Federal Courts - Habeas Corpus - Fourth Circuit Fails to Reach a Judgment on the Merits of a Constitutional Claim Based on the State Procedural Default Doctrine

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FEDERAL COURTS--HABEAS CORPUS--FOURTH CIRCUIT FAILS TO REACH A JUDGMENT ON THE MERITS OF A CONSTITUTIONAL CLAIM BASED ON THE STATE PROCEDURAL DEFAULT DOCTRINE. -- McNeill v. Polk, 476 F.3d 206 (4th Cir. 2007).

Recent years have seen a tremendous cutback in the availability of federal habeas review for state prisoners. This trend is the product of Supreme Court jurisprudence (1) and congressional action (2) requiring state prisoners to surmount numerous challenges before federal courts will review their constitutional claims. In addition to the maze of constitutional and statutory restrictions, there are also prudential doctrines that create further hurdles for claimants. Recently, in McNeill v. Polk, (3) the Fourth Circuit relied on the prudential doctrine of procedural default (4) in declining to review the merits of a due process claim, thereby denying habeas relief to a state prisoner facing the death penalty. The court, however, failed to assess properly the applicability of the state procedural default doctrine by overlooking considerations that its own prior decisions and the Supreme Court recently addressed. In doing so, the court, as a full panel, (5) did not reach the merits of a constitutional claim brought by an individual sentenced to death. With its decision, the court compounded the confusion as to when a state procedural default is an adequate state ground to preclude federal habeas review and, moreover, affirmed the death sentence of an individual without reaching a judgment on the merits of his constitutional claim.

In 1992, John McNeill forcibly entered the apartment of his ex-girlfriend Donna Lipscomb and, after an argument, stabbed Lipscomb twelve times in the chest, back, arms, abdomen, and breast. (6) When the police arrived, McNeill readily admitted to the stabbing. (7) At trial, a jury found McNeill guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree burglary. (8) During a recess in the sentencing deliberations, one of the jurors consulted a dictionary to determine the meaning of the term "mitigate" and proceeded to share the dictionary definition with fellow jurors. (9) At sentencing, the jury found one aggravating circumstance, two statutory mitigating circumstances, and seven nonstatutory mitigating factors; after weighing these considerations, the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty for the murder charge. (10) Accordingly, the trial court sentenced McNeill to death for the murder conviction. (11) McNeill's conviction was affirmed on direct appeal by the North Carolina Supreme Court, (12) and his petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court was denied. (13)

McNeill then initiated state postconviction proceedings by filing a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) with the Cumberland County Superior Court. (14) McNeill raised multiple ineffective assistance of counsel claims, (15) as well as two juror misconduct claims, one of which alleged that a juror's consultation with outside sources during deliberation violated his right to due process. (16) McNeill sought to support this claim with two affidavits containing hearsay and an unsworn, signed statement by the juror. (17) The MAR court concluded that the juror misconduct claims were procedurally defaulted because McNeill had failed to comply with a state rule requiring that "[a] motion for appropriate relief ... must be supported by affidavit or other documentary evidence." (18) Specifically, the MAR court interpreted the rule to require admissible evidence, and McNeill's claims--supported only by hearsay and an unsworn statement-were inadmissible evidence. (19) In the alternative, the MAR court reviewed the substance of McNeill's juror misconduct claims and found that they failed on the merits. (20) Accordingly, the MAR court denied relief. After the state supreme court declined review, (21) McNeill filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina denied. …