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West v. Secretary, Department of Corrections

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

January 11, 2018

MARSHAUN WEST, Petitioner,


          TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN, United States District Judge.

         I. Status

         Petitioner, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this case by filing a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. 1) (Petition). He challenges his 2008 state court (Duval County) judgment of conviction for conspiracy to traffic in heroin and trafficking in heroin. Petitioner was sentenced to a total term of imprisonment of 30 years. Respondents filed an Answer (Doc. 13) (Answer), [1] and Petitioner filed a Reply (Doc. 16) (Reply). Petitioner then obtained counsel, who sought a stay of the case to review the docket and pleadings (Doc. 24). Counsel subsequently filed a Memorandum of Law in Support of the Petition (Doc. 27) (Memorandum). Respondents notified the Court that they would rely on the arguments previously made in the Answer (Doc. 30). The case is ripe for review.[2]

         II. Governing Legal Principles

         A. Standard of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal habeas corpus petition. 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)).

Under AEDPA, when a state court has adjudicated the petitioner's claim on the merits, a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the state court's decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding, ” id. § 2254(d)(2). A state court's factual findings are presumed correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.[] Id. § 2254(e)(1); Ferrell v. Hall, 640 F.3d 1199, 1223 (11th Cir. 2011).
AEDPA “imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings” and “demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. [at 102] (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)). The Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed lower federal courts that an unreasonable application of law requires more than mere error or even clear error. See, e.g., Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 18 (2003); Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 75 (“The gloss of clear error fails to give proper deference to state courts by conflating error (even clear error) with unreasonableness.”); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000) (“[A]n unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.”).

Bishop v. Warden, GDCP, 726 F.3d 1243, 1253-54 (11th Cir. 2013) (internal citations modified).

         “[A] federal court reviewing the judgment of a state court must first identify the last adjudication on the merits. It does not matter whether that adjudication provided a reasoned opinion because section 2254(d) ‘refers only to a decision' and does not ‘requir[e] a statement of reasons.'” Wilson v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 834 F.3d 1227, 1235 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S.Ct. 1203 (2017), (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 98). 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.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 99 (citation omitted). When the last 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). “‘[A] habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . 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.'” Id. (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 102).

When the reasoning of the state trial court was reasonable, there is necessarily at least one reasonable basis on which the state supreme court could have denied relief and our inquiry ends. In this way, federal courts can use previous opinions as evidence that the relevant state court decision under review is reasonable. But the relevant state court decision for federal habeas review remains the last adjudication on the merits, and federal courts are not limited to assessing the reasoning of the lower court.

Id. at 1239.[3]

         B. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

         There are prerequisites to federal habeas review. Before filing a habeas petition in federal court, a petitioner must exhaust all available state court remedies. To exhaust state remedies, the petitioner must “fairly present[]” each issue raised in his federal petition to the state's highest court. Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989) (emphasis omitted). This means that a “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.” O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999); Raleigh v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 827 F.3d 938, 956 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, Raleigh v. Jones, 137 S.Ct. 2160 (2017) (“The petitioner must have presented the claim in a manner that affords the State a full and fair opportunity to address and resolve the claim on the merits.” (quotations and citation omitted)). It is not “sufficient merely that the federal habeas petitioner has been through the state courts, 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.” Preston v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 785 F.3d 449, 457 (11th Cir. 2015). Rather, “[t]he 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.” Id.

         Failure to exhaust results in a procedural default which raises a potential bar to federal habeas review. “A state prisoner may overcome the prohibition on reviewing procedurally defaulted claims if he can show ‘cause' to excuse his failure to comply with the state procedural rule and ‘actual prejudice resulting from the alleged constitutional violation.'” Davila v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 2058, 2064-65 (2017) (citing Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 84 (1977); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991)). To show cause for a procedural default, “the petitioner must demonstrate ‘some objective factor external to the defense' that impeded his effort to raise the claim properly in state court.” Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1157 (11th Cir. 2010) (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 curiam)).

         A petitioner may also obtain review of a federal habeas claim that is procedurally defaulted if he can show that a “constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent[.]” Murray, 477 U.S. at 496. Actual innocence means factual innocence, not legal insufficiency. Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 623 (1998). 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. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327 (1995). “To be credible, a claim of actual innocence must be based on [new] reliable evidence not presented at trial.” Calderon v. Thompson, 523 U.S. 538, 559 (1998) (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324).

         III. Analysis

         A. Ground One

         Petitioner asserts that newly discovered evidence proves his actual innocence. After Petitioner's trial, his codefendant (Anthony Sweeting) signed an affidavit[4] stating that Petitioner (1) “did not have anything to do with the narcotics that w[ere] found in the rental car;” (2) “had no knowledge of the narcotics and no dealings of anything illegal;” and (3) “was only a passenger along for the ride.” Ex. Z at 18. In his counseled Memorandum, Petitioner argues that his freestanding actual innocence claim is a colorable claim that can be raised on federal habeas review.

         While a federal habeas petitioner may allege actual innocence to overcome a procedural bar or the application of the one-year limitations period, the Supreme Court has “not resolved whether a prisoner may be entitled to habeas relief based on a freestanding claim of actual innocence.” McQuiggin v. Perkins, 133 S.Ct. 1924, 1931 (2013) (citing Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 404-05 (1993)). However, the Eleventh Circuit, which this Court must follow, “forbids granting habeas relief based upon a claim of actual innocence, anyway, at least in non-capital cases.” Jordan v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 485 F.3d 1351, 1356 (11th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted); see also Cunningham v. Dist. Attorney's Office for Escambia Cty., 592 F.3d 1237, 1272 (11th Cir. 2010) (recognizing that “this Court's own precedent does not allow habeas relief on a freestanding innocence claim in non-capital cases”). Therefore, Petitioner's claim is not cognizable on federal habeas review.

         Assuming Petitioner could raise a freestanding actual innocence claim, he would be required to show that “in light of the new evidence, no juror, acting reasonably, would have voted to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Schlup, 513 U.S. at 329. Petitioner cannot meet this high standard.

         The following is a summary of the evidence adduced at trial (taken from the state's response to Petitioner's state court post-conviction motion).

The Defendant's activities were revealed as part of a wiretap investigation. A wiretap was placed in his codefendant's cellular telephone. The electronic surveillance and other testimony given at trial revealed the following: the Defendant was part of a group of individuals involved in the trafficking of heroin from Miami to Jacksonville, FL. The Defendant's purpose in the organization was to serve as a body guard for his codefendant, Anthony Sweeting. The Defendant accompanied his codefendant on numerous trips from Miami to a Jacksonville residence, referred to as the “Trap, ” to deliver heroin. The Defendant and Sweeting participated in the bagging of heroin for distribution at the Defendant's residence. The Defendant received proceeds from the sale of heroin. The Defendant received a phone call from his codefendant acknowledging that “they keep calling, ” which is code for needing an additional supply of heroin. The Defendant was stopped in Jacksonville on his way to the Trap with heroin in the car, but released in an effort to obtain more information about the organization. The day after the stop, the Defendant engaged in a conversation with other codefendants regarding law enforcement's acquisition of the dope and questioned whether the officers were “dirty.” The heroin that was taken when the Defendant was stopped in Jacksonville was supposed to be supplied to the Trap. The Defendant came to Jacksonville to sell heroin.

Ex. Z at 127-28 (citations omitted). Considering the evidence adduced at trial along with the “new affidavit, ” the Court finds that Petitioner has not shown “that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him” if the information in the affidavit had been presented at his trial. Even if Petitioner could raise a freestanding actual innocence claim, he would not be entitled to federal habeas relief.

         B. ...

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