Metrish v. Lancaster

Summarized by:

  • Court: U.S. Supreme Court Certiorari Granted
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: January 18, 2013
  • Case #: 12-547
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Court Below: Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, 683 F.3d 740 (2012)
  • Full Text Opinion

(1) Whether the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision to abolish a criminal defendant's right to raise diminished capacity as a mitigating defense was “unexpected and indefensible” such that it could not be constitutionally applied retroactively to Respondent's past conduct; and (2) whether the retroactive application of that decision was so lacking in justification that Respondent is entitled to habeas relief.

Respondent’s 1994 conviction for first-degree murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony was overturned due to a Batson violation. When Respondent was re-tried in 2005 he attempted to mount—as he did in his first trial—a defense of diminished capacity. The trial court prohibited Respondent from raising the defense because, during the interim between his first and second trial, the Michigan Supreme Court had abolished the diminished-capacity defense in People v. Carpenter, 627 N.W.2d 276 (2001). Respondent was convicted in a bench trial and the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court declined review.

Respondent then filed a petition for habeas corpus arguing, inter alia, that the abolition of the diminished-capacity defense in Carpenter was a substantive change in state law and that, by applying the change retroactively, the trial court violated his right to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The district court disagreed and denied the petition by reasoning that the abolition of the diminished-capacity defense was foreseeable because the defense was not well-established in Michigan law. Therefore, according to the district court, Carpenter, a 2001 decision, could be applied retroactively to Respondent’s 1993 case without violating the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and found that the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision to abolish a diminished capacity defense was unforeseeable. Citing Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), the court further held that the retroactive application of Carpenter was an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent; thus amounting to a due process violation.

According to the Sixth Circuit, the purpose of ensuring that laws are not applied retroactively is to give criminal defendants “notice” and “fair warning” of the type of conduct that amounts to a crime. The court found that that purpose is frustrated when a state court overrules a long-line of cases and then applies that decision retroactively to past conduct.

Chief Judge Batchelder dissented and argued that (1) the elimination of the diminished-capacity defense in Michigan was neither unexpected nor indefensible; and (2) the Michigan Court of Appeals’ adjudication of Respondent’s due process claim was consistent with Rogers.

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to determine whether the abolishment of diminished capacity was foreseeable and, if not, whether the determination to apply Carpenter retroactively entitles Respondent to habeas relief.

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