United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division
Morales Howard United States District Judge.
Louis Thornton, an inmate of the Florida penal system,
initiated this action on December 16, 2016,  by filing a
Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. §
2254 (Petition; Doc. 1). In the Petition, Thornton challenges
a 2011 state court (Duval County, Florida) judgment of
conviction for aggravated battery and possession of a firearm
by a convicted felon. Thornton raises eight grounds for
relief. See Petition at 7-23. Respondents have
submitted a memorandum in opposition to the Petition.
See Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus
(Response; Doc. 28) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). Thornton did
not file a reply brief. This case is ripe for review.
Relevant Procedural History
February 24, 2010, the State of Florida (State) charged
Thornton by way of Information with aggravated battery with a
deadly weapon (count one), aggravated assault (count two),
and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (count
three). Resp. Ex. A at 13-14. Thornton proceeded to a jury
trial, with the jury first deciding Thornton's guilt or
innocence as to counts one and two and then returning to
deliberate over count three. At the conclusion of the trial,
the jury found him guilty as to counts one and three but not
guilty as to count two. Id. at 115-18. As to count
one, the jury found that Thornton used a deadly weapon during
the commission of the offense. Id. at 115. As to
count three, however, the jury found that although Thornton
legally possessed a firearm, he did not actually possess a
firearm during the commission of the offense. Id. at
118. On May 3, 2011, the circuit court adjudicated Thornton
to be a habitual felony offender (HFO) and sentenced him to a
term of incarceration of sixteen years in prison as to both
counts one and three, with each count running concurrently.
Id. at 139-45.
appealed his conviction and sentence to Florida's First
District Court of Appeal (First DCA). Id. at 150-51.
On December 5, 2011, Thornton, with the assistance of
counsel, filed a motion to correct sentencing error pursuant
to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(b)(2), in which
he challenged his adjudication as a HFO. Resp. Ex. D at 1-15.
The circuit court failed to rule on the motion. Resp. Ex. E.
Thornton then filed an initial brief with the First DCA in
which he argued that (1) the circuit court erred in failing
to instruct the jury on the standard for constructive
possession of a firearm in jointly occupied premises and (2)
his HFO adjudication was illegal. Resp. Ex. F. The State
filed an answer brief. Resp. Ex. G. On January 22, 2013, the
First DCA per curiam affirmed Thornton's conviction and
sentence without a written opinion, Resp. Ex. H, and issued
the Mandate on February 7, 2013. Resp. Ex. I.
7, 2013, Thornton filed a pro se motion for postconviction
relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850
(Rule 3.850 Motion). Resp. Ex. J at 1-18. In the Rule 3.850
Motion, Thornton alleged his counsel was ineffective for
failing to: (1) present evidence; (2) investigate a potential
witness; (3) object to a jury instruction; (4) impeach the
victim's testimony; (5) impeach a state witness; (6)
object to his adjudication as an HFO; and (7) request a jury
instruction. Id. at 2-17. On September 14, 2015, the
circuit court denied the motion. Id. at 31-46. On
January 29, 2016, the First DCA per curiam affirmed the
denial without a written opinion, Resp. Ex. M, and issued the
Mandate on February 24, 2016. Resp. Ex. N.
February 22, 2016, Thornton petitioned the Florida Supreme
Court to invoke its discretionary jurisdiction to review the
denial of his Rule 3.850 Motion. Resp. Ex. O. The Florida
Supreme Court dismissed the petition for lack of
jurisdiction. Resp. Ex. P. Thornton again attempted to get
the Florida Supreme Court to review the denial of his Rule
3.850 Motion by filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus
in that court on April 1, 2016. Resp. Ex. Q. On May 19, 2016,
the Florida Supreme Court entered an order treating the
petition for writ of habeas corpus as a petition for writ of
mandamus and transferring it to the First DCA. Resp. Ex. R.
On June 8, 2016, the First DCA per curiam denied the petition
without a written opinion. Resp. Ex. S.
February 12, 2016, Thornton filed a petition for writ of
habeas corpus with the circuit court, in which he argued the
evidence presented at his trial did not support his
convictions. Resp. Ex. T. At the time Respondents filed their
Response the circuit court had yet to rule on the petition.
Resp. Ex. U.
One-Year Limitations Period
proceeding was timely filed within the one-year limitations
period. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).
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
[Thornton's] claim[s] without further factual
development, ” Turner v. Crosby, 339 F.3d
1247, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), an evidentiary hearing will not
Governing Legal Principles
Standard of Review
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)).
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
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.
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.'” 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
“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).
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 constitutional issues by invoking
one complete round of the State's established appellate
review process.” O'Sullivan v. Boerckel,
526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999).
addressing exhaustion, the United States Supreme Court
Before seeking a federal writ of habeas corpus, a state
prisoner must exhaust available state remedies, 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254(b)(1), thereby giving the State the
“‘“opportunity to pass upon and
correct” alleged violations of its prisoners'
federal rights.'” Duncan v. Henry, 513
U.S. 364, 365, 115 S.Ct. 887, 130 L.Ed.2d 865 (1995) (per
curiam) (quoting Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270,
275, 92 S.Ct. 509, 30 L.Ed.2d 438 (1971)). To provide the
State with the necessary “opportunity, ” the
prisoner must “fairly present” his claim in each
appropriate state court (including a state supreme court with
powers of discretionary review), thereby alerting that court
to the federal nature of the claim. Duncan,
supra, at 365-366, 115 S.Ct. 887; O'Sullivan
v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144
L.Ed.2d 1 (1999).
Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004).
prisoner's failure to properly exhaust available state
remedies results in a procedural default which raises a
potential bar to federal habeas review. The United States
Supreme Court has explained the doctrine of procedural
default as follows:
Federal habeas courts reviewing the constitutionality of a
state prisoner's conviction and sentence are guided by
rules designed to ensure that state-court judgments are
accorded the finality and respect necessary to preserve the
integrity of legal proceedings within our system of
federalism. These rules include the doctrine of procedural
default, under which a federal court will not review the
merits of claims, including constitutional claims, that a
state court declined to hear because the prisoner failed to
abide by a state procedural rule. See,
e.g., Coleman,  supra, at 747-748,
111 S.Ct. 2546; Sykes,  supra, at 84-85, 97
S.Ct. 2497. A state court's invocation of a procedural
rule to deny a prisoner's claims precludes federal review
of the claims if, among other requisites, the state
procedural rule is a nonfederal ground adequate to support
the judgment and the rule is firmly established and
consistently followed. See, e.g.,
Walker v. Martin, 562 U.S. --, --, 131 S.Ct. 1120,
1127-1128, 179 L.Ed.2d 62 (2011); Beard v. Kindler,
558 U.S. --, --, 130 S.Ct. 612, 617-618, 175 L.Ed.2d 417
(2009). The doctrine barring procedurally defaulted claims
from being heard is not without exceptions. A prisoner may
obtain federal review of a defaulted claim by showing cause
for the default and prejudice from a violation of federal
law. See Coleman, 501 U.S., at 750, 111 S.Ct. 2546.
Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309, 1316 (2012). Thus,
procedural defaults may be excused under certain
circumstances. Notwithstanding that a claim has been
procedurally defaulted, a federal court may still consider
the claim if a state habeas petitioner can show either (1)
cause for and actual prejudice from the default; or (2) a
fundamental miscarriage of justice. Ward v. Hall,
592 F.3d 1144, 1157 (11th Cir. 2010). In order for a
petitioner to establish cause,
the procedural default “must result from some objective
factor external to the defense that prevented [him] from
raising the claim and which cannot be fairly attributable to
his own conduct.” McCoy v. Newsome, 953 F.2d
1252, 1258 (11th Cir. 1992) (quoting Carrier, 477
U.S. at 488, 106 S.Ct. 2639). Under the prejudice prong, [a
petitioner] must show that “the errors at trial
actually and substantially disadvantaged his defense so that
he was denied fundamental fairness.” Id. at
1261 (quoting Carrier, 477 U.S. at 494, 106 S.Ct.
Wright v. Hopper, 169 F.3d 695, 706 (11th Cir.
absence of a showing of cause and prejudice, a petitioner may
receive consideration on the merits of a procedurally
defaulted claim if the petitioner can establish that a
fundamental miscarriage of justice, the continued
incarceration of one who is actually innocent, otherwise
would result. The Eleventh Circuit has explained:
[I]f a petitioner cannot show cause and prejudice, there
remains yet another avenue for him to receive consideration
on the merits of his procedurally defaulted claim.
“[I]n an extraordinary case, where a constitutional
violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who
is actually innocent, a federal habeas court may grant the
writ even in the absence of a showing of cause for the
procedural default.” Carrier, 477 U.S. at 496,
106 S.Ct. at 2649. “This exception is exceedingly
narrow in scope, ” however, and requires proof of
actual innocence, not just legal innocence. Johnson v.
Alabama, 256 F.3d 1156, 1171 (11th Cir. 2001).
Ward, 592 F.3d at 1157. “To meet this
standard, a petitioner must ‘show that it is more
likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted
him' of the underlying offense.” Johnson v.
Alabama, 256 F.3d 1156, 1171 (11th Cir. 2001) (quoting
Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327 (1995)).
Additionally, “‘[t]o be credible,' a claim of
actual innocence must be based on reliable evidence not
presented at trial.” Calderon v. Thompson, 523
U.S. 538, 559 (1998) (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at
324). With the rarity of such evidence, in most cases,
allegations of actual innocence are ultimately summarily
rejected. Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324.
Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel
Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the effective
assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense
attorney's performance falls below an objective standard
of reasonableness and thereby prejudices the defense.”
Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5 (2003)
(per curiam) (citing Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510,
521 (2003), and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S.
668, 687 (1984)).
To establish deficient performance, a person challenging a
conviction must show that “counsel's representation
fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”
[Strickland, ] 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052. A
court considering a claim of ineffective assistance must
apply a “strong presumption” that counsel's
representation was within the “wide range” of
reasonable professional assistance. Id., at 689, 104
S.Ct. 2052. The challenger's burden is to show
“that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was
not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the
defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id., at
687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.
With respect to prejudice, a challenger must demonstrate
“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, 104 S.Ct. 2052. It is
not enough “to show that the errors had some
conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.”
Id., at 693, 104 S.Ct. 2052. Counsel's errors
must be “so serious as to deprive the defendant of a
fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.”
Id., at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.
Richter, 562 U.S. at 104. The Eleventh Circuit has
recognized “the absence of any ironclad rule requiring
a court to tackle one prong of the Strickland test
before the other.” Ward, 592 F.3d at 1163.
Since both prongs of the two-part Strickland test
must be satisfied to show a Sixth Amendment violation,
“a court need not address the performance prong if the
petitioner cannot meet the prejudice prong, and
vice-versa.” Id. (citing Holladay v.
Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1248 (11th Cir. 2000)). As stated
in Strickland: “If it is easier to dispose of
an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient
prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course
should be followed.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at
court's adjudication of an ineffectiveness claim is
accorded great deference.
“[T]he standard for judging counsel's
representation is a most deferential one.”
Richter, - U.S. at -, 131 S.Ct. at 788. But
“[e]stablishing that a state court's application of
Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is
all the more difficult. The standards created by
Strickland and § 2254(d) are both highly
deferential, and when the two apply in tandem, review is
doubly so.” Id. (citations and quotation marks
omitted). “The question is not whether a federal court
believes the state court's determination under the
Strickland standard was incorrect but whether that
determination was unreasonable -a substantially higher
threshold.” Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S.
111, 123, 129 S.Ct. 1411, 1420, 173 L.Ed.2d 251 (2009)
(quotation marks omitted). If there is “any reasonable
argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's
deferential standard, ” then a federal court may not
disturb a state-court decision denying the claim.
Richter, - U.S. at -, 131 S.Ct. at 788.
Hittson v. GDCP Warden, 759 F.3d 1210, 1248 (11th
Cir. 2014); Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123
(2009). In other words, “[i]n addition to the deference
to counsel's performance mandated by Strickland,
the AEDPA adds another layer of deference__this one to a
state court's decision--when we are considering whether
to grant federal habeas relief from a state court's
decision.” Rutherford v. Crosby, 385 F.3d
1300, 1309 (11th Cir. 2004). As such, ...