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Langley v. Prince

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 14, 2018

RICKY LANGLEY, Petitioner-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

          Before WIENER, HIGGINSON, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.


         The State of Louisiana tried Ricky Langley three times for the same killing. At the second trial, the jury acquitted Langley of first degree murder, relevantly defined as (1) killing a human being (2) with specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm (3) where the victim was under twelve. See La. R.S. 14:30(A)(5). Langley's attorneys had conceded the first and third elements, but disputed the second; they argued that Langley was mentally incapable of forming the requisite intent. Years later, at the third trial, and over a double jeopardy objection, the State re-tried Langley for the lesser included offense of second degree murder, defined as (1) killing a human being (2) with specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm. See La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1). This time, the State secured a conviction. Langley now petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his conviction violated the issue-preclusion component of the Double Jeopardy Clause. See Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 443-46 (1970).

         The Double Jeopardy Clause, made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees that "[n]o person shall . . . be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." U.S. Const. amend. V; accord Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784, 787 (1969). This language embodies an idea "deeply ingrained" in Anglo-American jurisprudence: "that the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense." Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184, 187 (1957). To that end, the Double Jeopardy Clause requires that acquittals be final-no matter how legally or factually erroneous they may appear to be. E.g., United States v. DiFrancesco, 449 U.S. 117, 129-30 (1980); Fong Foo v. United States, 369 U.S. 141, 143 (1962). Once an acquittal is rendered, the State may not re-prosecute the defendant for the same crime. E.g., Green, 355 U.S. at 188. And importantly here, neither may the State prosecute the defendant for even a different crime, if that crime has as an essential element an issue necessarily determined by the acquitting jury's verdict. Ashe, 397 U.S. at 443-46.

         In this case, the verdict from Langley's second trial necessarily determined that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Langley acted with specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm. Hence, the State is constitutionally barred from prosecuting Langley for any crime having that same issue as an essential element. Langley's second-degree-murder conviction from his third trial is therefore invalid. We accordingly REVERSE the district court's dismissal of Langley's habeas petition and REMAND with directions to issue the writ. There may well be crimes for which the State can constitutionally prosecute Langley in connection with the horrific facts of this case. But under clearly established Supreme Court precedent, second degree murder as defined in La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1) cannot reasonably be one of them.


         The facts are heartrending. Six-year-old J.G. went missing on February 7, 1992. Officers soon arrested Langley, who was then twenty-six years old. Once inside the police cruiser, Langley admitted to killing the young boy and leaving the body in his closet. He described how he rented a room from a family with two children; how J.G. came to the house looking to play with one of those children; how Langley followed J.G. inside; and how Langley strangled J.G. to death. He then gave the officers a videotaped tour of the house, recounting the events in a calm and neutral voice that one witness described as having "no register whatsoever of horror, shame, [or] anxiety." When an officer asked Langley why he had done it, Langley shook his head and answered: "I couldn't tell you. I still go through my mind trying to figure it out. It's like, I know I did it, but yet it's like something you read in a newspaper."

         Langley later gave two more custodial videotaped confessions. His confessions gave differing stories, however, as to whether he also beckoned J.G. inside the house; as to whether he abused J.G. sexually; and as to whether any such abuse took place before or after the strangling.


         The first trial took place in July 1994. A grand jury charged Langley with first degree murder; a petite jury convicted him; and a judge sentenced him to death. Those proceedings were set aside, however, after a finding that the judge presiding over the grand jury had selected the foreperson on the basis of race. See generally State v. Langley (Langley II), 813 So.2d 356, 359-65, 373 (La. 2002) (applying Campbell v. Louisiana, 523 U.S. 392, 396-97 (1998)).Nei-ther party contends that this now-vacated conviction carries double jeopardy consequences. See generally Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1, 13, 16 (1978).


         The second trial-the one most relevant here-took place in May 2003. The State re-indicted Langley on the same first-degree-murder charge, and again sought the death penalty. Langley pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. See La. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 552(3).

         In arguments to the jury, defense counsel repeatedly emphasized that they were not contesting that Langley had killed J.G. The defense likewise conceded to the jury that J.G. had been under the age of twelve.

         Instead, the defense's closing argument contested primarily two issues. First, defense attorney Phyllis Mann argued that the State had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Langley acted with specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm. The core of the argument was that Langley could not have formed the requisite intent because his mental illness prevented him from understanding and intending the consequences of his actions. Second, defense attorney Clive Smith argued separately that Langley had proved his insanity defense by a preponderance of the evidence. Both arguments turned in part on the same evidence of Langley's mental illness.[1] But Langley's attorneys were careful to delineate the two theories-explaining that they involved different substantive standards, required different degrees of persuasion, and placed the burden of proof on different parties.

         As would become relevant on appeal, the judge presiding over Langley's second trial left the courtroom for significant portions of the proceedings, cut off the defense's closing argument early, refused to entertain certain contemporaneous objections, and by and large "failed to maintain order and decorum" in the courtroom. See generally State v. Langley (Langley III), 896 So.2d 200, 203-07 (La. Ct. App. 2004).

         The judge did, however, give the following jury instructions: First, the judge defined first degree murder. First degree murder in Louisiana consists of (1) killing a human being (2) with specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm (3) with one or more aggravating factors. See La. R.S. 14:30(A). Here, the State chose to rely on two possible aggravators: either (a) that Langley was committing or attempting second degree kidnapping, see id. 14:30(A)(1); or (b) that J.G. was less than twelve years old, see id. 14:30(A)(5).[2]The judge accordingly defined first degree murder as requiring proof of those elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge then defined specific intent:

Specific criminal intent is that state of mind which exists when the circumstances indicate that a defendant actively desired the prescribed criminal consequences to follow his act or failure to act.

         And the judge told the jury: "[I]f you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that [Langley] is guilty of first degree murder, your verdict should be 'guilty.'"

         Second, the judge instructed the jury, "If you are not convinced that [Langley] is guilty of the offense charged, you may find [him] guilty of a lesser offense, " including second degree murder. See La. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 804(B). Second degree murder in Louisiana is defined in the alternative. As relevant here, it consists of either: (1) killing a human being (2) with specific intent to kill or inflict great bodily harm ("specific-intent second degree murder"), see La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1); or (1) killing a human being (2) while committing or attempting certain enumerated felonies ("second degree felony murder"), see id. 14:30.1(A)(2).[3] The judge instructed the jury as to both types.[4] With respect to specific-intent second degree murder, the judge gave no definition of "specific intent" other than the one quoted above.[5] With respect to second degree felony murder, the judge instructed the jury that the relevant felonies were second degree kidnapping, see id. 14:44.1, [6] and cruelty to juveniles, see id. 14:93.[7] The judge then told the jury: "If you are not convinced that [Langley] is guilty of first degree murder, but you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that [he] is guilty of second degree murder, the form of your verdict should be 'guilty of second degree murder.'" (emphasis added).

         Finally, the judge instructed the jury on the insanity defense. He explained that "[Langley] has the burden of proving his insanity at the time of the commission of the offense by a preponderance of the evidence." He then defined insanity:

[Langley was insane at the time of the commission of the offense] if the circumstances indicate that because of his mental disease or mental defect the defendant was incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong with reference to the conduct in question . . . .

         And he instructed that, if the jury found that the State had proved Langley's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but also found that Langley established his insanity defense, the verdict "must be 'not guilty by reason of insanity.'"

         The verdict form listed the possible responsive verdicts- "guilty, " "guilty of second degree murder, " "guilty of manslaughter, " "not guilty by reason of insanity, " and "not guilty"-and instructed the jury to return exactly one of them. See La. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. arts. 809, 814(A)(1), 816. During deliberations, the jury requested a written list of elements for each responsive verdict, and a clarification of the phrase "great bodily harm" in the specific-intent requirement. The judge provided the first requested item, but not the second.

         The jury returned a verdict finding Langley guilty of second degree murder and, by implication from the verdict form and the judge's instructions, acquitting him of first degree murder.[8]


         Langley appealed his second-degree-murder conviction, and the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal reversed and remanded for a new trial. Langley III, 896 So.2d at 212. The Third Circuit first held that the trial judge's misconduct amounted to structural error warranting reversal with no showing of prejudice necessary. Id. at 207-10. Then, reasoning that the verdict was "an absolute nullity, " the Third Circuit opined that Langley could be re-tried even for first degree murder-notwithstanding his recent acquittal. Id. at 210-12.

         On remand, the defense moved to quash the first degree murder charge, citing Fong Foo, 369 U.S. at 143, and Green, 355 U.S. at 188-91, on the ground that Langley had just been acquitted of that exact crime. The trial court (this time a new judge) granted the motion, ordering that the re-trial be limited to second degree murder. The State sought interlocutory review, and the Third Circuit summarily reversed.

         Granting certiorari, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit, reinstated the trial judge's order, and quashed the first degree murder charge. State v. Langley (Langley IV), 958 So.2d 1160, 1169-70 (La.) (citing Green, 355 U.S. at 188), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1007 (2007). The opinion held that Langley's second-degree-murder conviction operated as an implied acquittal of first degree murder. Id. at 1170. That was so both because the jury instructions required the jury to acquit on first degree murder before considering second, see id. at 1169-70, and because Louisiana law provides that "[w]hen a person is found guilty of a lesser degree of the offense charged, the verdict . . . is an acquittal of all greater offenses charged in the indictment, " id. at 1170 (quoting La. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 598(A)).


         The third trial took place in November 2009, with Langley now represented by his present-day counsel. Langley waived his right to a jury and proceeded via bench trial.

         On day one of trial, the State orally moved to amend the indictment to reflect that only second degree murder was being charged. Langley's counsel agreed that the indictment should be amended, but also argued that the new indictment must be limited to felony murder-raising the Ashe issue for the first time.[9] Specifically, Langley's counsel contended (and continues to contend today) that no rational jury could have returned the 2003 verdict without deciding that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Langley had specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm. Thus, Langley's counsel argued, the State could not charge Langley with any crime requiring proof of that same element, including the crime of specific-intent second degree murder under La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1). See Ashe, 397 U.S. at 443-46. The court granted the State's motion and denied Langley's from the bench.[10] The indictment was formally amended to reflect charges for second degree murder under both La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(1) (specific intent) and La. R.S. 14:30.1(A)(2) (felony murder).

         The next morning, however, the State orally dismissed the felony murder charge, leaving only the charge of second degree murder based on specific intent. The prosecutor explained that he had looked at the 1992 code the night before and realized for the first time that the crimes of "second degree kidnapping" and "cruelty to juveniles" were not enumerated felonies in the version of the felony-murder statute in effect at the time of Langley's alleged offense.[11]

         The judge ultimately found Langley guilty of second degree murder. The ruling explicitly stated that "[t]he issue of specific intent . . . is necessary for the determination of guilt, " and found that the requisite specific intent was present. Langley's counsel renewed the Ashe objection in a post-trial motion, but the judge stood by his earlier ruling. The judge then imposed the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole. See La. R.S. 14:30.1(B).


         On direct appeal, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal rejected Langley's Ashe claim on its merits. State v. Langley (Langley V), 61 So.3d 747, 757-58 (La. Ct. App. 2011).[12] The Third Circuit reasoned that the 2003 verdict had not "necessarily determined" the issue of specific intent because the jury might have chosen not to obey the judge's instructions. See id. The Louisiana Supreme Court declined review, 78 So.3d 139 (La. 2012) (mem.), as did the United States Supreme Court, 568 U.S. 841 (2012) (mem.).

         Less than one year later, Langley pressed his Ashe claim in a federal habeas petition. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation that the petition be denied. Langley v. Prince (Langley VI), No. 13-cv-2780, 2015 WL 10635328 (W.D. La. Dec. 14, 2015). The magistrate judge disavowed the state court's reasoning, substituting her own reasoning instead. See id. at *8. According to the magistrate judge, Langley's Ashe claim failed because Langley had not shown that "a rational jury would not find that Langley acted with specific intent to kill." Id. The magistrate judge further reasoned that, because the jury rejected Langley's insanity defense, the jury could not have used evidence of Langley's mental illness to find a lack of specific intent. Id. Then, because the magistrate judge could "locate no other grounds within the record . . . to support a finding of no specific intent, " she concluded that the issue "was not necessarily determined." Id. The district court adopted the report and recommendation in full and dismissed Langley's petition. It did, however, issue a certificate of appealability, permitting our review.

         II Because the state court rejected Langley's Ashe claim on its merits, see Langley V, 61 So.3d at 757-58, Langley is not entitled to federal habeas relief unless that adjudication

resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).[13] This standard "stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal-court relitigation of claims already rejected in state court proceedings, " Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011)-but it comes close. Review under § 2254(d)(1) must be "highly deferential" to the state court's decision, and must give that decision "the benefit of the doubt." Cullen v. Pinhol-ster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). The district court's application of § 2254(d)(1) is reviewed de novo. Williams v. Thaler, 684 F.3d 597, 603 (5th Cir. 2012).

         For purposes of § 2254(d)(1), "clearly established Federal law" means "the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court render[ed] its decision." Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71-72 (2003). In other words, it includes the applicable Supreme Court holdings, but not "the dicta." Id. at 71. Law may be clearly established by the Supreme Court even if the Court has not rendered a decision "on nearly identical facts"; rather, it is enough if Supreme Court holdings clearly establish "a general standard." Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. 58, 62 (2013) (per curiam).

         The "contrary to" and "unreasonable application" clauses, moreover, "have independent meaning." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). The "contrary to" clause is met "if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases, or if it decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] ha[s] done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Id. The "unreasonable application" clause, in turn, is met "if the state court identifies the correct governing legal rule" but "unreasonably applies it" to the facts of the case, or "if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from [Supreme Court] precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply." Terry Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 407 (2000).

         "[A]n unreasonable application is different from an incorrect one." Bell, 535 U.S. at 694. To be an "unreasonable application, " the state court's error must have been "well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement." Richter, 562 U.S. at 108. And, under our circuit's interpretation of the "unreasonable application" clause, we review only the reasonableness of the state court's "ultimate legal conclusion, " as distinct from the thoroughness or quality of its written opinion. Neal v. Puckett, 286 F.3d 230, 246 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc) (per curiam).

         Along these lines, our court has stated that review under § 2254(d)(1) encompasses not just the arguments and legal theories the state court's opinion actually gave, but also any arguments or legal theories the state court reasonably could have given. E.g., Evans v. Davis, 875 F.3d 210, 216 (5th Cir. 2017) (citing Richter, 562 U.S. at 102); Clark v. Thaler, 673 F.3d 410, 418 (5th Cir. 2012) (same).[14] Langley argues that the Supreme Court unequivocally rejected this approach in Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1191-92, 1194-96 (2018), issued after oral argument in this case.[15] We leave Wilson's impact to be decided another day. Because Langley is entitled to relief even under "Richter's 'could have supported' framework, " id. at 1195, we assume for the limited purpose of this appeal that, where the state court denies the petitioner's claim by issuing an opinion that rests on objectively unreasonable grounds, § 2254(d)(1) still bars relief unless the petitioner "show[s] there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief, " Richter, 562 U.S. at 98.



         The "starting point" for our analysis is to identify the relevant Supreme Court precedent that was clearly established when the state court issued its opinion. Marshall, 569 U.S. at 61. Here, that precedent is the Double Jeopardy Clause's issue-preclusion component, as set forth in Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 443-46 (1970), and related cases. The Ashe doctrine "precludes the Government from relitigating any issue that was necessarily decided by a jury's acquittal in a prior trial." Yeager v. United States, 557 U.S. 110, 119 (2009).

         The challenge, of course, is deciphering exactly which issues (if any) a jury's verdict "necessarily decided." The use of general verdict forms muddies the analysis, as general verdicts say little if anything about the jury's specific rationale. Brackett, 113 F.3d at 1398-99. But the Supreme Court in Ashe did not leave it to the states to crack this puzzle. Rather, it prescribed a specific solution: When the prior acquittal "was based upon a general verdict, as is usually the case, " the reviewing court must

examine the record of prior proceeding, taking into account the pleadings, evidence, charge, and other relevant matter, and conclude whether a rational jury could have grounded its verdict upon an issue other than that which the defendant seeks to foreclose from consideration.

397 U.S. at 444 (emphasis added). In other words, the court must ask whether a rational jury could have returned the same verdict without deciding the relevant factual issue. See United States v. El-Mezain, 664 F.3d 467, 552-53 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing United States v. Leach, 632 F.2d 1337, 1340 (5th Cir. 1980)). If not, that issue was "necessarily decided."

         The facts of Ashe are illustrative. A group of masked men robbed six participants in a poker game. 397 U.S. at 437. The state charged Bob Ashe with six separate counts of robbery-one for each player. Id. at 438. At Ashe's trial for the robbery of poker player Donald Knight, however, the jury acquitted. Id. at 439. The question was whether the state could proceed to try Ashe for the robberies of the other five players.

         It could not. After announcing the test described above, the Supreme Court held that the jury had "determined by its verdict that [Ashe] was not one of the robbers." Id. at 446. The jury instructions had stated in effect that the jury was required to find Ashe guilty if it found (1) that the alleged robbery had occurred; (2) that the robbers had taken "any money" from Knight; and (3) that Ashe had been one of the robbers, whether or not Ashe had personally taken the money. See id. at 439 & nn.2, 3. At trial, the evidence that the alleged robbery took place and that the robbers had taken money from Knight was strong and undisputed. Id. at 438. The evidence of the robbers' identities, on the other hand, was weak. Id. So the "single rationally conceivable" basis for the jury's acquittal was that the jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Ashe had been one of the robbers. Id. at 445. As a result, the state could not "hale him before a new jury to litigate that issue again." Id. at 446.

         Ashe and the Supreme Court cases applying it clearly establish the following relevant governing principles:

         First, the subject of the Ashe inquiry is a hypothetical, objective, and rational jury-not the actual jurors in the room. The question is not what these particular jurors decided, but rather what a rational jury could have decided if faced with the trial record. That, after all, is what Ashe literally says. See 397 U.S. at 444 (test asks what "a rational jury could have" done); see also id. at 445 (issue necessarily decided because it was "[t]he single rationally conceivable issue in dispute"). The Supreme Court has since reiterated that "what transpired in the jury room" is beside the point; the Ashe inquiry is "confined to the points in controversy on the former trial, to the testimony given by the parties, and to the questions submitted to the jury for their consideration." Yeager, 557 U.S. at 122 (quoting Packet Co. v. Sickles, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 580, 593 (1866)); see also, e.g., United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, 67 (1984) ("Courts have always resisted inquiring into a jury's thought processes . . . ."); Garcia v. Dretke, 388 F.3d 496, 503-04 (5th Cir. 2004) (understanding Ashe to clearly establish for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) that "[o]ur inquiry into the potential rationale of the first jury . . . must stay within the bounds of a rational[] inquiry").

         Second, and as a corollary, Ashe is in fact "predicated on the assumption that the jury acted rationally." Powell, 469 U.S. at 68 (emphasis added). Thus, when the first jury returns "irreconcilably inconsistent" verdicts-meaning verdicts that acquit on one count while convicting on another, where the two counts require opposite resolutions of the same issue of ultimate fact-Ashe no longer applies. Bravo-Fernandez v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 352, 356-57 (2016) (construing Powell, 469 U.S. at 68). But so long as the jury's verdicts are not "on their face . . . logically inconsistent, " Ashe still controls: the court must "respect . . . the legitimacy" of the verdicts and assume the jury rational. Yeager, 557 U.S. at 124-25; see also id. at 134 (Alito, J., dissenting) (agreeing that "courts should begin with the presumption that a jury's actions can rationally be reconciled").

         Third, Ashe itself establishes that the court must assume the hypothetical jury believed any "substantial and uncontradicted evidence of the prosecution on a point the defendant did not contest." 397 U.S. at 444 n.9. Otherwise, the Supreme Court explained, issue preclusion would never apply, "since it is impossible to imagine a statutory offense in which the government has to prove only one element or issue to sustain a conviction." Id. This principle was essential to Ashe's holding. Without it, the issues whether the robbery occurred at all and whether any money was taken from Knight would have been additional "rationally conceivable issue[s] in dispute" that would have foreclosed relief. See id. at 445.

         Fourth and finally, a court applying Ashe must assume that the jury- being a rational one-followed its jury instructions. This principle is implicit in the concept of a rational jury and in the Supreme Court's reasoning in Ashe. See, e.g., United States v. Tran, 433 Fed.Appx. 227, 231 (5th Cir. 2011) (understanding Ashe's use of the phrase "rational jury" to mean a jury that obeys its instructions). And the Supreme Court made that principle explicit when it decided Turner v. Arkansas, 407 U.S. 366 (1972) (per curiam).

         In Turner, the state had tried Dennis Turner for first degree murder on theories of premeditated murder and felony-murder committed in the course of a robbery. Id. at 369. After the jury acquitted on both theories, the state re-indicted him for the robbery itself. Id. at 367. Turner argued that the acquittal had necessarily decided that he did not commit the robbery. Id. at 368. The state countered that a rational jury ...

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