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Lawrence v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections

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

May 15, 2018



          MARCIA MORALES HOWARD United States District Judge.

         I. Status

         Petitioner Freddie Lawrence, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on September 21, 2015, by filing a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Petition; Doc. 1) under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In the Petition, Lawrence challenges a 2008 state court (Duval County, Florida) judgment of conviction for second degree murder. Respondents have submitted a memorandum in opposition to the Petition. See Respondents' Answer in Response to Order to Show Cause and Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response; Doc. 15) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). On November 3, 2015, the Court entered an Order to Show Cause and Notice to Petitioner (Doc. 4), admonishing Lawrence regarding his obligations and giving Lawrence a time frame in which to submit a reply. Lawrence submitted a brief in reply. See Petitioner's Reply to the State's Response (Reply; Doc. 18). This case is ripe for review.

         II. Procedural History

         On June 5, 2007, the State of Florida charged Lawrence with second degree murder. Resp. Ex. A at 8, Information. Lawrence proceeded to a jury trial in April 2008, at the conclusion of which, on April 18, 2008, the jury found him guilty, as charged. See id. at 76-77, Verdict; 932-33, Transcript of the Jury Trial (Tr.). On May 20, 2008, the court sentenced Lawrence to a term of imprisonment of thirty-five years. Id. at 103-08, Judgment.

         On direct appeal, Lawrence, with the benefit of counsel, filed an amended initial brief, raising the following issues: whether Lawrence's theory of self-defense, coupled with testimony by independent witnesses of the decedent possessing and pointing a gun, was overcome and sufficiently rebutted by the State's pyramiding of circumstantial evidence (ground one); whether Lawrence unequivocally invoked his right to remain silent and have an attorney present during questioning (ground two); whether the prosecutor's characterization of the sequences concerning Lawrence's arrest implying flight and thus evidence of guilt created an improper inference of guilt (ground three); whether a trial judge may comment on the trial's progress in front of the jury (ground four); and whether the prosecutor's numerous misstatements of law and fact, comments on Lawrence's right to remain silent, improper shifting of the burden of proof, bolstering of the State's witnesses, denigrating Lawrence, and inflammatory argument constituted prosecutorial misconduct and violated Lawrence's right to a fair trial and due process of law (ground five). Resp. Ex. C. The State filed an answer brief, see Resp. Ex. D, and Lawrence filed a reply brief, see Resp. Ex. E. On September 29, 2009, the appellate court affirmed Lawrence's conviction and sentence without issuing a written opinion, see Resp. Ex. G, and the mandate issued on October 15, 2009, see Resp. Ex. H.

         On January 5, 2010, Lawrence filed a pro se motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850 (Rule 3.850 motion). See Resp. Ex. I at 1-41. He amended the Rule 3.850 motion on December 10, 2010, August 22, 2011, and March 26, 2012. See id. at 53-67, 152-54, 170-83. In his request for post-conviction relief, he asserted that counsel (Debra Billard) was ineffective because she failed to: object to the legally insufficient Information that charged Lawrence with second degree murder (ground one); discover the State's failure to properly disclose its agreements with witnesses in exchange for their testimony at trial (ground three); convey the State's plea offer for the lesser-included offense of manslaughter (ground four); conduct an adequate pretrial investigation (ground five); properly investigate and call Janett Richard, Denard Jones, and Victoria Reed as defense witnesses at trial (ground six); properly argue and file a motion for new trial (ground seven); and request an evidentiary hearing to determine if he was immune from prosecution under stand-your-ground law (ground ten). He also stated that the trial court erred when it failed to reduce the second degree murder charge to justifiable homicide (ground eight), and when it adjudicated him guilty of second degree murder because the verdict was contrary to the law and the weight of the evidence (ground nine). Additionally, he asserted that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the Information was legally insufficient (ground two), and committed fundamental error when it improperly instructed the jury that the crime of manslaughter required that he intentionally caused the victim's death (ground eleven). The circuit court held an evidentiary hearing on grounds six and ten on January 3, 2013. See id. at 481-545. On September 26, 2013, the circuit court denied his Rule 3.850 motion. See id. at 345-57. Lawrence appealed the circuit court's denial as to grounds four and eleven. On October 23, 2014, the appellate court partially affirmed the circuit court's denial of post-conviction relief, reversed the court's denial of relief as to ground four, and remanded with instructions that the circuit court hold an evidentiary hearing on the claim or attach portions of the record conclusively refuting the claim. See Lawrence v. State, 149 So.3d 1162 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014) (per curiam); Resp. Ex. J. As to ground eleven, the appellate court stated:

As for Ground 11, in which Appellant claimed that, pursuant to Montgomery v. State, 70 So.3d 603 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009), the trial court committed fundamental error during his trial by giving an erroneous manslaughter by act jury instruction, we agree with the State's contention that the claim was untimely and that none of the exceptions to the two-year time limitation in rule 3.850 are applicable to this claim.[1] See Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.850(b) (providing for a two-year time limitation in which to file a postconviction claim); see also Surinach v. State, 110 So.3d 95, 95 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013) ("Amended motions for postconviction relief are subject to the two-year time limit for filing rule 3.850 motions unless they merely enlarge an issue or issues raised in the original motion."). To the extent that Appellant argues in this proceeding that his appellate counsel was ineffective in failing to raise the erroneous jury instruction issue in his direct appeal, we dismissed Appellant's habeas corpus petition raising that argument because it too was untimely. See Lawrence v. State, 92 So.3d 855 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012).

Lawrence, 149 So.3d at 1163 (footnote omitted). Additionally, the appellate court noted:

[Lawrence]'s direct appeal was pending when we issued our decision in Montgomery, [2] holding that intent to kill is not an element of manslaughter by act and that it was fundamental error to give an instruction suggesting that the State was required to prove intent to kill to prove the crime of manslaughter. See 70 So.3d at 604-07.

Id. at n.1. On remand, the circuit court held an evidentiary hearing as to ground four. See Resp. Ex. K at 283-375. On May 15, 2015, the court denied Lawrence's Rule 3.850 motion as to ground four. See id. at 276-78. Lawrence later filed a motion for voluntary dismissal of his appeal, see, No. 1D15-2573, and the appellate court dismissed his appeal under Florida Rule of Appellate Procedure 9.350(b) on September 22, 2015, see Resp. Ex. L.

         While his Rule 3.850 proceeding was pending, Lawrence filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus on April 29, 2012. See Resp. Ex. M. In the petition, he asserted that the trial court committed fundamental error when it gave the standard jury instruction for the lesser-included offense of manslaughter by act (ground one), and appellate counsel was ineffective because he failed to raise the issue of the trial court's fundamental error (ground two) on direct appeal. On May 22, 2012, the appellate court dismissed the petition as untimely, [3], see Lawrence v. State, 92 So.3d 855 (Fla. 1st DCA 2012); Resp. Ex. N, and later denied his motion for rehearing on August 1, 2012, see Resp. Ex. O.

         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 [Lawrence'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 Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1285 (11th Cir. 2016). 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 Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 100 (2011). Where the state court's adjudication on the merits is unaccompanied by an explanation, the United States Supreme Court recently stated:

[T]he federal court should "look through" the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning.

Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018). The presumption may be rebutted by showing that the higher state court's adjudication most likely relied on different grounds than the lower state court's reasoned decision, such as persuasive alternative grounds that were briefed or argued to the higher court or obvious in the record it reviewed. Id. at 1192, 1196.

         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.'"[4] 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). 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").

         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. Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. Thus, to the extent that Lawrence's claims were adjudicated on the merits in the state courts, they must be evaluated under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         B. Exhaustion/Procedural Default

         There are prerequisites to federal habeas review. Before bringing a § 2254 habeas action in federal court, a petitioner must exhaust all state court remedies that are available for challenging his state conviction. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). To exhaust state remedies, the petitioner must "fairly present[]" every issue raised in his federal petition to the state's highest court, either on direct appeal or on collateral review. Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989) (emphasis omitted). Thus, to properly exhaust a claim, "state prisoners must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any ...

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