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Williams v. State

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

June 6, 2018

JONATHAN WILLIAMS
v.
STATE OF LOUISIANA

         SECTION “I”3

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DANIEL E. KNOWLES, III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter was referred to this United States Magistrate Judge for the purpose of conducting a hearing, including an evidentiary hearing, if necessary, and submission of proposed findings of fact 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 in the United States District Courts. Upon review of the record, the Court has determined that this matter can be disposed of without an evidentiary hearing. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2). Therefore, for all of the following reasons, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the petition be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         Petitioner, Jonathan Williams, is a state prisoner incarcerated at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana. Pursuant to a plea bargain, he entered an Alford plea[1] to an amended charge of simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling and was sentenced to a term of twelve years imprisonment on October 1, 2013.[2] On December 10, 2013, he then pleaded guilty to being a second offender and was resentenced as such to a term of twelve years imprisonment.[3]

         After his subsequent efforts to obtain post-conviction relief in the state courts proved unsuccessful, petitioner, through counsel, filed the instant federal habeas corpus application claiming that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in connection with his pleas.[4] In its response, the state concedes that the application is timely but argues that petitioner's claim has no merit.[5]

         The clearly established federal law governing ineffective assistance of counsel claims is Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In Strickland, the United States Supreme Court established a two-prong test for evaluating such a claim. Specifically, a petitioner seeking relief must demonstrate (1) that counsel's performance was deficient and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced his defense. Id. at 697. A petitioner bears the burden of proof on the claim and “must demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his counsel was ineffective.” Jernigan v. Collins, 980 F.2d 292, 296 (5th Cir. 1993); see also Clark v. Johnson, 227 F.3d 273, 284 (5th Cir. 2000). If a court finds that a petitioner has made an insufficient showing as to either of the two prongs of inquiry, i.e. deficient performance or actual prejudice, it may dispose of the claim without addressing the other prong. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

         To prevail on the deficiency prong of the Strickland test, a petitioner must demonstrate that counsel's conduct fails to meet the constitutional minimum guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. See Styron v. Johnson, 262 F.3d 438, 450 (5th Cir. 2001). “Counsel's performance is deficient if it falls below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Little v. Johnson, 162 F.3d 855, 860 (5th Cir. 1998). Analysis of counsel's performance must take into account the reasonableness of counsel's actions in light of all the circumstances. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. “[I]t is necessary to ‘judge ... counsel's challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct.'” Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 371 (1993) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). A petitioner must overcome a strong presumption that the conduct of his counsel falls within a wide range of reasonable representation. See Crockett v. McCotter, 796 F.2d 787, 791 (5th Cir. 1986); Mattheson v. King, 751 F.2d 1432, 1441 (5th Cir. 1985).

         To prevail on the prejudice prong of the Strickland test, a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. More specifically, in order to satisfy the prejudice prong of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim in a case involving a guilty plea, a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985); see also James v. Cain, 56 F.3d 662, 667 (5th Cir. 1995).

         In his federal application, petitioner claims that his counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him that his sentence would render him ineligible for both parole and the possibility of a diminution of his sentence based on “good time.”[6] The record reflects that, after holding an evidentiary hearing, [7] the state district court denied the claim, making the following relevant observations:

[Defendant] complains that his counsel, Mr. Cormier, was ineffective in that he failed to inform defendant at the time of his Alford plea that he would be subject to habitual offender sentence enhancement with no opportunity to earn “good time.” Defendant testified at the evidentiary hearing that if he had known he was agreeing to be re-sentenced to serve “flat time” as a habitual offender, he would not have entered an Alford plea to the underlying offense.
….
… Defendant testified at the evidentiary hearing that prior to entering into the plea agreement, he met with his attorney and the district attorney, Mr. Roberts; and neither Mr. Cormier nor Mr. Roberts informed him that he would be serving “flat time.” Mr. Cormier testified at the evidentiary hearing that he did not have independent recollection of what he discussed with defendant prior to the Alford plea, but it is his general course of conduct to confer with a defendant prior to entering a guilty plea and to review a habitual offender bill of information with this clients prior to a habitual offender admission. Mr. Cormier further stated that he did not recall anyone telling defendant that if he accepted the proposed plea agreement, he would serve a 12-year “flat” sentence without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. None of that testimony indicates whether defendant was promised good time in connection with his plea. Accordingly, the Court finds that defendant fails to show that a promise of good time was part of what defendant bargained for in conjunction with his plea agreement.
In the alternative, defendant argues that he would not have entered into the plea agreement had he known he would be sentenced to “flat time, ” and that his Alford plea and his habitual offender admission are thus constitutionally infirm. Defendant testified at the evidentiary hearing that he did not understand he would be “double billed, ” and that consequently, he would be ineligible for good time.
….
Defendant testified at the evidentiary hearing that when he went to court on December 10, 2013, he believed he was there so that the State could dismiss some outstanding charges against him. Defendant further testified that he only went through with the habitual offender admission on December 10, 2013 because he “was scared.” The evidence fails to show, however, that defendant was unaware of his agreement to accept a habitual offender sentence.
The transcripts of both the Alford plea and the habitual offender admission show that the Court fully advised defendant of his rights, and defendant stated he understood his rights and did not have any questions for the Court. The transcripts of both proceedings show that defendant informed the Court he is a high school graduate and can read and write the English language. In both proceedings, defendant indicated that he had read and understood the waiver of rights forms containing his rights and his sentencing information. The transcript of defendant's Alford plea to the underlying offense shows that the Court advised defendant of the State's intention to file a “double bill” against him as part of the plea agreement, and that defendant stated he understood. Additionally, the transcripts of defendant's Alford plea and his habitual offender admission and sentencing do not show that the State promised or that the Court awarded defendant good time eligibility in imposing the habitual offender sentence.[8]

         Petitioner then filed a related writ application with the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Although the copy of the state court record furnished to this Court in connection with this federal proceeding does not appear to contain a copy of the Court of Appeal's ultimate ruling, the parties agree that relief was denied by that court on June 17, 2015.[9]

         Petitioner thereafter sought further review by the Louisiana Supreme Court, and that court also denied his ineffective assistance of counsel claim on the merits, stating simply: “Relator fails to show he was denied the effective assistance of counsel during plea negotiations under the standard of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984).”[10]

         Because the Louisiana Supreme Court, the last state court to address petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, expressly denied the claim on the merits, and because such a claim presents a mixed question of law and fact, this Court must defer to that state court's decision unless the 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); Moore v. Cockrell, 313 F.3d 880, 881 (5th Cir. 2002).[11] Courts have held that the “‘contrary to' and ‘unreasonable application' clauses [of § 2254(d)(1)] have independent meaning.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002).

         Regarding the “contrary to” clause, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has explained:

A state court decision is contrary to clearly established precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in the [United States] Supreme Court's cases. A state-court decision will also be contrary to clearly established precedent if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of the [United States] Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [United States] Supreme Court precedent.

Wooten v. Thaler, 598 F.3d 215, 218 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks, ellipses, brackets, and footnotes omitted).

         As noted, the Louisiana Supreme Court correctly and expressly identified Strickland as the clearly established federal law governing petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim. In light of that fact, and because petitioner has not pointed to (and the undersigned's research has not found) a United States Supreme Court case with materially indistinguishable facts reaching a contrary result, he has not established that the state court decision runs afoul of the “contrary to” clause of § 2254(d)(1).

         Regarding the statute's “unreasonable application” clause, the United States Supreme Court has held: “[A] state-court decision is an unreasonable application of our clearly established precedent if it correctly identifies the governing legal rule but applies that rule unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner's case.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1706 (2014). However, the Supreme Court has expressly cautioned that “an unreasonable application is different from an incorrect one.” Bell, 535 U.S. at 694. Accordingly, a state court's merely incorrect application of Supreme Court precedent simply does not warrant habeas relief. Puckett v. Epps, 641 F.3d 657, 663 (5th Cir. 2011) (“Importantly, ‘unreasonable' is not the same as ‘erroneous' or ‘incorrect'; an incorrect application of the law by a state court will nonetheless be affirmed if it is not simultaneously unreasonable.”).

         Moreover, the United States Supreme Court has explained that federal habeas corpus review of an ineffective assistance of ...


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