56 F.3d 662 (5th Cir. 1995), 93-3773, James v. Cain

Docket Nº:93-3773.
Citation:56 F.3d 662
Party Name:Ronnie JAMES, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Burl CAIN, Acting Warden, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Respondent-Appellee.
Case Date:June 20, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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56 F.3d 662 (5th Cir. 1995)

Ronnie JAMES, Petitioner-Appellant,


Burl CAIN, Acting Warden, Louisiana State Penitentiary,


No. 93-3773.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 20, 1995

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John H. Craft (Court-appointed), Asst. Federal Public Defender, John T. Mulvehill, Federal Public Defender, New Orleans, LA, for appellant.

Terry Boudreaux, Leigh Anne Wall, Asst. Dist. Attys., Jefferson Parish Dist. Attorney's Office, Gretna, LA, for appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before LAY, 1 DUHE and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

DeMOSS, Circuit Judge:

Petitioner Ronnie James brought this habeas corpus proceeding in the Eastern District of Louisiana claiming that his guilty plea to a second degree murder charge was involuntary due to his attorney misinforming him of the sentencing results of his plea bargain. For the reasons set forth below, we find that the district court erred in dismissing this suit without prejudice. Therefore, we reverse and remand to the district court for a determination of whether James has shown that he will be prejudiced by a dismissal of this petition as abuse of the writ.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Ronnie James, the petitioner in this matter, is currently a prisoner in a Louisiana state penitentiary. In March, 1976, James was convicted of second degree murder after he entered a guilty plea pursuant to a plea bargain. Upon James' conviction, the state court judge sentenced James to life imprisonment without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence for forty years. 2

A dispute as to whether James was properly advised as to the terms and effect of the original plea bargain form the basis of this habeas corpus suit. The parties agree that, at the time of James' offense, a prisoner sentenced to life could not be eligible for parole until the governor of Louisiana commuted the prisoner's life sentence to a fixed term of years. Commutation was a matter of discretion with the governor. 3 The source of James' habeas corpus complaint is his alleged lack of understanding as to the two-step parole process--consisting of commutation of the sentence followed by a parole hearing. James claims that at the time of his sentencing he was unaware of the commutation requirement and understood only that he would become eligible for parole in forty years. He claims that neither the trial judge nor his defense counsel informed him of the commutation requirement. Because James says that he would not have accepted the plea agreement had he been aware of the initial commutation requirement, he claims that he was prejudiced by entering into an uninformed and, hence, involuntary plea agreement. 4

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This is the second federal habeas corpus suit brought by James. In 1985, James sought habeas corpus relief on the ground that he was unaware of the elements of the crime for which he was convicted. Habeas corpus relief was denied in that suit. Because this is the second federal habeas corpus action brought by James, the district court referred this case to a United States magistrate judge to determine whether his second petition should be dismissed as successive. James' explanation for not asserting this ground for habeas corpus relief in his first petition was that he did not become aware of the commutation requirement until after the original habeas corpus proceeding, when he saw a prison memorandum setting forth the requirement.

The magistrate judge in the present proceeding determined that James had shown cause for not raising the commutation issue earlier but that he had failed to show prejudice. Therefore, the magistrate judge recommended that James' petition be dismissed with prejudice. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's report but then dismissed the petition without prejudice. The district court reasoned that, until James had served forty years in prison, no determination could be made as to whether he was prejudiced by his misunderstanding as to the parole procedure during the 1976 plea bargain. Therefore, James could not show he suffered prejudice due to the commutation ground until he had served out the portion of his sentence before which either parole or commutation even became available.

James appeals the dismissal of his habeas corpus petition, claiming that a final determination can be reached now in the suit since he is appealing the voluntariness of his plea agreement and not the capacity of the State to fulfill its promises in that agreement.

II. Discussion

A district court's decision to dismiss a second or subsequent federal habeas corpus petition for abuse of the writ lies within its sound discretion. McGary v. Scott, 27 F.3d 181, 183 (5th Cir.1994). This Court will reverse such a dismissal only if it finds an abuse of that discretion. Sanders v. United States, 373 U.S. 1, 18-19, 83 S.Ct. 1068, 1078-79, 10 L.Ed.2d 148 (1963); McGary, 27 F.3d at 183; Hudson v. Whitley, 979 F.2d 1058, 1062 (5th Cir.1992). A district court abuses its discretion when it bases its decision on an erroneous legal conclusion or on a clearly erroneous finding of fact. McGary, 27 F.3d at 183.

In deciding whether to dismiss a case for abuse of the writ, this Court must apply the same standard used to determine whether to excuse state procedural defaults in a habeas corpus proceeding. McCleskey v. Zant, 499 U.S. 467, 489-90, 111 S.Ct. 1454, 1468, 113 L.Ed.2d 517 (1991); Jones v. Whitley, 938 F.2d 536, 540 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 501 U.S. 1267, 112 S.Ct. 8, 115 L.Ed.2d 1093 (1991). Thus, a petitioner's serial habeas corpus petition must be dismissed as an abuse of the writ unless the petitioner demonstrates that there was "cause" not to have raised the points in a previous federal habeas corpus petition and "prejudice" if the court fails to consider the new point. Jones, 938 F.2d at 540. The cause standard requires that the petitioner show that some objective factor external to the defense impeded the petitioner's efforts to raise the claim in the first proceeding. See id. The independent prejudice standard requires the petitioner to show that he was actually prejudiced by the error of which he complains. Russell v. Collins, 944 F.2d 202, 205 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 501 U.S. 1278, 112 S.Ct. 30, 115 L.Ed.2d 1112 (1991). Prejudice is irrelevant if the petitioner does not show cause; however, once the petitioner does show cause, prejudice must be considered. See Hudson v. Whitley, 979 F.2d 1058, 1064 (5th Cir.1992); Saahir v. Collins, 956 F.2d 115, 118 (5th Cir.1992).

This Court agrees with both the magistrate judge and the district court that James has shown sufficient cause for not raising the commutation ground in his initial federal habeas corpus suit. Such cause is grounded in the fact that James was apparently unaware of the commutation requirement until he saw a prison memorandum about his status after the denial of his first

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federal habeas corpus petition. 5 Therefore, the question for this Court becomes whether or not James has demonstrated sufficient prejudice to establish that he has not engaged in an abuse of the writ.

The petitioner's burden of proving actual prejudice requires showing " 'not merely that the errors at ... trial created a possibility of prejudice, but that they worked to his actual and substantial disadvantage, infecting his entire trial with error of constitutional dimensions.' " Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 494, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 2648, 91 L.Ed.2d 397 (1986) (quoting United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 170, 102 S.Ct. 1584, 1596, 71 L.Ed.2d 816 (1982)) (emphases in original). Stated another way, "[s]uch a showing of pervasive actual prejudice can hardly be thought to constitute anything other than a showing that the prisoner was denied 'fundamental fairness' at trial." Murray 477 U.S. at 494, 106 S.Ct. at 2648; see also Sawyer v. Whitley, 945 F.2d 812, 816 (5th Cir.1991), aff'd, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 2514, 120 L.Ed.2d 269 (1992) ("[p]rejudice requires a showing of actual prejudice amounting to a denial of fundamental fairness").

A federal court will uphold a guilty plea challenged in a habeas corpus proceeding if the plea was knowing, voluntary and intelligent. Hobbs v. Blackburn, 752 F.2d 1079, 1081 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 838, 106 S.Ct. 117, 88 L.Ed.2d 95 (1985). A guilty plea is invalid if the defendant does not understand the nature of the constitutional protection that he is waiving or if he has such an incomplete understanding of the charges against him that his plea cannot stand as an admission of guilt. Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637, 645 n. 13, 96 S.Ct. 2253, 2257 n. 13, 49 L.Ed.2d 108 (1976). The critical issue in determining whether a plea was voluntary and intelligent is "whether the defendant understood the nature and substance of the charges against him, and not necessarily whether he understood their technical legal effect." Taylor v. Whitley, 933 F.2d 325, 329 (5th Cir.1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 988, 112 S.Ct. 1678, 118 L.Ed.2d 395 (1992). If the record shows the defendant "understood the charge and its consequences," this Court will uphold a guilty plea as voluntary even if the trial judge failed to explain the offense. Davis v. Butler, 825 F.2d 892, 893 (5th Cir.1987).

James claims that he suffered prejudice by entering an involuntary plea agreement for three reasons. First, he claims that he suffered prejudice because of a change in Louisiana law which has made...

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