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Shelton v. Carrol

September 28, 2006


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the District of Delaware (D.C. Civ. No. 00-cv-00078) District Judge: Honorable Sue L. Robinson.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge.


Argued July 27, 2006

Before: RENDELL, AMBRO, and FUENTES, Circuit Judges.


In 1993, Steven Shelton was convicted by a Delaware jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. After exhausting his state court remedies, Shelton filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. The United States District Court for the District of Delaware denied relief, and Shelton now appeals. Shelton argues first that trial counsel was ineffective in investigating and presenting mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of his trial. Second, Shelton asserts that his right to a fair sentencing hearing was violated by the trial court's limitation on the scope of his allocution. For the reasons that follow, we agree with the District Court's ruling that Shelton's counsel was not ineffective in his investigation and presentation of mitigating evidence and that Shelton's right to a fair hearing was not violated by the trial judge's limitation of Shelton's statement (called allocution) to the sentencing jury.


A. The Murder

On January 11, 1992, appellant Steven Shelton ("Shelton"), his brother Nelson Shelton, his cousin Jack Outten, and Nelson Shelton's girlfriend, Christine Gibbons, spent the afternoon drinking approximately one and one-half cases of beer at Gibbons' home in Newark, Delaware. At some point, the group discussed going to a bar where Gibbons would pose as a prostitute in order to lure men outside of the bar where Outten and the Sheltons could rob them. After stopping at several establishments in the area, the group eventually convened at a bar in New Castle known as "Fat Boys" or "Green Door." There, Gibbons met and talked with a stranger, Wilson Mannon, who bought her drinks. After last call, Mannon left with Gibbons, Outten, and the Sheltons in Nelson Shelton's car. The next day, January 12, 1992, police discovered Mannon's body on a deserted street in East Wilmington. Mannon's skull was completely shattered, his pockets were turned inside out, and his empty wallet was lying on the ground nearby. See Shelton IV, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5538, at *5-8.

B. The Trial

On January 21, 1992, Outten and the two Shelton brothers were indicted for first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, first-degree conspiracy, first-degree robbery, and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony. The three men were tried together by a jury in the Superior Court of Delaware over a period of one month.

Gibbons served as the prosecution's principal witness at trial.*fn2 She ultimately testified that all three men beat Mannon and that Shelton kicked and punched Mannon in the face. According to Gibbons, Nelson Shelton hit Mannon with a hammer on the back of the head, causing Mannon to fall to the ground. Outten then struck Mannon in the face and head approximately ten times with a large object Gibbons described as a "sink."*fn3 Shelton II, 1997 WL 855718, at *7. The medical examiner testified that Mannon died of wounds to the face and head and blows to the brain. None of the defendants testified at trial.

On February 24, 1993, following two days of deliberations, the jury found the defendants guilty of all charges.

C. Penalty Phase*fn4

The first discussions between the trial court and counsel concerning the penalty phase of the proceedings took place at a conference on February 24, 1993, during the jury's second day of deliberations. Id. at *17. Outten's counsel briefly mentioned his plans for the penalty hearing to the trial court. Shelton's counsel indicated that while he had begun interviewing witnesses, he was anticipating a potential dilemma about what he could present at the hearing. Nelson Shelton's counsel stated that he had twelve witnesses, but that his client might not want to present any mitigating evidence. Id.

Later that day, after the jury returned its guilty verdict, the trial court asked counsel, in the presence of the defendants, what each of their clients intended to present at the penalty hearing. Outten's counsel stated that they planned to present mitigating evidence at the hearing, but Shelton and his brother stated that they would not be presenting such evidence. Shelton also stated that he wanted to proceed without counsel. Id.

Shelton's counsel explained to the court:

Your honor, my client has advised me that he has maintained his innocence throughout this trial, and that if he was found guilty, he has no wish to bring any family members or anyone else in his behalf into this courtroom to plea for him. He does not wish to plea for mercy. He does not wish to plea for mercy in any way. He does not wish to put in any mitigating circumstances whatsoever. He's prepared to take whatever faces him. He's instructed me that I am not to put on mitigating factors in his behalf, and he's just now told me that he does not wish me to represent him any further; that he's giving notice to the Court that he wishes to represent himself and that I am not to say much more than that for him at this point.

Id. at *47.

The trial court then asked Shelton's counsel what he had done in preparation for the penalty phase of the trial:

COUNSEL: Well, Your Honor, I've just spent the last three and a half hours with his family, his mother and his sister. They were my original plan. They are two witnesses that I originally intended to call in his behalf.

THE COURT: What were they going to say?

COUNSEL: Your Honor, they were going to talk about his life, what kind of kid he was, what kind of upbringing he's had, all the difficulties in his life, what kind of a family. . . .

SHELTON: It's none of your business what my family has to say in my behalf.

THE COURT: I have to make a record. Numerous court opinions have made that quite clear. What they would have gone into, [counselor].

COUNSEL: Your Honor, his childhood, his upbringing, his life, their relationship with him.

THE COURT: Based on your discussion with them, were there any other witnesses or areas that you might have wanted to explore such as schooling or things like that?

COUNSEL: Nothing like that, Your Honor, no. There would be a real strong possibility that if I had my way, if my client would have so allowed me, I would be calling also his nieces.

THE COURT: For what purpose?

COUNSEL: And perhaps his step-brother for the same reason, Your Honor, to show the family relationship and their love for him.

Id. at *48.

Next the trial court inquired about counsel's discussions with Shelton concerning counsel's preparation for the penalty phase of the proceedings:

THE COURT: How much of this have you discussed with [Mr. Shelton], particularly apparently because you were in your office a little while ago discussing these matters with--

COUNSEL: Your Honor, [Mr. Shelton] has from very early on told me his position in this regard, and I told him what my intentions were. He, in fact, instructed me not to talk to his mother and not to talk to his sister, and to absolutely--

THE COURT: When did he tell you that?

COUNSEL: Just in the past couple of days when I told him of the dilemma . . . Your Honor . . . [,] I told him that as an officer of the Court I felt that I had to at least prepare because Your Honor could very possibly rule against me and him on his position in this regard so that therefore I was honor-bound to this Court to prepare something. He advised me that it was his strongest wishes that I not do that and, if I may, for the record, Your Honor, [Mr. Shelton] has advised [sic] will not now allow his mother even to visit him in prison because he does not want to cause anyone more pain or hurt in his family. He wants to remove himself from those people. He does not wish to have them be put in here and be put through this. That's his sincere and honest wishes, Your Honor.

Id. at *48-49.

The court asked counsel for his views on Shelton's decision not to present mitigating evidence:

THE COURT: As his counsel, are you indicating that you disagree with his decision to not present mitigating evidence?

COUNSEL: Your Honor, because I could possibly save him from the death penalty, I do. However, Your Honor, I believe that his dignity as a human being comes first, and my duty to him as an attorney goes to that issue first, and I also believe, Your Honor, as my client has said to me in this case, "I have maintained my innocence throughout, but this case is so horrible there's nothing I can say that would make any difference to this jury" and as a strategic matter, he feels that the jury would hold him in a higher regard, in a higher respect, if he said nothing, and in that regard, Your Honor, I believe that its possible that the jury could say and feel that if we presented no mitigating circumstances, that they could feel by the man's silence and acceptance of his position that that is a more honorable, better thing that he's doing than to parade witnesses in here in his behalf, and they could, in fact, find that that single silence overweighed the aggravating factors. So I think there's a distinct possibility, I have to say, Your Honor--morally I agree with my client that he's entitled to the human dignity to go to his death if need be without fighting it and without having to come into this courtroom. As he said, "I will not crawl, I will not be part of begging for mercy from anyone," and I believe that he is absolutely entitled to that dignity. That perhaps, Your Honor, may be his last opportunity.

Id. at *49.

The trial court then addressed Shelton directly:

THE COURT: . . . [Y]ou asked for some time to collect your thoughts and maybe talk to [trial counsel]. I don't know whether you spoke to [trial counsel]. Have you had enough time as of the moment to collect your thoughts about this?

SHELTON: Yes, I have, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Go [a]head.

SHELTON: In light of the decision of the jury, I wish to dismiss my lawyer. I wish to further represent myself in this penalty phase. I feel that [trial counsel] has made his application to me. I paid him. He made his application to me as far as representing me through this trial even though I felt that he was insufficient in representing me through the trial, that the Court has denied me my right, I feel, since I paid for him, my right or decision to dismiss him during the trial. During this penalty phase I wish to represent myself. In respect to the victim's family, I do not wish to have my family in here in front of the jurors. The Court has found me guilty or the jurors has [sic] found me guilty of the evidence that the State has presented to them. I wish or I plead with the Court to use the evidence that the State has presented them with in the penalty hearing. I still retain my innocence in this matter, and what I'm doing is asking the Court to use the evidence which they convicted me on.

THE COURT: They do. That's almost automatic if you will.

SHELTON: Then what I'm asking the Court is not to allow me or my attorney which I am-I don't want him to do anyway, to flaunt my family in front of the jurors and in front of the victim's family. I accept the decision, and I am asking the Court that I don't wish to flaunt any--

THE COURT: How long have you been thinking about this [Mr. Shelton]?

SHELTON: Quite sometime.

THE COURT: Can you tell me or put some time frame on that? Are you talking about days, hours or what?

SHELTON: Months.

THE COURT: That if it got to this stage, you didn't want to have anything said at the penalty phase?

SHELTON: Yes, sir.

THE COURT: When did you and [trial counsel] ever first talk about that? Or when did you ever first tell him in relation to this trial that that was your wish?

SHELTON: Months ago.

THE COURT: He mentioned before we recessed the fact that these were your wishes from early on I think were his words. You expressed to him some months ago that you desired that if you were found guilty of first degree murder, you did not want any mitigating evidence presented to the jury at the penalty phase?

SHELTON: That is true.

THE COURT: Do you understand that you have the right to call witnesses to come in here and testify in front of this jury about why a life sentence should be appropriate? That's mitigating evidence.

SHELTON: I understand that completely.

THE COURT: You're sure?

SHELTON: Yeah. Yes, I understand that completely, and I do not want it.

Id. at *49-50.

Counsel explained his own position on the matter:

Your Honor, as I have discussed, as we have discussed this and was first mentioned many, many months ago. It was my sincere hope that [Mr. Shelton] would not pursue this avenue and that he would allow me to speak in his behalf, and in fact, I urged him, if not for him, for the other two gentlemen or for anybody whoever may come down after him; that there may be something said against capital punishment and in behalf of a sentence of life rather than death. He has throughout our discussions maintained a very straightforward and competent attitude to me that it was a sincere, honest, firm desire that he did not wish to be part of any sort of a plea or a request for mercy; that it's not his way, it's not in him; that the jury has found him guilty and he's ready to take his medicine.

Id. at *50.

Concerned that Shelton had not fully considered the implications of his decision, the trial court instructed Shelton to spend additional time thinking about his request. Id. at *18. The following day, February 25, 1993, in accordance with state procedural rules, Shelton's counsel submitted to the court and the prosecution a letter setting forth ...

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