239 F.3d 626 (4th Cir. 2001), 99-7007, Spencer v Sutton

Docket Nº:99-7007.
Citation:239 F.3d 626
Party Name:CLIFTON E. SPENCER, PETITIONER-APPELLANT, V. ERNEST SUTTON, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.
Case Date:February 07, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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239 F.3d 626 (4th Cir. 2001)

CLIFTON E. SPENCER, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,

V.

ERNEST SUTTON, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.

No. 99-7007.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 7, 2001

Argued: September 28, 2000.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh.

W. Earl Britt, Senior District Judge. (CA-99-46-5-2BR)

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Argued: Letitia C. Echols, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, Inc., Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant. Clarence Joe DelForge, III, Assistant Attorney General, North Carolina Department OF Justice, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

On Brief: Michael F. Easley, Attorney General, North Carolina Department OF Justice, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before Luttig and King, Circuit Judges, and Hamilton, Senior Circuit Judge.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Luttig wrote the majority opinion, in which Senior Judge Hamilton joined. Judge King wrote a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

Luttig, Circuit Judge

Clifton Spencer pled no contest to the murder of Stacy Stanton. The district court dismissed Spencer's subsequent petition for a writ of habeas corpus as untimely, and he now appeals. Although for different reasons than those relied upon by the district court, we also conclude that Spencer's petition was untimely. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I.

Stacy Stanton was found dead on her living room floor on February 3, 1990. She was sprawled on her mattress, with over sixteen stab wounds to her body. J.A. 349-52. Based on information that Spencer planned to visit the victim on the night of her murder, police questioned Spencer, who made numerous incriminating statements. J.A. 176-78, 356-62. Spencer was later indicted for first-degree murder, and the prosecutor announced his intention to seek the death penalty. J.A. 196.

On January 9, 1991, based on advice from his mother and his attorney, Spencer pled no contest to a charge of second-degree murder, the sentence for which was life imprisonment. Thereafter, Spencer filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) in North Carolina state court, in which he raised several claims, including ineffective assistance of counsel. After an evidentiary hearing, the court denied the MAR, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals subsequently denied Spencer's certiorari petition. J.A. 51, 75.

Spencer did not pursue further collateral relief for almost three years following the Court of Appeals' June 3, 1994, denial of certiorari. Then, on April 23, 1997, Spencer filed a second MAR in Dare County Superior Court. Based on the statement of a witness who had contacted his attorney in July 1995, nearly two years earlier, Spencer alleged in his second MAR that the state, in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), had failed to disclose the names of witnesses who made exculpatory statements. J.A. 76-79. The court denied Spencer's second motion for appropriate relief on June 17, 1997. Spencer filed a certiorari petition to the North Carolina Court of Appeals on June 23, 1997, and an evidentiary hearing was ordered. J.A. 97-116.

Because Spencer had not filed his second motion for appropriate relief until the day before the one-year limitations period

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ran on his right to file a federal habeas petition, he was concerned that, due to the time necessary to receive notification of state court action by the ordinary mail, he would not learn of any state court order denying him relief before the remaining day of the federal filing period lapsed. Therefore, Spencer filed a motion in federal court for a fourteen-day extension of the one-year statute of limitations. The district court granted the extension on February 3, 1998. J.A. 124-27.

Following the state evidentiary hearing on Spencer's Brady claim, the state court denied Spencer's second MAR on April 24, 1998. J.A. 128-30. On May 6, 1998, Spencer filed a motion for preparation of a transcript, and, on May 13, 1998, a certiorari petition to the North Carolina Court of Appeals together with a motion to amend the petition after receipt of the transcript. J.A. 132-38. Several weeks later, the Court of Appeals dismissed the petition without prejudice to refile after receipt of the transcript. J.A. 193. Spencer eventually received the transcript and, on September 18, 1998, filed a motion for ruling on a claim of newly discovered evidence, which was denied on December 9, 1998. J.A. 140-44, 191.

Spencer then filed a certiorari petition to the North Carolina Court of Appeals on December 18, 1998. That court denied the petition on January 13, 1999, thus exhausting Spencer's state remedies. J.A. 192. And, six days later, on January 19, 1999, Spencer filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, in which he claimed that his counsel was ineffective and that the prosecution failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. J.A. 12-38.

The federal district court held that Spencer's habeas petition was untimely because the one-year statute of limitations applicable to habeas petitions in the federal courts was not tolled during the more than fifteen days that elapsed between the various denials of Spencer's claims and the resulting filings of appeal over the course of his pursuit of his second MAR. Thus, reasoned the district court, even though the statute of limitations was equitably tolled for fourteen days, Spencer was still tardy in the filing of his habeas petition. J.A. 406-12, 424-25. This appeal followed.

II.

The timeliness of Spencer's habeas petition is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).1 The AEDPA was signed into law on April 24, 1996, and became effective immediately. It provides in relevant part as follows:

A 1-year period of limitation shall apply to an application for writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court. The limitation period shall run from the latest of -

(A) the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review....

28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). For prisoners like Spencer, whose criminal convictions preceded enactment of the AEDPA, the limitations period began to run with the AEDPA's effective date on April 24, 1996, and ended on April 24, 1997. Hernandez v. Caldwell, 225 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2000).

Here, as noted, the district court equitably tolled the AEDPA's oneyear limitations

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period for fourteen days. The court nonetheless dismissed Spencer's petition as untimely, holding that the statute was not tolled during the days (in excess of 15) between the various state court denials of the claims raised by Spencer in his second motion for relief and his appeals from those denials.

If the district court was incorrect in its decision not to toll the statute during the fifteen or more total days between the state denials of Spencer's claims and Spencer's appeals from those denials, then Spencer's habeas petition was timely filed, assuming the court was correct in its decision to equitably toll the statute of limitations for fourteen days. Paradoxically, however, if the district court was incorrect not only in its decision not to toll during the so-called "gaps" between state proceedings, but also in its decision equitably to toll the statute for the fourteen days to accommodate the ordinary mails, then the court was correct in its ultimate conclusion that Spencer's petition was untimely.

For the reasons that follow, we hold that the district court actually did err in both of its tolling decisions, and therefore that Spencer had only one day after the final disposition of his second state MAR in which to file his federal habeas petition. Because he filed his habeas petition six days after the state court finally disposed of his motion, his petition was, in fact, untimely.

A.

As to the district court's decision not to toll the statute of limitations during the times between a state court's denial of Spencer's claims and Spencer's appeal from that denial, the AEDPA provides as follows:

The time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending shall not be counted toward any period of limitation under this subsection. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2). The district court held that this provision only authorizes the tolling of the statute during times when an application for relief was literally pending in a state tribunal and does not authorize tolling during times between the denial of a claim by a state court and the appeal from that denial. Although it was entirely reasonable for the district court to have so held, we held subsequent to the district court's decision, in Hernandez v. Caldwell, that the limitations period is tolled from the time an application for state post-conviction or other collateral review is initially filed until it is finally disposed of by the state courts, including during times between denials of claims and appeals. 225 F.3d at 438. Therefore, the district court erred in not tolling the statute of limitations...

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