Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12 (2003) (per curiam)

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on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit

No. 02-1369. Decided November 3, 2003

Respondent was sentenced to death for felony murder. On state postconviction review, he argued that he had not been convicted of an offense for which a death sentence could be imposed because the indictment did not charge him as a "principal offender" under the relevant Ohio statute. The Ohio appellate court, however, held that literal compliance with the statute was not required where, as here, only one defendant is named in the indictment. That court also rejected respondent's second state postconviction petition, which alleged, inter alia, ineffective assistance of appellate counsel for not arguing that the State's failure to comply with its sentencing procedures violated the Eighth Amendment. In granting respondent's subsequent federal habeas petition, the District Court concluded that the state court's decision was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Eighth Amendment precluded respondent's death sentence and that harmless-error review was inappropriate.

Held: The Sixth Circuit exceeded the limits imposed on federal habeas review by 28 U. S. C. 2254(d), which permits federal habeas relief only if the State's adjudication on the merits resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. This Court's precedents do not support the Sixth Circuit's conclusion that Ohio's failure to charge respondent as a "principal" was the functional equivalent to dispensing with the reasonable-doubt requirement. In noncapital cases, this Court has often held that the trial court's failure to instruct a jury on all of the statutory elements is subject to harmless-error analysis. The Court's precedents do not require the opposite result where the violation occurs in a capital sentencing proceeding. Indeed, a number of this Court's harmless-error cases have involved capital defendants. Because the Ohio appellate court's decision does not conflict with the reasoning or holdings of this Court's precedent, it is not contrary to clearly established federal law. Nor is it an unreasonable application of federal law. Habeas relief is appropriate only if the state court applied harmless-error review in an "objectively unreasonable" manner. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U. S. 63, 75-77. That is not the case here. The Ohio Supreme Court has defined a principal offender as the actual killer, and the jury instructions

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