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.