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7th Circuit: Courts wrongfully denied re-litigation

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Finding Indiana state and District courts erred in denying a convicted killer the chance to re-litigate his claim for relief from execution because he is mentally retarded, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the District Court's denial of the man's habeas petition.

Ever since Howard Allen Jr.'s conviction and death sentence in 1988, he has petitioned the state courts to consider his claim that he is mentally retarded and can't be executed. The trial court considered his mental retardation as a mitigating factor, but found it didn't outweigh the aggravating circumstances and upheld the death sentence. The Indiana Supreme Court held the 1994 state law banning the execution of the mentally retarded wasn't retroactive and didn't apply to Allen.

After the Supreme Court of the United States issued Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), Allen sought relief, but the Indiana Supreme Court determined because he had already litigated his claim that he was mentally retarded as a mitigating circumstance, he couldn't re-litigate his Atkins claim. The District Court denied Allen's habeas petition without a hearing in 2006, concluding that caselaw didn't entitle Allen to habeas relief.

In Howard A. Allen Jr. v. United States of America, No. 07-2486, the 7th Circuit found the state's Supreme Court decision that Allen couldn't re-litigate his claim under Atkins was contrary to the SCOTUS holding, which recognized a difference between using mental retardation as a mitigating factor and categorically excluding mentally retarded persons from the death penalty, wrote Judge Ann Claire Williams.

In addition, because the state courts never considered Allen's evidence using the proper Atkins inquiry, it is "objectively unreasonable to conclude that Allen had a 'full and fair' hearing on his Atkins claim," she wrote.

On remand, the 7th Circuit ordered the District Court to give Allen a chance to develop the factual basis of his claim and present it at an evidentiary hearing. Then the court must determine, using Indiana's standard for mental retardation, whether Allen is entitled to relief under Atkins.

The federal appellate judges also considered Allen's arguments pursuant to Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U.S. 104 (1982), that he should have received a new penalty phase hearing before a jury and that the sentencing court ignored some of his mitigating evidence; and that his statements were taken in violation of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The 7th Circuit affirmed the judgment of the District Court on these arguments because the federal appellate court is constrained by the Indiana Supreme Court's findings that the trial court considered the evidence, and because Allen failed to establish the state court's adjudication of his Miranda claims resulted in a decision contrary to SCOTUS precedent.

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