Lee v. Thomas

Decision Date30 May 2012
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION 10-0587-WS-M
PartiesJEFFERY LEE, Petitioner, v. KIM THOMAS, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Alabama

This matter comes before the Court on petitioner Jeffery Lee's Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by Person in State Custody under Death Sentence (doc. 1). Both parties have submitted extensive filings setting forth their respective positions as to the 12 grounds and dozens of subgrounds for habeas relief identified in the Petition. That Petition is now ripe for consideration.

I. Background.
A. The Offense Conduct.

On the morning of December 12, 1998, after an all-night binge of drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and ingesting cocaine, Jeffery Lee went with his brother and cousin to Jimmy's Pawn Shop, just outside of Orrville, Alabama. The ostensible purpose of this outing was for Lee to purchase a ring for his girlfriend. Upon entering the shop, Lee perused the jewelry on display. He asked one of the employees, Helen King, about wedding rings, and told her that he did not have any money, but that he would come back when he got money from his grandmother. Lee then purchased a pint of liquor and left the premises. The three men drove up the street and parked the car, at which time Lee consumed the liquor and smoked a marijuana cigarette laced with cocaine.

Minutes later, they returned to Jimmy's Pawn Shop. This time, things were different. Lee walked into the shop and exclaimed, "What's up motherfucker?" Without warning, and before anyone in the store could react, he immediately raised a sawed-off shotgun and firedrepeatedly and without hesitation at the store's owner, Jimmy Ellis, and its two employees, King and Elaine Thompson.1 Lee then milled about the shop. He approached the cash register and attempted to dislodge it, but was unsuccessful. When Lee finally walked out of Jimmy's Pawn Shop, he left the murder weapon sitting on the store's counter. He also left a trail of bloody carnage in his wake. Ellis lay dead of multiple shotgun blasts, including a fatal shot to the chest. Thompson lay dead of a shotgun blast to the face at close range. The third victim, King, was wounded, but still alive. She lay on the floor and pretended to be dead until Lee left the store, at which time King got up, locked the front door, and called 911. Lee returned and attempted to enter the store again (presumably to retrieve the shotgun); however, he could not do so because the door was locked.2 Lee was long gone from the crime scene by the time authorities arrived.

Lee and his two associates (who had been waiting outside during the killings) visited briefly with family members, then fled to Newnan, Georgia, where they rented a motel room. Later that day, Lee parted company with his brother and cousin. Those individuals returned home to Alabama, while Lee remained holed up in the hotel. Lee was apprehended by law enforcement officers at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of December 13, 1998, in Coweta County, Georgia, and signed a written confession shortly thereafter.3

B. Procedural History.

Lee was charged in the Circuit Court of Dallas County, Alabama, with the murders of Jimmy Ellis and Elaine Thompson, as well as the attempted murder of Helen King. The murder charges were capital in nature pursuant to Alabama Code §§ 13A-5-40(a)(2) and (10), inasmuch as Lee was charged to have committed those offenses during a robbery or attempted robbery, andto have murdered two or more persons by one act or pursuant to a single scheme or course of conduct. Local attorneys Michael Jackson and Joseph Hagood were appointed to represent him.

1. Trial, Verdict and Death Sentence.

Multiple Alabama courts, including the trial judge and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, characterized the evidence against Lee in the guilt phase of the trial to be "overwhelming." (Vol. 22, R-79, at 2 ("Having presided at Lee's trial, this Court finds the evidence of Lee's guilt was overwhelming."); R-80, at 17 ("the evidence presented against Lee in the guilt phase was overwhelming").) On April 12, 2000, a jury in the Circuit Court of Dallas County, Alabama returned a unanimous verdict of guilty against Lee on all four counts, including the three counts of capital murder in connection with the killings of Ellis and Thompson. (Vol. 1, R-1 at 5; Vol. 4, R-16 at 412-13.)4 During the penalty phase, defense counsel called Lee's father, his uncle, his aunt, and his mother, and invoked expert testimony from the guilt phase concerning Lee's limited mental capacity. After deliberating for just over an hour, the jury returned a recommendation by a vote of 7 to 5 that Lee be sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without parole. (Vol. 4, R-26 at 460.) The trial judge conducted a separate sentencing hearing without a jury on September 22, 2000, at which time he heard testimony from the victims' family members, from the surviving victim (King), and from Lee's family members. (Vol. 1, R-1 at 6; Vol. 4, R-27 at 461-88.)

On October 11, 2000, Circuit Judge Jack Meigs announced on the record his judgment that Lee be sentenced to death for these crimes.5 In an accompanying written order, the trial judge explained that the only statutory aggravating factor proven beyond a reasonable doubt was that set forth in Alabama Code § 13A-5-49(4), inasmuch as Lee had committed the capitaloffenses while engaged in an attempt to commit robbery. (Vol. 22, R-74 at 2-3.)6 The trial judge also considered each of seven statutory mitigating factors (including lack of criminal history and defendant's relatively young age), as well as defendant's evidence of non-statutory mitigating circumstances (limited mental capacity, status as a father of two small children, post-capture cooperation and remorse, status as a good employee, and his family's love and support). (Id. at 5-6.) After consideration of the aggravating circumstance and the statutory and non-statutory mitigating circumstances, and after due consideration of the jury's recommendation of life without parole by a 7-5 vote, Judge Meigs concluded "that the aggravating circumstance outweighs the mitigating circumstances. It is therefore the judgment of the Court that the defendant be punished by death for the capital offenses for which he was convicted." (Id. at 6.)

2. Direct Appeal.

Antecedent to Lee's direct appeal, Jackson and Hagood withdrew as counsel of record, and Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama was appointed to represent Lee on appeal. (Vol. 1, R-2 at 128-32.) On October 11, 2000, Stevenson filed a notice of appeal on Lee's behalf. (Id. at 133.) The ensuing direct appeal challenged Lee's convictions and death sentence.

Initially, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the matter to the Circuit Court with instructions that the trial judge enter an amended sentencing order stating specific reasons for giving the jury's recommendation the consideration he gave it.7 Pursuant to this remand, on October 31, 2001, Judge Meigs entered an Amended Sentencing Order, stating that (i) he was "extremely mindful of the jury's recommendation," but (ii) "[i]t appeared clear to the Court that the aggravating circumstance outweighed the mitigating circumstances beyond areasonable doubt." (Vol. 22, R-75 at 1.)8 He further opined that, in his view, "[t]his case deserves the death penalty," and noted that he had compared Lee's actions and the surrounding facts to similar cases, and that the sentence was proportionate to sentences in other capital convictions in Alabama for commission of murder during a robbery. (Id. at 2.)

On June 27, 2003, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued an extensive opinion (the Westlaw printout of that ruling spans 93 pages) adjudicating the more than 30 grounds for direct appeal raised by Lee. (Vol. 22, R-76.) The state appellate court concluded by affirming Lee's convictions and sentences in their entirety. Subsequent petitions for rehearing in the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, for writ of certiorari in the Alabama Supreme Court, and for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court were all denied. (Vol. 22, R-76 through R-78.)

3. Rule 32 Proceedings.

His direct appeal having failed, Lee turned his attention to state post-conviction proceedings. In particular, he filed a Rule 32 petition in the Dallas County Circuit Court in February 2005, and filed an amended Rule 32 petition in April 2005. (Vol. 13, R-62 and R-63.)9 In its final configuration, Lee's Rule 32 petition raised more than three dozen assignments of error, including, inter alia, 25 separate grounds for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim and 10 constitutional attacks on Alabama's death penalty scheme, both on its face and as applied. On August 28, 2007, Judge Meigs issued a 138-page opinion denying Lee's amended Rule 32 petition in its entirety. (Vol. 22, R-79.) In so doing, he concluded that "the allegations in Lee's amended Rule 32 petition are either deficiently pleaded, fail to state a claim, are directly refuted by the record or are otherwise without merit, or are precluded from postconviction review." (Id. at 137-38.) Lee once again appealed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals; however, on October 9, 2009, that appellate court entered a 32-page order affirming the Circuit Court'ssummary denial of the postconviction petition, without granting an evidentiary hearing. (Vol. 22, R-80.) Lee's petitions for rehearing and for writ of certiorari were subsequently denied. (Id.)

4. Habeas Corpus Petition.

On October 21, 2010, Lee timely filed in this District Court his § 2254 Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus by Person in State Custody under Death Sentence.10 The lengthy § 2254 Petition asserts 12 grounds for federal habeas corpus relief (along with countless embedded sub-grounds and sub-issues), including the following: (i) violation of Batson...

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