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Brookins v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections

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

October 16, 2019

GERARD L. BROOKINS, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          Marcia Morales Howard, Judge

         I. Status

         Petitioner Gerard Brookins, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on February 8, 2017, [1] by filing a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Petition; Doc. 1). In the Petition, Brookins challenges a 2009 state court (Duval County, Florida) judgment of conviction for home invasion robbery with a firearm or deadly weapon. Brookins raises four grounds for relief. See Petition at 5-10.[2] Respondents have submitted a memorandum in opposition to the Petition. See Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response; Doc. 18) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). Brookins decided not to file a reply brief; instead, relying on his assertions and arguments as pled in his Petition. See Doc. 20. This case is ripe for review.

         II. Relevant Procedural History

         On August 26, 2008, the State of Florida (State) charged Brookins by way of amended Information with home invasion robbery with a firearm or deadly weapon. Resp. Ex. A at 13-14. Brookins proceeded to a jury trial, at the conclusion of which the jury found him guilty as charged. Id. at 74. On May 26, 2009, the circuit court adjudicated Brookins to be a habitual felony offender (HFO) and sentenced him to a term of incarceration of life in prison. Id. at 86-91, 97, 167-71.

         Brookins appealed his conviction and sentence to Florida's First District Court of Appeal (First DCA). Id. at 105. In his amended initial brief, Brookins, with the assistantce of counsel, raised the following three grounds for reversal: (1) the circuit court erred in allowing the State to make improper comments and argument during voir dire, opening statements, and closing arguments; (2) trial counsel was ineffective; and (3) the cumulative effect of the circuit court and State's errors required a retrial. Resp. Ex. G. The State filed an answer brief, Resp. Ex. H, and Brookins filed a brief in reply. Resp. Ex. I. On April 7, 2011, the First DCA per curiam affirmed Brookins' judgment and sentence without issuing a written opinion, Resp. Ex. J, and issued the Mandate on April 26, 2011. Resp. Ex. K.

         On June 8, 2011, Brookins filed a pro se motion to correct an illegal sentence pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(a) (Rule 3.800(a) Motion), in which he argued his life sentence exceeded the statutory maximum penalty for his offense. Resp. Ex. P. The circuit court had yet to rule on the Rule 3.800(a) Motion at the time Respondents filed their Response, Resp. Ex. O, but the state court record reflects the circuit court denied the motion on March 2, 2018. See State v. Gerard Brookins, 16-2008-CF-010468-CX (Docket # 340).

         On March 6, 2013 and June 13, 2013, Brookins through two different attorneys, filed two separate motions for postconviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. Resp. Ex. Q at 1-52. On January 13, 2015, the circuit court struck the motions and directed Brookins to file an amended motion, id. at 55-59, which Brookins filed, pro se, on March 6, 2015 (Rule 3.850 Motion). Id. at 63-99. In his Rule 3.850 Motion, Brookins asserted his counsel was ineffective for failing to: (1) object to the State's line of questioning during jury selection; (2) properly investigate his case; and (3) put the State's case through a true adversarial testing. Id. Brookins also alleged the cumulative effect of counsel's errors prejudiced him. Id. On February 1, 2016, the circuit court denied the Rule 3.850 Motion. Id. at 100-23. The First DCA per curiam affirmed the denial on May 31, 2016, without a written opinion. Resp. Ex. T. On June 10, 2016, Brookins filed a pro se motion for rehearing, Resp. Ex. U, which the First DCA denied on July 21, 2016. Resp. Ex. X. The First DCA issued the Mandate on August 8, 2016. Resp. Ex. Y. Brookins sought review with the Florida Supreme Court, but the court dismissed his appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Resp. Ex. Z.

         Brookins also filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in the circuit court on December 3, 2015, in which he argued he received a disparate sentence compared to his co-defendant and the State vindictively prosecuted him. Resp. Ex. AA at 1-25. On September 14, 2016, the circuit court denied his petition, cautioned him against filing frivolous motions, and corrected a scrivener's error in the judgment and sentence form. Id. at 30-34. On September 19, 2016, the circuit court entered an amended judgment and sentence. Resp. Ex. BB. The First DCA per curiam affirmed the denial of the petition without issuing a written opinion on August 8, 2017. Resp. Ex. FF. Brookins moved for rehearing on September 12, 2017, Resp. Ex. GG, which the First DCA denied on November 8, 2017. Resp. Ex. HH. The First DCA issued the Mandate on November 29, 2017. Resp. Ex. II.

         On July 3, 2017, Brookins filed another pro se motion to correct illegal sentence pursuant to Rule 3.800(a), arguing count one was illegally enhanced from a first-degree felony to a first-degree felony punishable by life. Resp. Ex. JJ. On March 2, 2018, the circuit court denied the motion. Resp. Ex. KK. Brookins did not appeal. Resp. Ex. O.

         III. One-Year Limitations Period

         This proceeding was 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 the Court can “adequately assess [Brookins'] 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 a written 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 has instructed:

[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. The Eleventh Circuit describes the limited scope of federal review pursuant to § 2254 as follows:

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.'”[3] 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 the petitioner'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, ‚Äústate prisoners must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve ...


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