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Earl v. Tanner

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 20, 2018

JAMES EARL
v.
ROBERT TANNER, WARDEN

         SECTION “A” (2)

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JOSEPH C. WILKINSON, JR., UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct hearings, including an evidentiary hearing, if necessary, and to submit proposed findings and recommendations for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 636(b)(1)(B) and (C) and, as applicable, Rule 8(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases. Upon review of the entire record, I have determined that a federal evidentiary hearing is unnecessary. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2).[1] For the following reasons, I recommend that the instant petition for habeas corpus relief be DENIED and DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. STATE COURT PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The petitioner, James Earl, is incarcerated in the Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, Louisiana.[2] On March 18, 2011, Earl was charged by bill of indictment in Washington Parish with one count of second degree murder in violation of La. Rev. Stat. § 14:30.1 and one count of conspiracy to commit second degree murder in violation of La. Rev. Stat. § 14:26:30.1.[3] The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal summarized the facts determined at trial as follows in relevant part:

On the night of January 6, 2001, Richie Martin was parked in a Geo Tracker in a driveway on Jenkins Road in Washington Parish. Raymond Terry Lyons was in the front passenger seat of the Tracker, and two men were waiting for someone. Ricky Magee, who had driven a black Malibu from his house, pulled into the driveway near the Tracker. Magee's front-seat passenger was the defendant. Donald Dawson (aka “Pee Wee ”), who had been at Magee's house looking to buy drugs, was driving a white Buick and had followed Magee and the defendant, as Magee had instructed. After Magee parked, Dawson, whose passenger was his girlfriend, Tessie Starnes, parked about thirty feet away in the driveway next to Magee. The defendant, Magee, and Dawson each got out of their respective vehicles and approached the Tracker.
According to several eyewitness accounts, either the defendant or Magee struck Lyons with a board or piece of wood, identified by most as a “2x4.” The defendant then shot Lyons once in the chest, killing him. Martin got out of the Tracker, ran to a nearby trailer, and called 911. The defendant, Magee, and Dawson got in their vehicles and left the scene. When the defendant was interviewed by Detective (now, Captain) Jim Miller, with the Washington Parish Sheriff's Office, the defendant admitted that he shot Lyons. At trial, the defendant testified that he lied about shooting Lyons because he was afraid of Magee. The defendant testified that he struck Lyons with his hands, but that it was Dawson who shot Lyons.

State v. Earl, No. 2015 KA 1383, 2016 WL 3146011, at *1 (La.App. 1st Cir. June 6, 2016); State Record Volume 3 of 4, Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal Opinion, 2015 KA 1383, pages 2-3, June 6, 2016.

         Earl was tried before a jury for the charge of second degree murder on March 2 through 4, 2015 and found guilty of the responsive verdict of manslaughter in violation of La. Rev. Stat. § 14:31.[4] On April 8, 2015, petitioner filed a motion for a new trial and a motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal.[5] On that same day, the state trial court denied the motions and sentenced Earl to 35 years in prison to be served at hard labor.[6]

         On direct appeal to the Louisiana First Circuit, Earl's appointed counsel asserted three errors:[7] (1) The trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. (2) The evidence was legally insufficient to convict him of manslaughter. (3) The trial court erred in denying his motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal. On June 6, 2016, the Louisiana First Circuit affirmed, finding the claims without merit.[8]

         By letter dated July 1, 2016, Earl sought an extension of time to file a writ application with the Louisiana Supreme Court.[9] The Louisiana Supreme Court apparently treated Earl's letter as a writ application and denied it without stated reasons on December 5, 2016.[10] In the interim, Earl filed a writ application with the Louisiana Supreme Court on July 18, 2016.[11] On November 7, 2016, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to consider the writ application pursuant to La. S.Ct. Rule X § 5.[12] Earl's November 15, 2016 request for rehearing was denied on January 9, 2017.[13]

         Earl's conviction became final on March 6, 2017, 90 days after the Louisiana Supreme Court denied his first writ application, when the time expired for Earl to file a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. Roberts v. Cockrell, 319 F.3d 690, 694 (5th Cir.2003) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A); Flanagan v. Johnson, 154 F.3d 196, 200-01 (5th Cir.1998)); Ott v. Johnson, 192 F.3d 510, 513 (5th Cir.1999) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A)); U.S. Sup.Ct. R. 13(1).

         II. FEDERAL HABEAS PETITION

         On June 5, 2017, the clerk of this court filed Earl's petition for federal habeas corpus relief in which he asserts the following grounds for relief:[14] (1) The trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress his confession. (2) Insufficient evidence supports his manslaughter conviction and therefore the trial court erred in denying his motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal.

         The State filed an answer in response to Earl's petition in which it concedes that the federal petition is timely and expressly waives any exhaustion defense.[15] The State argues that Earl's claims are without merit. Earl filed a reply reiterating his claims.[16]

         III. GENERAL STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214, comprehensively revised federal habeas corpus legislation, including 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The AEDPA went into effect on April 24, 1996[17] and applies to habeas petitions filed after that date. Flanagan v. Johnson, 154 F.3d 196, 198 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997)). The AEDPA therefore applies to Earl's petition, which, for reasons discussed below, is deemed filed in a federal court on May 2, 2017.[18]

         The threshold questions in habeas review under the amended statute are whether the petition is timely and whether petitioner's claims were adjudicated on the merits in state court; i.e., the petitioner must have exhausted state court remedies and must not be in “procedural default” on a claim. Nobles v. Johnson, 127 F.3d 409, 419-20 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c)). The State concedes and I find that Earl's petition was timely filed. The State, while acknowledging that the Louisiana Supreme Court treated Earl's July 1, 2016 letter as a writ application, claims that the court did not have a fair opportunity to address petitioner's claims because the July 18, 2016 writ application was untimely. The State nonetheless has waived the defense of failure to exhaust pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(3). The State's arguments are inconsistent, and I find no support for the contention that the original writ application was not addressed on the merits in light of the one word denial. Nevertheless, the State expressly waives exhaustion and, because Earl's claims are meritless, they may be addressed without further exhaustion. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2).

         IV. STANDARDS OF MERIT REVIEW

         28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(d)(1) and (2) contain revised standards of review for questions of fact, questions of law and mixed questions of fact and law in federal habeas corpus proceedings. Nobles, 127 F.3d at 419-20 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b) and (c)).

         Determinations of questions of fact by the state court are “presumed to be correct . . . and we will give deference to the state court's decision unless it ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.' ” Hill v. Johnson, 210 F.3d 481, 485 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2)), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 1039 (2001). The amended statute also codifies the “presumption of correctness” that attaches to state court findings of fact and the “clear and convincing evidence” burden placed on a petitioner who attempts to overcome that presumption. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         A state court's determination of questions of law and mixed questions of law and fact are reviewed under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and receive deference, unless the state court's decision “ ‘was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established [Supreme Court precedent.]' ” Penry v. Johnson, 215 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Miller v. Johnson, 200 F.3d 274, 280-81 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 849 (2000)), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 532 U.S. 782 (2001); Hill, 210 F.3d at 485. The United States Supreme Court has clarified the Section 2254(d)(1) standard as follows:

Under the “contrary to” clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by this Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than this 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 this Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.

Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06, 412-13, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000); Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792-93, 121 S.Ct. 1910, 150 L.Ed.2d 9 (2001); Hill, 210 F.3d at 485. The “critical point” in determining the Supreme Court rule to be applied “is that relief is available under § 2254(d)(1)'s unreasonable-application clause if, and only if, it is so obvious that a clearly established rule applies to a given set of facts that there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement' on the question.” (citation omitted) White v. Woodall, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1706-07, 188 L.Ed.2d 698 (2014) (citing Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011)), and Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122, 129 S.Ct. 1411, 173 L.Ed.2d 251 (2009). “Thus, ‘if a habeas court must extend a rationale before it can apply to the facts at hand, ' then by definition the rationale was not ‘clearly established at the time of the state-court decision.' ” White, 134 S.Ct. at 1706 (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 666, 124 S.Ct. 2140, 158 L.Ed.2d 938 (2004)).

         “ ‘A federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the state court decision applied [a Supreme Court case] incorrectly.' ” Price v. Vincent, 538 U.S. 634, 641, 123 S.Ct. 1848, 155 L.Ed.2d 877 (2003) (quoting Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-25, 123 S.Ct. 357, 154 L.Ed.2d 279 (2002)) (brackets in original); Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 699, 122 S.Ct. 1843, 152 L.Ed.2d 914 (2002). Rather, under the “unreasonable application” standard, “the only question for a federal habeas court is whether the state court's determination is objectively unreasonable.” Neal v. Puckett, 286 F.3d 230, 246 (5th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, sub nom, Neal v. Epps, 537 U.S. 1104, 123 S.Ct. 963, 154 L.Ed.2d 772 (2003). The burden is on the petitioner to show that the state court applied the precedent to the facts of his case in an objectively unreasonable manner. Price, 538 U.S. at 641, 123 S.Ct. 1848 (quoting Woodford, 537 U.S. at 24-25, 123 S.Ct. 357); Wright v. Quarterman, 470 F.3d 581, 585 (5th Cir. 2006).

         V. DENIAL OF MOTION TO SUPPRESS (CLAIM NO. 1)

         Earl claims that the state trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress his statement to police. He alleges that the interview was conducted when he was sleep deprived and under the influence of pain medication.

         Earl's counsel asserted this claim on direct appeal. The state appellate court found that Earl's alleged “chemically impaired” and “sleep deprived” state did not negate his comprehension or make him unconscious of the consequences of what he was saying. The court held that the trial court's ruling denying petitioner's motion to suppress the statement was supported by the evidence.[19] This was the last reasoned state court opinion on the issue. See Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 802 (1991) (when the last state court judgment does not indicate whether it is based on procedural default or the merits of a federal claim, the federal court will presume that the state court has relied upon the same grounds as the last reasoned state court opinion).

         The admissibility of a confession is a mixed question of law and fact. Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 112 (1985); ShisInday v. Quarterman, 511 F.3d 514, 522 (5th Cir.2007) (citing Miller, 474 U.S. at 112). A federal court on habeas review must respect the state court's determination of voluntariness as long as it was not “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” 28 U .S.C. § 2254(d)(1); Barnes v. Johnson, 160 F.3d 218, 222 (5th Cir .1998). In doing so, a federal habeas court must afford a presumption of correctness to state courts' findings of fact if they are fairly supported by the record. Miller, 474 U.S. at 117.

         There are two inquiries to determine whether an accused has voluntarily and knowingly waived his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412, 421 (1986); Soffar v. Cockrell, 300 F.3d 588, 592 (5th Cir. 2002). First, waiver of the right must be voluntary and not the product of intimidation, coercion or deception. Moran, 475 U.S. at 421. Second, the waiver or relinquishment must be made with full awareness of the nature of the right being waived. Id. In making these inquiries, the court must consider the “totality of all the surrounding circumstances-both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 224 (1973). Although mental state or condition may be a significant factor in the voluntariness determination, “this fact does not justify a conclusion that a defendant's mental condition, by itself and apart from its relation to official coercion, should ever dispose of the inquiry into constitutional ‘voluntariness.' ” Carter v. Johnson, 131 F.3d 452, 462 (5th Cir.1997) (citing Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 164 (1986)). Thus, coercive police conduct is a necessary prerequisite to a conclusion that a confession was involuntary, and the defendant must establish a causal link between the coercive conduct and the confession. Carter, 131 F.3d at 462 (citing Connelly, 479 U.S. at 163-67).

         In assessing voluntariness, “trickery or deceit is only prohibited to the extent it deprives the suspect ‘of knowledge essential to his ability to understand the nature of his rights and the consequences of abandoning them.' ” Soffar, 300 F.3d at 596 (quoting Moran, 475 U.S. at 424). Determining whether officers engaged in coercive tactics to elicit a confession is a question of fact, and the state court's factual findings are entitled to deference when supported by the record. Pemberton v. Collins, 991 F.2d 1218, 1225 (5th Cir.1993); Self v. Collins, 973 F.2d 1198, 1204 (5th Cir.1992); see also Miller, 474 U.S. at 112 (noting that subsidiary questions such as whether the police engaged in coercive tactics are afforded the presumption of correctness).

         The habeas corpus statute obliges federal judges to respect credibility determinations made by the state court trier of fact. Pemberton, 991 F.2d at 1225 (citing Sumner v. Mata, 455 U.S. 591, 597 (1982)). However, if the underlying facts as determined by the state court indicate the presence of some coercive tactic, the impact that factor had on the voluntariness of the confession is a matter for independent federal determination and is ultimately a legal determination. Miller, 474 U.S. at 117; ShisInday, 511 F.3d at 522.

         Even if the confession is deemed involuntary under these standards, the Supreme Court has held that the admission of an involuntary confession is a trial error subject to harmless error analysis. Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 310 (1991). Under these standards, to grant federal habeas relief, the trial error must have a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the verdict. Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993). Therefore, even if this court were to find that petitioner's Fifth Amendment rights were violated, the court must also consider whether use of the confession at trial was harmless in determining the verdict. Hopkins v. Cockrell, 325 F.3d 579, 583 (5th Cir.2003).

         In Earl's case, as required by Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964), the state trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the admissibility of Earl's inculpatory statements, taking testimony from Captain Miller.[20] Miller testified that he advised Earl of his Miranda rights before conducting a recorded interview of him on January 13, 2011.[21] Miller identified the form Earl signed, indicating that he understood his rights, waived them and consented to questioning.[22] Miller testified that he did not make any promises to Earl or threaten or coerce him to make a statement.[23] On cross-examination, Miller admitted that he asked Earl if he was “under any medication right now or under the influence of narcotics, alcohol of anything?” and Earl responded, “Na, I take medicine for my back.”[24] Miller further admitted that he had asked Earl if he was sleepy, and Earl responded, “Yea, I am sleepy.”[25] Miller admitted that he did not determine the specific pain medication Earl was taking for scoliosis or when Earl last took the medication.[26] Miller testified that Earl told him he was under the influence of marijuana and cocaine at the time of the crime.[27] After hearing the testimony, the state trial court denied the motion without stated reasons.[28] Miller subsequently testified before the jury about his interview of Earl, and the interview audio recording was played for the jury.[29]

         While counsel did not file a writ application in connection with the trial court's adverse decision, he did raise the issue on direct appeal. The Louisiana First Circuit entered its own findings, which constitute the last reasoned decision on this issue. The appellate court considered and reviewed the evidence and testimony that was received at the suppression hearing. After considering the evidence, the court found that Miller's testimony indicated Earl was cognizant and able to respond to questions.[30] The court noted that while Earl may have been under the influence of marijuana and cocaine at the time of the murder, the interview occurred seven days later.[31] In addition, it found that:

The defendant said that he was sleepy and that he took pain medicine for his scoliosis. But there was nothing in the interview that suggested the defendant's awareness and understanding were in any way affected because of sleepiness or scoliosis medication. While the defendant may have been tired during the interview, there was no evidence that he was intoxicated, and his answers to the detective were relevant, appropriate, and coherent. Throughout the interview, the defendant was lucid and intelligible.[32]

         The court concluded that “nothing in the record before us suggests that the defendant's alleged ‘chemically impaired' or ‘sleep deprived' state was of such a degree as to negate his comprehension or make him unconscious of the consequences of what he was saying to Detective Miller.”[33]

         On federal habeas review, this court must presume that the factual determinations of the state courts supporting its legal conclusion were correct, including that Earl failed to demonstrate that he was not aware of the consequences of his statements to police officials as a result of his medicated and sleepy condition. To overcome the presumption of correctness as to the state court's factual findings, Earl must rebut them by clear and convincing evidence, which he has not done. In his federal habeas petition, Earl merely repeats his allegation that his “chemically impaired and sleep deprived” state rendered his inculpatory statements involuntary. These allegations are unsupported by any evidence adduced at the motion hearing, on appeal or otherwise. Such allegations, in and of themselves, do not render Earl's statements involuntary. See Scott v. Michael, No. 08-1262, 2011 WL 1235223, *9 (E.D. La. 2011) (“statements made while the accused was in pain and/or under the influence of painkillers or other narcotics are not involuntary per se”); Reinert v. Larkins, 379 F.3d 76, 91-92 (3rd Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 890 (2005) (defendant's post-surgery inculpatory statement provided while under sedation was voluntary).

         The state court's factual determinations regarding voluntariness are supported by the record. Therefore, this court on habeas corpus review must accept as conclusive the state court's factual determination that Earl knew the consequences of his statements. The state court's legal conclusion that Earl offered the statements voluntarily is reasonably based upon these facts. Since the statements were voluntary as a matter of fact and law, harmless error analysis is unnecessary. The denial of relief on this issue was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent. Earl is not entitled to relief on this claim.

         VI. INSUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE AND DENIAL OF THE POST-VERDICT MOTION (CLAIM NO. 2)

         Earl claims that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he was guilty of manslaughter and, as a result, the state trial court erred in denying his motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal. He points to inconsistent evidence about the shooting to establish the existence of reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

         Earl presented this claim to the Louisiana First Circuit on direct appeal. The court considered the claim under the standards set forth in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), and related state case law, and found that the identification of the shooter presented a credibility issue and that there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have reasonably concluded that Earl was guilty of the indicted offense of second degree murder, notwithstanding the jury's legislatively authorized responsive verdict of manslaughter and, therefore, the conviction was valid regardless whether the responsive verdict was supported by the evidence. In addition, the appellate court found that, even if the jury rendered a compromise verdict, there was sufficient evidence to find Earl guilty of manslaughter.[34] This was the last reasoned opinion by a state court on this issue. Y1st, 501 U.S. at 802.

         Under Jackson, a federal habeas court addressing an insufficiency of the evidence claim must determine, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, whether a rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319; Williams v. Cain, 408 Fed.Appx. 817, 821 (5th Cir. 2011); Perez v. Cain, 529 F.3d 588, 594 (5th Cir. 2008). Thus, to determine whether the commission of a crime is adequately supported by the record, the court must review the substantive elements of the crime as defined by state law. Perez, 529 F.3d at 594 (citing Jackson, 443 U.S. at 324 n. 16).

         The court's consideration of the sufficiency of the evidence extends only to what was presented at trial. See McDaniel v. Brown, 558 U.S. 120, 131, 134 (2010) (recognizing that a reviewing court must consider the trial evidence as a whole under Jackson); Johnson v. Cain, 347 Fed.Appx. 89, 91 (5th Cir. 2009) (Jackson standard relies “upon the record evidence adduced at the trial”) (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 324). Review of the sufficiency of the evidence, however, does not include review of the weight of the evidence or the credibility of the witnesses, because those determinations are the exclusive province of the jury. United States v. Young, 107 Fed.Appx. 442, 443 (5th Cir. 2004) (citing United States v. Garcia, 995 F.2d 556, 561 (5th Cir. 1993)); see Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319 (noting that it is the jury's responsibility “to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh ...


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