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Watson v. Vannoy

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 21, 2019

QUENTIN WATSON
v.
DARREL VANNOY

         SECTION “F” (4)

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          KAREN WELLS ROBY CHIEF 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 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, the Court has determined that this matter can be disposed of without an evidentiary hearing. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2) (2006).[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The petitioner, Quentin Watson (“Watson”), is a convicted inmate incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.[2] On October 15, 2009, Watson was indicted by a Washington Parish Grand Jury for two counts of first degree murder.[3] Watson entered a plea of not guilty on November 23, 2009.[4]

         The record reflects that around 11:00 a.m. on February 6, 2008, Wendy Rawls went to have lunch at the home of her mother, Anita Smith, in Franklinton, Louisiana.[5] In the kitchen, Rawls found the dead bodies of Smith and Smith's nephew, William Lewis, who temporarily was living with her to help with renovations to the house. Smith had been shot once in the face. Lewis was shot once in his chest and once in the back of the head. There was no sign of forced entry into the house.

         Although no gun was found, the bullets removed from Smith and Lewis's chest were determined to have been fired from the same Hi-Point 9mm handgun. The bullet removed from Lewis's head also was fired from a Hi-Point 9mm handgun, but it was too damaged to determine if it was from the same gun.

         The police also found a 9mm spent shell casing on the floor near the kitchen table. The shell casing was processed, and a DNA profile was found on it. The DNA profile was entered into the Combined DNA Index System (“CODIS”) database. In July 2009, CODIS produced an offender match for Watson, who knew Smith and her daughters. After his arrest, Watson was questioned by Captain Justin Brown and Trooper Richard Newman, both with the Franklinton Police Department. In his video-taped statement, Watson initially denied involvement in the killings, but eventually confessed to shooting both Smith and Lewis.

         After being found competent to proceed, [6] Watson was tried before a jury on July 15 through 18, 2013, and found guilty as charged on both counts.[7] At a July 24, 2013, hearing, the Trial Court denied Watson's motion for new trial based on the voluntariness of Watson's confession.[8] After waiver of legal delays, the Court sentenced Watson to serve life in prison on each count concurrently and without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence.[9]

         On direct appeal to the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal, Watson's appointed counsel asserted two errors:[10] (1) the state trial court erred when it denied the motion to suppress Watson's inculpatory statements because the statements were taken after he invoked his right to remain silent; and (2) the state trial court erred when it denied the motion for new trial because Watson invoked his right to remain silent during his inculpatory statement to police.

         The Louisiana First Circuit held that Watson was precluded from asserting on appeal his claims related to the invocation of the right to remain silent during his interview.[11] Citing La. Code Crim. P. arts. 521 and 703 and related state court case law, the Court held that the urging of the claim was not timely before the state trial court in the second, oral motion to suppress argued prior to trial or the motion for new trial. The Court concluded that, as a result, the claims were not preserved for appeal or properly before the Court for appellate review. Alternatively, the Court held that the claim was meritless finding that Watson did not clearly assert the right to remain silent and instead merely commented, essentially, that the officers' questions were repetitive of matters he had already discussed. The Court, therefore, held that the state trial court did not err in denying either motion.

         The Louisiana Supreme Court denied Watson's related writ application without stated reasons on June 19, 2015.[12] Watson's conviction was final under federal law ninety (90) days later, on September 17, 2015, when he did not file a writ application with the United States Supreme Court. Ott v. Johnson, 192 F.3d 510, 513 (5th Cir. 1999) (time for filing for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court is included in the finality determination under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A)); U.S. Sup. Ct. Rule 13(1).

         On June 21, 2016, Watson through counsel filed an application for post-conviction relief to the Trial Court asserting that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to prepare and investigate the case.[13] In an amended and supplemental memorandum, Watson's counsel clarified the claim in two parts:[14] (1) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to preserve the challenge to the right to remain silent issue by timely motion to suppress; and (2) Watson was denied the right to testify by his counsel. The Trial Court denied relief on April 18, 2017, finding the claims meritless.[15] The Court held that the first claim was meritless in light of the Louisiana First Circuit's alternative consideration of the merits despite the fact that the claim was not preserved for appeal. In addition, the transcript established that Watson voluntarily waived his right to testify.

         The Louisiana First Circuit denied Watson's counsel-filed writ application without stated reasons on July 24, 2017.[16] Watson's counsel also filed for review in the Louisiana Supreme Court, and the Court denied the application on May 18, 2018, citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).[17]

         II. Federal Habeas Petition

         On November 19, 2018, after correction of certain deficiencies, the clerk of this Court filed Watson's petition for federal habeas corpus relief in which he asserted under a broad reading the following grounds for relief:[18] (1) the state trial court erred when it denied the motion to suppress and did not grant the motion for new trial based on Watson's claim that his invoked his right to remain silent during his inculpatory statement to police; (2) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to preserve for appeal the challenge to the right to remain silent claim by timely motion to suppress; and (3) he was denied the right to testify by his counsel.

         The State opposition response to the petition asserts that the state courts' denial of relief was proper under applicable federal law.[19] Watson filed a reply to the State's response asserting that the state courts' rulings were contrary to or an unreasonable application of federal law.[20]

         III. General Standards of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214, [21] applies to this petition, which is deemed filed in this Court under the federal mailbox rule on October 29, 2018.[22] The threshold questions on habeas review under the amended statute are whether the petition is timely and whether the claim raised by the petitioner was adjudicated on the merits in state court; i.e., 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)).

         The State concedes, and the record reflects, that Watson exhausted state court review of his claims and timely filed this federal habeas corpus petition. However, as the State recognizes, Watson's challenges to the denial of the motions to suppress and for new trial were not properly preserved for appellate review. The Louisiana First Circuit clearly recognized the claim to be procedurally defaulted, although it alternatively addressed the merits of the claim. When the state courts explicitly invoke a procedural bar to review of a federal claim and alternatively reach the merits of the claim, a federal court is still bound by the state procedural default. Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 264 n.10 (1989); see Robinson v. Louisiana, 606 Fed.Appx. 199, 204 (5th Cir. 2015) (citing Woodfox v. Cain, 609 F.3d 774, 796 (5th Cir. 2010)). While the State's response does not rely on the procedural bar imposed by the state courts in its response, it has not expressly waived procedural default as a defense.

         The United States Fifth Circuit has held that when there is no express waiver, the district court may, in its discretion, address the affirmative defenses sua sponte. Prieto v. Quarterman, 456 F.3d 511, 518 (5th Cir. 2006) (citing Magouirk v. Phillips, 144 F.3d 348, 360 (5th Cir. 1998)) (addressing procedural default); Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 209-10 (2006) (addressing limitations). When the court exercises its discretion to do so sua sponte, it must assure that the petitioner has notice that the issue is being considered. Fisher v. Texas, 169 F.3d 295, 301 (5th Cir.1999); Magouirk, 144 F.3d at 358. Therefore, the Court gives Watson express notice that the Court is considering procedural default to whatever extent, if any, it is not already been noticed by the State. Fisher, 169 F.3d at 301; Magouirk, 144 F.3d at 358. Accordingly, petitioner is hereby specifically instructed that this report and recommendation is notice to him that this court is sua sponte raising the issue of procedural default and that petitioner must submit any evidence or argument concerning the default as part of any objections he may file to this report. Magouirk, 144 F.3d at 348.

         IV. Procedural Default (Claim Nos. 1 and 2)

         In his first claim before this Court, Watson argues that the state trial court erred by failing to grant a new trial or suppress the video of his inculpatory statement to police on the grounds that he invoked his right to remain silent during the interview. On direct appeal, the Louisiana First Circuit determined that Watson's first motion to suppress the statement, filed two years before trial, did not rest on the grounds that the he invoked his right to remain silent. The Court also noted that the right to remain silent issue was not part of the argument or testimony at the evidentiary hearing on that original motion, which also was held two years before trial. Instead, the right to remain silent argument was asserted for the first time in an oral motion to suppress made by Watson's trial counsel as the trial commenced in 2013, and which was denied. The argument also was the basis for his counsel's unsuccessful, post-trial motion for new trial. Based on these finding, the Louisiana First Circuit held that, under La. Code Crim. P. arts. 521 and 703 and related state case law, all grounds in support of the motion to suppress should have been made in the first, written pretrial motion addressed two years before trial.[23] The Court further found that the late-urging of the grounds based on the right to remain silent that were made by counsel in the oral motion and motion for new trial were untimely, procedurally improper and insufficient to preserve the claim for appellate review. As a result, the Court concluded “that the defendant, in not having raised the issue of his alleged invocation of his right to remain silent during the interview, in either his written motion to suppress inculpatory statement or at the motion to suppress hearing, is precluded from raising this issue on appeal.”[24] The Court later clearly resolved, that “[i]n sum, we find the defendant did not preserve for appellate review his argument that he invoked his right to silence during questioning.”[25]

         Following this clear procedural holding, the Louisiana First Circuit Court also went on to alternatively explain why, even if considered, Watson's claim had no merit. This was the last reasoned decision on these claims. 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, the federal court will presume that the state court has relied upon the same grounds as the last reasoned state court opinion.); Wilson v. Sellers, U.S., 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018) (“We hold that the federal court should ‘look through' the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale . . . then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning.”).

         Generally, a federal court will not review a question of federal law decided by a state court if the decision of that state court rests on a state ground that is both independent of the federal claim and adequate to support that judgment. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 731-32 (1991); Glover v. Cain, 128 F.3d 900, 902 (5th Cir. 1997); Amos v. Scott, 61 F.3d 333, 338 & n.10 (5th Cir. 1995) (citing Harris, 489 U.S. at 260, 262). This “independent and adequate state law” doctrine applies to both substantive and procedural grounds and affects federal review of claims that are raised on either direct or habeas review. Amos, 61 F.3d at 338.

         Procedural default does not bar federal court review of a federal claim in a habeas petition unless the last state court to render a judgment in the case has clearly and expressly indicated that its judgment is independent of federal law and rests on a state procedural bar. Harris, 489 U.S. at 263; Glover, 128 F.3d at 902. The procedural bar also prevails over any alternative discussion of the merits of the claim by a state court. See Robinson, 606 Fed.Appx. at 203-04) (citing Woodfox, 609 F.3d at 796). In this case, the procedural rules cited by the Louisiana courts bar review of Watson's first federal habeas claim.

         A. Independent and Adequate

         For the state law procedural bar to prevent review by this federal habeas court, the bar must be independent and adequate. A procedural restriction is “independent” if the state court's judgment “clearly and expressly” indicates that it is independent of federal law and rests solely on a state procedural bar. Amos, 61 F.3d at 338. The United States Fifth Circuit has held that “[a] state court expressly and unambiguously bases its denial of relief on a state procedural default even if it alternatively reaches the merits of a [petitioner's] claim.” Fisher, 169 F.3d at 300.

         To be “adequate, ” the state procedural rule must be strictly or regularly followed and evenhandedly applied to the majority of similar cases. Walker v. Martin, 562 U.S. 307, 316-17 (2011); Glover, 128 F.3d at 902. A state procedural rule “can be ‘firmly established' and ‘regularly followed,' - even if the appropriate exercise of discretion may permit consideration of a federal claim in some cases but not others.” (citation omitted) Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53, 60-61 (2009). The question of the adequacy of a state procedural bar is itself a federal question. Beard, 558 U.S. at 60 (citing Lee v. Kemna, 534 U.S. 362, 375 (2002)).

         The Louisiana courts relied on La. Code Crim. P. arts. 521 and 703, and related case law, to bar review of Watson's claim that the state trial court should have granted his motions to suppress and for new trial based on the alleged violation of his right to remain silent. The Louisiana courts regularly and evenhandedly apply these provisions in similar cases to bar review of claims or grounds not properly and timely asserted in a motion to suppress. State v. Montejo, 40 So.3d 952, 967 (La. 2010) (“Louisiana courts have long held a defendant may not raise new grounds for suppressing evidence on appeal that he did not raise at the trial court in a [properly filed] motion to suppress); State v. Johnson, 993 So.2d 326, 330 (La.App. 4th Cir. 2008) (“[F]ailure to raise a ground for suppressing an item of evidence in a properly filed motion to suppress waives such a basis for exclusion on appeal.”); see State v. Carruth, No. 2017-0341, 2017 WL 4974608, at *3-4 (La.App. 1st Cir. Nov. 1, 2017) (same); State v. Langley, 61 So.3d 747, 780 (La.App. 3rd Cir. 2011) (same); see also, State v. Tucker, 181 So.3d 590, 612 n.33 (La. 2015) (citing Montejo, 40 So.3d at 969-70) (“[T]he Court has ‘never allowed a defendant to allege facts for the first time in trial testimony which would support a new argument for suppression of evidence,' defendant may not allege a new basis for suppressing his statements for the first time in a motion for new trial . . .”); State v. Turner, __ So.3d __, 2019 WL 1549815, at *6 n.3 (La.App. 2d Cir. Apr. 1, 2019) (“A defendant who does not file a motion to suppress . . . fails to preserve the issue … as an error on appeal.”); State in the Interest of D.S., 255 So.3d 1209, 1214 (La.App. 4th Cir. 2018) (discussing the failure to timely file a motion to suppress under Articles 521 and 703); State v. Foster, 59 So.3d 495, 499 (La.App. 3d Cir. 2011) (Art. 703 requires all grounds to support a motion to dismiss be filed timely).

         Therefore, the Court finds that failure to comply with the procedural mandates imposed under La. Code Crim. P. arts. 521 and 703 is both independent of federal law and adequate to bar review of Watson's claim that the state courts erred in barring his challenge to the denial of the motion to suppress based on his right to remain silent. The state courts' rulings were based on Louisiana law establishing procedural requirements for the presentation of claims for review. See Fisher, 169 F.3d at 300 (state courts' clear reliance on state procedural rule is determinative of the issue). The state courts' reasons for barring review of Watson's claim were therefore independent of federal law and adequate to bar review of his claims in this federal habeas court.

         B. Cause and Prejudice

         A federal habeas petitioner may be excepted from the procedural default rule only if he can show “cause” for his default and “prejudice” attributed it to or demonstrate that the federal court's failure to review the defaulted claim will result in a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Fisher, 169 F.3d at 301 (citing Magouirk, 144 F.3d at 359); Coleman, 501 U.S. at 748-50); Amos, 61 F.3d at 338-39 (citing Harris, 489 U.S. at 262; Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 129 (1982)).

         To establish cause for a procedural default, a petitioner must demonstrate that some objective factor external to the defense impeded his efforts to comply with the state's procedural rule. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 488 (1986). The mere fact that petitioner or his counsel failed to recognize the factual or legal basis for a claim, or failed to raise the claim despite recognizing it, does not constitute cause for a procedural default. Id. at 486.

         Watson has not offered any cause for his default that would excuse the procedural bar imposed by the Louisiana courts. The record does not support a finding that any factor external to the defense prevented petitioner from asserting these claims in a procedurally proper manner. The record reflects no action or inaction by the State which prevented him from properly and timely asserting these claims in the state courts. As later discussed in this Report, Watson's claim that counsel was ineffective for allowing the default has no merit and does not establish cause to excuse the default.

         “The failure to show ‘cause' is fatal to the invocation of the ‘cause and prejudice' exception, without regard to whether ‘prejudice' is shown.” Hogue v. Johnson, 131 F.3d 466, 497 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Engle, 456 U.S. at 134 n.43). Having failed to show an objective cause for his default, the court need not determine whether prejudice existed, and petitioner has not alleged any actual prejudice. Ratcliff v. Estelle, 597 F.2d 474, 477 (5th Cir. 1979) (citing Lumpkin v. Ricketts, 551 F.2d 680, 681-82 (5th Cir. 1977)).

         C. Fundamental Miscarriage of Justice

         A petitioner may avoid procedural bar only if a fundamental miscarriage of justice will occur if the merits of his claim are not reviewed. Hogue, 131 F.3d at 497 (citing Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333, 339 (1992)). To establish a fundamental miscarriage of justice, petitioner must provide this court with evidence that would support a “colorable showing of factual innocence.” Kuhlmann v. Wilson, 477 U.S. 436, 454 (1986); accord Murray, 477 U.S. at 496; Glover, 128 F.3d at 902. To satisfy the factual innocence standard, petitioner must establish a fair probability that, considering all of the evidence now available, the trier of fact would have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt. Campos v. Johnson, 958 F.Supp. 1180, 1195 (W.D. Tex. 1997) (footnote omitted); see Nobles, 127 F.3d at 423 n.33 (actual innocence factor requires a showing by clear and convincing evidence that, “but for constitutional error, no reasonable factfinder would have found the applicant guilty of the underlying offense.”). When the petitioner has not adequately asserted his actual innocence, his procedural default cannot be excused under the “fundamental miscarriage of justice” exception. Glover, 128 F.3d at 903. Watson presents no argument and the record contains nothing establishing his actual innocence on the underlying conviction.

         For these reasons, Watson has failed to overcome the procedural bar to review of his first claim asserted before this federal court. The claim must be dismissed with prejudice as procedurally defaulted.

         Furthermore, should a reviewing court choose to overlook or excuse Watson's procedural bar, the state courts' alternative denial of relief on the claims as meritless was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of federal law for the reasons addressed below in this Report in connection with Watson's related ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

         V. Standards of a Merits Review of the ...


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