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State ex rel. Strong v. Griffith

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

June 7, 2015

State ex rel. Richard Strong, Petitioner,
Cindy Griffith, Warden, Potosi Correctional Center, Respondent

For Strong: Jennifer Herndon, Florissant; Michael J. Gorla, St. Louis.

For State: Michael Spillane, Terrence Messonnier, Gregory Goodwin, Caroline M. Coulter, Stephen Hawke, Jessica McKee, Attorney General's Office, Jefferson City.




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On April 23, 2015, this Court issued a warrant for the execution of Richard Strong on June 9, 2015. On June 5, 2015, Mr. Strong filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming his execution would violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and article I, section 21 of the Missouri Constitution because his severe mental illness at the time of his crimes makes him unfit to be executed. He asks this Court to prohibit the state from executing him. In his petition, Mr. Strong fails to allege facts that would prove entitlement to a writ of habeas corpus because he could have raised his claim at trial, on appeal, or during post-conviction relief proceedings. Missouri provides statutory safeguards at both the guilt and penalty phase of trial to ensure that those with severe mental illness are not sentenced to the death penalty. See sections 552.020, 552.030, 565.032.3(2), (6).[1] Habeas review of a conviction is not appropriate where a defendant could have raised claims at trial, on direct appeal, or during post-conviction relief according to the state's procedural rules but did not do so for reasons internal to the defense. State ex rel. Woodworth v. Denney, 396 S.W.3d 330, 337 (Mo. banc 2013). Moreover, habeas

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review does not provide " duplicative and unending challenges to the finality of a judgment," so it is not appropriate to review claims already raised on direct appeal or during post-conviction proceedings. Id. Because Mr. Strong failed to raise relevant mental illness claims at trial due to a lack of evidence or a defense strategy and already raised a claim of his trial counsel's ineffectiveness for not presenting mitigating factors related to his mental condition during the penalty phase of his trial, Mr. Strong cannot overcome the procedural bar for not timely raising his current claim. Accordingly, Mr. Strong does not raise a legally cognizable claim for habeas relief related to his claim that he was mentally ill at the time of the murders.

Moreover, pursuant to the ban in the Eighth Amendment in the United States Constitution on cruel and unusual punishment, a prisoner may not be executed whose current mental illness " 'prevents him from comprehending the reasons for the penalty or its implications'" or " those who are [currently] unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 957, 127 S.Ct. 2842, 168 L.Ed.2d 662, (2007) (internal quotations and citation omitted); s ee also Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 417, 422, 106 S.Ct. 2595, 91 L.Ed.2d 335 (1986). Mr. Strong, however, does not claim that his current mental condition makes him incompetent to be executed and without a substantial threshold showing otherwise, he is presumed competent because he was competent to stand trial. Mr. Strong does not make such a substantial threshold showing so he does not raise a cognizable competency claim. Accordingly, having failed to raise any legally cognizable habeas corpus claim, this Court denies his habeas petition.

Factual and Procedural Background

In 2003, a jury convicted Richard Strong of two counts of first degree murder for killing his girlfriend and her two-year-old daughter. Mr. Strong was sentenced to death for the murders. This Court affirmed his convictions and death sentence on direct appeal in 2004. State v. Strong, 142 S.W.3d 702 (Mo. banc 2004) ( Strong I ). In 2008, Mr. Strong's motion for post-conviction relief was overruled, and this Court affirmed that decision. Strong v. State, 263 S.W.3d 636 (Mo. banc 2008) ( Strong II ). The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri denied Mr. Strong's federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed that decision. Strong v. Roper, 737 F.3d 506 (8th Cir. 2013) ( Strong III ).

A. Mr. Strong's Crimes[2]

On October 23, 2000, police officers were dispatched to the home of Mr. Strong's girlfriend, Eva Washington, following a disconnected 911 call. The officers knocked on both the front and back doors, but no one responded. Mr. Strong eventually came to the back door, where the officers asked about his wife and children. Mr. Strong responded that Ms. Washington and the children were asleep. He then stepped outside and closed the door behind him. When asked again about Ms. Washington and the children, Mr. Strong replied that Ms. Washington was at work and the ...

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