from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Texas
DAVIS, HAYNES, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.
KYLE DUNCAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
State of Texas appeals a grant of habeas corpus ordering
petitioner David Mejia to be retried for killing Marcos
Torres. During a bar fight in 1998, Mejia stabbed Torres in
the heart with a steak knife Mejia was carrying in his back
pocket. Mejia's experienced attorney, Alex Luna, deployed
a self-defense strategy based on Mejia's claim that
Torres was threatening him with a gun. Nonetheless, a jury
found Mejia guilty of murder and a state court later
concluded that Luna had provided Mejia constitutionally
later, however, a federal district court ruled that Luna had
been ineffective by failing to request certain jury
instructions-specifically, a lesser- included-offense
instruction for manslaughter at the guilt phase and a
"sudden passion" instruction at the penalty phase.
The court reasoned Luna had no strategic reason for failing
to request these instructions, either of which could have
resulted in the jury giving Mejia a sentence much lower than
the life sentence he received. The court also ruled that the
state habeas court was objectively unreasonable in ruling
conclude that the federal court failed to defer to the state
court's reasonable application of Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and therefore erred in
granting Mejia habeas corpus relief. Specifically, we
conclude that (1) given Luna's all-or-nothing strategy,
he reasonably declined a "double-edged"
manslaughter instruction that could have lowered Mejia's
chances of an acquittal; (2) even assuming Luna should have
sought a sudden passion instruction, it is unlikely that the
instruction would have changed Mejia's sentence; and (3)
crucially, neither conclusion would have been an objectively
unreasonable application of Strickland by the state
therefore VACATE the district court's judgment and RENDER
judgment for the State.
in the morning of April 17, 1998, outside a small bar called
Alicia's Place in Victoria, Texas, David Mejia killed
Marcos Torres by stabbing him once in the heart with a steak
knife. Mejia had come to Alicia's Place with his friend,
Johnny Arce, and three others, planning to confront Torres
for a past grievance. Mejia put the steak knife in his back
pocket when he arrived, although he claimed he had used the
knife in the car to eat a lemon and put the knife in his
pocket "by accident" because he "wasn't
entered the bar and challenged Torres, who followed him
outside. Fighting promptly commenced. Witnesses described
Torres being surrounded and chased by men from Arce's
car. During the fracas, Mejia stabbed and killed Torres and
then fled with the others in Arce's car. They went to an
apartment where Mejia told someone he had "stabbed some
dude," showing how he had pulled the knife from his back
pocket and stabbed Torres in the heart. Mejia was heard to
say, "I got the motherfucker. I stabbed him."
days later Mejia turned himself in. He admitted stabbing
Torres but claimed he did so only because Torres had
threatened him during the melee by pulling up his shirt to
reveal a gun.
was tried for murder in February 1999. See Tex.
Penal Code § 19.02(b). His experienced defense attorney,
Alex Luna, based his strategy on self-defense. For example,
Luna: (1) extensively questioned prospective jurors about
self-defense during voir dire; (2) elicited Mejia's
testimony claiming Torres had a gun and threatened him; (3)
argued that after the stabbing Mejia acted like someone with
a clear conscience (i.e., he turned himself in and
did not try to hide the knife); and (4) elicited testimony
from a police officer about Torres's history of assault
and weapons-related misconduct. During closing, Luna
explained why Mejia could have reasonably believed he needed
to defend himself with deadly force, and concluded by
stating, "[I]f you think that person is going to
threaten you or kill you, then you've got the right to
prosecution painted a different picture. For example, it
emphasized that: (1) Mejia and the others went to the bar
looking to confront Torres; (2) on the way to the bar Mejia
armed himself with a knife; and (3) Mejia failed to mention
that Torres had a gun until he turned himself in four days
after the killing, and virtually no witness other than Mejia
reported that Torres had a gun. During closing arguments, the
prosecution told the jury, "[C]ommon sense tells you
that [Mejia] did it intentionally and knowingly. Common sense
tells you that he went to that parking lot at Alicia's
for a purpose."
closing arguments, the trial judge asked Luna about jury
COURT: Do you have any further requested instructions?
LUNA: No further requested instructions.
COURT: This does not include submission of any
lesser-anything on any lesser included offense to the jury,
based upon the testimony and the position-and the
self-defense instruction. This is the Charge of the ...