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Wright v. Walls

U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit


April 24, 2002

PATRICK WRIGHT, PETITIONER-APPELLEE/ CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
JONATHAN WALLS, RESPONDENT-APPELLANT/ CROSS-APPELLEE.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 93 C 2105--Harold A. Baker, Judge.

Before Flaum, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Williams, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Chief Judge.

Argued February 26, 2002

A jury convicted Patrick Wright of murder, attempted murder, attempted rape, armed robbery, home invasion and residential burglary. The trial court sentenced him to death. Following the exhaustion of all state remedies, Wright petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus alleging numerous constitutional errors at both the trial and sentencing phases. The district court vacated Wright's death sentence because the sentencing judge impermissibly failed to consider mitigating evidence related to Wright's traumatic childhood. The district court also affirmed Wright's conviction, holding that Wright did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel at trial.*fn1 Both Wright and the State of Illinois appeal. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm.

I. Background

On June 6, 1983, Wright entered Carol Specht's apartment, put a knife to her throat and attempted to rape her. After binding and gagging Carol, Wright proceeded through the rest of the Spechts' home when he discovered Carol's daughter, Connie. Wright forced Connie into her mother's bedroom where he sexually abused her. Wright later slashed Connie's throat multiple times and stabbed Carol in the back. Connie survived, but Carol died.*fn2 Wright was charged with murder, attempted murder, attempted rape, armed robbery, home invasion and residential burglary.

At trial, Wright's counsel did not contest the fact that Wright committed the crimes charged. Instead, trial counsel argued that Wright suffered from a mental disease involving a fetish for women's shoes. The sole evidence offered at trial supporting this theory was Wright's testimony that he had a women's shoe fetish, that he suffered from the fetish since the age of seven, that his adoptive mother beat him because of his mental impairment, and that he had been institutionalized in various mental hospitals since the age of 13. Wright also testified, contrary to his tapedconfession, that he had entered the Spechts' apartment seeking women's shoes for sexual gratification. Dr. William Fowler testified for the State in rebuttal. He stated that Wright did not suffer from a mental disease at the time of the offense, but rather suffered from a non-pathological psychosexual disorder. The trial court provided the jury with general verdict forms, including verdicts of not guilty, not guilty by reason of insanity, guilty but mentally ill ("GBMI"), and guilty for each of the offenses. The jury found Wright guilty of all the crimes charged.

Wright waived a sentencing jury. At the sentencing hearing, Wright offered the testimony of Dr. Arthur Traugott, who opined that although Wright was able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts, Wright's shoe fetish controlled his lifestyle and was the cause of prior incarceration and institutionalization. The sentencing judge ultimately imposed the death penalty. Before doing so, however, the sentencing judge commented extensively on the factors that he would-- and would not--consider in determining an appropriate sentence. Initially, the court focused on Wright's traumatic childhood, stating:

I don't think any reasonable person who has heard all of the evidence in this case can feel anything but sympathy for the pathetic creature, Patrick Wright, who has been paraded through the courtroom in the trial of this case. He is a man who has wandered the forty wretched years of his life from institution to institution, from prison to prison; the evidence indicating that his fetish for women's shoes being perhaps the one and only purpose for his life.

After acknowledging Wright's "pathetic" history, the sentencing judge made three statements giving rise to the current appeal. First, the sentencing judge noted that "sympathy for the defendant [was] not an appropriate consideration" in determining Wright's sentence. Second, the judge listed all of the factors that he would exclude from the death penalty calculus:

To repeat in part, any matters dealing with sympathy, outrage, who the victim was, all the matters that I just mentioned have no bearing on whether the defendant shall receive the death penalty. And again, I note for the record that I have cited them so the record is clear that I have rejected them, and I have disregarded them in making my decision.

Third, in weighing the mitigating and aggravating circumstances according to Illinois law, the sentencing judge stated that he was unable to "determine the existence of any mitigating factors within or without the statute with the exception of [extreme mental emotional disturbance at the time of the crime.]"

Wright appealed his conviction and sentence directly to the Illinois Supreme Court. In his appeal, Wright raised eight separate issues, only one of which is relevant to this appeal. Wright argued that in imposing the death sentence, the sentencing court failed to consider all of the mitigating evidence presented by Wright, including evidence related to his troubled youth. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed Wright's death sentence. The Court first acknowledged that lower courts must consider "any mitigating facts in the record of the trial as well as any which the defendant offers at the sentencing hearing." People v. Wright, 490 N.E.2d 640, 656 (Ill. 1985) ("Wright I") (citing People v. Lewis, 88 Ill. 2d 129, 144 (1981)). However, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the sentencer took account of all of the mitigating evidence because (1) the State specifically requested the court to consider all of the evidence presented during trial, and (2) the sentencing judge's comments that he found one mitigating factor--extreme emotional disturbance at the time of the crime--indicated that he considered "the defendant's troubled youth and its contribution, if any, to the mental disturbance existing at the time the crime was committed." Id. at 656.

Following the exhaustion of all appeals and applications for post-conviction relief in state court,*fn3 Wright petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus based upon numerous arguments. The current appeal deals with two of them. Wright first claimed that the sentencer's comments during sentencing conveyed a misapprehension of the law that precluded him from considering evidence of Wright's traumatic childhood in mitigation. Wright also asserted that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to argue, investigate and introduce during the liability phase evidence of Wright's men tal health problems. Although counsel had investigated Wright's mental health history, Wright relied on approximately 50 pages of additional medical records obtained after trial that indicated limited intelligence, psychiatric drug use, and severe physical abuse by both his natural and adoptive parents.

The district court granted the writ with respect to Wright's death sentence, holding that the trial judge's failure to consider as mitigation Wright's traumatic childhood and mental health problems violated Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982). The district court reasoned:

[T]he judge specifically stated that he could discern no mitigating factors except for [Wright's] extreme emotional disturbance at the time he committed the offense. But [Wright] presented evidence of a horrible childhood; surely that qualifies as mitigation. If the judge considered this evidence, as he was required to do, why would he say that no mitigating factors existed besides [Wright's] emotional disturbance at the time of the crime? Simply put, he would not. He might find the mitigation of little weight, but he would not say that it did not exist. To derive any other meaning from his plain words requires tortuous reasoning. Wright v. Cowan, 149 F. Supp. 2d 523, 537-38 (C.D. Ill. 2001).

The district court denied relief for Wright's ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Initially, the district court ruled that Wright had procedurally defaulted certain aspects of the claim for failing to raise it before the Illinois State courts. Specifically, the court noted that in his first petition for post-conviction relief, Wright did not argue that counsel was ineffective for focusing on Wright's alleged insanity, as opposed to pursuing a GBMI verdict. Because the Illinois Supreme Court held that Wright had waived the issue, and because that was an adequate and independent state ground, the district court limited its ineffectiveness inquiry to the issue of omitted evidence and did not address the wisdom of trial counsel's strategy to pursue exclusively an insanity defense. With these parameters in place, the district court held that although trial counsel was not perfect, Wright could not satisfy the rigorous standards of Strick land v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Wright, 149 F. Supp. 2d at 532-34. Both parties appeal.

II. Discussion

We note that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") does not apply in the present case because Wright filed his petition for a writ of habeas corpus prior to the AEDPA's effective date. See Lindh v. Mur phy, 521 U.S. 320, 336 (1997); Everett v. Barnett, 162 F.3d 498, 500 (7th Cir. 1998). Accordingly, we apply pre-AEDPA standards to this appeal: we presume correct the state court's determination of historical factual issues, see Porter v. Gramley, 112 F.3d 1308, 1316 (7th Cir. 1997), and we review de novo questions of law or mixed questions of law and fact considered by state courts. Shasteen v. Saver, 252 F.3d 929, 933 (7th Cir. 2001).

A. Vacation of Death Sentence

The first issue we must address is whether the district court properly vacated Wright's death sentence because the sentencing judge impermissibly refused to consider proposed mitigating evidence related to Wright's background. Wright argues that this ruling was correct because the sentencing court's comments unambiguously reveal that he could discern no mitigating factor beyond Wright's extreme emotional disturbance at the time of the crime. According to Wright, this necessarily means that the sentencing judge did not consider Wright's traumatic history. In response, the State maintains that although the judge had to entertain Wright's traumatic background, he was not required to grant that evidence any amount of weight. The State interprets the sentencing court's remarks as considering but rejecting Wright's mitigating evidence.

Both parties agree that Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982), and its progeny provide the governing legal principles in this case. In Eddings, the Supreme Court held that because imposition of a death sentence demandsindividualized consideration of each defendant's circumstances, the sentencing court must admit and consider all relevant mitigating evidence. Id. at 114-15 ("Just as the State may not by statute preclude the sentencer from considering any mitigating factor, neither may the sentencer refuse to consider, as a matter of law, any relevant mitigating evidence.") (emphasis in original); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 604 (1982) ("[W]e conclude that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer . . . not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.") (emphasis in original).

Because the Illinois Supreme Court considered Wright's Eddings argument on direct appeal, we must examine the State Court's disposition of the issue. The Illinois Supreme Court held that the sentencing court necessarily considered Wright's history because the State specifically asked the judge to take into account all of the evidence presented during the liability phase. Wright I, 490 N.E.2d at 656. The Illinois Supreme Court also held that the sentencer's finding of one mitigating factor (extreme emotional disturbance at the time of the crime) "indicate[d] that the court did consider the defendant's troubled youth and its contribution, if any, to the mental disturbance existing at the time that the crime was committed." Id. In our view, the Supreme Court of Illinois' holding that the sentencing court "considered all potential mitigating facts in the record, including those adduced at trial," id., as well as the Court's proffered justifications for that holding, do not withstand scrutiny. Foremost, the Illinois Supreme Court never addressed the truly critical statements in this case, i.e., those where the sentencing judge set forth the specific evidence that he would not consider in determining Wright's sentence. The fact that the State requested the sentencer to take into account all of the evidence presented at trial is immaterial when coupled with the specific evidence the sentencing court stated he would disregard. Had the sentencing court agreed to take into account all of the evidence at trial --and said nothing else--he may have complied with Eddings. See, e.g., United States v. Mahoney, 859 F.2d 47, 49-50 (7th Cir. 1988) (sentencing judge need not explicitly state every fact he is relying on to pass sentence). But this is not a case where the sentencer simply neglected to state for the record all of the evidence considered in mitigation.*fn4 Rather, this is a case where the sentencer highlighted all of the evidence he would not consider--including evidence of Wright's traumatic history--a practice that Eddings clearly prohibits, and an issue not addressed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The sentencing judge was quite clear in what he deemed appropriate factors for consideration in determining Wright's sentence, stating that:

any matters dealing with sympathy, outrage, who the victim was, all the matters that I just mentioned [such as evidence of Petitioner's "wretched" and "pathetic" life] have no bearing on whether the defendant shall receive the death penalty. And again, I note for the record that I have cited them so the record is clear that I have rejected them, and I have disregarded them in making my decision. People v. Wright, No. 83-CF-70, Tr. of Sent. Hrg., at 7 (emphasis added).

This is the language of exclusion--the very practice that the Supreme Court held constitutionally infirm in Eddings. Indeed, the sentencing judge's remarks in this case are strikingly similar to those in Eddings, where the judge stated that he could not "be persuaded entirely by the fact . . . that the youth was sixteen years old when this heinous crime was committed. Nor can the Court in following the law, in my opinion, consider the fact of this young man's violent background." Eddings, 455 U.S. at 124 (Burger, C.J., dissenting). In both cases, the sentencing judges' statements reflect the wholesale exclusion of certain evidence in determining the appropriate sentence. Eddings makes clear that this practice is improper because it deprives the criminal defendant of the particularized assessment necessary in capital sentencing hearings.

The sentencing judge's additional comments, particularly the court's ultimate conclusion that only one mitigating factor existed, foreclose distinct interpretations. The sentencing judge stated that he had "given great consideration to whether other mitigating factors exist," and that he was "unable to determine the existence of any mitigating factors within or without the statute with the exception [of defendant's extreme mental distress at the time of the offense.]" As the district court noted, Wright presented substantial evidence of a troubled childhood, which clearly qualifies as evidence offered by the defendant in mitigation.*fn5 Although the sentencing judge was not required to afford Wright's history any weight, he was required to consider it. To suggest that the finding of extreme mental and emotional disturbance at the time of the crime necessarily encompassed the evidence of Wright's pitiful life renders the words "at the time of the crime" meaningless. See Wright, 149 F. Supp. 2d at 537. The fact that the sentencer found only one mitigating factor either "within or without the statute" requires the opposite conclusion than the one reached by the Illinois Supreme Court. To find from these statements that the sentencing judge actually considered Wright's history requires "tortuous reasoning." Id. at 538.

In dissent, Judge Easterbrook quarrels with this analysis and argues that the sentencing judge's remarks illustrate that he considered--but afforded no weight to--Wright's mitigating evidence, including evidence describing his troubled background. However, this approach suffers from an unavoidable inconsistency. As discussed previously, the sentencing judge linked evidence related to Wright's history with other evidence he would not consider, such as sympathy, outrage, who the victim was (including her activities within the community and the recognition that she received for those activities), and certain statements Wright made to the media. If Judge Easterbrook's formulation of the sentencing judge's statements is correct, then the sentencing judge also considered but rejected sympathy, outrage, who the victim was, and statements made to the media, a practice that would have been improper. See, e.g., People v. Bernette, 197 N.E.2d 436, 443 (Ill. 1964) (evidence regarding the victim or her family improper because it bears no relationship to guilt or innocence or the appropriate punishment); People v. Holman, 469 N.E.2d 119, 135 (Ill. 1984) (improper to describe the victim as "unusually bright" or to state that the victim had received numerous awards); People v. Del Vecchio, 475 N.E.2d 840 (Ill. 1985) (jury instruction precluding consideration of sympathy or prejudice was proper). Thus, either the sentencer disregarded all of the categories of evidence mentioned, which would violate Eddings, or he considered but rejected all of the evidence, a course of action raising other concerns.

Perhaps recognizing this inconsistency, the state interprets the sentencer's remarks as excluding only sympathy for the defendant, a practice that the Constitution permits. See California v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538 (1987). While it is true that the individualized assessment regarding the appropriateness of a death sentence should not be based on an emotional response to the mitigating evidence, the sentencer must exercise great caution not to ignore the evidence giving rise to such responses. See id. at 545-46 (O'Connor, J., concurring). Here, the sentencing judge used language such as "will have no bearing" and "disregarded" in the context of Wright's mitigating evidence, and the sentencing judge did not limit his remarks to the emotional response generated by Wright's background. In short, the sentencer's remarks are so imbued with exclusionary language as to violate the constitutional requirements announced in Eddings.

Judge Easterbrook notes that cases such as Parker v. Dugger, 498 U.S. 308 (1991), Wainwright v. Goode, 464 U.S. 78 (1983), and Rivera v. Sheriff of Cook County, 162 F.3d 486 (7th Cir. 1998), hold that a reviewing court's characterization of what the trial judge found is one of historical fact. While that proposition is unassailable, it does not mean that state courts act correctly in every instance. Indeed, in Parker, the Supreme Court reversed a decision that was not an accurate factual characterization of what transpired at sentencing. Parker, 498 U.S. at 318. Parker involved a capital sentencing judge who weighed aggravating and mitigating factors pursuant to Florida law. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court held that the judge had erroneously relied upon two aggravating factors. However, rather than remanding the case for resentencing, the Florida Supreme Court held that the absence of any non-statutory mitigating factors made re-weighing unnecessary and affirmed the death sentence. The Supreme Court of the United States ultimately reversed, finding that the "Florida Supreme Court erred in its characterization of the trial judge's findings, and consequently erred in its review of Parker's sentence." Id. at 318. Parker instructs appellate courts to review the entire record when evaluating a sentencing judge's comments: accurate factual characterization depends upon "an examination of the transcript of the trial and sentencing hearing, and the sentencing order." Id. at 320. The Supreme Court ultimately reversed because the Florida Supreme Court disregarded evidence that contradicted its factual finding. "What the Florida Supreme Court could not do, but what it did, was to ignore the evidence of mitigating circumstances in the record and misread the trial judge's findings regarding mitigating circumstances, and affirm the sentence based on a mischaracterization of the trial judge's findings." Id.

The same is true in the present case, where the Supreme Court of Illinois did not address the sentencing judge's comments, but instead relied exclusively on the finding of one mitigating factor and the fact that the government asked the court to evaluate all of the evidence produced at trial. Not considering the trial court's comments in this case is tantamount to not considering the evidence of non-statutory mitigating circumstances in Parker. When viewed in isolation, the State's request that the government consider all of the evidence produced at trial provides adequate justification for the conclusion that the sentencer accounted for Wright's history. But the sentencing judge went further in this case, listing all of the categories of evidence he would not consider. Accordingly, even accepting that we are presented with a question of historical fact, we believe that the Supreme Court of Illinois' finding "is not fairly supported by the record." Parker, 498 U.S. at 320.

We also note that the fact/law distinction in this case is not as pristine as Judge Easterbrook suggests. In Parker, the basis for the Supreme Court's holding was that the legality of the defendant's sentence did not necessarily follow from "a resolution of the question of what the trial judge found." Id. This factor made the interpretation of the sentencing court's remarks a question of fact. Here, however, the question is whether the sentencing court failed to consider Wright's mitigating evidence, and resolution of that question in the affirmative necessarily means that the sentencing judge violated the constitutional requirements announced in Eddings. To say that we cannot evaluate as a matter of law whether the sentencer complied with Eddings because the Supreme Court of Illinois decided as a matter of historical fact that the sentencer complied with Eddings engages in a circularity not required by Parker.

With due deference to the appropriate restraints of federalism and the limited role of this court on habeas review, there can be no question that the law clearly requires a sentencing judge to evaluate the individualized circumstances of each capital defendant prior to imposing the death penalty. Because the sentencing court's statements reflect the wholesale exclusion of evidence offered by Wright in mitigation, we conclude with constitutionally grounded certainty that Wright did not receive the individualized sentence as mandated by Eddings.

B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Wright cross-appeals the district court's decision to deny relief for ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Wright argues that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to discover, investigate and introduce 50 pages of medical records describing Wright's mental health history that would have both corroborated his trial testimony and supported a GBMI verdict. According to the district court, the 50 additional pages contained information that Wright had I.Q. test scores of 73 to 81, which classifies him as a person of borderline mental deficiency. The records further discuss Wright's history of taking prescription psychiatric drugs, his testimony regarding his traumatic life before his adoption at age four, and the fact that his adoptive parents abused him. Wright alleges that trial counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness because there is no valid strategic reason for failing to investigate and introduce Wright's hospital records. In addition, Wright challenges trial counsel's failure to investigate evidence regarding Wright's alleged organic brain damage. With respect to prejudice, Wright maintains that there is a reasonable probability that a jury would have returned a verdict of guilty but mentally ill had the jury considered evidence beyond Wright's self-serving testimony.

In response, the State argues that this issue is procedurally defaulted. In his first petition for post-conviction relief before the Illinois courts, Wright argued that counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce certain records during the sentencing phase. In a second post-conviction petition before the Illinois courts, Wright challenged trial counsel's decision not to pursue a GBMI verdict, but the Illinois Supreme Court held that he had waived the claim for failing to raise it in his first petition. Wright III, 723 N.E.2d at 239. The district court ruled that the procedural default constituted an adequate and independent ground for relief and refused to address counsel's failure to raise a GBMI defense. Accordingly, the district court limited its ineffectiveness inquiry "to the issue of omitted evidence pertaining to Wright's mental health." Wright, 149 F. Supp. 2d at 533.

We assess ineffective assistance of counsel claims under the standards enunciated by the Supreme Court inStrickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under Strickland, a defendant must establish (1) that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) that the deficient performance resulted in prejudice to the defendant. Id. at 687. To demonstrate deficient performance, a defendant must show that he has been denied his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial as the result of the incompetence of defense counsel. See, e.g., Eddmonds v. Peters, 93 F.3d 1307, 1313 (7th Cir. 1996). "This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. In this context, it is not reasonable to judge counsel's performance based on "hindsight." Instead, we evaluate counsel's performance based upon her perspective at the time of trial. Id. at 689.

Before reaching the merits of Wright's appeal, we must clarify what ineffective assistance claims survive. In our view, the district court correctly held that trial counsel's failure to urge a GBMI verdict was procedurally defaulted. See Wright, 149 F. Supp. 2d at 533. The Illinois Supreme Court held that Wright had failed to raise this issue in his first petition for post-conviction relief and that it was therefore procedurally defaulted. Wright III, 723 N.E.2d at 239. This is an adequate and independent state justification, a decision that we must respect even in the pre-AEDPA context of this case. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991). Accordingly, we will not reach the merits of whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this issue.

That leaves trial counsel's failure to obtain the 50 pages of additional medical records. Here, we note that this is not a case where trial counsel wholly failed to investigate--or cursorily investigated--the defendant's insanity. See Brewer v. Aiken, 935 F.2d 850 (7th Cir. 1991); Harris v. Dugger, 874 F.2d 756, 763 (11th Cir. 1989); Profitt v. Waldron, 831 F.2d 1245, 1248-49 (5th Cir. 1987). Wright's trial counsel took reasonable steps to identify and locate his mental health records. The record in this case reveals that trial counsel received an "extensive" number of psychiatric documents concerning Wright's mental health, and that trial counsel's access to the documents he did possess enabled him to conduct an extensive cross-examination of the State's psychiatric expert who testified at trial. See Wright II, 594 N.E.2d at 280-81. At the time of trial, counsel had received most of Wright's medical records. Because certain state agencies and mental institutions neglected to turn over all of the records does not mean that counsel acted deficiently. An attorney's investigation need not be unlimited in scope or unerring in execution, but merely reasonable. Rogers v. Israel, 746 F.2d 1288, 1294 (7th Cir. 1984). We need not decide whether Wright was prejudiced by the failure to obtain the additional records because we hold that counsel's performance did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

III. Conclusion

Because the sentencing judge excluded from consideration mitigating evidence about Wright's traumatic history, we AFFIRM the district court's decision vacating the death penalty. We also AFFIRM the decision to deny relief based upon ineffective assistance of counsel. Trial counsel obtained most of Wright's medical records, and these efforts did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness.


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