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Sanders v. Secretary Department of Corrections

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

July 26, 2019


          AMENDED [1] ORDER


         Manfred Van Sanders, a Florida prisoner, initiated this action for habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 2254. (Dkt. 1). Upon consideration of the petition and memorandum, the Court ordered Respondent Secretary, Department of Corrections, to show cause why relief sought in the petition should not be granted. (Dkt. 4). Thereafter, Respondent filed a response in opposition to the petition, along with the state court record. (Dkts. 11, 13). Mr. Sanders then filed a reply. (Dkt. 17).

         In his petition, Mr. Sanders alleges a total of fourteen (14) claims for relief, set forth in four grounds with sub-grounds. The Court has reviewed the record and the undersigned has read the trial transcript in its entirety. The Court will address related claims together.


         On December 7, 2004, Mr. Sanders was charged with capital sexual battery in violation of Florida Statutes Section 794.011(2)(a).[2] (Dkt. 13 Ex. 1 Vol. I at 1). The charges stemmed from the alleged sexual battery of Mr. Sanders' young niece. Following a jury trial held in October 2007, Mr. Sanders was found guilty as charged and sentenced to life in prison. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 1 Vol. I at 40-41, 47-52). On appeal, Florida's Second District Court of Appeal affirmed his conviction and sentence per curiam. (Dkt. 1 Exs. 2, 4); Sanders v. State, 14 So.3d 1013 (Fla. 2d DCA 2009) (table).

         Mr. Sanders then moved, in a motion and amended motion, for post-conviction relief pursuant to Rule 3.850, Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 6). Through a series of orders, the state post-conviction court held an evidentiary hearing on several issues and ultimately denied each claim. (Dkt. 13 Exs. 7, 10, 11). He appealed, and the state appellate court affirmed the denial of his Rule 3.850 motion without a written opinion. (Dkt. 13 Exs. 12, 15); Sanders v. State, 179 So.3d 329 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015) (per curiam) (table).

         Mr. Sanders also filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the state appellate court, which was denied. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 18). He then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Florida Supreme Court, which was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 19). He subsequently filed a petition alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel in the state appellate court, which was denied. (Dkt. 13 Exs. 20, 23); Sanders v. State, 83 So.3d 726 (Fla. 2d DCA 2011) (table).

         Mr. Sanders then filed the instant federal habeas petition in this Court. Upon review, the Court can resolve the entire petition on the basis of the record. Therefore, an evidentiary hearing is not warranted. See Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007).


         Because Petitioner filed his petition after April 24, 1996, this case is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"). Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792 (2001); Henderson v. Campbell, 353 F.3d 880, 889-90 (11th Cir. 2003). The AEDPA "establishes a more deferential standard of review of state habeas judgments," Fugate v. Head, 261 F.3d 1206, 1215 (11th Cir. 2001), in order to "prevent federal habeas 'retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002); see also Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (recognizing that the federal habeas court's evaluation of state-court rulings is highly deferential and that state-court decisions must be given the benefit of the doubt).

         A. Standard of Review Under the AEDPA

         Pursuant to the AEDPA, habeas relief may not be granted with respect to a claim adjudicated on the merits in 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). The phrase "clearly established Federal law," encompasses only the holdings of the United States Supreme Court "as of the time of the relevant state-court decision." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000).

         "[S]ection 2254(d)(1) provides two separate bases for reviewing state court decisions; the 'contrary to' and 'unreasonable application' clauses articulate independent considerations a federal court must consider." Maharaj v. Secretary for Dep't. of Corr., 432 F.3d 1292, 1308 (11th Cir. 2005). The meaning of the clauses was discussed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Parker v. Head, 244 F.3d 831, 835 (11th Cir. 2001):

Under the "contrary to" clause, a federal court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the United States Supreme Court] on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the United States Supreme Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Under the 'unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the United States Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.

         If the federal court concludes that the state court applied federal law incorrectly, habeas relief is appropriate only if that application was "objectively unreasonable." Id.

         Under section 2254(d)(2), a federal court may grant a writ of habeas corpus if the state court's decision "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." A determination of a factual issue made by a state court, however, shall be presumed correct, and the habeas petitioner shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. See Parker, 244 F.3d at 835-36; 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         In evaluating a petitioner's claim, a federal habeas court must first identify the highest state court decision, if any, that adjudicated the claim on the merits. Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1285 (11th Cir. 2016). Where that state court's adjudication is not accompanied by a reasoned opinion, the United States Supreme Court has explained that:

the 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. But the State may rebut the presumption by showing that the unexplained affirmance relied or most likely did rely on different grounds than the lower state court's decision, such as alternative grounds for affirmance that were briefed or argued to the state supreme court or obvious in the record it reviewed.

Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018).

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Standard

         Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are analyzed under the test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which requires a petitioner to demonstrate both deficient performance by counsel and resulting prejudice. Demonstrating deficient performance "requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Id. at 687. Deficient performance is established if, "in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions [of counsel] were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Id. at 690. However, "counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Id. Additionally, "a court deciding an actual ineffectiveness claim must judge the reasonableness of counsel's challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct." Id.

         The petitioner must demonstrate that counsel's alleged errors prejudiced the defense because "[a]n error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment." Id. at 691-92. To show prejudice, the petitioner must show "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694.

         Sustaining a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on federal habeas review is very difficult because "[t]he standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both 'highly deferential,' and when the two apply in tandem, review is 'doubly' so." Harrington v. Richer, 562 U.S. 86, 105 (2011) (citations omitted). See also Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 202 (2011) (a petitioner must overcome the" 'doubly deferential' standard of Strickland and AEDPA.") (citation omitted). If a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel can be resolved through one of Strickland's two prongs, the other prong need not be considered. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697; Sims v. Singletary, 155 F.3d 1297, 1305 (11th Cir. 1998).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Petitioner's Challenge to the State Court's Summary Denials

          In ground three and grounds four (A)-(G), Mr. Sanders claims that the state court erred by summarily denying his claims without an evidentiary hearing. (Dkt. 1 at 10-14; Dkt. 17 at 8). Under Florida law, a motion for post-conviction relief may be summarily denied "only if the claims asserted are either legally insufficient or conclusively refuted by the record." Washington v. State, 10 So.3d 1126, 1127 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009) (citing Freeman v. State, 761 So.2d 1055, 1061 (Fla. 2000)). If the state court is unable to "attach portions of the record that conclusively refute the claims," then, "summary denial is improper, and an evidentiary hearing is required." Id. at 1127-28.

         However, the Court need not decide whether the state post-conviction court erred because a defect in a state collateral proceeding provides no basis for habeas relief, "since no question of a constitutional nature is involved." See Carroll v. Sec >, Dep't of Corr., 574 F.3d 1354, 1365 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting McCullough v. Singletary, 967 F.2d 530, 535 (11th Cir. 1992)); see also Anderson v. Sec'y for Dep't of Con., 462 F.3d 1319, 1330 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Spradley v. Dugger, 825 F.2d 1566, 1568 (11th Cir. 1987)). Additionally, "a challenge to a state collateral proceeding does not undermine the legality of the detention or imprisonment - [that is], the conviction itself-and thus habeas relief is not an appropriate remedy." Carroll, 574 F.3d at 1365. Therefore, Mr. Sanders' argument that the state court was required to hold an evidentiary hearing does not entitle him to relief.

         B. Failure of State Court to Cite Strickland

         Throughout his federal habeas petition, Mr. Sanders complains that the state courts did not address or apply Strickland to his claims of ineffective assistance. However, the Supreme Court has explained that

[a] state-court decision is "contrary to" our clearly established precedents if it "applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in our cases" or if it "confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of this Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from our precedent." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-406, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000). Avoiding these pitfalls does not require citation of our cases - indeed, it does not even require awareness of our cases, so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts them.

Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002). Accordingly, Mr. Sanders' argument does not entitle him to relief.

         C. Claims of Judicial Bias

         Next, Mr. Sanders alleges judicial bias with regard to the claims he presented to the state post-conviction court in his Rule 3.850 motion for post-conviction relief. He contends that the state court judge who presided over his Rule 3.850 post-conviction proceedings "was [previously a] supervising assistant state attorney on his case and even signed papers as [such] directly relating to his case" at the trial level. (Dkt. 1 at 9-10). He asserts that the post-conviction judge improperly "adopted all of the state's arguments ... as well as [the] state's misinterpretation of law." (Dkt. 1 at 10; see also, e.g., Dkt. 1 at 11, 15, 16; Dkt. 17 at 9-16, 20-22, 25, 27).

         Mr. Sanders correctly concedes that his claim of judicial bias in relation to his post-conviction proceedings does not entitle him to habeas relief. However, as he notes, if the claims are meritorious, they "might deprive the state of the [AEDPA] presumption of correctness" due the post-conviction judge's findings, if bias rendered the proceedings not full and fair. See Quince v. Crosby, 360 F.3d 1259, 1262 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99, 108-09(\995); Hardwick v. Crosby, 320 F.3d 1127, 1158 (11th Cir. 2003)[3]). (Dkt. 17at 9-10).

         The record reflects that, following Mr. Sanders' trial and conviction, Assistant State Attorney M. M. Handsel signed and filed a "Notice of Intent to Declare Defendant A Sexual Predator" on March 20, 2008, months after the conclusion of Mr. Sanders' trial. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 1 Vol. I at 58). Three years later, on March 18, 2011, the Honorable Mary M. Handsel signed an order denying in part and striking in part Mr. Sanders' Rule 3.850 motion for post-conviction relief. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 7). Judge Handsel subsequently entered orders denying relief on all of Mr. Sanders' claims. (Dkt. 13Exs. 10, 11). Notwithstanding the judge's prior participation in his case, the Court concludes that the claim is precluded from federal habeas review.

         First, when a state court rejects a petitioner's claim on the basis that the claim was not properly raised in accordance with state procedure, constituting an independent and adequate state ground, federal review of the claim in a subsequent federal habeas proceeding is not available. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729-30 (1991). See also Judd v. Haley, 250 F.3d 1308, 1313 (11th Cir. 2001). Although Mr. Sanders raised a judicial bias argument on appeal of the denial of his Rule 3.850 motion, he did not raise the issue in the post-conviction court. Under Florida law, "an appellate court will not consider an issue unless it was presented to the lower court," except in cases of fundamental error. Steinhorst v. State, 412 So.2d 332, 338 (Fla. 1982). Respondent argued on appeal that, because the matter was not first brought to the post-conviction judge's attention, the state appellate court's review was limited to fundamental error. (Dkt. 13 Ex. 13 at 33). In denying relief, the state appellate court implicitly concluded that the error, if any, was not fundamental - an issue of state law that this Court may not second guess. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67 (1991) ("[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions."). Under Florida law, Mr. Sanders' claim is, therefore, procedurally defaulted.

         The claim of judicial bias is also procedurally defaulted for a second reason - Mr. Sanders failed to present to the state appellate court any facts demonstrating actual bias or prejudice resulting from the post-conviction judge's participation in his case. He merely argued that, "[a]s the postconviction judge took an active part in Mr. Sanders' postconviction [proceedings] in this matter, she should have recused herself from Mr. Sanders' postconviction proceeding sua sponte[.] (Dkt. 13 Ex. 12 at 49 (italicization added)).

         Under the AEDPA, "[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that -- (A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State[.]" 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). "[T]he prohibition against raising nonexhausted claims in federal court extends not only to broad legal theories of relief, but also to the specific assertions of fact that might support relief." Kelley v. Sec'y for Dep't of Con., 377 F.3d 1317, 1344 (11th Cir. 2004). Because Mr. Sanders failed to raise in state court the various arguments now presented in the instant federal petition - for example, that the post-conviction judge simply "parroted" the arguments made by the State in deciding the issues he presented in his Rule 3.850 motion - he has not exhausted, and has procedurally defaulted, those arguments.[4]

         D. Grounds One & Four (C) - Admission by Silence

         1. Ground One

         In ground one, Mr. Sanders claims that the trial court[5] erred by "unreasonably limiting [his] ability to 'fully and fairly' cross-examine [a] state witness about circumstances surrounding [an] alleged tacit admission." (Dkt. 1 at 5). Mr. Sanders explains that his brother, David Patrick Sanders, testified as a witness for the State about a phone call during which Mr. Sanders purportedly admitted to the crime by his silence. (Id.). The defense sought testimony from the brother on cross-examination that their grandmother was present at Mr. Sanders' end of the telephone conversation. (Id.). The State objected, and the trial court sustained the State's hearsay objection. (Id.). Mr. Sanders argues that, in doing so, the trial court unconstitutionally limited the defense's cross-examination on that point. (Id.). He further claims that the "[d]ecisions by the trial and appellate court were based on an unreasonable determination of the facts where [the] State did not show that knowledge of [the grandmother's presence] was hearsay." (Id.).

         The record reveals that the following exchanges occurred at trial:

Q Did there come a time when [A.S.] talks to you about something that may have happened between your brother[, ] Manfred[, ] and her?
A Yes.
Q And does there come a time, when you actually understand that you will actually have a conversation with your brother about it?
A Yes, I think you are referring to my deposition, and in my deposition, I don't want to get into too many convoluted details.
Q I will make it easier. Does there come a time when you call your brother when he was in Germany?
A Yes.
Q Do you talk to your brother about the allegation that [A.S.] made regarding what Manfred Sanders had done to her?
A To be specific, my step-mother said that Manfred had raped [A.S.].
Q Do you talk to your brother about whether or not he had raped [A.S.]? Is that the term that you used with him?
A Yes, on the phone I said -I'm not sure exactly how I said it. I don't know if I said it was [A.S.] and I probably say now that you raped her, because the allegation had previously been something different.
Q Now, when you tell him that, what does he say?
A He didn't say anything. He just -- we didn't discuss it any further.
Q Did he deny it?
A No, at that time he didn't deny it over the phone.
MR. KENNY: No. further questions, Judge.
THE COURT: Defense may inquire.
MR. LIVERMORE [Counsel for Defense]: Yes.
Q Now, sir, specifically the conversation that you talked - when you said you were talking to your brother in Germany, do you remember when that was?
A It was most likely in late 2003 or early 2004, but I can't recall the exact date.
Q And that conversation, Manfred was in Germany?
A That's correct, he would have been in Germany.
Q When you spoke to your brother, did you speak in English or German?
A German.
Q And during the conversation did you learn that your grandmother was next to him listening to the conversation?
A Well, there is -
MR. KENNY: Objection, hearsay, Judge.
THE COURT: I will sustain it, you may rephrase.
Q Did you understand that she was there?
MR. KENNY: Objection, same objection.
THE COURT: Sustained. Counsel please approach ...

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