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York v. Vannoy

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Shreveport Division

May 1, 2019

RONNIE W. YORK, Petitioner




         Before the Court is a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. 1) and Supplemental Petition (Doc. 15) filed by pro se Petitioner Ronnie W. York (“York”) (#600116). York is an inmate in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. York challenges his convictions of aggravated rape and attempted aggravated rape, and the sentences imposed, in the First Judicial District Court, Caddo Parish.

         Because York's claims are either procedurally defaulted or meritless, his Petition and Supplemental Petition (Docs. 1, 15) should be DENIED and DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. Background

         York was convicted of attempted aggravated rape of his mentally handicapped sister-in-law and aggravated rape of his five-year-old daughter. See State v. York, 48, 230 (La.App. 2 Cir. 8/7/13), 121 So.3d 1226, 1228. York was sentenced to fifty years of imprisonment for the attempted aggravated rape conviction, to run consecutively to a mandatory life sentence on the aggravated rape conviction. See id.

         On appeal, York alleged that the trial court erred by: (1) denying his motion for post-verdict judgment of acquittal due to insufficient evidence to support a conviction on either count; (2) denying his motion for new trial on grounds that the verdict was contrary to the law and evidence because the state had failed to prove all the essential elements of the crimes; (3) allowing the introduction of an interview of his daughter; (4) transferring the case to another division for trial over York's objection; (5) denying York's motion to sever; (6) allowing the state to make prejudicial and sympathetic statements against York in its opening and closing statements, as well as misstatements of the testimony; (7) allowing a state witness to read verbatim from the transcript of a victim's statement that was not introduced into evidence; and (8) by denying York's motion to reconsider sentence and rendering an excessive sentence against him. Id. The appellate court affirmed the conviction and sentence on August 7, 2013. See id.

         York sought writs in the Louisiana Supreme Court, which were denied on March 21, 2014. State v. York, 2013-2154 (La. 3/21/14), 135 So.3d 617. York did not seek review in the United States Supreme Court, so his conviction became final under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), 110 Stat. 1214, on June 19, 2014, 90 days after the Louisiana Supreme Court denied writs.

         York filed an application for post-conviction relief on February 18, 2015. See State ex rel. York v. State, 2015-1775 (La. 5/22/15), 206 So.3d 184. York alleged that the trial court erred in determining that the two victims were competent to testify, and counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion to determine the competency of the two victims. See id. at 186. York also alleged that his attorney was ineffective for failing to fully and sufficiently cross-examine the two victims regarding prior statements. See id. at 186. Next, York alleged that he and his attorney were at “serious odds” and had an “irreconcilable conflict.” See id. at 187. York also claimed that the trial court failed to properly charge the jury on circumstantial evidence. See id. at 188. Finally, York alleged that his counsel was ineffective “for all the reasons previously cited.” See id. at 188. York's application was denied on May 22, 2015. See id. at 188.

         York sought writs in the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal, which were denied. York filed a writ application in the Louisiana Supreme Court, as well as a motion to stay the application while he sought review of an additional issue in the lower courts. See State ex rel. York v. State, 2015-1775 (La. 5/22/15), 206 So.3d 184. The motion and application were denied on November 15, 2016. See id.

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Rule 8(a) Resolution

         The Court is able to resolve York's § 2254 Petition without the necessity of an evidentiary hearing because there are no genuine issues of material fact relevant to York's claims, and the state court records provide an adequate factual basis. See Moya v. Estelle, 696 F.2d 329, 332-33 (5th Cir. 1983); Easter v. Estelle, 609 F.2d 756, 761 (5th Cir. 1980); Habeas Corpus Rule 8(a).

         B. Standard of Review

         An application for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court shall be considered only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The role of a federal habeas court is to guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not to apply de novo review of factual findings and to substitute its own opinions for the determinations made by the trial judge. See Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2202 (2015) (citing Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102-03 (2011)).

         Under § 2254 and the AEDPA, habeas relief is not available to a state prisoner with respect to a claim that was adjudicated on the merits in the state court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim: (1) resulted in a decision that 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) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. See Martin v. Cain, 246 F.3d 471, 475-76 (5th Cir. 2001), cert. den., 534 U.S. 885 (2001).

         Therefore, § 2254(d) demands an initial inquiry into whether a prisoner's claim has been “adjudicated on the merits” in state court; if it has, the AEDPA's highly deferential standards apply. See Davis, 135 S.Ct. at 2198 (citing Richter, 562 U.S. at 103).

         When a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has summarily denied relief without a statement of reasons, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits, in the absence of any indication or state law procedural principles to the contrary. Richter, 562 U.S. at 99. A habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported, or could have supported, the state court's decision, and then, whether it is possible fair-minded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of the Supreme Court. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. Where a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. Richter, 562 U.S. at 98.

         Pursuant to the AEDPA, pure questions of law and mixed questions of law and fact are reviewed under § 2254(d)(1), and questions of fact are reviewed under § 2254(d)(2). See Martin, 246 F.3d at 475-76.

         A state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established Supreme Court precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in Supreme Court cases or confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of the Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from Supreme Court precedent. A state court decision falls within the “unreasonable application” clause when it unreasonably applies Supreme Court precedent to the facts. See Martin, 246 F.3d at 476; see also Rivera v. Quarterman, 505 F.3d 349, 356 (5th Cir. 2007), cert. den., 555 U.S. 827 (2008).

         A federal habeas court making the unreasonable application inquiry should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was objectively reasonable. A federal court cannot grant habeas relief simply by concluding that the state court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously; the court must conclude that such application was also unreasonable. See Martin, 246 F.3d at 476. An unreasonable application is different from an incorrect one. See Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). When a state court determines that a constitutional violation is harmless, a federal court may not award habeas relief under § 2254 unless the harmlessness determination itself was unreasonable. See Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 18 (2003); see also Davis, 135 S.Ct. at 2199 (citing Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 119 (2007)).

         C. Timeliness and Exhaustion

         The threshold questions on habeas review under the AEDPA are whether a petition is timely and whether the claims raised by a petitioner were adjudicated on the merits in state court; the petitioner must have exhausted state court remedies and the claims must not be in “procedural default.” Nobles v. Johnson, 127 F.3d 409, 419-20 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c)).

         “A fundamental prerequisite to federal habeas relief under § 2254 is the exhaustion of all claims in state court prior to requesting federal collateral relief.” Whitehead v. Johnson, 157 F.3d 384, 387 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 519-20 (1982)). A federal habeas petition should generally be dismissed if state remedies have not been exhausted as to all of the federal court claims. Whitehead, 157 F.3d at 387 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A)); Rose, 455 U.S. at 519-20.

         The test for exhaustion requires that the substance of the federal habeas claim be fairly presented to the highest state court in a procedurally proper manner. Whitehead, 157 F.3d at 387 (citing Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275-78 (1971)). “[S]tate 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, ” including discretionary review when that review is part of the state's ordinary appellate review procedures. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999). “A federal court claim must be the ‘substantial equivalent' of one presented to the state courts if it is to satisfy the ‘fairly presented' requirement.” Whitehead, 157 F.3d at 387 (citing Picard, 404 U.S. at 275-78). “This requirement is not satisfied if the petitioner presents new legal theories or new factual claims in his federal application.” Id., 157 F.3d at 387 (citing Nobles, 127 F.3d at 420); Wilder v. Cockrell, 274 F.3d 255, 259 (5th Cir. 2001).

         For exhaustion purposes, it is not enough for a petitioner to have raised the claims in the lower state courts if the claims were not specifically presented to the state's highest court, or to have raise the claims in only the highest state court, but not the lower courts. See Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 32 (2004). Furthermore, a petitioner does not fairly present a claim to the state's highest court if that court must read beyond the petition or brief, such as a lower court opinion, to find a claim not otherwise specifically raised. Id.; 541 U.S. at 32.

         If a claim has not been adjudicated on the merits in state court, federal review of that claim may be barred by the doctrine of procedural default if the petitioner has failed to meet state procedural requirements for presenting his federal claims, thereby depriving the state courts of an opportunity to address those claims in the first instance. See Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449, 465 (2009) (noting that, “[w]hen a petitioner fails to properly raise his federal claims in state court, he deprives the State of ‘an opportunity to address those claims in the first instance' and frustrates the State's ability to honor his constitutional rights”) (quoting Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 732 (1991)). When state court remedies are rendered unavailable by the petitioner's own procedural default, federal courts are normally barred from reviewing those claims. See Coleman, 501 U.S. at 722. “[I]f the petitioner failed to exhaust state remedies and the court to which petitioner would be required to present his claims in order to meet the exhaustion requirement would now find the claims procedurally barred, ... [then] there is a procedural default for purposes of federal habeas” review. Id. at 735 n. 1.

         A petitioner has “technically exhausted” his claims if he fails to properly and timely present them to each level of the Louisiana courts and thereafter would be barred from seeking relief in those courts. Magouirk v. Phillips, 144 F.3d 348, 358 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing Coleman, 501 U.S. at 731-33 and Sones v. Hargett, 61 F.3d 410, 416 (5th Cir. 1995)); Fuller v. Johnson, 158 F.3d 903, 905-06 (5th Cir. 1998). In such a case, there is no difference between non-exhaustion and procedural default. Magouirk, 144 F.3d at 358. Accordingly, when a petitioner fails to exhaust state court remedies because he has allowed his federal claims to lapse, those claims are “technically” procedurally defaulted and may be dismissed. Id.

         Respondent concedes that York's Petition was timely filed. (Doc. 21-1, p. 12). However, as Respondent points out, some of York's claims are procedurally defaulted.

         D. There was no unreasonable application of federal law as to York's insufficient evidence claims.

         In his first two claims, York alleges there was insufficient evidence to convict him of attempted aggravated rape of his “mentally retarded former sister-n-law, ” Y.P., and aggravated rape of his daughter, R.Y. State v. York, 48, 230 (La.App. 2 Cir. 8/7/13); 121 So.3d 1226, 1228, writ denied, 2013-2154 (La. 3/21/14); 135 So.3d 617. York cites Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), in support of his claim. York presented the sufficiency of the evidence claim to all levels of the state courts through direct appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal and his application for supervisory relief to the Louisiana Supreme Court. Thus, this claim was exhausted for purposes of federal habeas review. (Doc. 22-2, p. 153).

         Claims of insufficient evidence present a mixed question of law and fact. Perez v. Cain, 529 F.3d 588, 594 (5th Cir. 2008). The Court must give deference to the state court's findings unless the decision was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of Supreme Court law. See Miller v. Johnson, 200 F.3d 274, 281 (5th Cir. 2000).

         The appropriate standard for determining the sufficiency of evidence is set forth in Jackson, which was relied on by the state appellate court. Jackson requires a court to determine whether, after viewing the record and the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319; Perez, 529 F.3d at 594; Williams v. Cain, 408 Fed.Appx. 817, 821 (5th Cir. 2011).

         A 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 is to consider all of the trial evidence as a whole under Jackson); Johnson v. Cain, 347 Fed.Appx. 89, 91 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 324) (Jackson standard relies “upon the record evidence adduced at the trial”). A 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) (per curiam) (citing United States v. Garcia, 995 F.2d 556, 561 (5th Cir. 1993)); see also Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319 (noting that it is the jury's responsibility “to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts”). Therefore, a reviewing federal habeas court is not authorized to substitute its interpretation of the evidence or its view of the credibility of witnesses for that of the fact-finder. Weeks v. Scott, 55 F.3d 1059, 1062 (1995) (citing Alexander v. McCotter, 775 F.2d 595, 598 (5th Cir. 1985)). All credibility choices and conflicting inferences must be resolved in favor of the verdict. Ramirez v. Dretke, 398 F.3d 691, 695 (5th Cir. 2005).

         In addition, “[t]he Jackson inquiry ‘does not focus on whether the trier of fact made the correct guilt or innocence determination, but rather whether it made a rational decision to convict or acquit.'” Santellan v. Cockrell, 271 F.3d 190, 193 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 402 (1993)). Thus, to determine whether the commission of a crime is adequately supported by the record, a 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 Second Circuit Court of Appeal was the highest state court to issue a reasoned opinion on this issue. Therefore, this Court must look through the Louisiana Supreme Court's summary denial of the Second Circuit's reasoning. Ylst ...

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