Gaskin v. Secretary, Dept. of Corrections

Decision Date03 August 2007
Docket NumberNo. 06-12351.,06-12351.
Citation494 F.3d 997
PartiesLouis B. GASKIN, Petitioner-Appellant, v. SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Attorney General, State of Florida, Respondents-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Scott Andrew Browne, Tampa, FL, for Respondents-Appellees.

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

Before TJOFLAT, BLACK and WILSON, Circuit Judges.


Louis B. Gaskin ("Gaskin"), a death-sentenced inmate in the Florida prison system, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus challenging his state court convictions for two counts of first degree murder one count of attempted first degree murder with a firearm, and two counts of burglary of a dwelling with a firearm. The district court denied Gaskin's petition on numerous grounds. We granted a certificate of appealability on three issues: (1) whether Gaskin was denied the effective assistance of counsel in the penalty phase of his trial based on counsel's failure to investigate and present mitigation evidence and to address statutory mitigating circumstances in closing argument; (2) whether Gaskin was denied a fair and impartial jury when the trial court denied his motions to change venue due to pervasive and prejudicial pretrial publicity; and (3) whether Florida's capital sentencing statute is unconstitutional on its face and as applied, and whether this claim is procedurally defaulted.1 After a thorough review of the record, and after having the benefit of oral argument, we affirm the district court's denial.


The Florida Supreme Court summarized the factual background in Gaskin's direct appeal:

The convictions arise from events occurring on the night of December 20, 1989, when Gaskin drove from Bunnell to Palm Coast and spotted a light in the house of the victims, Robert and Georgette Sturmfels. Gaskin parked his car in the woods and, with a loaded gun, approached the house. Through a window he saw the Sturmfels sitting in their den. After circling the house a number of times, Gaskin shot Mr. Sturmfels twice through the window. As Mrs. Sturmfels rose to leave the room, Gaskin shot her and then shot Mr. Sturmfels a third time. Mrs. Sturmfels crawled into the hallway, and Gaskin pursued her around the house until he saw her through the door and shot her again. Gaskin then pulled out a screen, broke the window, and entered the home. He fired one more bullet into each of the Sturmfels' heads and covered the bodies with blankets. Gaskin then went through the house taking lamps, video cassette recorders, some cash, and jewelry.

Gaskin then proceeded to the home of Joseph and Mary Rector, whom he again spied through a window sitting in their den. While Gaskin cut their phone lines, the Rectors went to bed and turned out the lights. In an effort to roust Mr. Rector, Gaskin threw a log and some rocks at the house. When Mr. Rector rose to investigate, Gaskin shot him from outside the house. The Rectors managed to get to their car and drive to the hospital in spite of additional shots fired at their car as they sped away. Gaskin then burglarized the house.

Gaskin's involvement in the shootings was brought to the attention of the authorities by Alfonso Golden, cousin of Gaskin's girlfriend. The night of the murders, Gaskin had appeared at Golden's home and asked to leave some "Christmas presents." Gaskin told Golden that he had "jacked" the presents and left the victims "stiff." Golden learned of the robberies and murders after watching the news and called the authorities to report what he knew. The property that had been left with Golden was subsequently identified as belonging to the Sturmfels.

Gaskin was arrested on December 30, and a search of Gaskin's home produced more of the stolen items. After signing a rights-waiver form, Gaskin confessed to the crimes and directed the authorities to further evidence of the crime in a nearby canal.

The jury found Gaskin guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the death of Robert Sturmfels (premeditated and felony murder); two counts of first-degree murder in the death of Georgette Sturmfels (premeditated and first-degree murder); one count of armed robbery of the Sturmfels; one count of burglary of the Sturmfels' home; one count of attempted first-degree murder of Joseph Rector; one count of armed robbery of the Rectors; and one count of burglary of the Rector's home. The jury found Gaskin not guilty of attempted first-degree murder of Mary Rector.

During the penalty phase . . . [t]he defense introduced the testimony of Janet Morris, Gaskin's cousin, who testified that she and Gaskin were raised by their great-grandparents, who were very strict, and that Gaskin never gave any-one any trouble during his formative years. The jury recommended death for both murders by a vote of eight to four. In addition to the penalty phase testimony, the judge was given a certified judgment and sentence for an unrelated burglary, a copy of Gaskin's statement, and a copy of a psychiatric report by Dr. Jack Rotstein to consider in sentencing Gaskin.

Gaskin v. State (Gaskin I), 591 So.2d 917, 918-19 (Fla.1991).

Following an unsuccessful direct appeal,2 Gaskin pursued post-conviction relief in state court pursuant to Fla. R.Crim. P. 3.850. The trial court denied his petition without conducting an evidentiary hearing. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing on Gaskin's ineffective assistance of counsel claims, but affirmed on all other issues. Gaskin v. State (Gaskin II), 737 So.2d 509, 518 (Fla. 1999) (per curiam). On remand, the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing and denied relief. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed, finding that (1) defense counsel's decision not to present mental health evidence in mitigation was a reasonable strategic decision; (2) any deficiency in counsel's failure to provide the mental health expert with Gaskin's school record was not prejudicial; and (3) defense counsel's penalty phase closing argument did not amount to ineffective assistance. Gaskin v. State (Gaskin III), 822 So.2d 1243, 1249-52 (Fla.2002) (per curiam). Gaskin then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court, which denied his petition without holding an evidentiary hearing.


"When reviewing the district court's denial of a habeas petition, we review questions of law and mixed questions of law and fact de novo, and findings of fact for clear error." Nyland v. Moore, 216 F.3d 1264, 1266 (11th Cir.2000) (per curiam). Because Gaskin's petition was filed after the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), we, in essence, review the decisions of the state courts. Pursuant to the AEDPA:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim —

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Furthermore, a state court's factual findings are presumed correct, unless rebutted by the petitioner with clear and convincing evidence. Id. § 2254(e)(1).

Under the contrary to clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than the Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Under the unreasonable application clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case. Under either standard the appropriate measuring stick is clearly established federal law, which means the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of the Supreme Court's decisions as of the time of the relevant state court decision.

Williams v. Allen, 458 F.3d 1233, 1238 (11th Cir.2006) (quoting Schwab v. Crosby, 451 F.3d 1308, 1310 (11th Cir.2006)).

I. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Gaskin argues that trial counsel's representation was ineffective during the penalty phase because he failed to adequately investigate school and medical records; failed to provide this information to Dr. Krop, who had been retained by defense counsel as a mental health expert; failed to call Dr. Krop or any other mental health expert to testify at trial; and failed to mention any statutory mitigation evidence in his closing argument.

The clearly established federal law for ineffective assistance of counsel claims was set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). To establish a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, first, "the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient . . . [which] requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the `counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Id. at 687, 104 S.Ct. at 2064. Second, the defendant must show that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced him. Id. That is, "[t]he defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694, 104 S.Ct. at 2068. Furthermore, the...

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