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Timmons v. Secretary,Florida Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

September 15, 2017

CHRISTOPHER TIMMONS, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          MARCIA MORALES HOWARD United States District Judge

         I. Status

         Petitioner Christopher Timmons, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on June 24, 2014, by filing through counsel, a Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (Petition; Doc. 1). In the Petition, Timmons challenges a 2003 state court (Duval County, Florida) judgment of conviction for first degree murder. On May 6, 2016, Respondent Secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections submitted a response in opposition to the Petition. See Respondent's Answer in Response to Order to Show Cause and Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response; Doc. 9) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). Timmons filed a reply and an amended reply on December 27, 2016. See Petitioner's Amended Reply to State's Response to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Amended Reply; Doc. 16).[1] This case is ripe for review.

         II. Procedural History

         On December 5, 2002, a grand jury returned an indictment charging Timmons with the first degree murder of Raul Cruz Valentin (victim). Resp. Ex. A at 19. Timmons proceeded to trial, and a jury found him guilty of first degree murder on August 14, 2003. Id. at 78-79. On September 3, 2003, the state trial court sentenced Timmons to life imprisonment with a twenty-five year minimum mandatory term of imprisonment. Id. at 86-91. Timmons appealed, Id. at 97, and on January 28, 2005, the First District Court of Appeal (First DCA) per curiam affirmed Timmons's judgment and sentence without opinion. Resp. Ex. J. The First DCA denied Timmons's motion for rehearing and written opinion, Resp. Ex. L, on March 7, 2005, and issued its mandate on March 23, 2005. Resp. Ex. M; Timmons v. State, 895 So.3d 1072 (Fla. 1st DCA 2005).

         On November 29, 2005, Timmons filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel with the First DCA (State Habeas Petition; Resp. Ex. P). The First DCA denied the State Habeas Petition on the merits without opinion on December 30, 2005. Resp. Ex. Q. On December 27, 2005, prior to the ruling on the State Habeas Petition, Timmons filed a pro se motion to allow credit for county jail time pursuant to Rule 3.800(a), Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure. Resp. Ex. N. The state trial court denied the motion on January 10, 2006. Resp. Ex. O.

         On March 8, 2006, Timmons, through counsel, filed a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Rule 3.850, Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure (3.850 Motion) raising ten claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Resp. Ex. T at 1-26. The state trial court held an evidentiary hearing on May 20, 2011, on grounds four, seven, eight, and nine of the 3.850 Motion. Resp. Ex. U. Thereafter, the state trial court denied the 3.850 Motion on April 11, 2013. Id. Timmons appealed, see Resp. Ex. V, and the First DCA per curiam affirmed the state trial court's denial of the 3.850 motion without opinion on March 28, 2014. Resp. Ex. Y. The First DCA issued its mandate on April 15, 2014. Resp. Ex. Z; Timmons v. State, 134 So.3d 957 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014).

         III. Evidentiary Hearing

         In a habeas corpus proceeding, the burden is on the petitioner to establish the need for a federal evidentiary hearing. See Chavez v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 647 F.3d 1057, 1060 (11th Cir. 2011). “In 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); Jones v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 834 F.3d 1299, 1318-19 (11th Cir. 2016). “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.” Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474. The pertinent facts of this case are fully developed in the record before the Court. Because this Court can “adequately assess [Timmons'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.

         IV. Standard of Review

         The 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)). As such, federal habeas review of final state court decisions is “‘greatly circumscribed' and ‘highly deferential.'” Id. (quoting Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d 1335, 1343 (11th Cir. 2011)).

         The 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, 137 S.Ct. 1203 (2017); 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, 568 U.S. 289, 301, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 1096 (2013).[2] 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).

         If the claim was “adjudicated on the merits” in state court, § 2254(d) bars relitigation of the claim, unless the state court's decision (1) “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” or (2) “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); Richter, 562 U.S. at 98. The Eleventh Circuit has explained:

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.'”[3] 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). Notably, the Supreme Court has instructed that “[i]n order for a state court's decision to be an unreasonable application of [that] Court's case law, the ruling must be ‘objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice.'” Virginia v. LeBlanc, 137 S.Ct. 1726, 1728 (2017) (quoting Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Also, deferential review under § 2254(d) generally 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)).

         Where 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.[4] 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, 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). Thus, “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). “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.'” Tharpe, 834 F.3d at 1338 (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.

         V. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         “The 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 “so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id., at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.

Richter, 562 U.S. at 104.

         Notably, there is no “iron-clad rule requiring a court to tackle one prong of the Strickland test before the other.” Ward, 592 F.3d at 1163. Since both prongs of the two-part Strickland test must be satisfied to show a Sixth Amendment violation, “a court need not address the performance prong if the petitioner cannot meet the prejudice prong, and vice-versa.” Id. (citing Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000)). As stated in Strickland: “If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course should be followed.” 466 U.S. at 697.

         Finally, “the standard for judging counsel's representation is a most deferential one.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 105. “Reviewing courts apply a ‘strong presumption' that counsel's representation was ‘within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'” Daniel, 822 F.3d at 1262 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). “When this presumption is combined with § 2254(d), the result is double deference to the state court ruling on counsel's performance.” Id. (citing Richter, 562 U.S. at 105); see also Evans v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 703 F.3d 1316, 1333-35 (11th Cir. 2013) (en banc) (Jordan, J., concurring); Rutherford v. Crosby, 385 F.3d 1300, 1309 (11th Cir. 2004).

         “The question is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination under the Strickland standard was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable - a substantially higher threshold.” Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009) (quotation marks omitted). If there is “any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard, ” then a federal court may not disturb a state-court decision denying the claim. Richter, 562 U.S. at 105. As such, “[s]urmounting Strickland's high bar is never an easy task.” Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 (2010).

         VI. Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

         In the Petition, Timmons asserts nine constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Timmons exhausted these claims by raising them in his 3.850 motion. See Resp. Ex. T. The state trial court denied Timmons's claims in a lengthy opinion. See Resp. Ex. U. The First DCA affirmed without written opinion. See Resp. Exs. Y, Z.

         The Court affords the state court decision the deference it is due under §2254(d). See Butts, 850 F.3d at 1204 (citing Richter, 562 U.S. at 100). Because reviewing the state trial court's decision denying relief leads to the same conclusion under §2254(d) as reviewing the First DCA's affirmance, the Court will review the state trial court's written explanation for its rejection of Timmons's claim.[5] See Butts, 850 F.3d at 1204 & 1205, n.2. Applying the deference the Court owes state courts under AEDPA, the Court asks “whether any fairminded jurist could agree with the state trial court's decision denying [Timmons] habeas relief.” Id. at 1205 (citations omitted). “If some fairminded jurists could agree with the state court's decision, although others might disagree, federal habeas relief must be denied.” Id. (quotations and citation omitted).

         A. Ground One

         As Ground One, Timmons contends that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to an improper jury instruction on self-defense. Timmons asserts that the instruction provided to the jury on aggravated battery was “extremely misleading, improperly shifted the burden of proof, and had the effect of negating Mr. Timmons'[s] sole defense.” Petition at 11.

         The state trial court denied the claim, stating:

Defendant argues that counsel was ineffective because he failed to object to the jury instruction on aggravated battery. Defendant claims the instruction improperly shifted the burden to him to establish the victim was attempting to commit aggravated battery and thus Defendant was justified to use deadly force to defend himself. For support, Defendant cites Montijo v. State, 61 So.3d 42 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011). In that case, the court found fundamental error in an instruction that provided: “To prove the crime of Aggravated Battery, two elements must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 427. The Court finds no conflict with Montijo. In Montijo, the issue was whether the jury instruction improperly shifted the burden to the defendant to prove aggravated battery beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 425. That instruction did not clarify that the state had that burden. Id. at 426. In the instant case, when charging the jury, the Court stated: “To prove the crime of aggravated battery, the State must prove the following two elements beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Ex. D. at 850-51.) Moreover, the printed jury instruction used identical language. (Ex. E.) Defendant is thus unable to demonstrate that counsel was ineffective for failing to object to this instruction. His grounds for the objection are mistaken. Defendant is not entitled to relief.

Resp. Ex. U at 201. The First DCA affirmed.

         After a review of the record and the applicable law, the Court finds that Timmons fails to meet his burden that there was no reasonable basis for the state appellate court to deny relief. The state appellate court's adjudication of this claim was not contrary to clearly established federal law, did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, and was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceedings. Timmons is not entitled to relief on ground one.

         B. Ground Two

         As Ground Two, Timmons contends that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call Michael Winegar as a witness at trial. Winegar previously lived with Timmons and the victim. Timmons alleges that Winegar's testimony would have corroborated his self-defense claim. Id.

         The state trial court held an evidentiary hearing regarding this claim and noted the following exchange between the prosecutor and Timmons in its order denying the claim:

Q: And you said that Mr. Winegar observed altercations between yourself and [the victim] on previous occasions; is that correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Any fists between the two of you?
A: [The victim] took me outside one time and put me up against the wall, but I don't think [Mr. Winegar] went outside with us. We went outside to, quote, resolve the issue so if we did get into a fight we didn't destroy the property inside the apartment?
Q: Is that a no?
A: [Mr. Winegar] didn't see [the victim] put his hands on me. No, sir.

Resp. Ex. U at 190; 244. Further, the state trial court noted that Timmons's trial counsel testified that “after interviewing Micheal Winegar, he believed the ‘witness was not that helpful' because the witness could testify at best only that the victim ‘bullied' Defendant.” Id. at 191; 268 (citation omitted). Timmons's trial counsel also “testified that [Winegar] told him, ‘that he knew of no specific incidents of violence that he either witnessed or heard about where the [victim] had actually done anything violent towards [Timmons]” and “‘despite considerable' effort by counsel and his investigator he could not locate Winegar when it came time for trial.” Id. The state trial court concluded:

counsel's reasons for not calling Michael Winegear as a witness [not only were] sound trial strategy, but also that counsel's reasons were also valid because the witness was not available for trial. As such, Defendant fail[ed] to demonstrate that counsel's performance was deficient or that counsel's failure to call Winegear prejudiced the outcome of the proceedings.

Resp. Ex. U at 191. The First DCA affirmed.

         The Court defers to the state trial court's decision and concludes that it and the state appellate court's affirmance are neither contrary to nor an unreasonable application of Strickland, and they did not rely on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceedings. Timmons is not entitled to relief on ground two.

         C. Ground Three

         As Ground Three, Timmons contends that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce evidence of his unmedicated bipolar condition and voluntary intoxication in order to rebut the State's evidence regarding his demeanor at the time of the shooting or shortly thereafter. Timmons states that the prosecutor used witnesses' testimony that Timmons appeared “calm and cool” at the time of the shooting or shortly thereafter to demonstrate that Timmons killed the victim with premeditation. Petition at 16. Timmons asserts that Dr. Krop would have rebutted the other witnesses' testimony by testifying that “although Mr. Timmons may have appeared calm, cool, and collected, he may have been in a dissociative state in which his appearance masked the fact that he was in substantial distress.” Petition at 16.

         The state trial court denied relief stating:

At the evidentiary hearing, Defendant testified that he suffers from “Manic Depressant Bipolar Disorder.” (Ex. F. at 9.) He further testified that he did not take his prescribed medication regularly and that he had not taken his medication for a week before he killed the victim. (Ex. F. at 10-11.) Moreover, Defendant stated that in the hours leading up to the shooting, he drank “about 10 to 12 beers over the course of an hour, hour and a half.” (Ex. F. at 11.) Defendant testified that he informed his counsel of these facts. (Ex. F. at 11-12.) On cross-examination, however, Defendant revealed that his drinking was voluntary and that he neglected to take his prescribed medication. (Ex. F. at 16-17.) At the hearing, trial counsel testified that his strategy was to avoid the potential problem that using Defendant's bipolar condition could create:
I described the potential problem of putting in evidence about his bipolar condition if he wasn't taking his ...

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