Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Columbia.
C. Weston Houck, Chief District Judge. (CA-93-1857-3)
Before RUSSELL, NIEMEYER, and MOTZ, Circuit Judges.
Argued: September 29, 1997
Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Russell wrote the opinion, in which Judge Niemeyer and Judge Motz joined.
Petitioner John Plath ("Plath") appeals the denial of a writ of habeas corpus by the District Court for the District of South Carolina. Because we find that Plath presents no valid grounds for habeas relief, we affirm the district court.
Plath was the co-defendant of John D. Arnold ("Arnold"), against whose habeas appeal this court ruled on May 14, 1997. *fn1 The South Carolina Court of General Sessions convicted both Plath and Arnold of the 1978 kidnapping, rape, and murder of Betty Gardner, a Beaufort County, South Carolina woman, and sentenced both to death.
The facts of the case against Plath and Arnold are disturbing, and have been summarized several times by both state and federal courts in the last two decades. Most recently, we restated them in Arnold v. Evatt, where we found that:
In the early morning hours of April 12, 1978, cousins John Arnold and John Plath, who were in their early twenties, along with their respective eleven-year-old and seventeen-year-old girlfriends, Carol Ullman and Cindy Sheets, borrowed a friend's car and went looking for wild mushrooms. During their search they encountered farm worker Betty Gardner as she walked along the side of the road. Gardner hitchhiked a ride with the two couples, who took her to her brother's home. Gardner then asked if the group would take her to work, but they refused and drove off . . . They then went back, picked Gardner up, and took her to a remote wooded area near a garbage dump. *fn2
There, Plath, Arnold and their girlfriends subjected Gardner to acts of extreme cruelty and perversion.
According to testimony at trial, shortly after arriving at the wooded area, Arnold knocked Gardner to the ground and he and Plath began kicking her. Plath then ordered Gardner to undress, and forced her to perform oral sex upon himself and Cindy Sheets ("Sheets"). While Gardner performed oral sex upon Sheets, Plath beat Gardner with a leather belt, and subsequently urinated in Gardner's mouth, forcing her to swallow the urine.
Plath and Arnold then together attempted to strangle Gardner with a piece of garden hose they found on the dump site. When this method of execution proved unsatisfactory, Plath repeatedly stomped on Gardner's neck, commenting that "niggers are sure hard to kill." Afterwards, Plath stabbed Gardner some ten times in the chest, and Arnold, using the garden hose, dragged Gardner by the neck into the adjacent woods. Arnold returned to say Gardner did not seem to be dead, and as a result Plath told Sheets to take a broken bottle and cut Gardner's throat.
Sheets and Arnold finally strangled Gardner with the hose, and, in an effort to mislead police, Arnold carved "KKK" into Gardner's body. Nearly six weeks later, however, Sheets led authorities to Gardner's badly decomposed body.
The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed Plath's and Arnold's convictions, but reversed the death sentences and remanded the case for resentencing. *fn3 After a resentencing trial before a jury, the Court of General Sessions again imposed the death penalty on both defendants. Plath then appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which affirmed the death sentence, *fn4 and to the United States Supreme Court, which denied Certiorari. *fn5 Plath subsequently applied for Post-Conviction Relief ("PCR") in the South Carolina Court of General Sessions in November 1984, and amended that application twice in 1985. After an evidentiary hearing, the Court of General Sessions dismissed Plath's PCR application on May 12, 1986.
Following that dismissal, Plath again applied for, and was granted, Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, and that court remanded *fn6 the case to the Court of General Sessions for reconsideration in light of Yates v. Aiken. *fn7 The issue meriting reconsideration was whether the implied malice instruction given at Plath's original trial violated his right to due process of law under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, if so, whether that violation constituted reversible error. The Court of General Sessions found that the ...