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In Washington, the Court vacated the denial of Mr. Washington’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus for relief from a state conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on Mr. Washington’s central claim. That claim argued that Mr. Washington had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel when counsel failed to properly present him with a plea offer of thirty years during Mr. Washington’s trial in 2006.

The gist of Mr. Washington’s claim is that during his initial trial, the lead prosecutor on the case made a plea deal offer to Mr. Washington’s then attorney where Mr. Washington would plead guilty and be sentenced to life with the possibility parole instead of facing the death penalty. That offer was communicated to Mr. Washington by his attorney and he declined. But, after the trial, Mr. Washington’s grandmother learned from his new attorney that the prosecutor had also made offer where Mr. Anthony would plead guilty and be sentenced to thirty years imprisonment. According to Mr. Washington and his grandmother that offer was never communicated to them by trial counsel. The prosecutor acknowledged that he had made an offer for a number of years of imprisonment but couldn’t recall the number. Trial counsel also acknowledged receiving the offer but said that he discussed it with Mr. Washington.

Under Missouri v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134 (2012), trial counsel must communicate any formal plea offers to the defendant. When trial counsel fails to do so, trial counsel may have performed ineffectively in violation of the Sixth Amendment.

Why is this significant? First, because Mr. Washington was ultimately convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Mr. Washington’s death sentence was overturned multiple times on appeal until he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 2012. Mr. Washington then pursued post-conviction relief by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in state court and argued the basis of the claim here, but that petition was denied. Mr. Washington then filed the federal petition that is at issue in the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion.

This brings us to the second significant aspect of the opinion. In order for Mr. Washington’s federal petition to succeed, he had to overcome the built-in barriers to federal habeas relief imposed by AEDPA—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Under AEDPA, in order to receive relief from his conviction, Mr. Washington must “show[] that the state court’s determination of his claim resulted in a decision that was (1) “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” or (2) “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” This is an exceptionally difficult standard to meet, and must be satisfied before a federal court considers the merits of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under § 2254.

This decision does not say that Mr. Washington has satisfied all the requirements for obtaining federal habeas relief. What it does say, however, is that Mr. Washington has overcome the hurdles of AEDPA by showing that the state courts made unreasonable determinations of fact regarding Mr. Washington’s case. Moreover, the Eleventh Circuit has made clear that Mr. Washington is entitled to an evidentiary hearing where evidence regarding the merits of his claim can be more fully developed and considered.

Washington v. Atty. Gen. of State of Alabama