Middleton v. Roper

Decision Date06 July 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-3160.,04-3160.
Citation455 F.3d 838
PartiesJohn MIDDLETON, Appellant, v. Don ROPER,<SMALL><SUP>1</SUP></SMALL> Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Before LOKEN, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and RILEY, Circuit Judges.

RILEY, Circuit Judge.

A Missouri state court sentenced John A. Middleton (Middleton) to death following Middleton's convictions for two counts of first-degree murder. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed Middleton's convictions and sentences on direct appeal, and later affirmed the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief. Middleton timely applied for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court2 denied habeas relief, but granted Middleton a certificate of appealability on eight grounds. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

We recite the facts of Middleton's crimes as found by the Missouri Supreme Court in previously published opinions in this case. See State v. Middleton, 998 S.W.2d 520, 523-24 (Mo.1999) (en banc) (affirming Middleton's convictions and sentences on direct appeal); Middleton v. State, 80 S.W.3d 799, 803-04 (Mo.2002) (en banc) (affirming the denial of Middleton's motion for post-conviction relief).

On June 10, 1995, several drug dealers were arrested in Cainsville, Missouri. Middleton, a drug dealer who was not arrested, worried informants would implicate him. That afternoon, Middleton told another individual there were "some snitches that should be taken care of," because Middleton did not want to return to prison. Middleton mentioned several names, including Randy "Happy" Hamilton (Hamilton).

On June 11, Middleton and his girlfriend met Hamilton and Stacey Hodge (Hodge), Hamilton's girlfriend, on a gravel road. Middleton shot Hamilton in the back once with an SKS rifle and shot Hodge in the back three times. Middleton then killed Hamilton with a shot to the head. Middleton's girlfriend killed Hodge with another SKS rifle by shooting Hodge in the head. Middleton and his girlfriend placed both bodies in the trunk of Hamilton's car. Middleton drove Hamilton's car, looking for a place to dispose of the bodies, with Middleton's girlfriend following in a truck. While driving around in Hamilton's car, Middleton encountered Danny Spurling (Spurling). Middleton, covered in blood, told Spurling he had "taken care" of Hamilton. Middleton then asked Spurling for advice on what to do with the bodies. Middleton indicated he might burn the bodies in Hamilton's old house. The next morning, Middleton gave Spurling the car stereo from Hamilton's car and said "they were really going to freak out when they found those two." Middleton also showed Spurling a written list of names and asked if Spurling knew anyone on the list.

About a week and a half later, Middleton told Richard Pardun (Pardun) "there was a narc around and they were going to take care of it." Middleton said he had a "hit list" and mentioned several names on it, including Hamilton, Alfred Pinegar (Pinegar), and William Worley (Worley). Middleton offered Pardun $3,500 to set up a meeting with Worley.

On June 25, John Thomas (Thomas) and Middleton discussed informants at Middleton's house. Middleton named several people who "needed to be taken care of," including Hamilton, Pinegar, and Worley. While at Middleton's house, Thomas noticed two SKS rifles as well as a box belonging to Hamilton. When Thomas inquired about the box, Middleton replied "the guy who owned that box wouldn't be needing it no more."

Around the same time, Middleton visited Dennis Rickert (Rickert) in Iowa. Middleton told Rickert, "I'd knowed `Happy' for 15 [years]. He knew enough to put me away for life. I done `Happy.'" Middleton then gave Rickert several guns, including two SKS rifles, which Rickert later turned over to the police.

Pinegar was found murdered on June 26, 1995, and Middleton was arrested for Pinegar's murder shortly thereafter.3 On July 10, Hamilton's car was discovered abandoned in the woods. Hamilton's and Hodge's decomposed bodies were found in the trunk, and the car stereo was missing. Bullet fragments taken from Hodge's body displayed class characteristics consistent with the SKS rifles Middleton gave to Rickert.

While awaiting trial, Middleton confessed to fellow jail inmate Douglas Stallsworth, who testified Middleton described the murders, admitted killing Hamilton and Hodge because they were informants, and acknowledged hiding their bodies and taking the rifles to Iowa.

Following a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Callaway County, Missouri, Middleton was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of armed criminal action. He was sentenced to death for each of the two murders and given consecutive ten-year sentences on the armed criminal action counts. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed Middleton's convictions and sentences on direct appeal, Middleton, 998 S.W.2d at 531, and later affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief, Middleton, 80 S.W.3d at 817.

Middleton then sought a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The district court denied habeas relief, but granted a certificate of appealability on the following eight claims: (1) trial counsel's failure to call Middleton's family members or former employers during the penalty phase to testify about Middleton's mental impairments and diligent work ethic; (2) trial counsel's failure to elicit additional mitigating evidence from Middleton's mother during the penalty phase; (3) trial counsel's failure to present evidence during the guilt phase regarding Middleton's mental state or intent; (4) trial counsel's failure to object to the prosecution's reference to "society's drug problem"; (5) violation of Middleton's right to be present at three pretrial hearings; (6) the prosecution's failure to disclose deals made with two of the state's witnesses; (7) admission of testimony from Sheriff George Martz (Sheriff Martz) regarding why charges were dropped against a state witness; and (8) the prosecution's penalty phase argument concerning the jury's imposition of a death sentence.

II. DISCUSSION

When considering the district court's denial of a habeas petition, "we review the district court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo." Lyons v. Luebbers, 403 F.3d 585, 592 (8th Cir.2005) (internal quotation omitted). Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), "[w]hen a claim has been adjudicated on the merits in state court, habeas relief is warranted only if the state court proceeding resulted in (1) `a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,' or (2) `a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'" Bucklew v. Luebbers, 436 F.3d 1010, 1015 (8th Cir.2006) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), (2); see, e.g., Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 125 S.Ct. 2456, 2462, 162 L.Ed.2d 360 (2005)). A decision is "contrary to" federal law "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 Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000). A decision is "an unreasonable application" of federal law "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." Id. at 413, 120 S.Ct. 1495. "In other words, it is not enough for us to conclude that, in our independent judgment, we would have applied federal law differently from the state court; the state court's application must have been objectively unreasonable." Rousan v. Roper, 436 F.3d 951, 956 (8th Cir.2006) (citation omitted). Furthermore, in federal habeas proceedings, we bestow a presumption of correctness on the factual findings of the state courts, and absent procedural error, we may set such findings aside "only if they are `not fairly supported by the record.'" Simmons v. Luebbers, 299 F.3d 929, 942 (8th Cir.2002) (quoting Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 769, 115 S.Ct. 1769, 131 L.Ed.2d 834 (1995)).

A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Middleton raises several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, which involve mixed questions of law and fact. See McReynolds v. Kemna, 208 F.3d 721 723 (8th Cir.2000). To overturn a conviction on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel, Middleton must demonstrate (1) his trial counsel's performance was so deficient as to fall below an objective standard of the customary skill and diligence displayed by a reasonably competent attorney, and (2) there is a reasonable probability the outcome of the trial would have been different absent the substandard actions of trial counsel. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-94, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). "Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance is highly deferential, indulging a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional judgment." Bucklew, 436 F.3d at 1016 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052). With this standard in mind, we address each of Middleton's ineffective assistance claims in turn.

1. Failure to Call Family Members and Former Employers During Penalty Phase

Middleton first contends trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to contact four former...

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