Jones v. Murray

Decision Date01 October 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-4004,90-4004
Citation947 F.2d 1106
PartiesWillie Leroy JONES, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Edward W. MURRAY, Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, Respondent-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Alan William Clarke, Clarke & Clarke, Kilmarnock, Virginia and Gary S. Guzy, Washington, D.C., argued, for petitioner-appellant.

Robert B. Condon, Asst. Atty. Gen., Richmond, Va., argued (Mary Sue Terry, Atty. Gen., Office of the Atty. Gen., on brief), for respondent-appellee.

Before ERVIN, Chief Judge, and WIDENER and WILKINSON, Circuit Judges.


WIDENER, Circuit Judge:

Willie Leroy Jones challenges a Virginia state court judgment sentencing him to death. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. We affirm.

In January 1984, Jones was tried by a jury in York County, Virginia and found guilty of the capital murders of Graham and Myra Adkins. 1 Pursuant to Va.Code Ann. § 19.2-264.2, the jury on each count found that Jones' "conduct in committing the offense is outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or aggravated battery to the victim beyond the minimum necessary to accomplish the act of murder...." The jury fixed his penalty at death and the trial court entered judgment accepting the jury's recommendation and confirming the verdicts. Jones unsuccessfully appealed his conviction and sentence to the Virginia Supreme Court. Jones v. Commonwealth, 228 Va. 427, 323 S.E.2d 554 (1984). The United States Supreme Court denied Jones' petition for a writ of certiorari. Jones v. Virginia, 472 U.S. 1012, 105 S.Ct. 2713, 86 L.Ed.2d 728 (1985).

Jones then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of York County. This petition was denied. The Virginia Supreme Court found no error in the denial and refused Jones' petition for appeal. Jones v. Bair, No. 86-1152 (June 15, 1987). The United States Supreme Court subsequently denied Jones' petition for a writ of certiorari. Jones v. Bair, 484 U.S. 959, 108 S.Ct. 358, 98 L.Ed.2d 383 (1987).

Jones next sought relief in the federal courts and on March 22, 1988 filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The district court referred the matter to a United States Magistrate, who filed a report recommending that the petition be denied and dismissed. In a final order entered on January 4, 1990, the district court denied and dismissed Jones' petition. A motion to alter or amend this judgment was filed by Jones and denied by the district court in an order filed April 9, 1990. This appeal followed.

A brief summary of the facts surrounding the crimes of which Jones was convicted is necessary for an understanding of the issues presented. 2 Testimony given at Jones' trial indicated that at approximately 1:00 p.m. on May 13, 1983, smoke was noticed coming from the home of Graham and Myra Adkins, an elderly couple living in Charles City County. Several persons approached the house and, finding that no one responded to their knocking on the locked front door, broke the door open. They found the body of Mr. Adkins, aged seventy-seven, lying near the door. They succeeded in carrying the body out of the house, but further rescue efforts were prevented by the intensity of the fire and smoke.

When the police and other local authorities later examined the remains of the Adkins' home, they found evidence of petroleum distillates indicating that the fire was of incendiary origin. They found an empty safe in a bedroom and the door of the safe in another room. In addition, the severely burned remains of the seventy-eight year-old Myra Adkins were found in a bedroom closet.

When the authorities examined the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Adkins, they found that both had been shot in the head at close range. Both bodies had also been doused with accelerant. The medical examiner who performed the autopsies on the bodies testified that Mr. Adkins had died within a short interval after a bullet was fired into his face and penetrated his brain. Mrs. Adkins, on the other hand, received a head wound that would not have brought about death for several hours. The medical examiner testified that Mrs. Adkins, who had been placed bound and gagged in the closet, had died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation. Jones had bound and gagged and shot her, set her on fire while she was still living, and left her to die, which she did.

We turn now to the several issues raised on appeal. In asking that we reverse the judgment of the district court, Jones argues that: (I) his trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance; (II) the jury instructions given at the penalty phase of his trial contained a constitutionally infirm aggravating factor; and (III) the jury instructions failed to satisfy constitutional requirements concerning mitigating factors.


Jones' allegation of ineffective assistance involves a number of distinct elements. We will consider each of these claims in turn.

Jones first argues that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to advise him properly with regard to an offered plea agreement. The state habeas court found that on the morning of the first day of Jones' trial, the Commonwealth's Attorney offered Jones' counsel a plea bargain, the essence of which was that Jones, in return for guilty pleas to capital murder and arson charges, would receive two consecutive life terms and some additional time on the arson charge. Counsel communicated this offer to Jones and discussed it with him on at least two occasions. Counsel reviewed with Jones the evidence against him and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution's case. He informed Jones that, in his estimation, there was a seventy percent probability of conviction and a forty to fifty percent chance of receiving the death penalty. He advised Jones that he would probably receive eventual parole if he accepted the plea, but cautioned that the estimates were no more than guesses about future outcomes. The state court found that these estimates were reasonable under the circumstances. Having communicated this information, counsel made no recommendation and left the decision of whether to accept the plea offer to Jones. Jones rejected the offer for the stated reason that he was innocent.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), written findings of historical fact by the state habeas court are presumed to be correct and entitled to deference unless shown to be erroneous by enumerated statutory conditions. Our review of the record as a whole discloses no evidence of such conditions set forth in § 2254(d) and we conclude that the findings of fact by the state court are fairly supported by the record. See Sumner v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539, 550, 101 S.Ct. 764, 770, 66 L.Ed.2d 722 (1981).

In considering Jones' claim that his counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of his death sentence, we follow the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Jones must therefore show that his counsel's performance was so deficient "that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment" and that this deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. at 2064. The first prong of this test requires us to evaluate counsel's performance in light of an "objective standard of 'reasonably effective assistance' under 'prevailing professional norms.' " Briley v. Bass, 750 F.2d 1238, 1247 (4th Cir.1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1088, 105 S.Ct. 1855, 85 L.Ed.2d 152 (1985).

Jones contends that his counsel acted in what he calls a "professionally unreasonable" manner by neither recommending that he accept the plea bargain nor attempting to persuade him to do so. Jones argues that the district court's rejection of this claim was improper in view of prevailing precedent and professional standards. We cannot agree. Our review of the relevant authorities does not support the contention that Jones' counsel violated prevailing professional norms. The American Bar Association's standards, recognized by the Supreme Court as "guides to determining what is reasonable," Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. at 2065, provide the following guidelines concerning the proper relationship between defense counsel and client in the plea agreement context:

(a) Defense counsel should conclude a plea agreement only with the consent of the defendant, and should ensure that the decision whether to enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendere is ultimately made by the defendant.

(b) To aid the defendant in reaching a decision, defense counsel, after appropriate investigation, should advise the client of the alternatives available and of considerations deemed important by defense counsel or the defendant in reaching a decision.

III American Bar Association Standards for Criminal Justice, Standard 14-3.2 (2d ed. 1986 Supp.).

We are in agreement with the conclusion reached in the district court that counsel's performance did not violate professional standards. In accordance with Standard 14-3.2(a), counsel notified his client when he received the plea bargain offer from the Commonwealth's Attorney and informed him of the terms of the offer. Counsel advised his client concerning the available alternative of proceeding with trial, as suggested by Standard 14-3.2(b), and presented an opinion concerning the probable outcomes of both the guilt and sentencing phases that we have found to have been reasonable under the circumstances. See also II American Bar Association Standards for Criminal Justice, Standard 4-5.1 ("[T]he lawyer should advise the accused with complete candor concerning all aspects of the case,...

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