By Sutton Travis 

In a decision that expanded religious liberties for prisoners on the verge of execution, the Supreme Court held in the late evening hours of Feb. 11 that Alabama prisoner Willie Smith could not be executed unless Alabama permitted Smith’s chaplain to accompany him into the execution chamber.[1]

Smith filed a complaint in the Middle District of Alabama on Dec. 14, 2020, alleging that the Alabama Department of Corrections’ policy of restricting all except the prison’s execution team from the execution chamber violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000[2] (“RLUIPA”).[3]  Smith sought an injunction against his execution scheduled for Feb.11, 2021, claiming that the policy violated RLUIPA by excluding his Christian minister from the execution chamber.[4]  Smith’s complaint explained that it was “integral to [his] faith” that his pastor “be physically present with him at the time of his execution.”[5]  The district court denied Smith’s request for an injunction,[6] relying on Alabama’s argument that allowing a chaplain into the execution chamber would undermine security measures.[7]  However, the Eleventh Circuit reversed and granted the injunction,[8] which the Supreme Court declined to vacate in Dunn v. Smith.[9]  

In her concurring opinion that elaborated on the Court’s one-sentence decision to uphold the injunction, Justice Kagan declared that “[t]he law guarantees Smith the right to practice his faith free from unnecessary interference, including at the moment the state puts him to death.”[10]  Alleged violations of RLUIPA are analyzed under an “exceptionally demanding” strict scrutiny standard,[11] which mandates that a prison must employ “the least restrictive means of furthering [its] compelling governmental interest.”[12]  Although Kagan acknowledged that Alabama does have a “compelling state interest” in maintaining “prison security,”[13] Alabama’s policy failed to implement the least restrictive means available because “a prison may ensure security without barring all clergy members from the execution chamber.”[14]  Kagan admonished that she could find no example where “the presence of a clergy member . . . disturbed an execution.”[15]  As she recommended, the prison could perform background checks and interview the minister to ensure that the minister is fit to attend the execution.[16] 

Prior Case Law Development on Execution Litigation

Smith is the latest installment in a recent line of cases evaluating prisoners’ religious liberties in the context of executions.  In Dunn v. Ray,[17] the Supreme Court vacated the Eleventh Circuit’s stay of execution for Domineque Ray in an unsigned order on Feb. 7, 2019.[18]  Ray, a practicing Muslim and Alabama prisoner, had petitioned for a stay of execution because the prison refused to allow his imam to enter the execution chamber, even though Christian ministers were permitted in the chamber.[19]  The Court’s unsigned order did not elaborate on its decision to vacate the stay of execution, only citing Gomez v. United States District Court for the Northern District of California[20] for the proposition that a reviewing court can take into account the “last-minute nature of an application to stay execution.”[21]  Kagan vehemently dissented, stating that the Court’s decision was “profoundly wrong.”[22]  According to Kagan, the Court’s decision failed to recognize Ray’s “powerful claim that his religious rights will be violated.”[23]  Kagan further argued that Ray’s request was timely, as he filed his complaint only five days after Alabama denied his request to have his imam accompany him into the execution chamber.[24] 

Another execution-related religious liberty case came just a month later in Murphy v. Collier.[25] The Supreme Court blocked Patrick Murphy’s execution in March 2019 because Texas’s policy did not permit a Buddhist spiritual advisor to accompany Murphy into the execution chamber.[26]  At the time, Texas only allowed Christian or Muslim ministers to enter the execution chamber.[27]  In a brief paragraph, the Supreme Court explained that Murphy’s execution could not proceed until Texas permitted a Buddhist spiritual advisor to “accompany Murphy in the execution chamber.”[28]  Justice Kavanaugh, who concurred in the decision to grant the stay of execution, attempted to distinguish Murphy from the Court’s decision in Ray, emphasizing that Murphy submitted his request for a Buddhist minister an entire month before the date of his scheduled execution.[29]  Despite Kavanaugh’s explanation, the “disparate outcomes” of Ray and Murphy have been characterized as arbitrary.[30]

Five days after the Supreme Court granted the stay of execution in Murphy, Texas revised its policy to bar all religious ministers from the execution chamber.[31]  Although Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion in the Murphy case, he also released an additional statement, opining that Texas’s revised policy “solve[d] the equal-treatment constitutional issue” and “likely passe[d] muster under [RLUIPA].”[32]  In essence, Kavanaugh advised death penalty states to remedy religious discrimination concerns by simply barring all religious ministers from the execution chamber.[33]  Relying on Kavanaugh’s statement, Alabama amended its policy in April 2019 and joined Texas in excluding all religious officials from its execution chamber.[34]  

Shortly after Texas’s policy revision, prisoner Ruben Gutierrez challenged the new policy, arguing that it violated his religious liberties under RLUIPA by prohibiting his chaplain from accompanying him in the execution chamber.[35]  However, the Supreme Court did not weigh in on the merits of Gutierrez v. Saenz.[36]  Instead, the Court merely issued a one-paragraph remand, instructing the district court to consider “the merits” of Gutierrez’s claims based on the district court’s earlier findings that allowing a spiritual advisor into the execution chamber would not result in serious security problems.[37]  Thus, Smith was the first case where the Supreme Court’s decision actually indicated that barring religious ministers from the execution chamber could violate RLUIPA.  

Concerns About the Supreme Court’s Surreptitious Shadow Docket

Smith also marks one of the most recent decisions from the Supreme Court’s “shadow docket,” a term used to refer to emergency orders that are granted separately from the Court’s “normal merits docket.”[38]  Shadow docket decisions are viewed with some skepticism because they are decided without oral argument and are typically short, supported by minimal legal reasoning or explanations, and can be unsigned by individual justices.[39]  The shadow docket has recently received national attention because of the Trump administration’s high volume of requests for emergency relief in the form of shadow docket decisions,[40] as well as the heightened divisiveness on display in recent shadow docket rulings.[41]  In fact, these concerns led the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet to hold a hearing Feb. 18 to discuss the shadow docket.[42]  In his testimony before the subcommittee, University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck referenced the uncertainty about whether Justice Alito or Justice Gorsuch (or both) joined Kagan’s opinion in Smith to provide the fifth (or sixth) vote to block Smith’s execution.[43]  According to Vladeck, this anonymity in shadow docket decisions can “complicate[] efforts to decipher the potential impact of the Court’s ruling beyond the instant case.”[44]  

In his own testimony, Amir H. Ali, Deputy Director of the Supreme Court and Appellate Program of the MacArthur Justice Center, criticized the “arbitrariness” and “disparate outcomes” of the Supreme Court’s recent shadow docket execution decisions.[45]  In order to combat the trend of unexplained, arbitrary decisions, Ali advised Congress to codify a standard of review for the Supreme Court to implement when reviewing shadow docket cases[46] and to also require the Court to supply reasonings for these decisions.[47] 

The Potential Impact of Smith

Despite the uncertainty surrounding shadow docket decisions, the Supreme Court’s stance in Smith will likely affect several of the other twenty-seven states that continue to recognize the death penalty.[48]  As Kavanaugh noted in his statement following Murphy,[49] Texas has explicitly barred religious ministers from the execution chamber since April 2019.[50]  Additionally, Idaho’s current execution protocol implies that religious ministers may not enter the execution chamber with the prisoner, as “a spiritual advisor of the offender’s choosing” is expected to witness the execution from the “condemned offender’s witness area.”[51] Similarly, North Carolina’s execution protocol also indicates that religious ministers cannot accompany the prisoner into the execution chamber, stating that religious ministers “will be seated in the first row of chairs” during the execution.[52] 

As of Feb. 24, none of these states appear to have publicly acknowledged Smith or addressed how it will impact their current policies.  Nevertheless, policy adjustments will likely be necessary to avoid an onslaught of litigation and, more importantly, to respect prisoners’ religious liberties.  As Ali testified to the House subcommittee, “[w]hen it comes to the death penalty, the importance of getting things right is at its zenith: there is no do-over.”[53]

[1] Dunn v. Smith, No. 20A128, 2021 WL 517473, at *1 (U.S. Feb. 11, 2021); see also Amy Howe, Court Won’t Allow Alabama Execution Without a Pastor, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 12, 2021, 2:35 AM), (explaining that the Court released its decision “around midnight eastern time”).

[2] 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc­­–1.

[3] Smith v. Dunn, No. 2:20-CV-1026, 2021 WL 358374, at *1 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 2, 2021), rev’d sub nom. Smith v. Comm’r, No. 21-10348, 2021 WL 490283, at *1 (11th Cir. Feb. 10, 2021), aff’d sub nom. Smith, 2021 WL 517473, at *1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at *6.

[6] Id. at *22.

[7] See id. at *9–10.

[8] Smith, 2021 WL 490283, at *1, aff’d Smith, 2021 WL 517473, at *1.

[9] 2021 WL 517473, at *1.

[10] Id. at *2 (Kagan, J., concurring).

[11] Id. at *1 (quoting Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S. 352, 364 (2015)).

[12] 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc–1(a)(2).

[13] Smith, 2021 WL 517473, at *1 (Kagan, J., concurring).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at *2.

[17] 139 S. Ct. 661 (2019) (mem.).

[18] Id. at 661.

[19] See id. at 661–62 (Kagan, J., dissenting).

[20] 503 U.S. 653, 654 (1992).

[21] Ray, 139 S. Ct. at 661 (quoting Gomez, 503 U.S. at 654).

[22] Id. at 661 (Kagan, J., dissenting).

[23] Id. at 662.

[24] Id.

[25] 139 S. Ct. 1475 (2019) (mem.).

[26] See id. at 1475.

[27] Id. (Kavanaugh, J., concurring) (“[T]he relevant Texas policy allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the adjacent viewing room.”).

[28] Id. (majority opinion).  

[29] Id. at 1477 (Kavanaugh, J., supplementary statement).

[30] The Supreme Court’s Shadow Docket: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Cts., Intell. Prop., & the Internet of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 117th Cong. 4 (2021) (statement of Amir H. Ali, Deputy Director, Supreme Court & Appellate Program of the MacArthur Justice Center) [hereinafter Ali Hearing Statement] (“The disparate outcomes of these cases demonstrate the arbitrariness of present Shadow Docket practice in terms of who dies without this basic dignity.”).

[31] Murphy, 139 S. Ct. at 1476 (Kavanaugh, J., supplementary statement) (“Texas now allows all religious ministers only in the viewing room and not in the execution room.”).

[32] Id.

[33] See Howe, supra note 1 (describing Kavanaugh’s supplementary statement in Murphy as “suggesting” the “solution” of excluding all religious ministers from the execution chamber).

[34] See Smith v. Dunn, No. 2:20-CV-1026, 2021 WL 358374, at *2 (M.D. Ala. Feb. 2, 2021) (explaining that following “litigation in both Alabama in Texas,” Alabama revised its execution policy in April 2019 to restrict all religious ministers from the execution chamber), rev’d sub nom. Smith v. Comm’r, No. 21-10348, 2021 WL 490283, at *1 (11th Cir. Feb. 10, 2021), aff’d sub nom. Dunn v. Smith, No. 20A128, 2021 WL 517473, at *1 (U.S. Feb. 11, 2021).

[35] See Juan A. Lozano, U.S. Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution Over Clergy Question, AP News (June 16, 2020),

[36] No. 19-8695, 2021 WL 231538, at *1 (U.S. Jan. 25, 2021) (mem.).

[37] Id. at *1.  An earlier grant from the Supreme Court to issue a stay for the execution (while Gutierrez’s petition for certiorari was still pending) had instructed the District Court to evaluate “whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.”  Gutierrez v. Saenz, 141 S. Ct. 127, 128 (2020) (mem.); see also Smith, 2021 WL 358374, at *3 (noting that the district court in Gutierrez had found that “no serious security problems would result” from the presence of spiritual advisors in the execution chamber (citing Gutierrez v. Saenz, No. 19-cv-185 (S.D. Tex. 2019), Doc. 124, p.2))).

[38] Debra Cassens Weiss, House Panel Considers Reforms to Deal with Supreme Court’s Shadow Docket, ABA J. (Feb. 19, 2021, 9:38 AM),

[39] See id.; see also Hon. Trevor McFadden & Vetan Kapoor, Symposium: The Precedential Effects of Shadow Docket Stays, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 28, 2020, 9:18 AM),; Steve Vladeck, The Supreme Court’s Most Partisan Decisions Are Flying Under the Radar, Slate (Aug. 11, 2020, 12:12 PM),

[40] The Supreme Court’s Shadow Docket: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Cts., Intell. Prop., & the Internet of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 117th Cong. 4–5 (2021) (statement of Stephen Vladeck, Charles Alan Wright Chair in Federal Courts, University of Texas School of Law) [hereinafter Vladeck Hearing Statement] (explaining that over four years, the Trump administration filed forty-one applications with the Supreme Court for emergency relief, which was “more than twenty times” the number of applications prior administrations submitted between January 2001 and January 2017).  The Supreme Court granted twenty-four of these applications “in full and four in part.” Id. at 5.

[41] Id. at 5 (“[D]uring the October 2019 Term, there were almost as many public 5-4 rulings on the shadow docket (11) as there were on the merits docket (12).”).

[42] The Supreme Court’ Shadow Docket, House Comm. on Judiciary, (last visited Feb. 24, 2021).  This link contains a recording of the virtual hearing.

[43] Vladeck Hearing Statement, supra note 40, at 6.  Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett joined Justice Kagan’s opinion in Smith, Justice Kavanaugh’s dissent was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and the opening sentences of the decision note that Justice Thomas would have vacated the injunction.  Dunn v. Smith, No. 20A128, 2021 WL 517473, at *1 (U.S. Feb. 11, 2021).  The decisions of Justices Gorsuch and Alito remain unknown, leading to speculation about which of the two joined the majority decision.  See, e.g., Jonathan H. Adler, SCOTUS Refuses to Let Alabama Execute Willie Smith Without His Pastor Present (Without Noting Who Cast the Fifth Vote), Reason: Volokh Conspiracy (Feb. 18, 2021, 1:46 PM), (“If I had to guess, I would think Justice Gorsuch provided the fifth vote to deny the application, though it is also possible both opted to leave the lower court’s injunction in place.”).

[44] Vladeck Hearing Statement, supra note 40, at 6. 

[45] Ali Hearing Statement, supra note 30, at 4. 

[46] See id. at 5.  In particular, Ali recommended adopting the standard currently used for overturning certain state court decisions concerning prisoners, which requires that the Supreme Court should disturb “a lower court’s request for additional time to consider the lawfulness of an execution” only when “it is apparent to the Supreme Court that the lower court’s decision was ‘contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law’ or rested on ‘an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.’”  Id. at 6 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)).

[47] See id. at 6.

[48] State by State, Death Penalty Info. Ctr., (last visited Feb. 18, 2021) (listing twenty-eight states that still recognize the death penalty).  However, three of these states (California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania) currently have a governor-imposed moratorium on executions.  Id.  An additional nine death penalty states have not carried out executions in at least ten years.  Executions Overview: States with No Recent Executions, Death Penalty Info. Ctr. (July 14, 2020), Virginia also appears to be on the brink of abolishing its death penalty. See Dean Mirshahi, With Northam’s Signature, Virginia Will Become First Southern State to Abolish the Death Penalty, ABC News (Feb. 23, 2021 12:48 PM), (noting that both the Virginia House and Senate have approved a bill abolishing the death penalty, and Governor Northam “seems poised to sign the legislation”).

[49] See Murphy v. Collier, 139 S. Ct. 1475, 1476 (2019) (Kavanaugh, J., supplementary statement).

[50] See Execution Procedure, Tex. Dep’t Crim. Just. Corr. Insts. Div. 8 (Apr. 2, 2019), (“[Texas Department of Criminal Justice] Chaplains and Ministers/Spiritual Advisors designated by the offender may observe the execution only from the witness room.”).

[51] Execution Procedures, Idaho Dep’t Corr. 16 (Jan. 6, 2012),

[52] Execution Procedure Manual for Single Drug Protocol (Pentobarbital), N.C. Dep’t Pub. Safety 7 (Oct. 24, 2013),  The protocols also provide that the religious minister should remain with the prisoner in the Preparation Room “until orders are given to move the condemned prisoner into the Death Chamber.”  Id. at 16.

[53] Ali Hearing Statement, supra note 30, at 5. 

Post Image by Nathan Dumalo on Unsplash.

By Kayla West and Jim Twiddy

Mark Lawlor v. David Zook

In this criminal case, the Appellant sought a review of his death sentence. A Virginia state court sentenced the Appellant to death after his conviction for capital murder. During his sentencing, the sentencing jury found that the Appellant would likely continue to commit criminal acts of violence, making him a continuous threat to society. The state court had excluded relevant testimony of a qualified witness who would have explained that the Appellant represented a low risk for committing acts of violence while incarcerated. The Appellant filed the instant federal petition for review of his death sentence which was dismissed by the district court. The Fourth Circuit granted certificate of appealability on three issues, including whether it was a constitutional error for the trial court to exclude expert testimony about the Appellant’s risk of future violence in prison. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the state court’s exclusion of the expert testimony was an unreasonable application of the established federal law because the evidence was potentially mitigating, and such evidence may not be excluded from the sentencer’s consideration. The Fourth Circuit relied on the Supreme Court’s long recognized principle that a capital sentencing body must be permitted to consider any admissible and relevant mitigating information in determining whether to assign the defendant a sentence less than death. Thus, the district court’s decision was reversed and remanded.


Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In this civil case, petitioners asked for the Court to set aside respondent’s verification and reinstated verification that construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline can proceed under the terms and conditions of Clean Water Act Nationwide Permit 12 (“NWP 12”), rather than an individual permit. The 42-inch diameter natural gas Pipeline proposes to run 304 miles through parts of Virginia and West Virginia, crossing several federal water bodies. Because the construction of the Pipeline will involve the discharge of fill material into federal waters, the Clean Water Act requires that Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (certified to construct and operate the Pipeline) obtain clearance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ before beginning construction. Mountain Valley elected to pursue the general permit approach to obtain Corps clearance under NWP 12 which requires that all terms and conditions are satisfied before valid authorization occurs. Additionally, Mountain Valley must provide the Corps with a certification from the state in which the discharge originates. Under NWP 12, West Virginia’s certification imposes additional “special conditions” which the Corps must make regional conditions. However, the Corps decided to substitute its Special Condition 6 “in lieu of” NWP 12’s Special Condition C (imposed by West Virginia). The Fourth Circuit held that the Corps lacked the statutory authority to substitute its own special conditions “in lieu of” West Virginia’s special conditions. Further, the State Department for West Virginia waived Special Condition A, imposed as part of its certification of NWP 12. However, the Fourth Circuit held that a state cannot waive a special condition previously imposed as part of a nationwide permit absent completion of the notice-and-comment procedures required by the Clean Water Act under Section 1341(a)(1). Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated, in their entirety, the verification and reinstated verification authorizing the Pipeline’s compliance with NWP 12.


US v. Terry

In this criminal case, Terry appealed his conviction of possessing methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The key issue in this appeal was whether the district court erred in denying Terry’s motion to suppress evidence seized during a traffic stop. The stop was conducted through the illegal use of a GPS search. The district court asserted that because Terry relinquished control over the car, he lacked standing to challenge the GPS search. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the government agents committed a flagrant constitutional violation when they secretly placed a GPS on Terry’s car without a warrant, and that the discovery of the evidence seized during the traffic stop was not sufficiently attenuated from the unlawful GPS search to purge the effect of the unlawful search because the GPS and discovery of evidence were so closely tied. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Terry did not lose his standing to assert a constitutional violation because when the tracker was placed, he was legitimately in possession of the vehicle. The Fourth Circuit reversed the holding of the district court, and vacated Terry’s conviction.


US v. Brown

In this criminal case, Brown asserted that a district court erred in calculating his criminal history category because the court added two points to Brown’s criminal history score based on a prior Virginia state conviction for which Brown received a suspended sentence. Brown’s suspended sentence was conditioned on a period of good behavior for ten years upon release from the prior Virginia State conviction. He was released in July of 2009, meaning that at the time of the present case, Brown had not completed his period of ten years good behavior. The district court concluded that a period of good behavior constitutes a criminal justice sentence, making it relevant to a defendant’s criminal history score. Brown asserted that a period of good behavior is not a criminal justice sentence because it lacks a custodial or supervisory component. The Fourth Circuit concluded that during a period of good behavior, Brown was still subject to the authority of the state. This operated as a supervisory component significant enough to constitute a criminal justice sentence. Because Brown committed the present offense while under a criminal justice sentence, the additional two points to his criminal history score were correctly added. The Fourth Circuit affirmed.


By Kayleigh Butterfield

On March 8, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case Moses v. Joyner. Moses, a prisoner facing the death penalty, filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for relief from the district court’s dismissal of his federal habeas petition. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion.

Clean Crime and Messy Procedure

In 1997, a jury convicted Moses of two counts of first-degree murder. Both murders were shootings that were closely tied to illegal drug operations. At sentencing, the court imposed the death penalty. The state supreme court affirmed Moses’ conviction, and his petition to the United States Supreme Court was denied.

Over the next seven years, Moses filed a total of three Motions for Appropriate Relief and a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. All three motions and the habeas petition were denied. In 2011, Moses filed his first motion under Rule 60(b) for the relief from the district court’s dismissal of his federal habeas petition. Treating this as a successive habeas petition, the district court transferred the issue to the Fourth Circuit, which then denied authorization for the successive litigation.

In August of 2014, Moses filed a second motion under Rule 60(b), claiming that the intervening case law in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler changed the procedural rules barring a federal habeas petition. Both cases essentially stand for the premise that a procedural default under state law will not always bar federal habeas cases from being heard.  The district court held that this new motion was untimely under Rule 60(c), and that the change of law in Martinez and Trevino was not enough to trigger relief under Rule 60(b).

Untimely and Insufficient

The Fourth Circuit first examined whether the district court had abused its discretion by holding Moses’ motion untimely under Rule 60(c). The Fourth Circuit did not find an abuse of discretion, primarily because Moses waited nearly two-and-a-half years after Martinez and fifteen months after Trevino before filing the present motion.

Next, the Fourth Circuit analyzed whether Moses actually met the standards required by Rule 60(b). The Fourth Circuit explained that while the last clause of 60(b) does act as a sort of broad catch-all for relief, the Supreme Court has narrowed that language so that it only applies if one can show “extraordinary circumstances.” Determining that Martinez and Trevino only constituted a procedural inconsistency with prior habeas law, the Fourth Circuit held that such distinctions did not create extraordinary circumstances broad enough to warrant sufficient grounds for Moses’ 60(b) motion.


For the aforementioned reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Moses’ motion under Rule 60(b).

Prisoner and guard

By George Kennedy

On November 25, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the criminal case of Gray v. Zook. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the order of the district court, which denied Defendant’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

Defendant’s Crimes and Death Sentence

Defendant Ricky Jovan Gray confessed to murdering Bryan and Kathryn Harvey and their two young daughters in the course of a home burglary. For these crimes, Defendant was tried in Virginia state court. At trial, the state presented evidence that Defendant had also murdered his wife as well as several others close in time to the murders of the Harveys. As a defense, Defendant offered evidence of his traumatic childhood experiences, including repeated sexual abuse, as well as his consistent drug use. Defendant attempted to show that there was a connection between his childhood trauma and drug use and his violent behavior.

The jury issued verdicts of life imprisonment on three murder counts, and verdicts of death for the murders of the Harvey daughters. On direct appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the convictions and death sentences.

Petitions for Habeas Relief

Following his conviction, Defendant sought state habeas relief in the Supreme Court of Virginia. Defendant argued that he had received inadequate legal representation. Specifically, Defendant claimed that his attorneys had failed to investigate the circumstances surrounding his confession and that his attorneys had not sufficiently represented Defendant’s defense that his use of PCP during the murders had clouded his memory. The Supreme Court of Virginia dismissed Gray’s habeas petition with the exception of one claim, not relevant to Defendant’s federal claims.

Defendant then filed a federal habeas petition in federal district court, alleging that the Supreme Court of Virginia’s dismissal of his habeas petition was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts under the Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) § 2254(d)(2). The essence of this claim was that the Supreme Court of Virginia failed to adequately consider all of the evidence presented at trial. The district court also denied Defendant’s habeas petition in full. In addition, the district court certified two questions to the Fourth Circuit. The second question was whether the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of Martinez v. Ryan mandated the appointment of independent counsel to investigate possible Martinez claims present in Defendant’s case. To this question, the Fourth Circuit answered in the affirmative. Accordingly, Defendant was appointed new counsel, and was allowed to present a new claim for habeas relief. Defendant’s claim was that his counsel failed to present evidence of his voluntary intoxication at the time of the crimes. Yet again, the district court rejected Defendant’s claim for relief. The first certified question was resolved by the Fourth Circuit in this appeal.

Issues on Appeal

The first issue on appeal at the Fourth Circuit was whether the Supreme Court of Virginia’s dismissal of Defendant’s habeas petition that he failed to receive effective legal counsel was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts under AEDPA § 2254(d)(2).” The AEDPA allows a federal district court to review claims decided on the merits by state courts in death penalty cases when the state court adjudication “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” Defendant’s argument was that the Supreme Court of Virginia erred by failing to resolve disputed issues of fact without an evidentiary hearing, and that its determinations of factual disputes were unreasonable. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, and held that the Supreme Court of Virginia was not required to hold an evidentiary hearing and held that its determination of the facts was not objectively unreasonable.

As the Fourth Circuit explained, the AEDPA does not require a state court to conduct an evidentiary hearing for all factual disputes. Here, the Fourth Circuit held that an evidentiary hearing was not required. The factual dispute at issue was whether Defendant had received adequate representation. The Fourth Circuit found ample support in the record that the Supreme Court of Virginia had considered this dispute sufficiently, and that there was no reason why further inquiry in the form of an evidentiary hearing was required. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit held that the Supreme Court of Virginia’s determination of the facts was not objectively unreasonable under the AEDPA. The Fourth Circuit disagreed with Defendant on all points. As the Fourth Circuit held, Defendant’s arguments did not call into question any of the Supreme Court of Virginia’s factual findings since they were based on Defendant’s own “conclusory allegations” contradicted by evidence on the record.

The second issue on appeal was whether Defendant may belatedly raise an ineffective assistance at trial claim under the rule recently announced in Martinez. On this issue, also, the Fourth Circuit disagreed with Defendant and affirmed the decision of the trial court. Martinez “permits a petitioner, under certain circumstances, to excuse a procedural defect and bring a claim in federal court that was not raised in state court.” Yet the Fourth Circuit held that Defendant’s ineffective assistance at trial claim was effectively raised in Virginia state court. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that Defendant was not entitled to bring his ineffective assistance at trial claim anew in federal court. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit found no basis to reverse the district court nor revisit the decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia.


The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Defendant’s habeas petition.


Judge Davis wrote a separate opinion in which he concurred in part and dissented in part. Judge Davis agreed that Defendant’s Martinez claim relating to ineffective representation at trial was without merit. However, Judge Davis disagreed with the majority as to the AEDPA claim, arguing instead that the Supreme Court of Virginia made an unreasonable determination of the facts.




By Daniel Stratton

On June 30, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the criminal case Prieto v. Zook. The appellant, Alfredo Rolando Prieto appealed the district court’s denial of his writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Prieto argued that his two death sentences were unconstitutional under the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on the execution of intellectually disabled individuals, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinions in Atkins v. Virginia , and Hall v. Florida. The Fourth Circuit, after reviewing the impact of Atkins and Hall, affirmed the district court’s denial, holding that Prieto failed to prove the “fundamental miscarriage of justice” exception necessary to overcome his procedural default.

Prieto’s Conviction and Sentencing

In 2007, Prieto was convicted of two counts of capital murder, two counts of use of a firearm in committing murder, grand larceny, and rape, stemming from a 1988 crime, which he was linked to in 2005 through DNA testing. Juror misconduct ultimately caused a mistrial, and Prieto was again convicted on the same counts in 2008. During his sentencing, Prieto argued that he was ineligible for the death penalty due to an intellectual disability. Despite substantial evidence to support his claim, the jury imposed the death penalty on Prieto.

The Virginia Supreme Court, upon hearing his appeal, affirmed Prieto’s conviction but vacated his death sentence due to problems with the jury verdict forms during the sentencing phase of the trial. The sentencing was remanded to a new jury, and in 2010, he was again sentenced to the death penalty. The trial court again imposed the death penalty and Prieto again appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed.

Prieto filed a habeas petition with the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective and that his execution was barred by the precedent of Atkins. The Virginia Supreme Court denied the petition, holding that because Prieto had failed to raise his Atkins claim on his 2010 direct appeal, he was now procedurally barred from raising it in his state habeas petition.

Prieto then filed his habeas application in federal court, again asserting a claim under Atkins. The district court dismissed that claim, among others. The Fourth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability as to the Atkins claim.

Atkins, Hall, and the Evolving Standards of Decency

In Atkins, a 2002 case, the Supreme Court held that punishing individuals with an intellectual disability is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment in light of “evolving standards of decency.” In order to determine which offenders fell into the category of intellectually disabled, Virginia enacted a statute which its state Supreme Court interpreted as requiring an IQ score of 70 or below. Thus a defendant with an IQ of 71 could theoretically be sentenced to death, while the Eighth Amendment would protect a defendant with an IQ of 70.

In 2014, the Supreme Court clarified this prohibition, holding in Hall that a mechanical rule with rigid cutoffs for IQ scores to determine intellectual disability is unconstitutional, and that no single factor is dispositive in making a determination. The Supreme Court instead established that states should focus on (1) significantly below average intellectual functioning and (2) inability to engage in adaptive functioning (i.e. learning basic skills).

In light of this decision, Virginia’s interpretation of its statute, which imposed a rigid cutoff at an IQ score of 70 or below was clearly unconstitutional. However, because Prieto had procedurally defaulted on his claim, the constitutionality of the cutoff system was not enough to resolve his Atkins claim.

Virginia and Prieto’s Procedural Default

Under Virginia state law, a claim procedurally defaults when “a non-jurisdictional issue could have been raised during the direct appeal process” but was not. Afterwards, it cannot be used in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A habeas petitioner can, however, overcome the procedural default if she can establish either “cause and prejudice” for the default or that it would result in “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” One way to establish cause is by demonstrating constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel. To establish a fundamental miscarriage of justice, according to the Supreme Court, a defendant must show that a “constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent.” This can also be applied in a death penalty case, where a defendant can show “actual innocence,” meaning that she can prove through “clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable juror would have found” the defendant eligible for the death penalty.

Prieto argued at the district court level that he had constitutionally ineffective assistance in his 2010 sentencing and appeal, which resulted in his intellectual disability not being raised. The district court found this claim to be meritless, and on this appeal, Prieto did not challenge that finding. For that reason, Pietro was only able to argue that his Atkins claim could survive procedural default because of a fundamental miscarriage of justice. To prove this, Prieto did not argue that he was actually innocent, instead opting to argue that he is “innocent of death.”

The Fourth Circuit, following the Supreme Court, declined to decide if Hall applied retroactively, instead choosing to assume without deciding that it did. The Fourth Circuit then reviewed the district court’s decision de novo. Prieto argued that the evidence he offered during the 2008 sentencing hearing proved his actual innocence claim. Despite the substantial volume of evidence produce by Prieto, which included multiple expert witnesses, numerous interviews with relatives, and “a comprehensive evaluation of his neuropsychological functioning,” the state offered strong evidence to counter his claim. The State’s evidence included testimony from three prison psychologists, evidence that Prieto had written his own list of prison grievances, and had filed a pro se legal challenge relating to his confinement. Because Prieto did not argue that if he were re-sentenced he would introduce additional evidence, the Fourth Circuit ultimately concluded that a jury at a new sentencing would view largely the same evidence as before.

Prieto finally attempted to draw comparisons in his case to the Supreme Court’s Hall case. The Fourth Circuit found this unpersuasive, in part because the Supreme Court did not rule on Hall’s intellectual disability; it simply remanded the case back so Hall could attempt to prove such disability.

The Fourth Circuit Affirms Prieto’s Sentence

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit, when looking at the entirety of the record, held that it could not conclude that “no reasonable jury would find Prieto eligible for the death penalty.” Because of the high burden required of establishing a “fundamental miscarriage of justice” exception, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Prieto failed to prove his Atkins claim and the judgment was affirmed.