David Bobby, Warden v. Harry Mitts


The case involved  a review of a federal habeas petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).An Ohio jury convicted respondent Harry Mitts on two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to death. At issue was part of the jury instructions given during the penalty phase of Mitts’s trial.

 The instructions, in pertinent part, were as follows:

“You must determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether the aggravating circumstances, which Mitts was found guilty of committing in the separate counts, are sufficient to outweigh the mitigating factors you find are present in this case.

“When all 12 members of the jury find by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances in each separate count with which Mitts has been found guilty of committing outweigh the mitigating factors, if any, then you must return such finding to the Court.

“I instruct you as a matter of law that if you make such a finding, then you must recommend to the Court that the sentence of death be imposed on Mitts.

 “On the other hand, if after considering all the relevant evidence raised at trial, the evidence and testimony received at this hearing and the arguments of counsel, you find that the state of Ohio failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances with which Mitts was found guilty of committing outweigh the mitigating factors, you will then proceed to determine which of two possible life imprisonment sentences to recommend to the Court.”

Supreme Court earlier in Smith v. Spisak (2010) considered same Ohio jury instructions and held that relief may not be granted unless the state court adjudication resulted in a decision that was contrary to clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court in Spisak, reversed a Court of Appeal s decision that had found the instructions invalid.

The Court of Appeals in the present  case determined that the instructions were contrary to the Supreme Court’s decision in Beck v. Alabama, 447 U. S. 625 (1980), and accordingly vacated Mitts’s death sentence.  But the Supreme Court held that the instructions were not invalid under its earlier decision in Beck.

The Supreme Court agreed with Spisak that whatever the merits of that argument on direct review, the jury instructions were not contrary to ‘clearly established Federal law’ under AEDPA. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was thus reversed.