CONE v. BELL (No. 07-1114) U.S. Supreme Court Update

United States Supreme Court Decision: April 28, 2009

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section,


At trial the State discredited Mr. Cone’s defense that he killed two people while suffering from acute psychosis caused by drug addiction, he was then convicted and sentenced to death. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed on direct appeal and the state courts denied post-conviction relief.

Later, in a second petition for post-conviction relief, Cone raised the claim that the State had violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 , by suppressing witness statements and police reports that would have corroborated his insanity defense and bolstered his case in mitigation of the death penalty. The post-conviction court denied him a hearing on the ground that the Brady claim had been previously determined, either on direct appeal or in earlier collateral proceedings. The State Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed.

Mr. Cone then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Federal District Court. That Court denied relief, holding the Brady claim procedurally barred because the state courts’ disposition rested on adequate and independent state grounds:

The Sixth Circuit agreed with the state court’s conclusion, but considered itself barred from reaching the claim’s merits because the state courts had ruled the claim previously determined or waived under state law.

The state courts’ rejection of Cone’s Brady claim does not rest on a ground that bars federal review. The state court’s post-conviction denial of the Brady claim on the ground it had been previously determined in state court rested on a false premise: Cone had not presented the claim in earlier proceedings and, consequently, the state courts had not passed on it.

The Sixth Circuit’s rejection of the claim as procedurally defaulted because it had been twice presented to the Tennessee courts was thus erroneous. Also unpersuasive is the State’s alternative argument that federal review is barred because the Brady claim was properly dismissed by the state post-conviction courts as waived
The lower federal courts failed to adequately consider whether the withheld documents were material to Cone’s sentence. Both the quantity and quality of the suppressed evidence lend support to Cone’s trial position that he habitually used excessive amounts of drugs, that his addiction affected his behavior during the murders, and that the State’s contrary arguments were false and misleading.

Nevertheless, even when viewed in the light most favorable to Cone, the evidence does not sustain his insanity defense. Because the likelihood that the suppressed evidence would have affected the jury’s verdict on the insanity issue is remote, the Sixth Circuit did not err by denying habeas relief on the ground that such evidence was immaterial to the jury’s guilt finding.

The same cannot be said of that court’s summary treatment of Cone’s claim that the suppressed evidence would have influenced the jury’s sentencing recommendation. Because the suppressed evidence might have been material to the jury’s assessment of the proper punishment, a full review of that evidence and its effect on the sentencing verdict is warranted.

vacated and remanded.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Roberts, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined.

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