United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division
MARION E. WATTS, Petitioner,
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.
J. DAVIS United States District Judge
Marion E. Watts, an inmate of the Florida penal system
proceeding pro se, challenges his 2009 state court (Duval
County) conviction for aggravated battery (no weapon).
See Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of
Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (Petition) (Doc.
1). Watts also filed an Appendix (Pet. App.) (Doc. 2) and a
Memorandum of Law (Pet. Memo.) (Doc. 3). Respondents filed an
Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response) (Doc.
16), with exhibits in support thereof (Resp.
Ex.). Watts filed a Reply to Respondent's
Response (Reply) (Doc. 22).
amended information, the State charged Watts in count one
with aggravated battery upon Kevin Miller with a firearm and
in count two with possession of a firearm by a juvenile
delinquent found to have committed a felony act. Resp. Ex. 2.
Trial proceedings on count one commenced and concluded on
April 28, 2009. Resp. Ex. 4. The jury returned a verdict of
guilty of aggravated battery with a finding that Watts did
not actually possess a firearm during the commission of the
offense. Resp. Ex. 6. Watts filed a motion for new trial which
was denied at sentencing on June 3, 2009. Resp. Exs. 7, 8.
The court sentenced Watts to fifteen years incarceration with
credit for 621 days time served. Resp. Ex. 9.
appealed to the First District Court of Appeal (First DCA).
Resp. Ex. 10. Through counsel, Watts filed an initial brief
in the appellate court (Resp. Ex. 11), the State filed an
answer brief (Resp. Ex. 12), and Watts filed a reply brief
(Resp. Ex. 13). Without written opinion, the First DCA per
curiam affirmed Watts' judgment of conviction and
sentence on August 11, 2010. Resp. Ex. 14. Watts v.
State, 41 So.3d 900 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (table).
filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief pursuant to
Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. Resp. Ex. 17. The
State filed a response thereto. Resp. Ex. 18. Attaching the
State's response, the circuit court summarily denied
Watts' Rule 3.850 motion without evidentiary hearing,
noting that “the record conclusively establishes that
the Defendant is not entitled to the relief requested.”
Resp. Ex. 19.
appealed the denial of his Rule 3.850 motion to the First DCA
(Resp. Ex. 20), and filed a pro se initial brief. Resp. Ex.
21. The State filed notice that it would not file an answer
brief. Resp. Ex. 22. The First DCA per curiam affirmed the
summary denial of postconviction relief (Resp. Ex. 23), and
denied Watts' pro se motion for rehearing without
comment. Resp. Ex. 24.
filed a pro se state petition for writ of habeas corpus in
the First DCA alleging ineffective assistance of appellate
counsel on direct appeal of his judgment of conviction and
sentence. Resp. Ex. 15. The First DCA denied per curiam
Watts' petition “on the merits” but without
discussion. Resp. Ex. 16; Watts v. State, 51 So.3d
609 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010).
filed a pro se postconviction motion in the state circuit
court pursuant to Rule 3.800(a) (Resp. Ex. 25), which the
court summarily denied (Resp. Ex. 26). Watts appealed (Resp.
Ex. 27), and filed a pro se initial brief (Resp. Ex. 28). The
First DCA per curiam affirmed the denial of postconviction
relief without opinion. Resp. Ex. 29; Watts v.
State, 132 So.3d 230 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014) (table).
deciding whether to grant an evidentiary hearing, a federal
court must consider whether such a hearing could enable an
applicant to prove the petition's factual allegations,
which, if true, would entitle the applicant to federal habeas
relief.” Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465,
474 (2007) (citation omitted). “It follows that if the
record refutes the applicant's factual allegations or
otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not
required to hold an evidentiary hearing.” Id.
The pertinent facts of this case are fully developed in the
record before the Court. Because this Court can
“adequately assess [Petitioner's] claim[s] without
further factual development, ” Turner v.
Crosby, 339 F.3d 1247, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), an
evidentiary hearing will not be conducted.
Cognizability, Exhaustion and Procedural
habeas review “is limited to deciding whether a
conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of
the United States.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502
U.S. 62, 68 (1991) (citations omitted). As such, federal
habeas “does not lie for errors of state law.”
Id. at 67 (quotations omitted). “[I]t is not
the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine
state-court determinations on state-law questions.”
Id. at 67-68. As such, federal courts may not review
claims based exclusively on state law issues even if the
claims are “couched in terms of equal protection and
due process.” Branan v. Booth, 861 F.2d 1507,
1508 (11th Cir. 1988) (quotation omitted).
bringing a § 2254 habeas action in federal court, a
petitioner must exhaust all state court remedies that are
available for challenging his state conviction. See
28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c). To exhaust state remedies, the
petitioner must “fairly present[ ]” every issue
raised in his federal petition to the state's highest
court, either on direct appeal or on collateral review.
Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989)
(emphasis omitted). As the United States Supreme Court has
Before seeking a federal writ of habeas corpus, a state
prisoner must exhaust available state remedies, 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254(b)(1), thereby giving the State the
“‘“opportunity to pass upon and
correct” alleged violations of its prisoners'
federal rights.'” Duncan v. Henry, 513
U.S. 364, 365, 115 S.Ct. 887, 130 L.Ed.2d 865 (1995) (per
curiam) (quoting Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270,
275, 92 S.Ct. 509, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971)). To provide the
State with the necessary “opportunity, ” the
prisoner must “fairly present” his claim in each
appropriate state court (including a state supreme court with
powers of discretionary review), thereby alerting that court
to the federal nature of the claim. Duncan,
supra, at 365-366, 115 S.Ct. 887; O'Sullivan
v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144
L.Ed.2d 1 (1999).
Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004); see
also O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845
(1999) (“[S]tate prisoners must give the state courts
one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by
invoking one complete round of the State's established
appellate review process.”)
petitioner must present the claim to the state courts as a
federal, constitutional claim rather than as a matter of
state law. See Duncan, 513 U.S. at 365-66;
French v. Warden, Wilcox State Prison, 790 F.3d
1259, 1270-71 (11th Cir. 2015), cert.
denied, 136 S.Ct. 815 (2016); Preston v. Sec'y,
Fla. Dep't of Corr., 785 F.3d 449, 456-59
(11th Cir. 2015); Lucas v. Sec'y,
Dep't of Corr., 682 F.3d 1342, 1352 (11th Cir.
2012); McNair v. Campbell, 416 F.3d 1291, 1303 (11th
Cir. 2005). To do so, a petitioner could include “the
federal source of law on which he relies or a case deciding
such a claim on federal grounds, or [ ] simply label[ ] the
claim ‘federal.'” Baldwin, 541 U.S.
at 32. But raising a state law claim that “is merely
similar to the federal habeas claim is insufficient to
satisfy the fairly presented requirement.”
Duncan, 513 U.S. at 366. Likewise, merely citing to
the federal constitution is insufficient to exhaust a claim
in state court. Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 7
(1983); see also McNair, 416 F.3d at 1302
(“‘The exhaustion doctrine requires a habeas
applicant to do more than scatter some makeshift needles in
the haystack of the state court record.'”) (quoting
Kelley v. Sec'y for the Dep't of Corr., 377
F.3d 1317, 1343-44 (11th Cir. 2004)). As explained by the
To “fairly present” a claim, the petitioner is
not required to cite “book and verse on the federal
constitution.” Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270,
278, 92 S.Ct. 509, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971) (quotation omitted).
Nevertheless, a petitioner does not “fairly
present” a claim to the state court “if that
court must read beyond a petition or a brief (or a similar
document) that does not alert it to the presence of a federal
claim in order to find material, such as a lower court
opinion in the case, that does so.” Baldwin,
541 U.S. at 32, 124 S.Ct. 1347. In other words, “to
exhaust state remedies fully the petitioner must make the
state court aware that the claims asserted present federal
constitutional issues.” Jimenez v. Fla. Dep't
of Corr., 481 F.3d 1337, 1342 (11th Cir.2007) (quoting
Snowden v. Singletary, 135 F.3d 732, 735 (11th
Cir.1998)) (concluding that the petitioner's claims were
raised where the petitioner had provided enough information
about the claims (and citations to Supreme Court cases) to
notify the state court that the challenges were being made on
both state and federal grounds).
Lucas, 682 F.3d at 1352. “The crux of the
exhaustion requirement is simply that the petitioner must
have put the state court on notice that he intended to raise
a federal claim.” Preston, 785 F.3d at 457
(11th Cir. 2015); see also French, 790 F.3d at
1270-71. To do so, petitioners must “present their
claims to the state courts such that the reasonable reader
would understand each claim's particular legal basis and
specific factual foundation.” Kelley, 377 F.3d
at 1344-45 (citing Picard, 404 U.S. at 277).
It is not sufficient merely that the federal habeas
petitioner has been through the state courts, Picard v.
Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275-76, 92 S.Ct. 509, 512, 30
L.Ed.2 438 (1971), nor is it sufficient that all the facts
necessary to support the claim were before the state courts
or that a somewhat similar state-law claim was made,
Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 6, 103 S.Ct. 276,
277, 74 L.Ed.2d 3 (1982) (citations omitted). The petitioner
must present his claims to the state courts such that they
are permitted the “opportunity to apply controlling
legal principles to the facts bearing upon (his)
constitutional claim.” Picard, 404 U.S. at
277, 92 S.Ct. at 513 (alteration in original).
Id. at 1344. “In sum, to preserve a claim of
ineffective assistance of counsel for federal review, the
habeas petitioner must assert this theory of relief and
transparently present the state courts with the specific acts
or omissions of his lawyers that resulted in
prejudice.” Id. Thus,
[f]ederal habeas petitioners are undoubtedly on their
strongest footing with regard to the exhaustion requirement
when their federal claims are carbon copies of the claims
they presented to the state courts. Such reproduction leaves
no question that the claims presented to the federal court
are the same as those that were presented to the state court.
But we do not demand exact replicas. We recognize that habeas
petitioners are permitted to clarify the arguments presented
to the state courts on federal collateral review provided
that those arguments remain unchanged in substance.
Procedural Default and Exceptions
‘the petitioner fails to raise the [federal] claim in
state court and it is clear from state law that any future
attempts at exhaustion would be futile, ” the failure
also constitutes a procedural bar. Owen v. Sec'y,
Dep't of Corr., 568 F.3d 894, 908 n.9
(11thCir. 2009) (quotation omitted); see also
McNair, 416 F.3d at 1305 (citing Coleman v.
Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 735 n.1 (1991)); see also
Boerckel, 526 U.S. at 848; Vazquez v. Sec'y,
Fla. Dep't of Corr., 827 F.3d 964, 966 (11th Cir.
2016). Smith v. Jones, 256 F.3d 1135, 1138 (11th
Cir. 2001) (“The teeth of the exhaustion requirement
comes from its handmaiden, the procedural default
doctrine.”). Federal habeas review is typically
precluded. Pope, 680 F.3d at 1284; Smith,
256 F.3d at 1138. Nevertheless, a federal court may still
consider the claim if a state habeas petitioner can show
either (1) cause for and actual prejudice from the default;
or (2) a fundamental miscarriage of justice. See Coleman
v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991); Ward v.
Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1157 (11th Cir. 2010).
show cause, the petitioner must demonstrate ‘some
objective factor external to the defense' that impeded
his effort to raise the claim properly in state
court.” Id. (quoting Murray v.
Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 488 (1986)). “[T]o show
prejudice, a petitioner must demonstrate that ‘the
errors at trial actually and substantially disadvantaged his
defense so that he was denied fundamental
fairness.'” Id. (quoting McCoy v.
Newsome, 953 F.2d 1252, 1261 (11th Cir. 1992) (per
absence of a showing of cause and prejudice, a petitioner may
receive consideration on the merits of a procedurally
defaulted claim if he can establish a fundamental miscarriage
of justice. Ward, 592 F.3d at 1157. “To meet
this standard, a petitioner must ‘show that it is more
likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted
him' of the underlying offense.” Johnson v.
Alabama, 256 F.3d 1156, 1171 (11th Cir. 2001) (quoting
Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327 (1995)), cert.
denied, 535 U.S. 926 (2002)). Additionally,
“'[t]o be credible, ' a claim of actual
innocence must be based on reliable evidence not presented at
trial.” Calderon v. Thompson, 523 U.S. 538,
559 (1998) (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324). With
the rarity of such evidence, in most cases, allegations of
actual innocence are ultimately summarily rejected.
Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324.
Standard of Review
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)
governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas
corpus. See 28.U.S.C. § 2254; Ledford v.
Warden, Ga. Diagnostic & Classification Prison, 818
F.3d 600, 642 (11th Cir. 2016). “‘The purpose of
AEDPA is to ensure that federal habeas relief functions as a
guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal
justice systems, and not as a means of error
correction.'” Id. (quoting Greene v.
Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 38 (2011)).
first task of the federal habeas court is to identify the
last state court decision, if any, that adjudicated the claim
on the merits. See Wilson v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic
Prison, 834 F.3d 1227, 1235 (11th Cir. 2016) (en banc),
cert. granted, Wilson v. Sellers, __ S.Ct.
__, 2017 WL 737820 (Feb. 27, 2017) (No. 16-6855);
Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828
F.3d 1277, 1285 (11th Cir. 2016). Regardless of whether the
last state court provided a reasoned opinion, “it may
be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the
merits in the absence of any indication or state-law
procedural principles to the contrary.” Harrington
v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99 (2011); see also Johnson
v. Williams, __ U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 1096
(2013). Thus, the state court need not issue an
opinion explaining its rationale in order for the state
court's decision to qualify as an adjudication on the
merits. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 100; Wright v.
Sec'y for the Dep't of Corr., 278 F.3d 1245,
1255 (11th Cir. 2002).
claim was “adjudicated on the merits” in state
court, Section 2254(d) bars relitigation of the claim,
subject only to the exceptions in §§ 2254(d)(1) and
(d)(2). Richter, 562 U.S. at 98. As the Eleventh
First, § 2254(d)(1) provides for federal review for
claims of state courts' erroneous legal conclusions. As
explained by the Supreme Court in Williams v.
Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389
(2000), § 2254(d)(1) consists of two distinct clauses: a
“contrary to” clause and an “unreasonable
application” clause. The “contrary to”
clause allows for relief only “if the state court
arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the
Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court
decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a
set of materially indistinguishable facts.”
Id. at 413, 120 S.Ct. at 1523 (plurality opinion).
The “unreasonable application” clause allows for
relief only “if the state court identifies the correct
governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's
decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the
facts of the prisoner's case.” Id.
Second, § 2254(d)(2) provides for federal review for
claims of state courts' erroneous factual determinations.
Section 2254(d)(2) allows federal courts to grant relief only
if the state court's denial of the petitioner's claim
“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)(2). The Supreme
Court has not yet defined § 2254(d)(2)'s
“precise relationship” to § 2254(e)(1),
which imposes a burden on the petitioner to rebut the state
court's factual findings “by clear and convincing
evidence.” See Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. __,
__, 134 S.Ct. 10, 15, 187 L.Ed.2d 348 (2013); accord
Brumfield v. Cain, 576 U.S. __, __, 135 S.Ct. 2269,
2282, 192 L.Ed.2d 356 (2015). Whatever that “precise
relationship” may be, “‘a state-court
factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the
federal habeas court would have reached a different
conclusion in the first instance.'” Titlow,
571 U.S. at __, 134 S.Ct. at 15 (quoting Wood v.
Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301, 130 S.Ct. 841, 849, 175
L.Ed.2d 738 (2010)).
Tharpe v. Warden, 834 F.3d 1323, 1337 (11th Cir.
2016); see also Daniel v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of
Corr., 822 F.3d 1248, 1259 (11th Cir. 2016). Also,
deferential review under Section 2254(d) is limited to the
record that was before the state court that adjudicated the
claim on the merits. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563
U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (regarding § 2254(d)(1));
Landers v. Warden, Att'y Gen. of Ala., 776 F.3d
1288, 1295 (11th Cir. 2015) (regarding § 2254(d)(2)).
the state court's adjudication on the merits is
“‘unaccompanied by an explanation, ' a
petitioner's burden under section 2254(d) is to
‘show [ ] there was no reasonable basis for the state
court to deny relief.'” Wilson, 834 F.3d
at 1235 (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 98). Thus,
“a habeas court must determine what arguments or
theories supported or, as here, could have supported, the
state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it
is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those
arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a
prior decision of [the] Court.” Richter, 562
U.S. at 102; see also Wilson, 834 F.3d at 1235;
Marshall, 828 F.3d at 1285. To determine which
theories could have supported the state appellate court's
decision, the federal habeas court may look to a state trial
court's previous opinion as one example of a reasonable
application of law or determination of fact. Wilson,
834 F.3d at 1239; see also Butts v. GDCP Warden, 850
F.3d 1201, 1204 (11th Cir. 2017). However, in
Wilson, the en banc Eleventh Circuit stated that the
federal habeas court is not limited to assessing the
reasoning of the lower court. 834 F.3d at 1239. As such,
even when the opinion of a lower state court contains flawed
reasoning, [AEDPA] requires that [the federal court] give the
last state court to adjudicate the prisoner's claim on
the merits “the benefit of the doubt, ”
Renico [v. Lett, 449 U.S. 766, 733 (2010)] (quoting
[Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002)]),
and presume that it “follow[ed] the law, ”
[Woods v. Donald, __ U.S. __, 135 U.S. 1372, 1376
(2015)] (quoting Visciotti, 537 U.S. at 24).
Id. at 1238; see also Williams, 133 S.Ct.
at 1101 (Scalia, J., concurring).
“AEDPA erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas
relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in
state court.” Titlow, 134 S.Ct. at 16 (2013).
“[E]ven a strong case for relief does not mean the
state court's contrary conclusion was
unreasonable.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102;
see also Tharpe, 834 F.3d at 1338 (“Federal
courts may grant habeas relief only when a state court
blundered in a manner so ‘well understood and
comprehended in existing law' and ‘was so lacking
in justification' that ‘there is no possibility
fairminded jurists could disagree.'”) (quoting
Richter, 562 U.S. at 102-03). “If this
standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant
to be.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants effective
assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense
counsel's performance falls below an objective standard
of reasonableness and thereby prejudices the defense.”
Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5 (2003)
(per curiam) (citing Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510,
521 (2003), and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S.
668, 687 (1984)).
To establish deficient performance, a person challenging a
conviction must show that “counsel's representation
fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
[Strickland, ] 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052. A
court considering a claim of ineffective assistance must
apply a “strong presumption” that counsel's
representation was within the “wide range” of
reasonable professional assistance. Id., at 689, 104
S.Ct. 2052. The challenger's burden is to show
“that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was
not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the
defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id., at
687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.
With respect to prejudice, a challenger must demonstrate
“a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's
unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would
have been different. A reasonable probability is a
probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the
outcome.” Id., at 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052. It is
not enough “to show that the errors had some
conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.”
Id., at 693, 104 S.Ct. 2052. Counsel's errors
must be ...