Bryant v. Byars et al
OPINION AND ORDER denying 96 MOTION to Alter Judgment. Signed by Honorable Bruce Howe Hendricks on 2/12/2020. (lbak)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
James N. Bryant, III,
) Civil Action No. 1:13-2665-BHH
Opinion and Order
Bryan P. Stirling, Commissioner,
South Carolina Department of
Corrections; Warden, Kirkland
This capital case is before the Court on Commissioner of South Carolina
Department of Corrections Bryan P. Stirling’s (“Respondent”) motion to alter or amend
judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). (ECF No. 96.) On March 19,
2019, the Court issued an Opinion and Order granting Petitioner James N. Bryant, III’s
(“Petitioner”) amended petition for writ of habeas corpus as to Grounds One and Two.
(ECF No. 94.) Respondent filed the Rule 59(e) motion on April 16, 2019. (ECF No. 96.)
Petitioner filed a response in opposition on May 6, 2019. (ECF No. 100.) The matter is
ripe for adjudication and the Court now issues the following ruling.
“In general, ‘reconsideration of a judgment after its entry is an extraordinary
remedy which should be used sparingly.’” Pac. Ins. Co. v. Am. Nat’l Fire Ins. Co., 148
F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998) (quoting 11 Wright et al., Federal Practice and Procedure §
2810.1, at 124 (2d ed. 1995)). Such a motion is not a vehicle to re-argue issues previously
presented or to express mere disagreement with the Court in a pitch to change its mind.
Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 485 n.5 (2008); Hutchinson v. Staton, 994
F.2d 1076, 1081–82 (4th Cir. 1993). Rather, the Fourth Circuit has directed that Rule
59(e) relief may only be granted “in very narrow circumstances: ‘(1) to accommodate an
intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at
trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice.”’ Hill v. Braxton,
277 F.3d 701, 708 (4th Cir. 2002) (quoting Collison v. Int’l Chem. Workers Union, 34 F.3d
233, 236 (4th Cir. 1994)).
Respondent generally argues that by granting habeas relief as to Grounds One
and Two of Petitioner’s amended petition, the Court misconstrued the limits of the
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), because habeas relief
is not warranted where reasonable minds could disagree as to the legality of the
underlying State court proceedings. (See ECF No. 96 at 2.) Respondent contends that
the Court employed a set of debatable inferences to justify its grant of habeas relief, and
that Rule 59(e) relief is necessary to correct the Court’s clear error of law. (Id.)
First, Respondent asserts that the Court erred by granting relief, yet failing to
identify clearly established United States Supreme Court precedent in contravention of
the State court’s legal conclusion regarding Juror 342. (Id. at 3.) Specifically, Respondent
claims that the Court “extend[ed] the rationale of the ‘general standard at issue’ in order
to grant relief.” (Id. at 4.)
Title 28, Section 2254 states in relevant part that habeas relief may be granted
where the State court’s adjudication of a claim “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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).
Respondent is right to note that the Supreme Court has declined to set aside a State court
determination that merely refuses to extend a governing legal principle to a new context
in which the petitioner claims the legal principle should apply. (See id. at 4 (citing White
v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 426 (2014) (stating the Supreme Court “has never adopted the
unreasonable-refusal-to-extend rule” with respect to whether a State court determination
violated clearly established Federal law)).) However, Respondent is incorrect to suggest
that there need be a Supreme Court ruling involving a factually identical scenario for the
Federal law at issue to be deemed “clearly established.” See, e.g., White, 572 U.S. at 427
(“This is not to say that § 2254(d)(1) requires an ‘identical factual pattern before a legal
rule must be applied.’” (quoting Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 943 (2007)));
Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 76 (2003) (“Section 2254(d)(1) permits a federal court
to grant habeas relief based on the application of a governing legal principle to a set of
facts different from those of the case in which the principle was announced.”); Quinn v.
Haynes, 234 F.3d 837, 844 (4th Cir. 2000) (“[T]he relevant Supreme Court precedent
need not be directly on point, but must provide a ‘governing legal principle’ and articulate
specific considerations for lower courts to follow when applying the [relevant] precedent.”
(citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000)). The governing legal principle at
issue is Petitioner’s constitutional right to a competent jury, a jury composed of individuals
free from physical infirmities that prevent them from hearing and considering witness
testimony. (See ECF No. 94 at 38.) The Court did not “extend” this principle by applying
it to a situation where a functionally deaf juror demonstrably and indubitably missed
witness testimony in a capital case. Respondent has not shown that the Court committed
a clear error of law and the motion to alter or amend the judgment on this basis is denied.
Second, Respondent asserts that the Court erred by finding that the State court’s
factual determination regarding Juror 342 was objectively unreasonable, because
reasonable minds could differ as to whether Juror 342 was competent. (See ECF No. 96
at 5–7.) Respondent argues, “When the cold record in this case is considered as a whole,
Juror 342’s hearing impairment is debatable in a manner undeserving of habeas corpus
relief,” and, “Petitioner at all stages failed to establish that Juror 342’s hearing did in fact
cause her to miss material testimony.” (Id. at 5.) Moreover, Respondent states that the
trial court was in the best position to adjudge Juror 342’s competence and contends that
this Court failed to afford appropriate deference to that tribunal’s factual findings. (Id. 7–
To begin, this second line of argument in Respondent’s Rule 59(e) motion (see id.
at 4–8) merely rehashes arguments that the Court already considered and rejected in its
March 19, 2019 Order. (See ECF No. 94 at 27–35.) Nonetheless, the Court will proceed
with the analysis to show that Rule 59(e) relief is not warranted. Title 28, Section 2254
states in relevant part that habeas relief may be granted where the State court’s
adjudication of a claim “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.”
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). In its March 19, 2019 Order, before explaining the reasoning
behind its determination that the State court’s factual findings were unreasonable, this
Court conducted an extensive review of the trial and PCR record, delineating every
instance in which Juror 342’s hearing was observed to be deficient, called into question,
asserted as a basis for excusal, and investigated by the trial judge. (See ECF No. 94 at
10–27.) Based on this review the Court stated, “[E]ven affording the trial judge and the
PCR Court all the appropriate deference, the undersigned concludes that their finding
Juror 342 competent for continued jury service in light of her incapacitating hearing
impairment was ‘sufficiently against the weight of the evidence that it [was] objectively
unreasonable.’” (Id. at 29 (quoting Williams v. Stirling, 914 F.3d 302, 312 (4th Cir. 2019),
as amended (Feb. 5, 2019)).) The record evidence reveals that Juror 342 gave
contradictory answers about whether she missed testimony—saying both “yes” that she
missed some, and “no” she had not missed any—concerning both the guilt phase and
penalty phase. (See id. at 32.) Juror 342 failed the trial judge’s makeshift hearing test,
admitted that she did not hear the trial judge’s question, and revealed that her supposed
lip-reading accommodation—which went undiscovered until long after she had already
been qualified as “competent”—was unreliable. (See id. at 21, 32–33.) Moreover, it was
transparently evident to counsel and the trial judge that Juror 342 was having difficulty
hearing. (See id. at 30–31.) Accordingly, the Court held:
[I]n light of the evidence presented in the State court proceedings, it was
not just incorrect or erroneous, but unreasonable for the PCR Court (1) to
find that Juror 342 was appropriately qualified by the trial court, (2) to credit
Juror 342’s statements that she ‘heard all testimony’ (ECF No. 69-15 at 47)
during the guilty phase without accounting for her statements to the contrary
about both the guilt and penalty phases, and (3) to find that Petitioner had
not made a sufficient showing that Juror 342’s hearing impairment was of a
degree to materially impair her ability to receive and consider evidence.
(Id. at 35 (citing Williams, 914 F.3d at 312).) This holding was based on extensive review
and documentation of supporting evidence in the record, and the Court continues to find
that the totality of the evidence shows no reasonable observer would deem Juror 342
competent to serve on Petitioner’s capital jury. Respondent has not shown that the Court
committed a clear error of law and the motion to alter or amend the judgment on this basis
Third, Respondent argues that the “debatability” of Juror 342’s hearing impairment
precludes a finding of Strickland prejudice on the related ineffective assistance of counsel
claim. (ECF No. 96 at 8.) Respondent seeks alteration of the judgment regarding Ground
Two of the habeas petition due to the Court’s supposed “failure to consider the prejudice
prong of Strickland in light of the debatable inference flowing from Juror 342’s hearing.”
(Id. at 9.)
The Court’s analysis above and in the March 19, 2019 Order has already indicated
that, based on the entirety of the record, Juror 342’s substantial impairment is beyond
reasonable debate and the State court’s failure to acknowledge this was objectively
unreasonable. (See ECF No. 94 at 10–27, 38–46.) With respect to Strickland prejudice
as it pertains to Ground Two, the Court stated:
Petitioner bears a heavy burden to demonstrate that counsel’s errors
deprived him of “a trial whose result is reliable,” [Strickland v. Washington,
466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)], but the Court finds that Petitioner has satisfied
that burden given trial counsel’s inexplicable decision to not only fail to
request Juror 342’s removal, but to affirmatively argue for her retention.
([S]ee ECF No. 69-9 at 69–70, 75–76, 80–81.) As explained above, trial
counsel’s purpose was to ensure that each juror assimilated the defense’s
evidence in mitigation, along with any diminution of the aggravating
evidence the defense was able to achieve through cross-examination.
Intentionally leaving a hearing-impaired juror on the panel undermined this
purpose, and casts doubt upon the reliability of the result because it
weakens confidence that Juror 342 voted in favor of the death penalty as
an outworking of her own deliberative choice, rather than simply following
the crowd after having understood only insufficient portions of the testimony.
Put simply, a competent jury is fundamental; allowing an incompetent juror
to remain renders the result fundamentally unreliable. See [Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 104 (2011)].
(Id. at 49.) Respondent has failed to show that the Court committed a clear error of law in
its finding on the prejudice prong of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim regarding
Juror 342. Accordingly, the motion to alter or amend the judgment on this basis is denied.
For the foregoing reasons, Respondent’s motion to alter or amend judgment
pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) (ECF No. 96) is DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Bruce Howe Hendricks
United States District Judge
February 12, 2020
Charleston, South Carolina
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