163 F.3d 860 (4th Cir. 1998), 98-14, Williams v. Taylor

Docket Nº:98-14, 98-16.
Citation:163 F.3d 860
Party Name:Terry WILLIAMS, Petitioner-Appellee, v. John TAYLOR, Warden, Sussex I State Prison, Respondent-Appellant. Terry Williams, Petitioner-Appellant, v. John Taylor, Warden, Sussex I State Prison, Respondent-Appellee.
Case Date:December 18, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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163 F.3d 860 (4th Cir. 1998)

Terry WILLIAMS, Petitioner-Appellee,

v.

John TAYLOR, Warden, Sussex I State Prison, Respondent-Appellant.

Terry Williams, Petitioner-Appellant,

v.

John Taylor, Warden, Sussex I State Prison, Respondent-Appellee.

Nos. 98-14, 98-16.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

December 18, 1998

Argued Sept. 24, 1998.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED: Robert Quentin Harris, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant. Ellen O. Boardman, O'Donoghue & O'Donoghue, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mark L. Earley, Attorney General of Virginia, Office of the Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant. Brian A. Powers, Dinah S. Leventhal, O'Donoghue & O'Donoghue, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

Before WIDENER, WILLIAMS, and MICHAEL, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed in part and reversed in part by published opinion. Judge WILLIAMS wrote the opinion, in which Judge WIDNER and Judge MICHAEL joined.

OPINION

WILLIAMS, Circuit Judge:

On September 30, 1986, a Virginia jury convicted Terry Williams of the capital murder of Harris Thomas Stone. Following the jury's determination that Williams presented a future danger to society, the trial court sentenced Williams to death. After exhausting all available state remedies, Williams petitioned the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for habeas corpus relief. See 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254 (West Supp.1998). The district court ordered that the writ be granted on the ground that Williams's trial counsel were ineffective because they failed to present certain evidence in mitigation of punishment during the sentencing phase of Williams's trial. The remaining allegations in Williams's habeas petition were dismissed.

On appeal, the Commonwealth contends that the writ was erroneously granted. 1 We

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agree. The Virginia Supreme Court's conclusion that Williams's trial counsel were not ineffective during the sentencing phase of Williams's trial was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Supreme Court precedent. As a result, Williams is not entitled to habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). 2 See 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254(d) (West Supp.1998). Moreover, we conclude that none of the claims raised in Williams's cross-appeal provide a basis for federal habeas relief. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I.

As recited by the Virginia Supreme Court, the undisputed facts areas follows:

Stone, an elderly man who resided on Henry Street in Danville, was found dead in his bed shortly before 2:00 a.m. Sunday, November 3, 1985. There was no sign of a struggle, no blood was observed on Stone's body, and he was fully clothed. Despite a diligent search, Stone's wallet, which he customarily kept fastened in the back pocket of his pants, was never found.

The local medical examiner, who examined the body [at] about 9:30 that Sunday morning, noted an abrasion on the chest, but no bruising. Stone's history of heart disease and the police failure to report anything suspicious about the circumstances of Stone's death led the local medical examiner to conclude that Stone's death was due to heart failure. However, when Stone's blood alcohol content was later analyzed and was reported to be 0.41%, the regional medical examiner's office in Roanoke amended the finding of the cause of death to alcohol poisoning. Stone's daughter testified Stone looked "a little high" when she last saw him entering his house shortly after 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, November 2, 1985.

When the funeral director, Jack Miller, observed Stone's body on Monday morning, he called a bruise or abrasion over the left ribs to the attention of the police. The police told Miller that the local medical examiner believed the bruise was an old one. Though Miller disagreed with the local medical examiner, on instructions from the police he embalmed the body.

Almost six months later, the chief of police in Danville received an anonymous letter from an inmate of the local jail in which the author admitted killing "that man Who Die on Henry St." The police interviewed Williams, an inmate of the Danville jail at the time, who eventually admitted that he had written the letter and later gave multiple confessions to the murder and robbery of Stone. Williams said he had first struck Stone in the chest, and later on his back, with a mattock and had removed three dollars from Stone's wallet.

Stone's body was exhumed. On July 2, 1986 Dr. David Oxley, a forensic pathologist and Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for Western Virginia, performed an autopsy. When Dr. Oxley opened the body, he found Stone's fourth and fifth ribs on the left side had been fractured and displaced inward, puncturing the left lung and depositing a quantity of blood in the left chest cavity.

Williams v. Commonwealth, 234 Va. 168, 360 S.E.2d 361, 363-64 (Va.1987).

After a jury trial in the Circuit Court of the City of Danville, Virginia, Williams was convicted of the capital murder of Mr. Stone. Based on its finding of future dangerousness, see Va.Code Ann. § 19.2-264.4(c) (Michie Supp.1998), the jury recommended that Williams be sentenced to death. Following the jury's recommendation, the trial court sentenced Williams to death. On direct appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed

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Williams's conviction and death sentence. See Williams, 360 S.E.2d at 363-64. The United States Supreme Court denied Williams's petition for a writ of certiorari. See Williams v. Virginia, 484 U.S. 1020, 108 S.Ct. 733, 98 L.Ed.2d 681 (1988).

Williams filed a habeas corpus petition in the Danville Circuit Court on August 26, 1988. After a hearing, the Danville Circuit Court dismissed the majority of Williams's claims. Almost seven years later, Williams amended his habeas petition to include several claims that his trial counsel were ineffective. In June 1995, the Danville Circuit Court held an evidentiary hearing on the issue of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

Prior to any action on the hearing, however, jurisdiction over the habeas petition was transferred to the Virginia Supreme Court. See Va.Code Ann. § 8.01-654(C)(1) (Michie Supp.1998) (providing that the Virginia Supreme Court has "exclusive jurisdiction" to consider writs of habeas corpus with respect to prisoners under a death sentence). By order dated May 6, 1996, the Virginia Supreme Court directed the Danville Circuit Court to report its findings of fact and conclusions of law relating to the ineffective assistance of counsel claims addressed at the June 1995 evidentiary hearing. See id. (providing that the circuit court that entered the sentence of death may conduct an evidentiary hearing "only if directed to do so by order of the Supreme Court").

On August 15, 1996, the Danville Circuit Court forwarded its Findings of Fact and Recommended Conclusions of Law (the Report) to the Virginia Supreme Court. The Danville Circuit Court found that trial counsel's "performance at the guilt phase of the trial was both professional and competent." (J.A. at 1055.) Of particular importance here, the Danville Circuit Court concluded that trial counsel properly handled the court-appointed mental health experts, and that lead trial counsel, E.L. Motley, was not suffering from a mental impairment during the course of his representation of Williams.

The Danville Circuit Court did conclude, however, that trial counsel's failure to present certain mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial warranted relief. Specifically, the Danville Circuit Court found that trial counsel failed to investigate and present (1) Williams's juvenile commitment records from the Beaumont Correctional Center, (2) records, including statements from Williams's siblings, that provided a summary of Williams's early home life, (3) the testimony of Williams's estranged wife and eleven-year-old daughter, and (4) the testimony of Williams's friend Bruce Elliot. According to the Report, had this evidence been developed and presented at the sentencing phase of Williams's trial, the jury would have learned that Williams "had a deprived and abused upbringing; that he may have been a neglected and mistreated child; that he came from an alcoholic family; and that he was borderline mentally retarded." (J.A. at 1059-60). Continuing, the Report stated that the evidence in question would have shown that Williams's "conduct had been good in certain structured settings in his life (such as when he was incarcerated) and ... that he had redeeming qualities." (J.A. at 1060.) In summary, the Danville Circuit Court found that the mitigating evidence probably would have been given weight by at least one member of the jury. Because one juror would have been the difference between life and death, the Report ultimately concluded that Williams was prejudiced by trial counsel's failure to make use of the mitigating evidence.

Both the Commonwealth and Williams filed objections to the Report. The Commonwealth argued that trial counsel were not ineffective during the sentencing phase of Williams's trial for making a tactical decision not to introduce evidence that was just as likely to operate to Williams's disadvantage. Williams, in contrast, argued that the Danville Circuit Court erred in finding that his trial counsel were effective during the guilt phase of his trial. On January 13, 1997, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered briefing and argument on the one issue that the Danville Circuit Court found warranted relief, and adopted the Danville Circuit Court's recommendation that the other claims be dismissed.

On June 6, 1997, the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Danville Circuit Court's finding that trial counsel's failure

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to present certain...

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