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Pedraza v. Secretary, Doc

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

April 4, 2017




         This matter comes before the Court on Petitioner, Miguel Pedraza's Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (Doc. #1), filed on May 5, 2016. The Respondent, Julie Jones, Secretary of the Department of Corrections, filed her Response in Opposition (Doc. #12) on October 25, 2016. Pedraza filed his Reply Brief to the Respondent's Opposition (Doc. #15) on November 16, 2016. The Petition is fully briefed and ripe for the Court's review.

         I. Background

         Shortly after midnight on November 24, 2005, Pedraza and his Co-defendants unlawfully entered the house located at 18060 Nalle Road in North Fort Myers, Florida. (Ex. 5, at 3). According to the record before the Court, Pedraza was driving the vehicle that transported the individuals to the Nalle Road residence with the express purpose of robbing the men inside. (Ex. 5, at 3). The owner of the Nalle Road residence was Pedraza's uncle, Rafael Tinco. (Ex. 5, at 3). Tinco used the North Fort Myers residence to house construction workers employed by his Miami based construction company. (Ex. 5, at 3-4). During the course of the robbery shots were fired and one man, Jose Gomez, was killed. (Ex. 5, at 5-6).

         On February 1, 2006, the Grand Jury for the Twentieth Judicial Circuit in and for Lee County, Florida, indicted Pedraza on charges of felony murder in the death of Jose Gomez in violation of Fla. Stat. § 782.04(1), 775.87(2)(a), and 777.011. (Ex. 5, at 1). On January 23, 2009, the jury found Pedraza guilty of felony murder. (Ex. 3). Pedraza filed a motion for a new trial on April 2, 2009, which was denied by the trial court on October 13, 2009. Pedraza appealed the trial court's denial of his motion for a new trial on October 19, 2009. Florida's Second District Court of Appeals per curiam affirmed the trial court's ruling on July 1, 2011. (Ex. 8).

         On April 27, 2012, Pedraza filed a motion to correct illegal sentence pursuant to Fla. R. Crim. P. § 3.800. He was ordered to file an amended petition because his original petition was not filed under oath. (Ex. 13). On October 16, 2013, he filed his amended petition. The § 3.800 petition was denied on October 16, 2013. (Ex. 14).

         On July 23, 2013, Pedraza filed a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Fla. R. Crim. P. § 3.850. That petition was denied on March 17, 2014. (Ex. 17). The Second District Court of Appeals affirmed the denial without opinion and the appeals court's Mandate was issued on May 18, 2016. (Ex. 23); Pedraza v. State, 190 So.3d 72 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016).

         Pedraza now files the instant motion for habeas corpus relief pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         II. Standards of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996), governs this action. Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233, 246 (2007). Respondent concedes that the Petition is timely filed in this Court, and this Court agrees. (Doc. #12, at 3-4).

         Under AEDPA, the standard of review is greatly circumscribed and highly deferential to the state courts. Alston v. Fla. Dep't of Corr., 610 F.3d 1318, 1325 (11th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         AEDPA altered the federal court's role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to “prevent federal habeas ‘retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002). The following legal principles apply to this case.

         A. Deference to State Court Decisions

         A federal court must afford a high level of deference to the state court's decision. Ferguson v. Culliver, 527 F.3d 1144, 1146 (11th Cir. 2008). Habeas relief may not be granted with respect to a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication of the claim:

(1) resulted in a decision that was co1ntrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181(2011). “This is a difficult to meet, and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that the state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted). See also Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011) (pointing out that “if [§ 2254(d)'s] standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.”).

         Both the Eleventh Circuit and the Supreme Court broadly interpret what is meant by an “adjudication on the merits.” Childers v. Floyd, 642 F.3d 953, 967-68 (11th Cir. 2011). Thus, a state court's summary rejection of a claim, even without explanation, qualifies as an adjudication on the merits that warrants deference by a federal court. Id.; see also Ferguson v. Culliver, 527 F.3d 1144, 1146 (11th Cir. 2008). Indeed, “unless the state court clearly states that its decision was based solely on a state procedural rule [the Court] will presume that the state court has rendered an adjudication on the merits when the petitioner's claim ‘is the same claim rejected' by the court.” Childers v. Floyd, 642 F.3d at 969 (quoting Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002)).

         “A legal principle is ‘clearly established' within the meaning of this provision only when it is embodied in a holding of [the United States Supreme] Court.” Thaler v. Haynes, 559 U.S. 43, 47 (2010); see also Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74 (2006) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)) (recognizing “[c]learly established federal law” consists of the governing legal principles, rather than the dicta, set forth in the decisions of the United States Supreme Court at the time the state court issues its decision). “A state court decision involves an unreasonable application of federal law when it identifies the correct legal rule from Supreme Court case law but unreasonably applies that rule to the facts of the petitioner's case, or when it unreasonably extends, or unreasonably declines to extend, a legal principle from Supreme Court case law to a new context.” Ponticelli v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 690 F.3d 1271, 1291 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The “unreasonable application” inquiry requires the Court to conduct the two-step analysis set forth in Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. at 86. First, the Court determines what arguments or theories support the state court decision; and second, the Court must determine whether “fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior” Supreme Court decision. Id. (citations omitted). Whether a court errs in determining facts “is even more deferential than under a clearly erroneous standard of review.” Stephens v. Hall, 407 F.3d 1195, 1201 (11th Cir. 2005). The Court presumes the findings of fact to be correct, and petitioner bears the burden of rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         The Supreme Court has held that review “is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Cullen, 131 S.Ct. at 1398. Thus, the Court is limited to reviewing only the record that was before the state court at the time it rendered its order. Id.

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are reviewed under the standards established by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Newland v. Hall, 527 F.3d 1162, 1183 (11th Cir. 2008). Post-AEDPA, the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), remains applicable to the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel raised in this case. Newland, 527 F.3d at 1184. In Strickland, the Supreme Court established a two-part test to determine whether a convicted person is entitled to habeas relief on the grounds that his or her counsel rendered ineffective assistance: (1) whether counsel's representation was deficient, i.e., “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” “under prevailing professional norms, ” which requires a showing that “counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment”; and (2) whether the deficient performance prejudiced the defendant, i.e., there was a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different, which “requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; see also Bobby Van Hook, 558 U.S. 4, 8 (2009); Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. at 1403 (2011).

         States may “impose whatever specific rules . . . to ensure that criminal defendants are well represented, ” but “the Federal Constitution imposes one general requirement: that counsel make objectively reasonable choices.” Bobby Van Hook, 130 S.Ct. at 17 (internal quotations and citations omitted). It is petitioner who bears the heavy burden to “prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that counsel's performance was unreasonable.” Jones v. Campbell, 436 F.3d 1285, 1293 (11th Cir. 2006). A court must “judge the reasonableness of counsel's conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct, ” Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 477 (2000) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690), applying a “highly deferential” level of judicial scrutiny. Id. A court must adhere to a strong presumption that “counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. An attorney is not ineffective for failing to raise or preserve a meritless issue. Ladd v. Jones, 864 F.2d 108, 109-10 (11th Cir. 1989); United States v. Winfield, 960 F.2d 970, 974 (11th Cir. 1992) (“a lawyer's failure to preserve a meritless issue plainly cannot prejudice a client”). “To state the obvious: the trial lawyers, in every case, could have done something more or something different. So, omissions are inevitable. But, the issue is not what is possible or ‘what is prudent or appropriate, but only what is constitutionally compelled.'” Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1313 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting Burger v. Kemp, 483 U.S. 776, 794 (1987)).

         C. Exhaustion of State Remedies and Procedural Default

         Before a district court can grant habeas relief to a state prisoner under § 2254, the petitioner must exhaust all state court remedies that are available for challenging his conviction, either on direct appeal or in a state post-conviction motion. See § 2254(b)1)(A); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel,526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999) (“[T]he state prisoner must give the state courts an opportunity to act on his claims before he presents those claims to a federal court in a habeas petition.”). A state prisoner “‘must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate ...

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