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Sixth Circuit: No Habeas Relief From Procedural Default

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 06, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Ohio man’s death sentence yesterday, finding that procedural default barred his habeas corpus petition.

In 1985, Robert Van Hook met David Self at a gay bar. Van Hook “lured Self into a vulnerable position,” strangled him, killed him with a kitchen knife, and mutilated his body, according to court records.

Van Hook has appealed his case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals four times. He petitioned for federal habeas corpus relief in 1995 after waiving trial by jury, after a three-judge Ohio panel sentenced him to death for the brutal murder of David Self in connection with a homosexual encounter, and after the Ohio courts upheld Van Hook’s death sentence.

For a fourth time, the Sixth Circuit denied Van Hook's appeal.

In this round, Van Hook argued three claims.

First, he asserted a Brady claim: alleging that the trial court and prosecution wrongfully withheld exculpatory evidence from him at trial. Second, he argued that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to request an independent mental health expert and for requesting a presentence report for the penalty phase. Third, he argued that his appellate counsel on his direct appeal of right was constitutionally ineffective for failing to raise two grounds for relief.

The Brady evidence at issue was a psychological evaluation that suggested Van Hook may have killed Self as a result of a "homophobic panic" rather than in conjunction with a robbery. Van Hook had previously admitted that his motive was robbery, and admitted searching Self for money, taking gold chains from Self's jewelry box, and leaving with his leather jacket. The court, however, said that Van Hook's Brady evidence did not warrant a new trial.

Even if Van Hook was motivated partially, or even entirely, at the exact moment of the murder by a "homophobic panic," that would not change the fact that he stole some of the victim's personal property by the use of serious physical harm, and hence committed robbery. The Brady evidence did not undermine confidence in the trial court's determination that Van Hook satisfied the aggravating factor.

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals previously rejected the Van Hook's trial counsel arguments in an en banc opinion, the three-judge panel in the current appeal noted that it was bound by the superseding authority of the en banc Sixth Circuit and the Supreme Court.

The Sixth Circuit also found that Van Hook's claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel was procedurally defaulted. Van Hook presented no argument in his brief that his default should be excused due to cause and prejudice. Accordingly, this Court holds that Van Hook's procedural default bars habeas relief on this claim.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Maples v. Thomas to decide whether there is cause to excuse a procedural default in a capital case. Could a Supreme Court finding that such cause exists benefit Van Hook? Should the courts give capital defendants latitude in their appeals?

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