Burt Lancaster was convicted of first degree murder in Michigan for killing his girl friend. He plead diminished capacity but was convicted any way. At the time of the offense there were a number of Michigan appellate decisions upholding a defense of diminished-capacity but the Michigan Supreme Court had not acted on the matter. A diminished-capacity defense allows “a defendant . . . although he was legally sane, [to present] evidence of some mental abnormality to negate the specific intent required to commit a particular crime.”
He obtained a writ of habeas corpus on an unrelated issue and the case was set for a second trial. By the time of the second trial the Michigan Supreme Court, in People v. Carpenter, reversed the lower court decisions and found that Michigan law did not permit a plea of diminished-capacity.
The trial court held that Carpenter was retroactive and refused to give a diminished-capacity instruction. Upon losing for a second time Lancaster appealed. “The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that applying Carpenter retroactively to Lancaster’s case did not violate due process, for Carpenter concerned an unambiguous statute that was interpreted by the Michigan Supreme Court for the first time.” The United States Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s decision, Monday.
It held, that under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), the Michigan Supreme Court did not “unreasonably [apply] clearly established Federal law, as determined by” the United States Supreme Court as is required under the AEDPA for a Federal Court to grant a writ of habeas corpus. “Only where [the change in the law] is unexpected and indefensible by reference to the law which had been expressed prior to the conduct in issue” is a failure to apply the law retroactively a violation of due process. Here the Michigan Supreme Court gave a reasonable interpretation of state law on its initial consideration of the law. In such a situation, the court found that, due process does not demand that the change in the law be given solely a prospective application. As a result it reversed the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ grant of habeas corpus.