6th Circuit rejects Ohio death row inmate’s due process challenge to prosecutor’s use of inconsistent theories of culpability
Posted on: 7/9/2013 08:55:29 AM by Peoples

The en banc Sixth Circuit (Boggs, with Batchelder, Gibbons, Rogers, Sutton, Cook, McKeague, Griffin and Kethledge; dissent by Daughtrey, with Martin, Moore, Cole, Clay, Stranch and Donald; dissent by White) rejected John Stumpf’s argument that his due process rights were violated as to his sentence because the prosecutor argued at Stumpf’s trial and in post-sentencing proceedings that Stumpf was the actual killer of the capital murder victim but at the trial of the co-defendant presented evidence from a jailhouse snitch who claimed that the co-defendant had confessed to being the shooter. Stumpf v. Robinson, ___ F.3d ___, 2013 WL 3336739 (6th Cir. July 3, 2013).  

Stumpf pleaded guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to death by a three-judge panel that found, inter alia, that Stumpf has been the principal offender in the murder, i.e., the actual killer. Stumpf sought to withdraw his guilty plea or vacate his death sentence based on what happened at his co-defendant’s later trial – presentation of testimony that the co-defendant had admitted to being the real killer and the prosecution’s reliance on that testimony. (While the prosecutor at the co-defendant’s trial, who had earlier prosecuted Stumpf, argued that the co-defendant was the principal offender, the co-defendant’s attorney brought out the prosecutor’s contrary position at Stumpf’s trial.) In response to Stumpf’s post-sentencing motion, the prosecutor argued that the ballistics evidence and the co-defendant’s testimony still suggested that Stumpf has been the principal offender. Two of three judges who had been on the panel that sentenced Stumpf to death considered the snitch’s testimony but nevertheless denied Stumpf’s motions. Two appellate courts affirmed. A majority of the Sixth Circuit agreed that no due process violation occurred on the facts of this case.  

While Stumpf contended it violated due process for the prosecutor to argue at Stumpf’s post-sentencing proceeding that Stumpf was the principal offender after having taken a contrary position at his co-defendant’s trial, a majority of the Sixth Circuit disagreed, explaining:

The prosecution did not present a different and incomplete set of facts in support of different theories of culpability for the same crime. . . . And it did not omit evidence of [the co-defendant’s] or Stumpf's guilt or innocence from its presentation. . . . [The snitch’s] evidence did not exist during Stumpf's original sentencing proceeding. After the State presented [the snitch’s] hearsay statement in [the co-defendant’s] trial and Stumpf moved for relief, the State stipulated to the evidence's admissibility. Then, three panels in Stumpf's case were able to consider the mitigating evidence at issue, [the snitch’s] claim that [the co-defendant] had admitted to firing the shots that killed [the victim]. Each had the opportunity to weigh that evidence against all of the other evidence in the record. Despite [the snitch’s] testimony, each concluded that the death penalty was appropriate. All that the prosecution did was to argue for two different inferences from the same, unquestionably complete, evidentiary record. It left the factfinder in [the codefendant’s] trial and the factfinders in Stumpf's post-sentencing proceedings to find the facts. This, without more, does not offend the Due Process Clause.