Nitschke v. Belleque

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Habeas Corpus
  • Date Filed: 05-24-2012
  • Case #: 10-36121
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Paez for the Court; Circuit Judges Fisher and Clifton
  • Full Text Opinion

A petitioner's Apprendi claim is procedurally defaulted when the petitioner fails to preserve the error at trial and the claim does not meet the "plain error" exception. Further, if a state appellate court’s analysis to determine plain error does not reach a petitioner's federal claim, the state court's judgment is not sufficiently interwoven with federal law and, therefore, a federal court is barred from reviewing the petitioner’s habeas petition.

Michael Nitschke was convicted in Oregon state court of manslaughter, a class A felony with a maximum sentence of twenty years. At sentencing, the court found that Nitschke was a “dangerous offender” and sentenced him to the maximum allowable thirty years. Nitschke did not object to the “dangerous offender” finding. While Nitschke’s case was on appeal, the United States Supreme Court decided Apprendi v. New Jersey, holding that a jury must decide beyond a reasonable doubt “any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum.” When Nitschke raised the Apprendi challenge to his sentence, the Oregon Court of Appeals refused to address the merits of his claim, because the issue was not preserved during trial, and the trial court did not commit plain error. After the Oregon Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court denied review of Nitschke’s case, Nitschke filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. The district court dismissed Nitschke’s claim because the Oregon Court of Appeals’s plain error analysis “was not interwoven with a federal constitutional claim,” and therefore Nitschke’s Apprendi claim was procedurally barred. The Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of Nitschke’s habeas petition based on the doctrine of procedural default. A federal court must hear a state prisoner’s claims in a habeas proceeding when a state court’s judgment is “interwoven” with, or rests primarily on, federal law. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the Oregon Court of Appeals’s analysis of Apprendi to determine whether the trial court committed plain error did not reach the merits of Nitschke’s federal law claim. Therefore, its ruling was based primarily on state law, and the Ninth Circuit is barred from reviewing Nitschke’s habeas petition. AFFIRMED.

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