Nicole M. Grida


In Cone v. Bell, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overruled the District Court's denial of a prisoner's habeas corpus petition. The Sixth Circuit held that the jury relied on an unconstitutional statutory aggravating factor in its decision to impose the death sentence.

Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit remanded the case with instructions to grant the habeas corpus petition, thereby vacating Cone's death sentence. After convicting Gary Bradford Cone of two counts of first degree murder for brutally killing an elderly couple, the jury sentenced Cone to death. The jury found four aggravating factors were present, including, in particular, that the murders were "especially heinous, atrocious and cruel." In his habeas corpus petition, Cone argued that the terms "heinous, atrocious and cruel" were unconstitutionally vague. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit was asked to decide whether Cone's death sentence violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Before addressing Cone's Eighth Amendment challenge, the Sixth Circuit resolved two key preliminary issues. First, the court held that under Tennessee law, the Tennessee Supreme Court implicitly reviews a death sentence for arbitrariness, regardless of whether the challenge is explicitly asserted by the petitioner. Second, the court held that although the petitioner did not explicitly raise an Eighth Amendment claim in his first petition for post-conviction relief, the issue had been implicitly reviewed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Accordingly, Cone's Eighth Amendment challenge had not been "procedurally defaulted" and, therefore, was a valid consideration for the court.

After resolving the preliminary issues, the Sixth Circuit analyzed Cone's primary Eighth Amendment claim. Granting Cone's habeas corpus petition, the court held that the Tennessee Supreme Court's implicit decision regarding the constitutionality of the HAC aggravator was contrary to "clearly established" United States Supreme Court precedent existing at the time of Cone's state court conviction. By vacating Cone's death sentence, the Sixth Circuit furthered the primary purpose of the writ of habeas corpus - to ensure that a petitioner's imprisonment is lawful.

Astonishingly, three years earlier, in 2001, the Sixth Circuit had concluded that it was unnecessary to address Cone's vagueness challenge when it determined he was entitled to habeas relief. Taken together theses decisions emphasize that, when reviewing a state prisoner's sentence and conviction for the purposes of a habeas corpus petition, the Federal courts must exercise the utmost care and diligence.

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