United States District Court, S.D. Florida
ORDER ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS
G. TORRES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Standard of Review
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
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;
(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).
“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.
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
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.
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
Exhaustion and Procedural Default
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
Government argues that two of Petitioner's claims -
specifically in grounds one and three - 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.”).
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.”).
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).
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. 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.”).
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.
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.”).
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.
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. ...