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Benzant v. Jones

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

February 16, 2018

JULIE L. JONES, Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, et al., Respondents.



         This matter is before the Court on Samuel Benzant's (“Petitioner”) Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (“Petition”) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 that seeks to vacate the state court judgment and sentence against him. [D.E. 1]. The Government responded in opposition on November 27, 2017 [D.E. 19] and Petitioner replied on January 18, 2018. [D.E. 23]. Therefore, the Petition is now ripe for disposition. After careful review of the record and the arguments presented, we conclude that the Petition as a whole is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner was charged by indictment - alongside Henry Tomas Ramirez and Rudy Daniel Salazar - with first-degree murder and robbery with a firearm. Following a jury trial, Petitioner was found guilty as charged and sentenced to a term of life imprisonment on count one and a term of forty-five years imprisonment on count two. On June 7, 2007, Petitioner filed a notice of appeal from the final judgment of conviction and sentence. On direct appeal, Petitioner argued that the evidence that he had committed two unrelated crimes should have been redacted from his statement to the jury because the evidence was not inextricably intertwined with the charged offenses. The State filed an answer arguing that there was no abuse of discretion and the state appellate court issued a written opinion affirming the conviction and sentence on April 14, 2010. See Benzant v. State, 34 So.3d 112, 113 (Fla. DCA 2010). A pro se motion for rehearing and rehearing en banc was filed on June 8, 2010, and denied on July 21, 2010.

         On March 22, 2012, Petitioner filed a motion for post-conviction relief in state court. Petitioner raised four claims for relief and an evidentiary hearing was scheduled. On July 5, 2013, the trial court issued an Order denying the motion for post-conviction relief. Ground one was denied on the merits, finding that Petitioner's trial counsel conducted a sound legal strategy. Ground two was abandoned at the evidentiary hearing. Ground three was found to be without merit because Petitioner affirmed his acceptance of the jury panel. And ground four was denied on the merits because counsel's conduct constituted a sound trial strategy.

         On July 31, 2013, Petitioner filed a notice of appeal on the Order denying the post-conviction relief on July 5, 2013. Petitioner argued that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to strike a juror who could not accept false confessions in a case. The appellate court per curiam affirmed the lower court's ruling on December 31, 2014. See Benzant v. State, 155 So.3d 357 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014). A mandate issued on January 16, 2015.

         On January 19, 2016, Petitioner filed a writ for habeas corpus, raising the following four grounds for relief: (1) the state trial court erred in failing to grant defense counsel's motion to redact Petitioner's statement of evidence that he had committed a robbery that was unrelated to the crimes charged, (2) defense counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to strike a juror, (3) appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to raise on direct appeal that the state trial court erred by denying the motion to suppress Petitioner's statements to law enforcement, and (4) the cumulative effect of the errors in this case deprived Petitioner of a fair trial. We will discuss each of the arguments raised in turn.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Section 2254 of Title 28 of the United States Code, or the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), provides the habeas corpus remedy for a state prisoner who is in custody in violation of the “Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). An application for habeas corpus relief in federal court must include reference to a specific constitutional guarantee as well as a statement of the facts that entitle the petitioner to relief. See Jimenex v. Fla. Dep't of Corrs., 481 F.3d 1337, 1342 (11th Cir. 2007).

         A. Standard of Review

         The AEDPA provides very limited circumstances for federal habeas corpus claims, and Section 2254(d) of AEDPA governs the federal court's review of claims that have already arisen in state court. See Perry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792 (2001); Henderson v. Campbell, 353 F.3d 880, 890 (11th Cir. 2003) (showing that the AEDPA is clear that a federal court should give substantial deference to a state court's findings of fact); see also Cave v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 638 F.3d 739, 745 (11th Cir. 2011) (“Congress mandated that ‘a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct, ' and that a habeas petitioner bears the burden of rebutting this presumption by ‘clear and convincing evidence.'”) (quoting 2254(e)(1)). The standard for federal habeas relief of a state prisoner is the following:

Habeas relief may not be granted with respect to a claim adjudicated on the merits in a state court unless the adjudication of the claim:
(1) resulted in a decision that 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) resulted in a decision that 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); see, e.g., Price v. Vincent, 538 U.S. 634, 638-39 (2003); Clark v. Crosby, 335 F.3d 1303, 1308 (11th Cir. 2003).

         The “contrary to" and “unreasonable application" clauses set forth in the standard above are different bases for reviewing a state court's decision. Putnam v. Head, 268 F.3d 1223, 1241 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-05 (2000)). First, the “contrary to" clause applies if (1) the state court ruled in contradiction to governing law set forth by the Supreme Court, or (2) the state court arrived at a result different than that reached in a Supreme Court case with materially indistinguishable facts. Putnam, 268 F.3d at 1241.

         Second, the “unreasonable application" clause applies if the state court's judgment was “objectively unreasonable." Id.; Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-25 (2002) (showing that it is the petitioner's burden to show the state court applied federal law to the facts of his case in an objectively unreasonable manner). “An 'unreasonable application' of clearly established federal law occurs when the state court correctly identifies the governing legal principle . . . but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular case." Terrell v. GDCP Warden, 744 F.3d 1255, 1261 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002)). But it is important to recognize the difference between an “unreasonable” and an “incorrect" application of federal law. Id. Even a “strong case for relief" does not necessarily mean that the state court's contrary conclusion was “unreasonable." Id. (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011)); see, e.g., Loggins v. Thomas, 654 F.3d 1204, 1220 (11th Cir. 2011) (habeas relief is not available if fairminded jurists could agree with the state court's decision).

         Moreover, when a habeas case reaches the federal level, the state court's factual findings are presumed to be correct, and a petitioner must rebut this presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Henderson, 353 F.3d at 890-91; see also Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 455 (2005) (stating that Section 2254 “dictates a 'highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings'") (quoting Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333 n.7 (1997)). This presumption thus demands that state court decisions be given the “benefit of the doubt." Woodford, 537 U.S. at 24.

         Finally, we also recognize that all that is required from a state court is a rejection of the claim on the merits, not an opinion that explains the rationale for the ruling. See Peoples v. Campbell, 377 F.3d 1208, 1227 (11th Cir. 2004). Federal courts are thus “not free to presume that a state court did not comply with constitutional dictates on the basis of nothing more than a lack of citation." Bell, 543 U.S. at 455 (citations omitted).

         B. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

         As a preliminary matter, the Court must consider whether Petitioner exhausted his state court remedies. A state prisoner must first exhaust all of his federal claims in the “ordinary appellate review procedure” in the state system before seeking federal habeas review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b)(1); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 847 (1999). To exhaust his state court remedies, Petitioner must have already “fairly present[ed]” every issue raised in his federal petition either on direct appeal or collateral review in the state system, including the state supreme court with powers of discretionary review, to alert the court to the federal nature of the claim. See Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 352 (1989); Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365 (1995) (per curiam). In other words, to properly exhaust these remedies, the state prisoner must “fairly present federal claims to the state courts in order to give the State the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights.” Snowden v. Singletary, 135 F.3d 732, 735 (11th Cir. 1998) (quoting Duncan, 513 U.S. at 365). Because exhaustion is not a jurisdictional issue, the Government may waive the defense that the petitioner has not exhausted his state remedies. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(3) (providing that the State must make this waiver expressly).

         The Government argues that two of Petitioner's claims - specifically in grounds one and three[1] - should not be considered on the merits because Petitioner failed to exhaust them in state court. See, e.g., McDaniel v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 2011 WL 6258461, at *4 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 13, 2011) (finding that the petitioner's claim was unexhausted because petitioner “did not fairly present to the state trial court the constitutional claims she raises in grounds one and two. Nor did she fairly present any such claim to the state district court of appeal.”); Paz v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 2010 WL 3835865, at *9 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 30, 2010) (finding that the petitioner “has not properly exhausted his federal constitutional claim of violation of his confrontation rights because he did not fairly present such claim to the state trial court.”); see also Duncan, 513 U.S. at 366 (“Respondent did not apprise the state court of his claim that the evidentiary ruling of which he complained was not only a violation of state law, but denied him the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”).

         Exhaustion requires that state prisoners “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.” O'Sullivan, 526 U.S. at 845. With respect to the Florida state courts, one complete round generally means that the “decision of the district court of appeal is the final decision in the course of the normal appellate process.” Tucker v. Dep't of Corr., 301 F.3d 1281, 1286 (11th Cir. 2002); Williams v. Wainwright, 452 F.2d 775, 776 (5th Cir. 1971) (“The Florida District Courts of Appeal were created not as intermediate courts of appeal but as the “end of the road” for most appeals.”).

         “The Supreme Court has stated that a petitioner may satisfy the exhaustion requirement ‘by citing in conjunction with the claim the federal source of law on which he relies or a case deciding such a claim on federal grounds, or by simply labeling the claim ‘federal'.” Blanche v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 378 F. App'x 984 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 32 (2004)). The Eleventh Circuit applies the Baldwin formulation “with common sense and in light of the purpose underlying the exhaustion requirement: to afford the state courts a meaningful opportunity to consider allegations of legal error without interference from the federal judiciary.'” Blanche, 378 F. App'x at 985 (quoting McNair v. Campbell, 416 F.3d 1291, 1302 (11th Cir. 2005)); Preston, 785 F.3d at 457 (“[A] petitioner need not use magic words or talismanic phrases to present his federal claim to the state courts.”). This means that exhaustion occurs when a petitioner “present[s] 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.'” Kelley v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 377 F.3d 1317, 1344 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Picard, 404 U.S. at 278).

         Generally speaking, “it is not at all clear that a petitioner can exhaust a federal claim by raising an analogous state law claim” and that “simply mentioning a phrase common to both state and federal law, like ‘sufficiency of the evidence, ' cannot constitute fairly presenting a federal claim to the state courts.” Preston, 785 F.3d at 460; see also Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 6 (1982) (per curiam) (“It is not enough that ... a somewhat similar state-law claim was made.”) (emphasis added); McNair, 416 F.3d at 1303 (“[T]he exhaustion doctrine requires a habeas applicant to do more than scatter some makeshift needles in the haystack of the state court record”). And while the analysis in Preston is dicta, the Eleventh Circuit has continued to express considerable doubt on whether a petitioner can exhaust a federal claim with an analogous state law claim.[2] See Id. at 458 (finding that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in “Lucas and Baldwin stand for the proposition that a petitioner with a claim that could arise under either state or federal law must clearly indicate to the state courts that he intends to bring a federal claim.”) (emphasis added); Ramos v. Sec'y, Florida Dep't of Corr., 441 F. App'x 689, 697 (11th Cir. 2011) (“In McNair, we found that a citation to a single federal case in a string of cases, and a passing reference in the conclusion of an argument to various amendments of the Constitution did not fairly present the federal issue to the state court, barring federal habeas review for lack of exhaustion in the state courts.”) (quoting McNair, 416 F.3d at 1303-04); Pearson v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 273 F. App'x 847 (11th Cir. 2008) (“Pearson cited exclusively to state cases, and all of his substantive arguments addressed Florida law. None of the cases he cited were decided on federal grounds and he did not otherwise indicate that he intended to raise federal claims.”).

         Here, Petitioner has failed to exhaust his claim in ground one because - in state court - Petitioner argued that the improper admission of evidence was erroneous under Florida law, not federal law. Petitioner suggests that he exhausted his state court remedies because he was denied a right to a fair trial as a result of the admission of evidence implicating Petitioner in two other violent crimes. In other words, Petitioner argues that - in state court - he raised concerns over violations of his federal due process rights because the prosecution relied on his past criminal conduct to suggest that Petitioner committed the underlying crime in question.

         However, Petitioner made no references to the United States Constitution or any federal claim. If Petitioner sought to raise a federal due process claim, he should have done so “in words or substance” to alert the Florida state courts that he was bringing such a claim. Id. (“We . . . do not think that this requirement places a particularly onerous burden on state prisoners, who need only indicate to the state courts that they intend to raise a federal claim.”). Consequently, Petitioner's failure to exhaust his state court remedies renders his federal claim procedurally defaulted. See Lucas v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 682 F.3d 1342, 1353 (11th Cir. 2012) (“A petitioner who fails to exhaust his claim is procedurally barred from pursuing that claim on habeas review in federal court unless he shows either cause for and actual prejudice from the default or a fundamental miscarriage of justice from applying the default.”).

         In sum, Petitioner failed to exhaust his claim in ground one because he alleges for the first time in federal court that his federal due process rights were violated. Petitioner did not assert on direct appeal that his conviction was related in any way to the application of federal law, nor did Petitioner reference any federal authority - i.e. whether he “put the state court on notice that [he] intended to raise a federal claim.” Preston v. Sec'y, Florida Dep't of Corr., 785 F.3d 449, 457 (11th Cir. 2015). While the exhaustion requirement does not require a “book and verse on the federal constitution”, it does require Petitioner to provide the state courts with an opportunity to correct the federal claim. See 404 U.S. at 278 (citations omitted). Accordingly, we find that the claim in ground one should fail and that the Petition on this basis is DENIED.

         As for Petitioner's claim in ground three, Petitioner argues that he was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment and that - but for counsel's ineffectiveness - the result of the state court proceedings would have been different. Specifically, Petitioner contends that his appellate counsel failed to raise on direct appeal that the state trial court erred in denying Petitioner's motion to suppress. Although Petitioner acknowledges that he did not raise this issue in his post-conviction proceedings, Petitioner argues that any procedural default of this issue should be excused under the equitable doctrine of Martinez v. ...

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