Derrick Anthony DeBruce, an inmate on Alabama’s death row, appeals the district court’s denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254 challenging his death sentence. DeBruce contends that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution in both the guilt and the penalty phases of his capital murder trial.
DeBruce was convicted of fatally shooting a customer during the robbery of an AutoZone store which he committed with five other men.1 DeBruce argues that his retained trial attorney, Erskine Mathis, was constitutionally ineffective in failing to cross-examine state witness LuJuan McCants, a co-participant in the robbery who identified DeBruce as the shooter at trial, with McCants’s earlier allegedly contradictory statements. He also argues that Mathis was ineffective in failing to investigate and present evidence about DeBruce’s mental capacity and background during the penalty phase of his trial.
Judge Tjoflat dissents:
Derrick DeBruce’s lawyers may or may not have been ineffective. I don’t know, and my colleagues don’t either. We can’t know—despite two decades of litigation in state and federal court—because DeBruce failed to develop a record of what his attorneys did (or did not do) in preparation for the penalty phase1 of his capital murder trial. Without a thorough record, it is impossible for DeBruce to overcome the “strong presumption that counsel’s conduct [fell] within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance,” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 689, 104 S. Ct. 2052, 2065, 80 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1984), and impossible for this court to say—as it must to grant relief under § 2254—that the State court’s application of Strickland was “objectively unreasonable.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 409, 120 S. Ct. 1495, 1521, 146 L. Ed. 2d 389 (2000).Judge Martin concurs because she: "feel[s] [she] must respond to the dissenting opinion, and specifically Judge Tjoflat’s repeated statements that Judge Wilson and I 'invent[ed] some facts,' 'embellish[ed] the record,' exhibited a 'lackadaisical relationship with the evidence,' and 'disregard[ed] AEDPA' in deciding this case."
But now our court, evidently possessed of special insight, reverses and grants habeas relief. My colleagues do so by inventing a theory of the case that is both factually unsupported and facially implausible: that DeBruce’s seasoned capital-defense lawyers walked into the penalty phase of trial without knowing anything about the man they were defending. That claim would be dubious standing alone, but here it must overcome the “doubly deferential” standard of review federal courts apply when Strickland and AEDPA operate in tandem. Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 6, 124 S. Ct. 1, 4, 157 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2003). To grant relief under this demanding standard, the majority needs unambiguous evidence that DeBruce’s attorneys were incompetent. There is no such evidence, so instead the majority embellishes the record, disregards AEDPA, and succumbs to the “all too tempting” impulse “for a court, examining counsel’s defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission . . . was unreasonable.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689, 104 S. Ct. at 2065.
The whole concurrence is worth a read (I left out the footnotes):
After thorough consideration of this difficult case, Judge Wilson and I have come to the view that Derrick Anthony DeBruce is entitled to habeas relief. This is quite a serious thing, as Mr. DeBruce has been sentenced to death by the State of Alabama. The federal statutory scheme put in place by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) was intended to, and does give great deference to the judgment of a State court decision that adjudicated a federal claim on the merits. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). As it should. “AEDPA recognizes a foundational principle of our federal system: State courts are adequate forums for the vindication of federal rights.” Burt v. Titlow, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 134 S. Ct. 10, 15 (2013). At the same time, the Supreme Court has admonished federal judges that, “[e]ven in the context of federal habeas, deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review. Deference does not by definition preclude relief.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340, 123 S. Ct. 1029, 1041 (2003).
None of the three judges on this panel takes this case lightly. On the one hand, Mr. DeBruce was convicted of killing an innocent man named Doug Battle, who did nothing more than happen by the AutoZone Store in Talladega, Alabama on August 16, 1991. On the other hand, Mr. DeBruce is himself set to die as a result his conviction for killing Mr. Battle. None of the cases involving inmates who are sentenced to death are easy, and Mr. DeBruce’s case is no exception. It was filed in our court about three and one-half years ago on April 6, 2011. Four judges of our court have considered the case during the time it has been pending here. It came from the Northern District of Alabama, where it was filed on September 7, 2004, and stayed pending for more than six years.
I write separately because I feel I must respond to the dissenting opinion, and specifically Judge Tjoflat’s repeated statements that Judge Wilson and I “invent[ed] some facts,” “embellish[ed] the record,” exhibited a “lackadaisical relationship with the evidence,” and “disregard[ed] AEDPA” in deciding this case. See Maj. Op. at 2, 3, 40, 81. Judge Tjoflat is a nationally known and admired judge who has served as a member of the federal judiciary since 1970, and as a judge for the State of Florida before that. He is not only admired nationally, he is also admired by Judge Wilson and me. Our work would be much quicker, easier and happier if Judge Wilson, Judge Tjoflat and I all agreed on how the law applies to this case—and every other case, for that matter. But if we do our jobs properly, it is inevitable that we will have disagreements. And we disagree here. That being the case, it is incumbent upon each of us, as a part of this difficult process, to lay out how we understand the law to apply to the specifics of Mr. DeBruce’s case. Each of us has honestly assessed this case to the best of our ability, and the opposing views expressed in our respective opinions were reached through a sincere effort to properly perform the role required of us as judges of this Court.