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Harris v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

October 25, 2017

LOUISE HARRIS, Petitioner - Appellant,
v.
COMMISSIONER, ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL, STATE OF ALABAMA, WARDEN, Respondents - Appellees.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 2:11-cv-00552-WKW-SRW

          Before MARTIN, JILL PRYOR and MELLOY, [*] Circuit Judges.

          JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judge

         Louise Harris, an Alabama inmate, appeals the district court's denial of her 28 U.S.C. § 2254 federal habeas petition. Harris was convicted for arranging the murder of her husband, Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Isaiah Harris, and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Following unsuccessful challenges to her conviction on direct appeal and collateral proceedings in the Alabama state courts, Harris filed a federal habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, which the district court denied. Harris appeals the rejection of her petition on a single ground: that she was denied effective assistance of counsel at the guilt phase of her trial because a revolving door of trial attorneys, collectively, left her unable to muster an adequate defense. Because the Alabama courts deemed this challenge procedurally defaulted, Harris additionally asserts that she can demonstrate cause and prejudice to excuse the default.

         After a thorough review of the briefing and the record, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm the denial of Harris's petition. Although we do not rule out that an ineffective assistance of counsel claim could be based on the lack of continuity of counsel, and we agree that Harris can show cause why she failed to raise her claim at the appropriate time in state court, we conclude that she cannot demonstrate that the lack of continuity of counsel prejudiced her case. Thus, she cannot overcome the procedural default and, for the same reasons, cannot demonstrate a meritorious claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Harris was convicted in Alabama of the murder of her husband, Isaiah Harris. The murder was deemed a capital offense because it was "for pecuniary gain or pursuant to a contract for hire" and because Isaiah Harris was an on-duty deputy sheriff. Harris v. State, 632 So.2d 503, 508 (Ala.Crim.App.1992). After Harris was convicted, the jury voted 7 to 5 for a life sentence, but the trial court overrode the jury's recommendation and imposed a death sentence. Id. Although Harris's death sentence was upheld on direct appeal, it was vacated during her state postconviction proceedings because trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence at the penalty phase. Upon the parties' agreement, the trial court resentenced Harris to life without parole.

         Below we recount the events that led to Harris's trial and conviction, as well as evidence adduced at her state postconviction proceedings.

         A. Pretrial Proceedings

         Lorenzo McCarter hired two men to kill Isaiah Harris. Sometime thereafter, Harris-who had had an extramarital affair with McCarter-was implicated in the murder.

         Harris was indigent, so the trial court appointed counsel for her. On May 19, 1988, the court appointed Frank Riggs and Tim Halstrom as defense counsel. Two months later, Riggs and Halstrom filed a "Motion for Reasonable and Adequate Compensation of Counsel, or to Excuse Appointed Counsel, " in which they admitted that they had "little experience in capital litigation" and requested compensation above that permitted by Alabama law so that they could get up to speed in a short amount of time on the relevant facts of Harris's case and the law governing capital cases. Ex. A Vol. VI, R-1081-83.[2] On August 22, 1988, the trial court entered an order "assum[ing] that" counsel's motion was "to be relieved of . . . appointment as attorneys in this case" and relieving counsel of their appointment. Ex. A Vol. VI, R-1102. There is no indication in the record that Harris knew of counsel's motion or the court's order.

         On August 30, 1988, the trial court appointed Pete Yates to represent Harris. Although the record does not contain an order appointing co-counsel, it is clear that David Allred also was appointed to represent Harris around August 30: he is copied on the order appointing Yates. On September 1, 1988, the trial court appointed Maury Smith to represent Harris, apparently alongside Yates and Allred.

         On September 6, 1988, a week after he was appointed, Allred filed a "Motion for Relief from Appointment." Ex. A Vol. VI, R-1108. Yates and Smith also apparently moved to withdraw, although the record does not contain their motions. Within days, the trial court granted the motions, permitting all three lawyers to withdraw. Again, there is no indication that Harris knew of counsel's motions or the trial court's orders.

         On September 14, 1988, the trial court appointed Barry Leavell and John Alley to represent Harris, her sixth and seventh lawyers in a span of about four months. On September 29, just over two weeks later, the court relieved Alley and replaced him with Knox Argo, who would serve as counsel at trial. At this point, the case was set for trial on March 20, 1989, giving Leavell and Argo six months to prepare a capital murder case for a guilt and a penalty phase.

         Less than a week before trial was set to begin, Leavell and Argo notified the trial court that there was a problem: they had just discovered that Alabama law required counsel in a capital case to have had five years of active criminal practice, and neither had the requisite experience.[3] Leavell and Argo nonetheless represented to the court that "factually the case is ready to go to trial." Ex. A Vol. 1, R-25. The court continued the trial and, on March 29, 1989, replaced Leavell with Eric Bowen as lead counsel. Bowen was a relatively experienced criminal lawyer, but he had never defended a capital case.

         Just over three months later, on July 10, 1989, Harris's trial began with Bowen and Argo as her counsel.

         The facts elicited at trial are thoroughly detailed in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals's opinion in Harris's direct appeal. See Harris, 632 So. at 508-09. We include a summary of facts relevant to this appeal.

         The State presented the following evidence at Harris's trial. At the time of Isaiah Harris's murder, Harris was having an affair with McCarter. McCarter, who-to avoid a potential death sentence-testified against Harris at her trial, hired two men, Michael Sockwell and Alex Hood, to kill Isaiah Harris while he was on his way to work his night shift at the local jail. Sockwell and Hood parked a car outside the Harris's subdivision and waited for Isaiah Harris to leave for work. Isaiah Harris left home around 11:00 p.m.; when he "stopped at the stop sign at the entrance of the subdivision, Sockwell shot him once in the face at close range with a shotgun, " killing him. Id. at 508.

         McCarter testified that Harris asked him to hire someone to kill her husband. In support of McCarter's testimony, the State offered evidence "of the existence of various insurance policies on the victim's life, with [Harris] specified as the beneficiary." Id. The State also offered the testimony of several law enforcement officers, who testified that, upon hearing the news of her husband's death, Harris behaved abnormally. Harris ...


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