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Gonzales v. Davis

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 17, 2019

MICHAEL DEAN GONZALES, Petitioner - Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

          Before JONES, SOUTHWICK, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM.

         This is an appeal from the district court's denial of an inmate's petition for habeas relief relating to his alleged incompetence to stand trial on capital sentencing, and for a Certificate of Appealability ("COA"). The district court erroneously granted a hearing on the merits of petitioner's claims and denied relief. We deny the petitioner a COA because his claims are procedurally barred and, alternatively, lack merit.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The petitioner, Michael Gonzales, was convicted of the gruesome murders of an elderly couple and was sentenced to death by an Ector County district court on December 8, 1995. Significant evidence supporting Gonzales's conviction was a jailhouse confession he gave to a prison guard who also happened to be one of his relatives. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ("TCCA") affirmed his conviction and sentence, Gonzales v. State, No. AP- 72, 317 (Tex. Crim. App. June 3, 1998) (not designated for publication), and subsequently denied his initial state habeas petition. Ex Parte Gonzales, No. WR-40, 541-01 (Tex. Crim. App. Mar. 10, 1999) (not designated for publication).

         The following year, Gonzales filed a federal petition for habeas relief in the federal district court. The district court denied relief concerning his conviction, but after the Texas Attorney General's office notified the court about an error that had occurred during the sentencing phase, the district court ordered the state court to grant Gonzales a new sentencing trial. Gonzales v. Cockrell, No. 7:99-cv-00073 (W.D. Tex. Dec. 19, 2002) (not designated for publication). Gonzales unsuccessfully appealed the district court's denial of guilt-phase relief to this court. Gonzales v. Quarterman, 458 F.3d 384 (5th Cir. 2006), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1323, 127 S.Ct. 1909 (Mem.) (2007).

         In May 2009, Gonzales was again sentenced to death in a second sentencing trial, presided over by the same judge who oversaw his previous sentencing trial. The second sentencing trial-and Gonzales's conduct throughout it-is the subject of this appeal. The trial court assigned two attorneys, Woody Leverett and Jason Leach, to serve as trial counsel for Gonzales during the sentencing trial. After Leverett and Leach were appointed, Gonzales wrote to them and requested that they secure the services of a New York mitigation specialist named Charles Lanier. Leverett responded that he and Leach had looked into Gonzales's request but learned that Lanier was not a mitigation specialist, but, rather, a mental health expert who opposed the death penalty. Those statements were not accurate. When Lanier told Gonzales that Leverett's statements were inaccurate, Gonzales petitioned the court to terminate Leverett's position as his court-assigned counsel. Gonzales told the court that he did not "trust [his counsel], plain and simple. When an attorney lies to you one time, he is going to lie to you every time, so my point [is] they aren't worth s***." The court held a hearing and ultimately decided to keep Leverett in his position as trial co-counsel, basing its decision partly on Leverett's qualifications and Leverett's explanation that he had not intended to mislead Gonzales, as well as the court's distrust of Lanier's motives for involving himself.

         After the court denied Gonzales's request to remove Leverett, Gonzales stopped cooperating with his counsel entirely and instructed his friends and family members to do the same. Leverett then filed a motion on his own, asking to be replaced as counsel for Gonzales because he had "absolutely no working relationship" with Gonzales, and because Gonzales repeatedly refused to cooperate with his defense team (although Gonzales sometimes reached out to his attorneys for help acquiring items for day-to-day use inside prison). The court denied the motion.

         Gonzales's demeanor in court became increasingly hostile and volatile over the course of his sentencing trial. On the first day of testimony, Gonzales's wife was called to testify and was warned by prosecutors that she could be charged as an accomplice if she repeated previous statements she had made to the police. When she appeared confused by the admonishment, Gonzales spoke out:

GONZALES: If she don't want to testify, leave her alone, man. That's my wife. She has the right to plead the Fifth Amendment. She don't got to testify against nobody. You are harping her, man. You are f***ing with her mind. Leave her alone. She don't want to testify.
COURT: Retire the jury.
(Jury retired from courtroom).
GONZALES: See how you got her all emotional. You ain't got to testify, Martha. Don't let them get in your head. You have got the right to keep the Fifth Amendment. You should be ashamed of yourself, man.
COURT: Now, where are we?
PROSECUTOR: [Gonzales's wife] has told me that she is frightened, that she is scared of the defendant, and I think she -
GONZALES: Godd*** right she is scared because y'all put her in that f***ing position, man. Just leave her alone. She ...

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