Masterson v. Thaler, CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:09-CV-2731

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Texas
Writing for the CourtKenneth M. Hoyt
PartiesRICHARD ALLEN MASTERSON, Petitioner, v. RICK THALER, Respondent.
Decision Date28 February 2014
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 4:09-CV-2731

RICHARD ALLEN MASTERSON, Petitioner,
v.
RICK THALER, Respondent.

CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:09-CV-2731

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS HOUSTON DIVISION

SIGNED: February 28, 2014


MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Richard Allen Masterson, an inmate in custody of Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division, has filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Masterson challenges his capital conviction and death sentence for killing Darin Shane Honeycutt during a robbery. After considering the record, the pleadings, and the applicable law, the Court finds that Masterson is not entitled to habeas relief. The Court will deny Masterson's petition and will not certify any issue for appellate review.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A brief review of the facts frames the issues Masterson raises on federal habeas review. The victim, who frequented clubs dressed as a woman while using the name "Brandy Houston," was found dead in his apartment bedroom on January 27, 2001. The victim was naked, his body hanging off the edge of his bed with his face resting on the floor. Someone had rummaged through his belongings. His car was missing from the parking lot. A subsequent autopsy determined that the victim had died from asphyxiation. The victim's injuries suggested that

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someone had strangled him using a sleeper hold (where the assailant applies pressure on the victim's neck with the crook of his arm from behind).

Masterson, who had been seen frequenting clubs around the time of the murder, quickly became a suspect. Tr. Vol. 18 at 48.1 After the murder, witnesses saw Masterson driving the victim's car. Masterson also made statements suggesting that he had killed someone. For example, Masterson told his brother's employer: "I think I put somebody to sleep" and then made a motion across his neck. Tr. Vol. 18 at 112-13. Masterson also told his brother that he had put someone "in a headlock 'til he went limp" and that he "put him down[.]" Tr. Vol. 18 at 170, 174. By the time police officers had identified Masterson as a suspect, however, he had fled from Houston in the victim's car.

Within days, police officers in Georgia pulled over Masterson's nephew driving the stolen car. Tr. Vol. 18 at 157. The police found cocaine inside the vehicle. Masterson, however, had already taken a bus to Florida.

A week later, police officers in Florida arrested Masterson who had stolen another car. A Harris county police officer traveled to Florida and interviewed Masterson. After initially denying any involvement in the murder, Masterson confessed. Masterson described how he met the victim and accompanied him to his apartment. The victim anticipated that they would engage in sexual relations; Masterson intended to steal his car. Tr. Vol. 19 at 76-77. Masterson recounted how, when they entered the apartment, the victim undressed. Masterson then

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"grabbed him around the neck" from behind by "put[ting] his throat in the pit of [his] arm, in the joint of [his] elbow[.] Tr. Vol. 19 at 76. The victim "never struggled, never did nothing, just went to sleep." Tr. Vol. 19 at 76. Masterson then pushed him onto the bed, "just said the hell with it, I might as well go all the way with it now," and "grabbed him around the neck[.]" Tr. Vol. 19 at 78. Masterson said he killed the victim because he "needed a car" because he "got tired of being in Houston." Tr. Vol. 19 at 77. Masterson then went through the victim's jewelry box, took the victim's VCR and car keys, and left.

In his police statement, Masterson also confessed that he had committed a similar offense in Florida. Not long after the Texas murder, Masterson met a man in a club and went to his apartment to engage in sexual intercourse. Masterson grabbed the man and strangled him until he passed out. Masterson then stole his car. Masterson later described his second crime: "Pretty much the same thing I did in Houston, except the person didn't die . . . I didn't let the person get undressed this time." Tr. Vol. 19 at 230.

The State of Texas charged Masterson with capital murder during the course of a robbery. Clerk's Record at 9. Trial counsel2 recognized that Masterson's confession was the most damaging evidence against him and made strategic decisions to minimize its impact. Importantly, trial counsel filed a pretrial motion to suppress the police statement. Trial counsel argued that Masterson had invoked his right to counsel and then only confessed after the police officer made certain promises. After a hearing, the trial court held that Masterson's statement could come before the jury.

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The trial of Masterson's guilt was not lengthy. In a three-day guilt/innocence phase, the parties did not dispute that Masterson had been in the victim's apartment when he died. The sole issue for the jury's consideration was Masterson's intent in strangling the victim. The prosecution played Masterson's confession to the jury to prove that he killed to steal the victim's car. Tr. Vol. 19 at 70-89. The prosecution argued that forensic evidence corroborated the prosecution's version of events.

The defense admitted that Masterson had strangled the victim, but claimed that he intended no harm. This defense hinged on Masterson taking the stand and discounting his police statement. Masterson said that he only confessed to capital murder because he was embarrassed to admit that he wanted to engage in homosexual relations with the victim. Tr. Vol. 19 at 13940. Masterson told the jury that, as they had sex, the victim asked Masterson to "choke [him] out." Tr. Vol. 19 at 127. Trial counsel adduced testimony explaining that "autoerotic asphyxia" is a practice where an individual "decrease[s] the blood flow . . . to heighten the enjoyment of the climax" during sexual activity. Tr. Vol. 18 at 231. Masterson claimed that he complied with the victim's alleged request and "applied pressure to [the victim's] neck" for "[a] couple of minutes." Tr. Vol. 19 at 128-29. When Masterson was unable to support his weight anymore, they both fell to the floor. The victim began "making noises, grunting, gurgling, or whatever[.]" Masterson left the room and, when he returned, the victim was dead. Tr. Vol. 19 at 122-30. Based on Masterson's trial testimony, the defense argued that jurors should still hold him responsible in the victim's death, but for a crime less severe than capital murder.

The jury found Masterson guilty of capital murder.

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Jurors decided Masterson's sentence by answering two special-issue questions: (1) would he constitute a future threat to society? and (2) did mitigating circumstances warrant that he receive a life sentence?3 Clerk's Record at 314-15. In a two-day punishment hearing, the parties presented testimony and witnesses relevant to Masterson's sentence. The prosecution sought to prove that Masterson's violence and lawlessness was an enduring and pervasive feature in his character. To that end, the prosecution put into evidence records from when Masterson was in Texas Youth Commission ("TYC") custody as a juvenile, though the prosecution did not discuss the records at length. Witnesses described some of Masterson's prior bad acts as an adult. Deedra Foster, a former girlfriend, described an incident in which Masterson accused her of having an affair, ripped a telephone off the wall, struck her in the head, and threatened to kill her if she called the police. Tr. Vol. 21 at 120. Later that same night, Masterson kicked in two doors to get at Ms. Foster. When she tried to call the police, Masterson grabbed the phone, raised her off the floor, struck her several times, and threatened to beat her to death before the police arrived. Another witness testified that Masterson had once thrown a beer bottle at her, knocking out two of her teeth.

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Witnesses described Masterson's violence while incarcerated. Masterson repeatedly attacked other inmates, including one who had disrespected the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. Masterson also threatened to choke a jail guard like he had his victims. In addition, the jury had the brutality of the victim's murder, along with his commission of a similar offense soon thereafter, to consider in determining his fate. In sum, the prosecution portrayed Masterson as a man of longstanding and unremitting violence.

Trial counsel called punishment-phase witnesses who gave what Masterson now describes as "extensive defense testimony." (Docket Entry No. 53 at 18). Two Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies testified that Masterson had not caused any problems while incarcerated before trial. Tr. Vol. 22 at 29-33, 42-45. Masterson's sister, Ramona Weiss, provided insight into his turbulent upbringing. She explained that Masterson's father showed no affection, often beating his children after he came home drunk. Their father once kidnapped their mother, leaving a sixteen-year-old sister to take care of three-year-old Masterson. Masterson was once placed in a foster home. The only sense of normalcy in their young lives came when they briefly lived with a police officer after being picked up as abandoned. Masterson stopped attending school regularly after age twelve. Children often teased him about his eye problems. Ms. Weiss testified that she had never seen her brother act violently. Tr. Vol. 22 at 53-71.

Masterson himself testified as the defense's last witness. In an on-the-record...

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