Barnette v. United States, 3:12-cv-327

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Western District of North Carolina
Writing for the CourtMax O. Cogburn Jr. United States District Judge
Decision Date12 March 2021
Docket Number3:12-cv-327,3:97-cr-23




March 12, 2021


THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Petitioner Aquilia Marcivicci Barnette's motion to vacate sentence filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on June 19, 2013 (Doc. 48), motion for evidentiary hearing filed on December 22, 2014 (Doc. 73), and motion to supplement the motion to vacate, filed on June 24, 2016. (Doc. 119). For the reasons set forth below, the motions are denied.


This Court sentenced Petitioner to death following his conviction for various crimes relating to the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Robin Williams, in Roanoke, Virginia, and the carjacking and murder of Donald Lee Allen in Charlotte, North Carolina. United States v. Barnette, Case No. 3:97-cr-23. Petitioner first attempted to kill Williams by firebombing her apartment in Roanoke in April 1996, causing her to suffer second and third-degree burns. Following his return to Charlotte, Petitioner later purchased a shotgun which he used to carjack and murder Allen shortly before midnight on June 21, 1996, before driving on to Roanoke. After arriving at the home of Williams' mother, Petitioner entered the home and fired shots, chased Williams out of the home, and ultimately shot and killed Williams in front of her mother.

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Petitioner was convicted of the following 11 counts: (1) interstate domestic violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2261(a) & (b); (2) use of a destructive device (firebomb), during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1); (3) using and carrying fire and explosive materials during commission of felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 844(h)(1); (4) making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6) & 924; (5) making a firearm by sawing off shotgun without complying with National Firearms Act, in violation of 26 § 5821, 5822, 5861(f), 5871; (6) possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a felony, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) & 924; (7) commission of carjacking resulting in death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119(3); (8) using and carrying firearm during crime of violence (carjacking) resulting in death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) & (i)2(1); (9) transporting stolen vehicle in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2312; (10) interstate domestic violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2261(a)(1) & (b)(1); and (11) using and carrying a firearm during crime of violence (interstate domestic violence) resulting in death, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1) & (i)2(1). No witnesses disputed the facts at trial and Petitioner was found guilty of all 11 counts. Following a separate penalty phase trial, the jury recommended a death sentence on Counts 7, 8, and 11, with an aggregate term of life imprisonment on the remaining non-capital counts.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions but vacated the death sentence and remanded for resentencing due to the Court's refusing to allow expert surrebuttal testimony during the penalty phase. United States v. Barnette, 211 F.3d 803, 825-826 (4th Cir. 2000). Following a second penalty phase trial in 2002, Petitioner was again sentenced to death on Counts 7, 8, and 11, which the appellate court affirmed. United States v. Barnette, 390 F.3d 775 (4th Cir. 2004). Upon certiorari review, the Supreme Court vacated Petitioner's death

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sentence and remanded the matter for further consideration in light of Miller-El v. Dretke,1 545 U.S. 231, 125 S.Ct. 2317, 162 L.Ed.2d 196 (2005). Barnette v. United States, 546 U.S. 803, 126 S.Ct. 92, 163 L.Ed.2d 32 (2005). Following a limited hearing and in camera review of jury questionnaires and notes, this Court reaffirmed its ruling that the prosecution's peremptory strikes did not constitute any Batson violation. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision, United States v. Barnette, 644 F.3d 192 (4th Cir. 2011), and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari review. Barnette v. United States, 565 U.S. 1263, 132 S.Ct. 1740, 182 L.Ed.2d 534 (2012).

On June 19, 2013, Petitioner filed his motion to vacate sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, raising the following claims: 1) ineffective assistance of counsel; 2) improperly conducted Batson proceeding; 3) misconduct related to the jury; 4) constitutional violation resulting from decision to federally prosecute; 5) prosecutorial violations; 6) unconstitutionality of federal death penalty; 7) unconstitutionality of manner of federal execution; and 8) cumulative error. (Doc. 48). Petitioner seeks an evidentiary hearing on his motion. (Doc. 73). On June 24, 2016, Petitioner moved to supplement his motion with additional claims challenging his convictions in Counts 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, and 11. (Doc. 119).

These matters have been fully briefed and are now ripe for disposition.


A prisoner convicted of a federal offense may collaterally attack a conviction or sentence under the following four grounds: 1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; 2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence; 3) the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law; or 4) the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Section § 2255 is designed to correct fundamental errors

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which would "inherently result[ ] in a complete miscarriage of justice." United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185, 99 S.Ct. 2235, 60 L.Ed.2d 805 (1979)(quoting Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S.Ct. 468, 471, 7 L.Ed.2d 417 (1962)). In a § 2255 proceeding, the petitioner bears the burden of proving his claims by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958).


A. Necessity for Evidentiary Hearing

The court need not hold an evidentiary hearing on a § 2255 motion if "the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief." 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). The determination of whether to hold an evidentiary hearing is ordinarily left to the sound discretion of the court. Raines v. United States, 423 F.2d 526, 530 (4th Cir. 1970). "Evidentiary hearings on § 2255 petitions are the exception, not the norm, and there is a heavy burden on the petitioner to demonstrate an evidentiary hearing is warranted." Moreno-Morales v. United States, 334 F.3d 140, 145 (1st Cir. 2003). Upon review of Petitioner's § 2255 claims and the record, the Court concludes that an evidentiary hearing is not required. Accordingly, Petitioner's motion for an evidentiary hearing (Doc. 73) is denied.

B. Initial § 2255 Claims

1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Petitioner's ineffective assistance claims are directed at his trial counsel for the 2002 resentencing penalty phase trial.

a. Legal Standard

The right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment includes the "right to the effective assistance of counsel." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80

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L.Ed.2d 674 (1984)(quoting McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 n. 14, 90 S.Ct. 1441, 1449, n. 14, 25 L.Ed.2d 763 (1970)). To successfully challenge a conviction under § 2255 based on ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must satisfy the two-prong test set forth in Strickland, which requires the petitioner show that: (1) "counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness," and (2) counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688, 692.

The first prong requires that petitioner show that counsel's performance was deficient by articulating specific acts or omissions that fell "outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance." Id. at 690. However, when reviewing these alleged acts or omissions, courts must give substantial deference to counsel's strategic judgments. Id. at 691. This requires the presumption that counsel "rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. 12, 22, 134 S.Ct. 10, 187 L.Ed. 348 (2013)(quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). The petitioner must show "that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 104, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011)(quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687)).

To establish prejudice under the second prong, the petitioner must demonstrate that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Strickland, at 694. The petitioner must show that counsel's error worked to his "actual and substantial disadvantage," not merely that it created a "possibility of prejudice." Satcher v. Pruett, 126 F.3d 561, 572 (4th Cir.1997)(quoting Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 494, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 2648 (1986)).

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The court need not analyze both prongs if petitioner makes "an insufficient showing on one." Debreus v. United States, 2012 WL 3686250, *3 (D.S.C. Aug. 24, 2012)(citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697)). Failure to satisfy either prong is fatal to a petitioner's claim. Fields v. Attorney Gen. of Maryland, 956 F.2d 1290, 1297 (4th Cir. 1992)).

b. Failure to Conduct Adequate Investigation

Petitioner alleges that trial counsel failed to adequately investigate and pursue readily available and important mitigating information about Petitioner's background.

(i). Misuse of Investigative Resources

Petitioner states that a serious reinvestigation into his background was warranted after counsel informed the Court in an ex parte filing that the social history presented at the 1998 trial was "superficial and not-sufficiently in...

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