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Curry v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections

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

October 28, 2019

JAMES C. CURRY, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et. al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          Timothy J. Corrigan United States District Judge.

         I. Status

         Petitioner, James C. Curry, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action by filing a pro se Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody. See Doc. 1. Petitioner challenges a state court (Clay County, Florida) judgment of conviction for armed robbery. Id. at 1. He is currently serving a twenty-five-year term of incarceration. Id. Respondents filed a Response.[1]See Doc. 19. Petitioner filed a Reply. See Doc. 22. This case is ripe for review.

         II. Governing Legal Principals

         A. Standard Under AEDPA

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal habeas corpus petition. 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)).

         The first task of the federal habeas court is to identify the last state court decision, if any, that adjudicated the petitioner's claims 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 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).

         When a state court has adjudicated a petitioner's claims on the merits, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief unless the state court's adjudication of the claim 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)(1), (2). A state court's factual findings are “presumed to be correct” unless rebutted “by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. § 2254(e)(1).

AEDPA “imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state court rulings” and “demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. [at 102] (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)). The Supreme Court has repeatedly instructed lower federal courts that an unreasonable application of law requires more than mere error or even clear error. See, e.g., Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12');">540 U.S. 12, 18 (2003); Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 75 (“The gloss of clear error fails to give proper deference to state courts by conflating error (even clear error) with unreasonableness.”); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000) (“[A]n unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.”).

Bishop v. Warden, GDCP, 726 F.3d 1243, 1253-54 (11th Cir. 2013) (internal citations modified).

         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 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).

         In addressing exhaustion, the United States Supreme Court explained:

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).

         A state 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, [2] supra, at 747-748, 111 S.Ct. 2546; Sykes, [3] 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).[4] 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. 2639).

Wright v. Hopper, 169 F.3d 695, 706 (11th Cir. 1999).

         In the 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.

         C. Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

         “The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants effective assistance of counsel. That right is denied when a defense counsel'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 ineffective assistance, a person must show that: (1) counsel's performance was outside the wide range of reasonable, professional assistance; and (2) counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the challenger in that there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceeding would have been different absent counsel's deficient performance. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.

         Notably, there is no “iron-clad rule requiring a court to tackle one prong of the Strickland test before the other.” Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1163 (11th Cir. 2010). 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.” 466 U.S. at 697.

         “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 (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, 562 U.S. at 105. As such, “[s]urmounting Strickland's high bar is never an easy task.” Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 (2010). “Reviewing courts apply a ‘strong presumption' that counsel's representation was ‘within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'” Daniel v. Comm'r, Ala. Dep't of Corr., 822 F.3d 1248, 1262 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). “When this presumption is combined with § 2254(d), the result is double deference to the state court ruling on counsel's performance.” Id. (citing Richter, 562 U.S. at 105); see also Evans v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., 703 F.3d 1316, 1333-35 (11th Cir. 2013) (en banc) (Jordan, J., concurring); Rutherford v. Crosby, 385 F.3d 1300, 1309 (11th Cir. 2004).

         III. Analysis

         A. Ground One

         Petitioner contends that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to inform the trial court that the state committed a Brady[5] violation by withholding evidence of Petitioner's wallet prior to trial. See Doc. 1 at 4. According to Petitioner, the police obtained Petitioner's wallet at the time of Petitioner's arrest and they failed to provide the wallet and its contents to trial counsel during discovery. Petitioner maintains that the wallet contained a receipt that would have supported an alibi defense that he was not at the Food Lion at the time of the robbery, but was instead making a purchase at an Exxon gas station. Petitioner further argues that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a Richardson[6] hearing when the state used Petitioner's wallet to bolster its case during closing arguments and refute Petitioner's defense of misidentification.

         Petitioner raised this claim in his Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850 motion for postconviction relief. Resp. Ex. J at 28-34. Following an evidentiary hearing in which Petitioner was represented by postconviction counsel, the trial court denied these claims, finding in pertinent part:

Defendant avers he received ineffective assistance when counsel failed to object and request a Richardson hearing when it became apparent the State withheld material evidence. Specifically, Defendant alleges he told counsel he had his wallet when he was arrested and his wallet contained a receipt that would prove he was not the perpetrator of the robbery. [FN2 Due to passage of time, evidence in this case has been destroyed.] The Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on this claim.
“[I]t is within the province of the finder of fact ‘to rely upon the testimony found by it to be worthy of belief and to reject such testimony found by it to be untrue'. . . .” Smith v. State, 697 So.2d 991, 992 (Fla. 4th DCA 1997). Accordingly, after an evidentiary hearing, a trial court may find trial counsel's testimony more credible than a defendant's testimony and assertions. Thomas v. State, 838 So.2d 535, 540-41 (Fla. 2003). A trial court's credibility determination will be upheld on appeal if supported by competent, substantial evidence. Monestime v. State, 88 So.3d 204, 204 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011); Schofield v. State, 67 So.3d 1066, 1072 Fla. 2d DCA 2011).
At the evidentiary hearing, Mr. Wright (trial counsel) testified that Defendant failed to mention any alibi as the defense was developing. Originally, Defendant told Mr. Wright he went to the Exxon gas station before going to Club Christopher but stayed outside while his friend Rodney Williams made a purchase. Mr. Wright had no notes reporting that Defendant told him he entered the Exxon or purchased anything. Defendant did tell Mr. Wright he saw someone outside the gas station and had a conversation. (Ex. D.)
Later, Mr. Wright and Defendant viewed the evidence photos depicting the wallet. Mr. Wright testified Defendant still did not mention a receipt or anything that could be construed as an alibi. Defendant eventually mentioned Mike the Exxon employee, but the story involving Mike was different from Defendant's original story. (Ex. D.) At trial, Defendant testified that he went to Exxon after leaving Club Christopher; that he met Mike at the Exxon, where he purchased a candy bar; and that there should be a video of his presence at the Exxon. [FN3 It is troubling that Defendant would present this version of events to the jury but fail to testify about the receipt that would exonerate him.] (Ex. C at 253-60; 270-78.) Based on the jury's verdict, they rejected this version of events.
Further, there was a great deal of evidence against Defendant, including: the large amount of cash found in the bag he was carrying (which matched the amount of money stolen from Food Lion within $50.00); the gun which matched the witnesses' description of the weapon brandished by the robber; eyewitness identification; and the Food Lion video showing a man in camouflage shorts like those ...

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