise, the court is
unmoved by the prosecutor’s decision to strike one white juror who “seemed
unsure.” (Doc. 36 at 19). Whatever those facts may prove, they do not explain why
the prosecutor struck Lett instead of Hutto or Chandler, so they do not alter the
Likewise, the court gives little weight to the supposed weakness of Hall’s
prima facie showing of discrimination. What matters here is that the trial court
found that Hall did make an adequate showing under Batson, which in turn
obligated the prosecutor to articulate a race-neutral reason for his decision to strike
Lett. And for the reasons discussed above, the explanation the prosecutor gave is
implausible in light of the totality of the circumstances, a conclusion that is not
undercut by the fact that the prosecutor could have struck more black jurors if he
wanted to. See U.S. v. David, 803 F.2d 1567, 1571 (11th Cir. 1986) (“[U]nder Batson,
the striking of one black juror for a racial reason violates the Equal Protection
Clause, even where other black jurors are seated, and even when valid reasons for
the striking of some black jurors are shown.”).
Finally, the court rejects the notion that the prosecutor struck Lett as part of
a “consistent pattern of striking jurors because of their views on the death penalty.”
(Doc. 36 at 18.) The pattern that emerges from the State’s citations on that point
shows only that the prosecutor consistently struck jurors who expressed strong
opposition to capital punishment. For the reasons discussed above, Lett does not fit
that pattern because she never expressed strong opposition to the death penalty;
she only admitted to having some mixed feelings. And within the category of jurors
that had mixed feelings on the death penalty, the prosecutor did not follow a
consistent pattern. If he had, he would have struck Hutto instead of Lett.
For the reasons set out above and in the court’s previous order (Doc. 35), it is
ORDERED that the State’s Rule 29 motion to alter or amend (Doc. 36) is
DONE and ORDERED this 26th day of September, 2014.
/s/ Callie V. S. Granade
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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