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Miller v. Mays

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 9, 2018

David E. Miller, Petitioner-Appellant,
Tony Mays, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued: November 30, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville. No. 3:01-cv-00487-Robert Leon Jordan, District Judge.


          Stephen M. Kissinger, FEDERAL DEFENDER SERVICES OF EASTERN TENNESSEE, INC., Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Jennifer Lynn Smith, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Stephen M. Kissinger, FEDERAL DEFENDER SERVICES OF EASTERN TENNESSEE, INC., Knoxville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Jennifer Lynn Smith, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

          Before: SILER, GIBBONS, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.


          JULIA SMITH GIBBONS, Circuit Judge.

          David Miller was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Lee Standifer. His sentence was upheld by the Tennessee Supreme Court and we affirmed the dismissal of his § 2254 habeas petition. Seeking to revisit his ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel (IATC) claim in light of Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012), and Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U.S. 413 (2013), Miller now appeals the district court's denial of his motion for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the district court.



         We previously reviewed the facts underlying Miller's conviction in Miller v. Colson, 694 F.3d 691 (6th Cir. 2012). As relevant here, Lee Standifer was murdered in Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 20, 1981. Id. at 693. She was stabbed with a large knife and a fireplace poker, bound with a rope, and dragged into a wooded area. Id. The evidence at trial established that Miller and Standifer had been on a date that night. Id. At some point, they returned to the home of Benjamin Thomas, where Miller was staying. Id. When Thomas returned home, he found Miller cleaning the basement floor, found streaks of blood inside the house, and later found Standifer's body in his backyard along with a blood-stained t-shirt belonging to Miller. Id. Miller was arrested and, after waiving his Miranda rights, admitted to hitting Standifer with his fist and dragging her outside. Id.

         On June 11, 1981, Miller was examined by Dr. George Gee, a psychiatrist at the Helen Ross McNabb Mental Health Center. Id. at 694 n.1. In a written evaluation, Gee described Miller as "sociopathic but certainly mentally competent to stand trial." Id.

         Miller was subsequently indicted for Standifer's murder. Id. at 693. The trial court granted Miller's motion for a second psychiatric examination in order to determine his competency to stand trial. Id. The court instructed Gee to determine both Miller's mental state at the time of Standifer's death and whether he was currently competent to stand trial. Id. at 693-94. After again examining Miller, Gee issued a letter stating that Miller's affect and thought processes were normal and that he did not believe Miller was insane at the time of the offense. Id. at 694. Prior to trial, Miller requested that the trial court appoint a psychiatrist to assist in the preparation of his defense. Id. The court denied the motion, finding Miller was not entitled to a second expert. Id. Miller was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Id.

         Miller appealed his conviction and sentence, arguing, in part, that the trial court erred by refusing to provide him with an independent psychiatrist. Id. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed Miller's conviction but remanded the case for resentencing because the State had impermissibly introduced evidence of prior arrests during the sentencing phase. Id. On remand, Miller renewed his motion for a new trial, arguing that the trial court's refusal to grant him the assistance of a psychiatric expert during the guilt phase violated his due-process rights in light of the then-recent decision in Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985). Miller, 694 F.3d at 694-95. The trial court denied the motion without explanation and a second jury sentenced Miller to death. Id. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed. Id. Miller's request for state post-conviction relief was also denied. Miller v. State, 54 S.W.3d 743 (Tenn. 2001).


         In May 2002, Miller filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, raising twenty-five grounds for relief. Miller's thirteenth claim alleged that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at resentencing because his attorneys failed to investigate mitigating evidence and failed to retain competent mental-health experts to diagnose Miller and explain how his mental disorders led to Standifer's death. The district court found this claim procedurally defaulted because Miller had failed to raise it during state post-conviction proceedings and had not shown cause and prejudice to excuse the default. On appeal, we did not consider this IATC claim because there was not a certificate of appealability (COA) on the issue. See Miller, 694 F.3d at 701. We considered only whether denying state funds for an independent mental-health expert during the guilt phase of Miller's trial violated Ake v. Oklahoma and whether the jury instructions at trial were proper. Id. at 696-701. Finding no error, we affirmed. Id. at 701.[1]


         In September 2013, Miller filed a motion for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b)(6). He argued that the procedural default of his IATC claim could now be excused under Martinez, 566 U.S. at 1, Trevino, 569 U.S. at 413, and Hodges v. Colson, 727 F.3d 517 (6th Cir. 2013), because he had presented a substantial claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, because post-conviction counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this claim, and because the balance of equities favored a federal merits-based review of his claim.

         The district court denied Miller's motion, finding that he had not shown sufficient extraordinary circumstances to merit relief. The district court first recognized that our decision in McGuire v. Warden, Chillicothe Correctional Institution, 738 F.3d 741, 750 (6th Cir. 2013), established that Martinez and Trevino, alone, do not constitute extraordinary circumstances for the purposes of Rule 60(b)(6). The court noted that Martinez and Trevino did not change the constitutional rights of criminal defendants but rather impacted access to federal statutory relief.

         The district court then considered whether other equitable factors, on balance, favored Miller's request for Rule 60(b)(6) relief. First, the district court recognized that although Miller had presented new evidence in the affidavit submitted by John Halstead, Miller's post-conviction counsel, the affidavit of Mark Olive, Miller's counsel at resentencing, was substantially similar to the testimony Olive had previously presented in connection with Miller's § 2254 petition. Second, the court held that policy considerations, including the finality of judgments, did not weigh in Miller's favor. Third, the district court concluded that Miller had not been diligent in pursuing relief because he had not raised his Martinez claim for eighteen months-from the time Martinez was decided in March 2012 until Miller filed his Rule 60(b)(6) motion in September 2013. Considering these factors together, the district court concluded that Rule 60(b)(6) relief was inappropriate.

         Alternatively, the court held that even if Rule 60(b)(6) relief was appropriate, Martinez and Trevino still did not excuse the default of Miller's IATC claim because he had not put forward a "substantial claim" of ineffective assistance. The court noted that Olive, as trial counsel, was objectively reasonable in investigating and presenting Miller's background despite the fact that he did not renew his request for funds to hire a psychological expert. It also held that Olive could not be blamed for failing to persuade a series of state courts to provide Miller an expert. The court did not reach the question of prejudice.

         Miller was granted a COA as to whether, in light of Martinez and Trevino, he had demonstrated extraordinary circumstances meriting Rule 60(b)(6) relief. Miller now appeals.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(6) is a "catchall provision" providing relief from a final judgment for any reason not otherwise captured in Rule 60(b). West v. Carpenter, 790 F.3d 693, 696-97 (6th Cir. 2015) (citing McGuire, 738 F.3d at 750). Rule 60(b)(6) applies only in "exceptional or extraordinary circumstances where principles of equity mandate relief, " id., but such circumstances "rarely occur" in the habeas context. Sheppard v. Robinson, 807 F.3d 815, 820 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524, 535 (2005)).

         Rule 60(b)(6) motions necessitate "a case-by-case inquiry" in which the district court "intensively balance[s] numerous factors, including the competing policies of the finality of judgments and the incessant command of the court's conscience that justice be done in light of all the facts." West, 790 F.3d at 697 (quoting McGuire, 738 F.3d at 750). These factors can include "the risk of injustice to the parties" as well as "the risk of undermining the public's confidence in the judicial process." Buck v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 759, 778 (2017) (citation omitted).

         We review the denial of a Rule 60(b) motion for an abuse of discretion. West, 790 F.3d at 697. In the Rule 60(b)(6) context, this discretion is "especially broad due to the underlying equitable principles involved." Id. ...

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