Supreme Court to decide: Can state abolish diminished-capacity defense?

By Sylvia Hsieh
The Daily Record Newswire
BOSTON, MA—Was a state court’s retroactive application of a rule abolishing the diminished-capacity defense so unexpected that it violated a defendant’s due process rights?

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the issue by agreeing to review a 6th Circuit ruling granting habeas relief to a criminal defendant.

In 1993, Burt Lancaster, a former Detroit police officer with a long history of mental illness, shot and killed his girlfriend. At his first-degree murder trial in state court, he admitted killing his girlfriend but claimed insanity and diminished capacity. A jury rejected both defenses and convicted him.

The defendant got a new trial after a federal court concluded that prosecutors had improperly struck a juror based on race. He waived his right to a trial by jury and opted for a bench trial, limiting his defense to his claim of diminished capacity. But the judge prohibited him from asserting that claim because in 2001, between his two trials, the state supreme court had abolished the defense.

The defendant was convicted a second time and sentenced to life in prison.

In his petition for habeas corpus, Lancaster argued that the trial court violated his due process rights by retroactively applying the state supreme court’s ruling that abolished the defense.

A U.S. District Court rejected that claim, finding that it was foreseeable that the diminished capacity defense would be abolished because it had never been officially endorsed by the state supreme court.

The 6th Circuit disagreed.

“The belief that diminished capacity was a legitimate defense was so widely held by the Michigan legal community that … the Michigan State Bar’s Criminal Jury Instructions included an instruction on the defense. …

“[The defendant] could not have reasonably foreseen in 1993—when his crime was committed—that the consistent line of Michigan Court of Appeals’ decisions upholding the diminished-capacity defense would have been overturned before his retrial in 2005,”  the panel held in a 2-1 ruling.

The due process violation was not harmless, it added.

“Preventing a defendant from presenting his only viable defense at trial is so prejudicial that holding the violation harmless would suggest that almost no constitutional violation would warrant reversal,” the court said.

Metrish v. Lancaster, No. 12-547. Certiorari granted Jan. 18, 2013. Ruling below: Lancaster v. Metrish, 683 F.3d 740 (6th Cir. 2012).