Court Reverses in Smith v. Spisak

The Supreme Court released one opinion today — and it was not the eagerly anticipated Citizens United.  The Court released another habeas decision instead.  In Smith v. Spisak, a unanimous Court reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s grant of death-row inmate Frank Spisak’s habeas petition.  Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, and Justice Stevens wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

All nine justices agreed that even if Spisak’s trial counsel had been ineffective at the penalty phase, there was no reasonable probability that he was prejudiced by this fact.  The Court also held that the trial court’s mitigation jury instructions did not violate clearly established Federal law. Justice Stevens disagreed on this latter point, but nonetheless concluded Spisak was not entitled to relief because his conduct had so “alienated and ostracized the jury, and his crimes were monstrous” that there was no reasonable probability of a different outcome.

This is the second reversal of a Sixth Circuit decision granting a habeas petition this term.  (The first was Bobby v. Van Hook.)  Three more Sixth Circuit habeas cases remain, Renico v. Lett, Berghuis v. Thompkins, and Berghuis v. Smith.  Of note, all five cases involve the review of pro-defendant appellate decisions.

I previously blogged on the Spisak case here.

[NOTE: As initially posted, I inadvertantly omitted one of the cases.]