Monday, May 30, 2011

South Carolina inconsistencly applied Rule 59(e)

Marlar v. Warden, No. 08-8572 (4th Cir. May 25, 2011):

Petitioner applied for a writ of habeas corpus on the basis that his trial attorney provided ineffective assistance.  The federal district court concluded that petitioner's claim was not reviewable on federal habeas because the South Carolina Supreme Court had held that petitioner failed to preserve this argument for appellate review.  The Fourth Circuit issued a certificate of appealability to address petitioner's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel,

The Fourth Circuit holds that, in light of Bostick v. Stevenson, 589 F.3d 160 (4th Cir. 2009), petitioner's claim is not procedurally barred.

In this case, the state habeas court summarily concluded that petitioner's counsel did not render ineffective assistance.  The state habeas court failed to state specific findings of fact or express conclusions of law relating to each issue presented, as required by S.C. Code § 17-27-80.  A state habeas court's failure to make specific findings of fact precludes appellate review of that habeas proceeding if the petitioner does not raise a Rule 59(e) motion.  Nevertheless, petitioner appealed, and the state court of appeals vacated the denial of petitioner's application because the state habeas court's denial was inadequate because it did not include specific findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The state supreme court granted cert and reversed the state court of appeals.  The state supreme court held that the issue was procedurally barred because petitioner did not file a Rule 59(e) motion and therefore did not preserve the issue for appeal.  The federal district habeas court agreed.

Subsequently, the Fourth Circuit decided Bostick.  In Bostick, the Fourth Circuit held that the failure to file a Rule 59(e) motion was not a procedural bar because Rule 59(e) was not consistently applied by the South Carolina courts.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit decided the Strickland claim de novo.  In this case, evidence of petitioner's guilt was overwhelming, and the probative value of the allegedly withheld evidence was limited.  The Fourth Circuit held that petitioner was not prejudiced by the lack of evidence.

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