141 F.3d 1018 (11th Cir. 1998), 96-3725, Oats v. Singletary

Docket Nº:96-3725.
Citation:141 F.3d 1018
Party Name:Sonny Boy OATS, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Harry K. SINGLETARY, Jr., Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, Respondent-Appellee.
Case Date:May 19, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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141 F.3d 1018 (11th Cir. 1998)

Sonny Boy OATS, Petitioner-Appellant,


Harry K. SINGLETARY, Jr., Secretary, Florida Department of

Corrections, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 96-3725.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 19, 1998

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Todd Gerald Scher, Capital Collateral Representative, Miami, FL, for Petitioner-Appellant.

Randall Sutton, Asst. Atty. Gen., Miami, FL, for Respondent-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before ANDERSON, DUBINA and CARNES, Circuit Judges.

ANDERSON, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Sonny Boy Oats ("Oats"), a prisoner awaiting execution on Florida's death row, appeals from the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the district court's decision to deny the writ. 1


On December 20, 1979, Jeanette Dyer, the cashier at a convenience store near Ocala, Florida, was killed during a robbery of the store. The cause of her death was a single bullet fired from approximately one foot away that penetrated her right eye and her brain. On December 24, 1979, a police officer observed an automobile with two suspicious looking occupants in the vicinity of another convenience store in Ocala. As the officer approached the car, it sped away at a high rate of speed. The officer gave chase. The fleeing car soon crashed and the occupants dispersed. Shortly thereafter, Donnie Williams was arrested as a suspect in the high-speed chase, transported to the Marion County Jail, and gave a statement to the police implicating the appellant Sonny Boy Oats in the murder of Jeanette Dyer. Subsequently, Oats was arrested as a suspect in the high-speed chase and given Miranda warnings. During the interview that followed, Oats admitted his involvement in the chase and stated he had thrown his firearm away during the chase. The firearm was later discovered on the roadside near the location described by Oats.

In his interview with the police, Oats also admitted his involvement in an ABC liquor store robbery and shooting that had occurred

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on December 19, 1979, 2 one day prior to the robbery and murder of Jeanette Dyer. On December 28, 1979, 3 during a tape recorded interview, Oats again confessed to the ABC liquor store robbery and shooting, and also admitted robbing and killing Jeanette Dyer on December 20. Ballistics tests conducted on the gun recovered from the roadside established that it was the same weapon used in both the ABC liquor store and Jeanette Dyer shootings.

Oats was indicted on two counts of robbery and first degree murder, arising out of the killing of Jeanette Dyer on December 20, 1979. Oats was also charged separately in another case for the robbery and attempted murder at the ABC liquor store that occurred on December 19, 1979. During February and March of 1980, Oats was examined, at the request of trial counsel, by three separate psychiatrists, Drs. Frank Carrera, Rafael Gonzalez, and Fausto Natal, all of whom reported to the court and to Oats' counsel that Oats was sane at the time of the offenses and competent to stand trial. 4

In early June 1980, Oats was tried in a separate proceeding for the ABC liquor store robbery and shooting and was convicted of robbery with a firearm and attempted murder in the first degree. 5 On June 14, 1980, Oats escaped from the Marion County Jail. He was recaptured approximately six months later in Texas, and was returned to Florida for trial in the instant capital case. 6

On February 6, 1981, the jury in the instant case found Oats guilty of first degree murder and robbery with a firearm. After hearing the evidence relevant to sentencing, the same jury rendered an advisory sentence of death. On February 10, the trial judge followed the jury's recommendation and imposed the death sentence for the murder charge and ninety-nine years imprisonment for the robbery charge.

In Oats' direct appeal of his conviction and sentence, 7 the Florida Supreme Court affirmed Oats' conviction, but remanded for resentencing and a reweighing of the aggravating circumstances by the trial judge because the trial judge erred in his original determination of three of the aggravating circumstances. Oats v. State, 446 So.2d 90, 95 (Fla.1984). On April 26, 1984, following the remand from the Florida Supreme Court, the state trial court conducted another sentencing hearing. At the resentencing hearing, Oats' attorney objected to the resentencing and made a motion seeking the appointment of experts to determine Oats' sanity and competence. The trial judge denied this motion based on the judge's observations of Oats' demeanor at that time and during prior proceedings. The trial judge then reweighed the valid aggravating circumstances against the single mitigating circumstance and reimposed the death penalty, which was affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court. 8 See Oats v. State, 472 So.2d 1143

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(Fla.1985), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 865, 106 S.Ct. 188, 88 L.Ed.2d 157 (1985).

On October 7, 1987, Oats filed a motion for post-conviction relief in the state trial court pursuant to Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.850, and in May 1989, filed an original petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Florida Supreme Court. Following the signing of a death warrant by the Governor in 1989, the state trial court granted a stay of execution and subsequently conducted an evidentiary hearing on Oats' Rule 3.850 motion. This Rule 3.850 hearing lasted eleven days over a period from February 19 to June 5, 1990, and primarily concerned whether Oats' trial counsel were constitutionally deficient in their representation of Oats. The state trial court denied Oats' Rule 3.850 petition in November 1990. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's denial of Oats' Rule 3.850 motion and denied Oats' original state habeas corpus petition in Oats v. Dugger, 638 So.2d 20 (Fla.1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1087, 115 S.Ct. 744, 130 L.Ed.2d 645 (1995). Oats then filed the instant federal habeas action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied Oats' petition without holding an evidentiary hearing.


  1. The Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

    The law regarding collateral review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims under the Sixth Amendment is well settled. In order to obtain habeas corpus relief with respect to a conviction or a death sentence based on ineffective assistance of counsel, the defendant must show both (1) that the identified acts or omissions of counsel were deficient, or outside the range of professionally competent assistance, and (2) that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense such that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 2064, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). See also Bolender v. Singletary, 16 F.3d 1547, 1556 (11th Cir.1994). When applying Strickland, we are free to dispose of ineffectiveness claims on either of its two grounds. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697, 104 S.Ct. at 2069. Furthermore, we note that under the rules and presumptions set down in Strickland and its progeny, " 'the cases in which habeas petitioners can properly prevail on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel are few and far between.' " Waters v. Thomas, 46 F.3d 1506, 1511 (11th Cir.1995) (en banc) (quoting Rogers v. Zant, 13 F.3d 384, 386 (11th Cir.1994)).

    Oats alleges that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel in a variety of ways throughout his defense of the criminal proceeding in state court. The primary focus of Oats' ineffective assistance of counsel claims is his assertion that, at all material times in this case, he was mentally retarded with organic brain damage, complicated by both physical and psychological abuse as a child and by his own abuse of alcohol and other substances. Oats claims that his attorneys failed to adequately and fully present evidence of his mental deficiencies at numerous proceedings in the state trial court.

    The record reveals that, during the pendency of the case in state court, a minimum of eight different mental health experts testified and/or issued reports concerning Oats' mental capacity. In February and March, 1980, during the pretrial stages of the ABC liquor store case and the instant capital case, Oats was examined separately by three different court-appointed psychiatrists, Drs. Frank Carrera, Rafael Gonzalez, and Fausto Natal. The examinations by these court-appointed psychiatrists were performed prior to the ABC liquor store case at the request of Oats' trial counsel. 9 All three psychiatrists reported then that Oats was mentally

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    competent at the time of the offenses and was mentally competent to stand trial. 10

    The remaining experts became involved in the case during the 1990 post-conviction Rule 3.850 hearings before the state trial court. At this time, defense experts Drs. Robert Phillips and Joyce Carbonell testified, and Dr. Harry Krop issued a report concluding that Oats was mentally retarded with organic brain damage. 11 They also opined that Oats was incompetent to stand trial in 1980, 12 incompetent at resentencing in 1984, and incapable of knowingly waiving his Miranda rights at the time of his confessions. However, the conclusions reached by the defense experts were challenged by Drs. Charles Mutter and Leonard Haber, who testified on behalf of the State at the Rule 3.850 hearings. Drs. Mutter and Haber contradicted the defense experts concerning...

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