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Baker v. Secretary, Department of Corrections

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

June 15, 2018

STEVEN R. BAKER, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          BRIAN J. DAVIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Petitioner Steven R. Baker challenges a 2013 Putnam County conviction for sexual battery on a person less than twelve years of age in his Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (Petition) (Doc. 1).[1] In this Petition, he raises seven grounds for habeas relief. Respondents filed a Response to Petition (Response) (Doc. 12).[2] Petitioner filed Petitioner's Reply (Reply) (Doc. 13). See Order (Doc. 10).

         II. CLAIMS OF PETITION

         Petitioner raises seven grounds in the Petition: (1) the trial court erred by allowing similar fact evidence (the nine-minute video confession from Petitioner's 2006 arrest) to be admitted as Williams[3] Rule evidence, in violation of Petitioner's due process rights; (2) the ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to properly advise Petitioner of the details of the plea offer; (3) the ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to call Deputy Julie Walker as an exculpatory witness; (4) the ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to call an expert witness or request a physical examination of the victim; (5) the ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to impeach the state's eyewitness, Joshua S. Rosario; (6) the ineffective assistance of counsel based on the cumulative errors of counsel, resulting in a due process violation; and (7) the trial court and Fifth District Court of Appeal (5th DCA) erred in denying Petitioner's motion alleging newly discovered evidence and motion to produce favorable or exculpatory evidence.

         III. EVIDENTIARY HEARING

         A district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing if the record refutes the asserted factual allegations or otherwise precludes habeas relief. Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007). It is a petitioner's burden to establish the need for a federal evidentiary hearing, and here, Petitioner has not met the burden. Chavez v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 647 F.3d 1057, 1060 (11th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 1120 (2012). The pertinent facts are fully developed in this record or the record otherwise precludes habeas relief. In this case, the Court is able to "adequately assess [Petitioner's] claim[s] without further factual development, " Turner v. Crosby, 339 F.3d 1247, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1034 (2004).

         In the case at bar, the Court will review the seven grounds raised in the Petition, see Long v. United States, 626 F.3d 1167, 1169 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) ("The district court must resolve all claims for relief raised on collateral review, regardless of whether relief is granted or denied.") (citing Clisby v. Jones, 960 F.2d 925, 936 (11th Cir. 1992) and Rhode v. United States, 583 F.3d 1289, 1291 (11th Cir. 2009)), but no evidentiary proceeding will be conducted.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas corpus. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254; Ledford v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic & Classification Prison, 818 F.3d 600, 642 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 1432 (2017). "AEDPA limits the scope of federal habeas review of state court judgments[.]" Pittman v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 871 F.3d 1231, 1243 (11th Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed, (U.S. May 18, 2018) (No. 17-9015). This narrow scope of review under AEDPA provides for habeas relief only if there are extreme malfunctions, certainly not to be used as a means to correct state court errors. Ledford, 818 F.3d at 642 (quoting Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 38 (2011)).

         Federal courts may grant habeas relief if:

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, " or "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).
A state court's decision rises to the level of an unreasonable application of federal law only where the ruling is "objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice." Virginia v. LeBlanc, 582 U.S. __, __, 137 S.Ct. 1726, 1728, 198 L.Ed.2d 186 (2017) (per curiam) (quoting Woods v. Donald, 575 U.S. __, __, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376, 191 L.Ed.2d 464 (2015) (per curiam)). This standard is "meant to be" a difficult one to meet. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011).

Rimmer v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 876 F.3d 1039, 1053 (11th Cir. 2017), cert. denied, No. 17-8046, 2018 WL 1278461 (U.S. June 11, 2018).

         "We also must presume that 'a determination of a factual issue made by a State court [is[ correct, ' and the petitioner 'ha[s] the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.' 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)." Morrow v. Warden, 886 F.3d 1138, 1147 (11th Cir. 2018). Additionally, "[t]his presumption of correctness applies equally to factual determinations made by the state trial and appellate courts." Pope v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 680 F.3d 1271, 1284 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bui v. Haley, 321 F.3d 1304, 1312 (11th Cir. 2003)), cert. denied, 568 U.S. 1233 (2013).

         Recently, in Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1194 (2018), the Supreme Court concluded there is a "look through" presumption in federal habeas law, as silence implies consent. See Kernan v. Hinojosa, 136 S.Ct. 1603, 1605-606 (2016) (per curiam) (adopting the presumption silence implies consent, but refusing to impose an irrebutable presumption). This presumption is employed when a higher state court provides no reason for its decision; however, it is just a presumption, not an absolute rule. Wilson, 138 S.Ct. at 1196. "Where there are convincing grounds to believe the silent court had a different basis for its decision than the analysis followed by the previous court, the federal habeas court is free, as we have said, to find to the contrary." Id. at 1197.

         Being mindful of the Supreme Court's recent guidance, this Court will undertake its review. If the last state court to decide a prisoner's federal claim provides an explanation for its merits-based decision in a reasoned opinion, "a federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable." Id. at 1192. But, if the relevant state-court decision on the merits is not accompanied by a reasoned opinion, for example the decision simply states affirmed or denied, a federal court "should 'look through' the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale." Id. At this stage, the federal court presumes the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning as the lower court; however, the presumption is not irrebutable. Id. See Hinojosa, 136 S.Ct. at 1606 (strong evidence may refute the presumption). Indeed, the state may rebut the presumption by showing the higher state court relied or most likely relied on different grounds than the lower state court, "such as alternative grounds for affirmance that were briefed or argued to the state supreme court or obvious in the record it reviewed." Wilson, 138 S.Ct. at 1192.

         Although the § 2254(d) standard is difficult to meet, the standard is meant to be difficult. Rimmer, 876 F.3d at 1053 (opining that to reach the level of an unreasonable application of federal law, the ruling must be objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong or even clear error). When applying the stringent AEDPA standard, state court decisions must be given the benefit of the doubt. Trepal v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 684 F.3d 1088, 1107 (11th Cir. 2012) (quotation and citations omitted), cert. denied, 568 U.S. 1237 (2013).

         V. INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL

         In order to prevail on his Sixth Amendment claims, Petitioner must satisfy the two-pronged test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688 (1984), requiring that he show both deficient performance (counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness) and prejudice (there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different). A counsel's performance is deficient only if counsel's "identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Id. at 690.

         In making its determination as to whether counsel gave adequate assistance, "counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in exercise of reasonable professional judgment. Id. at 690. When analyzing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, "[t]he question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 105 (2011). And importantly, with regard to the establishment of prejudice requirement, the reasonable probability of a different result must be "a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. Of note, some conceivable effect on the outcome does not constitute a reasonable probability. Id. at 693.

         Finally, in order to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, both parts of the Strickland test must be satisfied. Bester v. Warden, Att'y Gen. of the State of Ala., 836 F.3d 1331, 1337 (11th Cir. 2016) (citing Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000)), cert. denied, 137 S.Ct. 819 (2017). Indeed, failure to demonstrate either prong is fatal, making it unnecessary to consider the other. Id.

         VI. TIMELINESS

         The Petition is timely filed. See Response at 7.

         VII. EXHAUSTION/PROCEDURAL DEFAULT

         Grounds two through six were exhausted in the state court system. See Response at 9. Respondents contend, however, that grounds one and seven are procedurally barred. Id. at 7-9.

         In his first ground for habeas relief, Petitioner claims the trial court erred by allowing similar fact evidence (the nine-minute video confession from Petitioner's 2006 arrest) to be admitted as Williams Rule evidence, in violation of Petitioner's due process rights. Petition at 5. Respondents aver that ground one is procedurally defaulted because Petitioner never presented his federal constitutional claim to the state court, and any attempt to do so now would be barred. Response at 7-8.

         This Court must ask whether the constitutional claim was raised in the state court proceedings and whether the state court was alerted to the federal nature of the claim. Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 32 (2004). The record demonstrates the following. On direct appeal, in his pro se brief, Petitioner claimed the trial court erred in allowing the Williams rule evidence to become a feature of the trial, and "[i]n allowing these things to happen, the court violated the Appellant's U.S. and state constitutional due process rights to a fair trial." Ex. M at 9. In his brief, Petitioner referred to his federal constitutional rights and asserted a due process violation. Thus, he did not rely solely upon Florida case law and statutes to challenge his conviction on direct appeal.

         Upon review, the record demonstrates Petitioner raised a due process claim in his appeal brief. Ex. M. The Court finds he fairly presented a federal claim to the state courts. As such, the federal claim is deemed to be exhausted and is not procedurally defaulted, and ground one will be addressed.

         In ground seven, Petitioner claims the trial court and 5th DCA erred in denying Petitioner's motion alleging newly discovered evidence and motion to produce favorable or exculpatory evidence, depriving him of due process of law. Petitioner raised this ground in a successive Rule 3.850 post-conviction motion. Ex. EE. The circuit court, in reviewing this claim, found Petitioner did not meet the newly discovered evidence test, refused to consider the evidence as newly discovered, and denied the motion. Ex. FF. On August 16, 2016, the 5th DCA affirmed per curiam. Ex. JJ.

         Based on the state courts' rulings, it is quite apparent that ground seven is procedurally barred. There are, however, allowable exceptions to the procedural default doctrine; "[a] prisoner may obtain federal review of a defaulted claim by showing cause for the default and prejudice from a violation of federal law." Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 10 (2012) (citing Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991)). To demonstrate cause, a petitioner must show that some objective factor external to the defense impeded his effort to properly raise the claim in state court. Wright v. Hopper, 169 F.3d 695, 703 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 934 (1999). Petitioner fails to point to any factor external to the defense. If cause is established, a petitioner is also required to demonstrate prejudice. In order to demonstrate prejudice, he must show "that there is at least a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different had the constitutional violation not occurred." Owen v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 568 F.3d 894, 908 (11th Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 558 U.S. 1151 (2010).

         After considering the pleadings before the Court, Petitioner has failed to show cause. In addition, he does not meet the prejudice or manifest injustice exceptions. Although a petitioner may obtain review of the merits of a procedurally barred claim if he satisfies the actual innocence "gateway" established in Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995), Petitioner has not done so. The gateway is meant to prevent a constitutional error at trial from causing a miscarriage of justice and "'the conviction of one who is actually innocent of the crime.'" Kuenzel v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of Corr., 690 F.3d 1311, 1314 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324), cert. denied, 569 U.S. 1004 (2013). The fundamental miscarriage of justice exception is only available in extraordinary cases upon a showing of "'actual' innocence" rather than mere "'legal' innocence." Johnson v. Ala., 256 F.3d 1156, 1171 (11th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 535 U.S. 926 (2002). With respect to ground seven, Petitioner has failed to identify any fact warranting the application of the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception.

         In conclusion, the Court finds ground seven is barred in federal court. As Petitioner has failed to establish cause and prejudice or any factors warranting the application of the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception to overcome the default, ground seven is due to be denied as procedurally barred.

         In the alternative, this claim is not cognizable in this habeas proceeding. Petitioner urges this Court to find that the state circuit and appellate court erred in denying Petitioner's successive Rule 3.850 motion alleging newly discovered evidence. Petition at 15. He claims the circuit court's denial of post conviction relief and the appellate court's refusal to correct the trial court's error in denying relief deprived him of due process of law. Id.

         As noted previously, Petitioner filed a successive Rule 3.850 motion, and the trial court denied the motion in its Order Denying Defendant's Motion to Vacate and Set Aside Judgment and Sentence Alleging Newly Discovered Evidence. Ex. EE; Ex. FF. Petitioner appealed the trial court's decision to the 5th DCA, and the state appellate court affirmed the decision of the trial court. Ex. GG; Ex. HH; Ex. II; Ex. JJ.

         The Court finds Petitioner's claim raised in ground seven is not cognizable in a federal habeas proceeding. Any challenge to the effectiveness of Florida's state court collateral proceedings does not undermine the legality of the conviction itself; therefore, Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief on this ground. An explanation follows.

         Ground seven is not cognizable on habeas corpus review as the purpose of a federal habeas proceeding is review of the lawfulness of Petitioner's custody to determine whether that custody is in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States, not to consider a challenge to state court deficiencies. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991). The writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 "was not enacted to enforce State-created rights." Cabberiza v. Moore, 217 F.3d 1329, 1333 (11th Cir. 2000) (citing Branan v. Booth, 861 F.2d 1507, 1508 (11th Cir. 1988)), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1170 (2001). The Eleventh Circuit allows that only in cases of federal ...


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