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Ashley v. Secretary, Department of Corrections

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

November 14, 2017

ANTWAIN D. ASHLEY, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          MARCIA MORALES HOWARD United States District Judge

          I. Status

         Petitioner Antwain D. Ashley, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on January 5, 2015, by filing a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Petition; Doc. 1) under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He filed an Amended Petition (Doc. 8) on January 14, 2016. In the Amended Petition, Ashley challenges a 2007 state court (Duval County, Florida) judgment of conviction for armed robbery and armed burglary. Respondents have submitted a memorandum in opposition to the Amended Petition. See Respondents' Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response; Doc. 15) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). On June 9, 2016, the Court entered an Order to Show Cause and Notice to Petitioner (Doc. 10), admonishing Ashley regarding his obligations and giving Ashley a time frame in which to submit a reply. Ashley submitted a brief in reply. See Petitioner's Response to Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Reply; Doc. 16). This case is ripe for review.

         II. Procedural History

         On March 8, 2007, the State of Florida charged Ashley with armed robbery (counts one and two) and armed burglary (count three). See Resp. Ex. 1 at 39-40, Amended Information. On August 6, 2007, Ashley entered a guilty plea to all three charges. See Resp. Exs. 1 at 63-64; 2 at 97-105, Transcript of the Plea Proceeding (Plea Tr.). On September 21, 2007, the court sentenced Ashley to a term of imprisonment of seventy-five years for count one with a twenty-year minimum mandatory term for actual possession and discharge of a firearm; a term of imprisonment of fifty years for count two with a ten-year minimum mandatory term for actual possession of a firearm, to run consecutively to count one; and a term of imprisonment of fifty years for count three with a ten-year minimum mandatory term for actual possession of a firearm, to run consecutively to count two. See Resp. Exs. 1 at 65-72; 10 at 205-26, Transcript of the Sentencing Hearing (Sentencing Tr.).

         On March 4, 2008, with the benefit of counsel, Ashley filed a motion to correct sentencing error pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(b)(2) (Rule 3.800(b)(2) motion). In the Rule 3.800(b)(2) motion, he requested a new sentencing hearing, at which the court could exercise its discretion as to whether to impose concurrent sentences instead of consecutive sentences. See Resp. Ex. 3 at 1-9. On April 28, 2008, the trial court denied the Rule 3.800(b)(2) motion. See id. at 10-160.

         On direct appeal, Ashley, with the benefit of counsel, filed a brief pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967). See Resp. Ex. 4. Ashley filed a pro se brief, arguing that the trial court erred when it: denied his motion to correct illegal sentence (ground one), and imposed a sentence that violated the Eighth Amendment (ground two). See Resp. Ex. 6. On February 4, 2009, the appellate court affirmed Ashley's conviction and sentence per curiam, see Ashley v. State, 4 So.3d 1222 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009); Resp. Ex. 7, and later denied his motion for rehearing on March 20, 2009, see Resp. Ex. 8. The mandate issued on April 7, 2009. See Resp. Ex. 7.

         On June 11, 2009, Ashley filed a pro se motion for post conviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850 (Rule 3.850 motion) and an amended motion (Amended Rule 3.850 motion) on April 1, 2010. See Resp. Ex. 9 at 1-20, 49-57. In his requests for post-conviction relief, he asserted that counsel (Robert Carl Davis) was ineffective because he failed to: file a motion to suppress evidence of a gun that he was charged with possessing and firing during the commission of his crimes (ground two); conduct an adequate pretrial investigation and raise a viable defense (ground five); and research the law on the court's discretion to sentence him as a youthful offender (ground seven). Additionally, Ashley stated that counsel misadvised him that the court would sentence him to no more than twenty years of incarceration if he entered an open plea (ground one). He also asserted that the trial court was deprived of subject matter jurisdiction because the Information was defective (grounds three and four), and his sentence was illegal because the factual basis for his plea did not support a finding that he possessed and/or used a gun during the commission of the crimes (ground six). The State responded, see id. at 45-48, 116-27, and Ashley replied, see id. at 150-51. On March 3, 2011, the Court held an evidentiary hearing, at which Davis (his former trial counsel) testified. See Resp. Ex. 10 at 243-300, Transcript of the Evidentiary Hearing (EH Tr.). On March 6, 2013, the court denied his requests for post-conviction relief. See id. at 164-226. On January 28, 2014, the appellate court affirmed the court's denial of post-conviction relief per curiam, see Ashley v. State, 132 So.3d 224 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014); Resp. Ex. 13, and the mandate issued on March 5, 2014, See Resp. Ex. 13.

         During the pendency of the post-conviction proceedings, Ashley filed a pro se motion to correct illegal sentence pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(a) (Rule 3.800(a) motion) on October 31, 2013. See Resp. Ex. 14 at 1-170. The court denied the Rule 3.800(a) motion on December 26, 2013. See id. at 171-85. On June 3, 2014, the appellate court affirmed the court's denial per curiam, see Ashley v. State, 139 So.3d 890 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014); Resp. Ex. 15, and the mandate issued on July 1, 2014, see Resp. Ex. 15.

         On October 7, 2015, Ashley filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus or second successive motion for post-conviction relief. See Resp. Ex. 16. The court dismissed Ashley's motion on September 26, 2017. See https://core.duvalclerk.com, case number 16-2006-CF-016512-AXXX-MA, docket entry 312.

         III. One-Year Limitations Period

         The Petition appears to be timely filed within the one-year limitations period. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).

         IV. 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); Jones v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 834 F.3d 1299, 1318-19 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 2245 (2017). "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 [Ashley'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.

         V. Governing Legal Principles

         A. Standard of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas corpus. See Ledford v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic & Classification Prison, 818 F.3d 600, 642 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1432 (2017). "'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) (quotation marks omitted)). 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) (quotation marks omitted)).

         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, 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) (citation omitted); see also Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 301 (2013).[1] 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.

         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 97-98. As 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.'"[2] 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), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 2298 (2017); see also Daniel v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of Corr., 822 F.3d 1248, 1259 (11th Cir. 2016). 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, 182 (2011) (stating the language in § 2254(d)(1)'s "requires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made"); 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. 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 Butts v. GDCP Warden, 850 F.3d 1201, 1204 (11th Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed, No. 17-512 (Sept. 29, 2017).[3] 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, [4] 559 U.S. at 773, 130 S.Ct. 1855 (quoting Visciotti, [5] 537 U.S. at 24, 123 S.Ct. 357), and presume that it "follow[ed] the law, " Donald, [6] 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (quoting Visciotti, 537 U.S. at 24, 123 S.Ct. 357).

Id. at 1238.

         Thus, "AEDPA erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court." Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 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). "This standard is 'meant to be' a difficult one to meet." Rimmer v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 864 F.3d 1261, 1274 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 102). Thus, to the extent that Ashley's claims were adjudicated on the merits in the state courts, they must be evaluated under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         "The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the effective assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense attorney'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.[7] 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. The Eleventh Circuit has recognized "the absence of any iron-clad rule requiring a court to tackle one prong of the Strickland test before the other." Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1163 (11th Cir. 2010). 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." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

         A state court's adjudication of an ineffectiveness claim is accorded great deference.

"[T]he standard for judging counsel's representation is a most deferential one." Richter, ___U.S. at __, 131 S.Ct. at 788. But "[e]stablishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is all the more difficult. The standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both highly deferential, and when the two apply in tandem, review is doubly so." Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted). "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, 129 S.Ct. 1411, 1420, 173 L.Ed.2d 251 (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, ___U.S. at ___, 131 S.Ct. at 788.

Hittson v. GDCP Warden, 759 F.3d 1210, 1248 (11th Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S.Ct. 2126 (2015); Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009). "In addition to the deference to counsel's performance mandated by Strickland, the AEDPA adds another layer of deference--this one to a state court's decision--when we are considering whether to grant federal habeas relief from a state court's decision." Rutherford v. Crosby, 385 F.3d 1300, 1309 (11th Cir. 2004). 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

         A. Ground One

          As ground one, Ashley asserts that counsel was ineffective because he misadvised him that the court would sentence him to no more than twenty years of incarceration if he entered an open plea. See Amended Petition at 6-7; Reply at 2-3. He raised the claim in his Rule 3.850 motion in state court. See Resp. Ex. 9 at 2-6. The court held an evidentiary hearing, at which Davis testified. Identifying the two-prong Strickland ineffectiveness test and Hill v. Lockhart as the controlling law, the post-conviction court ultimately denied the Rule 3.850 motion with respect to the claim, stating in pertinent part:

With regard to the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel that were argued during the March 3, 2011 evidentiary hearing, this Court finds that the testimony given by Defendant's trial counsel, Robert Carl Davis, Esquire, is both more credible and more persuasive than Defendant's sworn allegations in the instant Motion. Laramore y. State, 699 So.2d 846 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). As such, this Court accepts his testimony, notes that he has been practicing as an attorney in good standing with the Florida Bar since 2003, and finds that he functioned as "reasonably effective counsel" in his investigation and preparation of the defense in the instant case. See Coleman, 718 So.2d at 829.[8] In addition, this Court finds the trial decisions made by Mr. Davis that are currently under attack in the instant Motion constituted sound trial strategy by a seasoned defense attorney.
See Songer v. State, 419 So.2d 1044 (Fla. 1982); Gonzalez v. State, 579 So.2d 145, 146 (Fla. 3d DCA 1991) ("Tactical decisions of counsel do not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.") Having established the preliminary findings with regard to the evidentiary hearing, this Court will now address the merits of Defendant's ineffective assistance of counsel claims.
Ground One
In Ground One, Defendant alleges counsel was ineffective for improperly advising him to openly plead to twenty (20) years, when he was actually sentenced to 175 years incarceration. Defendant further alleges counsel told him he "would get no more than twenty (20) years in prison, " and never "properly inform[ed] him that he could have received one hundred and seventy-five years (175) by [sic] the court." (Def.'s Mot. 3.) Defendant asserts that if he had known the maximum amount of time to which he could have been sentenced, he would not have pled guilty and would have, instead, proceeded to trial. In this respect, Defendant also alleges his plea was not voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently entered due to counsel's alleged misadvice.
Assuming arguendo counsel actually advised Defendant that he "would get no more than twenty (20) years in prison, " such claim fails for lack of prejudice. This Court first looks to Defendant's sworn answers during the plea colloquy. See Stano v. State, 520 So.2d 278, 280 (Fla. 1988) (holding that a defendant may not seek to go behind his sworn testimony at a plea hearing in a postconviction motion); Bir v. State, 493 So.2d 55, 56 (Fla. 1st DCA 1986) (same); Dean v. State, 580 So.2d 808, 810 (Fla. 3d DCA 199l)(same); see also Iacono v. State, 930 So.2d 829, 831 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006) ("A defendant is not entitled to rely on an attorney's advice to commit perjury above the solemn oath that the defendant makes to the court to tell the truth."). At the plea hearing, the judge fully advised Defendant that he faced a maximum possible sentence of life on each count with which he was charged, and that he faced a twenty-year minimum mandatory term on Count One and two ten-year minimum mandatory terms on Counts Two and Three. (Ex. G at 5, 6-7.)[9] The judge also informed Defendant that by entering his pleas, he was forfeiting certain constitutional rights. (Ex. G at 6.) Defendant testified that he had gone as far as the 11th grade in school, that he could read and write, that he was not under the influence of alcohol or any other drug or medication that could affect his ability to understand what was going on around him, and that he in fact understood everything the judge had asked him. (Ex. G at 5-7.) Defendant acknowledged having read, understood, and signed a written Plea of Guilty form. (Ex. G at 6.) Defendant further testified that he had reviewed the form with his attorney prior to signing it, and that his attorney had answered all of his questions. (Ex. G at 6.) Indeed, Defendant told the judge he had given his attorney permission to enter the guilty plea on his behalf, (Ex. G at 5), and defense counsel advised the judge that he had discussed the plea with Defendant at length on more than one occasion. (Ex. G at 8.) Thereafter, the judge properly accepted Defendant's plea as knowing, intelligent and voluntary. (Ex. G at 8-9.)
Second, Defendant signed a detailed Plea of Guilty Form. (Ex. A.) That form clearly indicates that Defendant "freely and voluntarily entered [his] plea of guilty, " that he "ha[d] been advised of all direct consequences of the sentences which may be imposed, " that he "ha[d] not been offered any hope of reward, better treatment, or certain type of sentence as an inducement to enter [his] plea, " that he "ha[d] not been promised by anyone, including [his] attorney, that [he] would actually serve any less time than that set forth [in the agreement], " and that he "ha[d] not been threatened, coerced, or intimidated by any person, including [his] attorney, in any way in order to get [him] to enter [his] plea." (Ex. A.)
Therefore, Defendant's claims that counsel was ineffective for improperly advising him to openly plead to twenty (20) years, and that his plea was not voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently entered as a result of counsel's alleged misadvice, are refuted by the record. See Stano, 520 So.2d at 280; Bir, 493 So.2d at 56; Dean, 580 So.2d at 810; see also Iacono, 930 So.2d at 83l. Further, given Defendant's signed Plea of Guilty form, his sworn testimony during the plea colloquy, and the totality of the circumstances of his case, there is no reasonable probability that he would have insisted on going to trial. See Grosvenor, 874 So.2d at 1181-82.[10] Thus, Defendant has failed to demonstrate prejudice and Ground One is denied.

Resp. Ex. 10 at 170-73. On appeal, Ashley filed a pro se initial brief, see Resp. Ex. 11 at 3-6; the State filed an answer brief, see Resp. Ex. 12 at 18-25; and the appellate court affirmed the court's denial of post-conviction relief per curiam, see Resp. Ex.

         In its appellate brief, the State addressed the claim on the merits, see Resp. Ex. 12 at 19-25, and therefore, the appellate court may have affirmed Ashley's conviction based on the State's argument. If the appellate court addressed the merits, the state court's adjudication of this claim is entitled to deference under AEDPA. After a review of the record and the applicable law, the Court concludes that the state court's adjudication of this claim was not contrary to clearly established federal law and did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Nor was the state court's adjudication based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceedings. Accordingly, Ashley is not entitled to relief on the basis of this claim.

         Moreover, even assuming the state appellate court's adjudication of the claim is not entitled to deference, Ashley's claim, nevertheless, is without merit. The United States Supreme Court has determined that "the representations of the defendant ... [at a plea proceeding] as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings. Solemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of verity." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977). The Court stated:

Courts should not upset a plea solely because of post hoc assertions from a defendant about how he would have pleaded but for his attorney's deficiencies. Judges should instead look to contemporaneous evidence to substantiate a defendant's expressed preferences.

Lee v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 1958, 1967 (2017). Moreover, "[a] reviewing federal court may set aside a state court guilty plea only for failure to satisfy due process: If a defendant understands the charges against him, understands the consequences of a guilty plea, and voluntarily chooses to plead guilty, without being coerced to do so, the guilty plea ... will be upheld on federal review." Stano v. Dugger, 921 F.2d 1125, 1141 (11th Cir. 1991). On this record, Ashley has failed to carry his burden of showing that his counsel's representation fell outside that range of reasonably professional assistance.

         At the plea hearing, counsel advised the court that Ashley "is going to be entering a plea straight up to the Court[]" as to all three counts. Plea Tr. ...


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