Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
For John Reyes Matamoros, Petitioner - Appellant: Schneider & McKinney, P.C., Houston, TX.
For Rick Thaler, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent - Appellee: Office of the Attorney General, Austin, TX.
Before JOLLY, DAVIS, and ELROD, Circuit Judges.
JENNIFER WALKER ELROD, Circuit Judge:
A Texas jury found John Reyes Matamoros guilty of capital murder, and the state trial court sentenced him to death. Matamoros sought post-conviction relief on the ground that he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335 (2002). After the state courts and the federal district court denied him relief, we granted a certificate of appealability (COA). Because Matamoros cannot meet his burden under AEDPA, we AFFIRM the district court's denial of relief.
The district court's opinion thoroughly recounts the factual background and procedural history of this case. See Matamoros v. Thaler, No. H-07-2613, 2010 WL 1404368, at *1--3 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 31, 2010). In November 1992, Matamoros stood trial for the capital murder of his neighbor, Eddie Goebel. The jury found Matamoros guilty, and the state trial court sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Matamoros's conviction and sentence on direct appeal. Matamoros v. State, 901 S.W.2d 470 (Tex.Crim.App. 1995). The Court of Criminal Appeals denied Matamoros's initial state application for a writ of habeas corpus. Ex parte Matamoros, No. 50791-01 (Tex.Crim.App. Dec. 5, 2001). After the Supreme Court decided Atkins, Matamoros filed his initial federal habeas petition, asserting that he is ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins because he is intellectually disabled. The district court
stayed those proceedings so that Matamoros could exhaust his Atkins claim in state court.
The Court of Criminal Appeals received Matamoros's successive state habeas application and remanded the case for the state trial court to address the merits of the Atkins claim. After an evidentiary hearing, the state trial court entered written findings of fact and conclusions of law recommending that the Court of Criminal Appeals deny relief. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied Matamoros's petition because Matamoros " fail[ed] to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that he has sufficient deficiencies in adaptive functioning for a diagnosis of mental retardation or that there was an onset of mental retardation during [Matamoros's] developmental period." Ex parte Matamoros, No. WR-50791-02, 2007 WL 1707193, at *1 (Tex.Crim.App. June 13, 2007). The state trial court had also found that Matamoros did not meet the first criterion for intellectual disability--significant sub-average intellectual functioning--but the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and found that Matamoros did meet that criterion. Id.
Matamoros then filed the federal habeas petition that gives rise to this appeal. The district court denied relief and denied a COA, concluding that the state court's determination that Matamoros was not intellectually disabled was not unreasonable in light of the evidence before the state court. Matamoros, 2010 WL 1404368. Matamoros requested a COA from this court. While the request for a COA was pending, Matamoros moved to stay the proceedings so that he could return to state court to present newly available evidence in support of his Atkins claim: in April 2011, Dr. George Denkowski, the psychologist who testified as the state's expert at the state habeas court's 2006 evidentiary hearing, had his license officially " reprimanded" because his " diagnostic practices [had] come under considerable professional scrutiny." Ex Parte Matamoros, Nos. WR-50791-02--03, 2012 WL 4713563, at *2 (Tex.Crim.App. Oct. 3, 2012). Denkowski entered into a settlement agreement with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, in which he agreed to " not accept any engagement to perform forensic psychological services in the evaluation of subjects for mental retardation or intellectual disability in criminal proceedings." We granted Matamoros's motion to stay the proceedings while he returned to state court to bring this development to the state court's attention.
Following our stay, the Court of Criminal Appeals exercised its authority to reconsider the initial disposition of Matamoros's writ. Ex Parte Matamoros, No. WR-50791--02, 2011 WL 6241295, at *1 (Tex.Crim.App. Dec. 14, 2011). The Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the cause to the state trial court " to allow it the opportunity to re-evaluate its initial findings, conclusions, and recommendation in light of the Denkowski Settlement Agreement." Id. The Court of Criminal Appeals stated that the state trial court could " order affidavits or hold a live hearing if warranted." Id. In the state trial court, Matamoros tendered new affidavits from Drs. Thomas Oakland and Jack Fletcher in support of his claim of intellectual disability and requested a hearing. Without acknowledging the new affidavits or holding a new hearing, the state trial court signed an
order adopting the state's Amended Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, which recommended that relief be denied. The state trial court stated in open court that it had discounted Dr. Denkowski's testimony. See Ex Parte Matamoros, 2012 WL 4713563, at *3 (Price, J., dissenting). The Court of Criminal Appeals again denied Matamoros's writ application, " [b]ased upon the trial court's findings and conclusions and our own review." [WL] at *1.
Two judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals dissented. They noted that the state trial court did not mention Matamoros's new affidavits and that " the process by which [the] new recommended findings and conclusions were made does not inspire confidence." [WL] at *3. The dissenters further stated that because Matamoros had " made a fairly compelling showing of mental retardation," they " would not reject his claim without first remanding the cause to the convicting court for additional fact development." Id. The dissenters specifically stated that they, as the state court, were not bound by " almost insurmountable" AEDPA deference and, for that reason, should not defer to the state trial court's factual determination. [WL] at *5.
Matamoros then filed a motion to lift the stay in this court and to remand for the district court " to reconsider [his] Atkins claim de novo without taking into account or in any respect relying on Dr. Denkowski's analysis." We granted the motion to lift the stay and carried the motion for remand with the request for a COA. See Matamoros v. Stephens, 539 F.App'x 487, 491 (5th Cir. 2013). We declined to remand the case to the district court because, " under AEDPA, it is the state trial court's factual findings to which we must defer if reasonable," so " remanding this case to the district court to allow it to make new findings would serve no meaningful purpose." Id. at 494. We issued a COA on Matamoros's Atkins claim. Id. This appeal followed.
Federal habeas proceedings are subject to the rules prescribed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Under AEDPA, if a state court has adjudicated a habeas petitioner's claim on the merits, federal habeas relief may be granted in either of two circumstances. First, relief may be granted 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." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); see Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 97--98, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011); Rivera v. Quarterman, 505 F.3d 349, 356 (5th Cir. 2007). " A state court's decision is deemed contrary to clearly established federal law if it reaches a legal conclusion in direct conflict with a prior decision of the Supreme Court or if it reaches a different conclusion than the Supreme Court on materially indistinguishable facts." Gray v. Epps, 616 F.3d 436, 439 (5th Cir. 2010) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404--08, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2002)). " If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be." Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103.
Second, and of consequence here, relief may be granted 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." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). Thus, we can grant Matamoros's petition if the Court of Criminal Appeals unreasonably found that Matamoros was not intellectually disabled. Although " [t]he term 'unreasonable'
is no doubt difficult to define . .., a state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance." Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301, 130 S.Ct. 841, 175 L.Ed.2d 738 (2010) (alternation in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Even if " '[r]easonable minds reviewing the record might disagree' about the finding in question, 'on habeas review that does not suffice to supersede the trial court's . . . determination.'" Id. (alterations in Wood ) (quoting Rice v. Collins, 546 U.S. 333, 341--42, 126 S.Ct. 969, 163 L.Ed.2d 824 (2006)). Moreover, we presume the state court's factual findings are correct, and a petitioner only may rebut this presumption by " clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see Miller-El v. Dretke, 361 F.3d 849, 854 (5th Cir. 2004), rev'd on other grounds, 545 U.S. 231, 125 S.Ct. 2317, 162 L.Ed.2d 196 (2005).
The question of whether a defendant is intellectually disabled is a fact question. Maldonado v. Thaler, 625 F.3d 229, 236 (5th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, Matamoros bases his argument on § 2254(d)(2). Specifically, Matamoros argues that he is entitled to habeas relief because the Court of Criminal Appeals's conclusion that he (Matamoros) is not intellectually disabled is an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence before that court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). Thus, the question before us is whether Matamoros has shown, by clear and convincing evidence, that the Court of Criminal Appeals unreasonably determined that Matamoros does not exhibit adaptive behavior deficits that originated before age eighteen. We now turn to that task.
We begin with a discussion of the law that governs our analysis. In Atkins, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of intellectually disabled persons. 536 U.S. at 321. The Court explained that there is a " national consensus" among state legislatures and Congress that the execution of mentally retarded offenders is excessive punishment, id. at 316--17, and the Court found " no reason to disagree with the judgment of the legislatures
that have recently addressed the matter," id. at 321 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Atkins Court noted that states which had already enacted " statutory definitions of mental retardation . . . generally conform to the clinical definitions" of the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) and/or the American Psychiatric Association. Id. at 308 n.3, 317 n.22. However, the Court did not articulate a governing standard for intellectual disability, instead leaving to the states " the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences." Id. at 317 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).
In Texas, the standard for determining whether a person is intellectually disabled, and thus ineligible for the death penalty, was established by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S.W.3d 1 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004). The Briseno court looked to the " definitions of 'mental retardation' set out by the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) and [the definition] contained in section 591.003(13) of the Texas Health and Safety Code."  Id. at 7. Both the AAMR and the Texas Code use a three-prong test for mental retardation: (1) significant sub-average intellectual functioning; (2) deficits in adaptive behavior; and (3) onset before age 18. Id. The Briseno court held, with qualifications discussed below, that " [Texas] will follow the AAMR or section 591.003(13) criteria in addressing Atkins mental retardation claims," unless the legislature adopts an alternative statutory definition for use in capital cases. Id. at 8. The Briseno court placed the burden of proof on the defendant, who must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he is intellectually disabled. Id. at 12.
The prong of the Briseno test most relevant here is the second prong--deficits in adaptive behavior. " Adaptive behavior means the effectiveness with or degree to which a person meets the standards of personal independence and social responsibility expected of the person's age and cultural group." Briseno, 135 S.W.3d at 7 n.25 (internal quotation marks omitted). The AAMR identifies ten adaptive skill areas; a person must have deficits in at least two of these skill areas in order to meet the AAMR diagnostic criteria for adaptive behavior deficits. The ten adaptive skill areas are: " communication, self-care, home living, social skills, ...