Montgomery v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corr., Case No. 3:18-cv-227-J-39PDB

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
Writing for the CourtBRIAN J. DAVIS United States District Judge
PartiesSTEVEN WILLIE MONTGOMERY, Petitioner, v. SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.
Docket NumberCase No. 3:18-cv-227-J-39PDB
Decision Date10 April 2020

STEVEN WILLIE MONTGOMERY, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Respondents.

Case No. 3:18-cv-227-J-39PDB

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA JACKSONVILLE DIVISION

April 10, 2020


ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Petitioner, Steven Willie Montgomery, proceeding pro se, challenges his state court (Duval County) conviction for second degree murder with a weapon. In his Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus By a Person in State Custody (Petition) (Doc. 1), he raises fourteen grounds. Respondents filed an Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response) (Doc. 16).1 Petitioner filed a Reply to Respondents' Response (Doc. 23).2 See Order (Doc. 5).

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II. EVIDENTIARY HEARING

A habeas petitioner has the burden to establish a need for an evidentiary hearing. See Chavez v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 647 F.3d 1057, 1060 (11th Cir. 2011) (opining a petitioner bears the burden of establishing the need for an evidentiary hearing with more than speculative and inconcrete claims of need), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 1120 (2012). Upon review, the Court can "adequately assess [Petitioner's] claims without further factual development," Turner v. Crosby, 339 F.3d 1247, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 1034 (2004). Petitioner has not carried his burden and is not entitled to an evidentiary hearing. Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007).

III. THE PETITION

The Petition is timely filed. Response at 7. Respondents contend the first three grounds of the Petition present state law claims, id. at 19-24, and the AEDPA (The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act) deference is applicable to the remaining grounds.

IV. HABEAS REVIEW

Petitioner claims he is detained "in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C.

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§ 2241(c)(3). This Court recognizes its authority to award habeas corpus relief to state prisoners "is limited-by both statute and Supreme Court precedent." Knight v. Fla. Dep't of Corr., 936 F.3d 1322, 1330 (11th Cir. 2019). The AEDPA governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas corpus and "prescribes a deferential framework for evaluating issues previously decided in state court[,]" Sealey v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, No. 18-10565, 2020 WL 1527977, at *9 (Mar. 31, 2020) (citation omitted), limiting a federal court's authority to award habeas relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254; Shoop v. Hill, 139 S. Ct. 504, 506 (2019) (per curiam) (recognizing AEDPA imposes "important limitations on the power of federal courts to overturn the judgments of state courts in criminal cases"). As such, federal courts may not grant habeas relief unless one of the claims: "(1)'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) '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)." Nance v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 922 F.3d 1298, 1300-1301 (11th Cir. 2019), cert. denied, No. 19-6918, 2020 WL 1325907 (U.S. Mar. 23, 2020). See Sealey, 2020 WL 1527977, at *9.

In Knight, the Eleventh Circuit explained:

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A decision is "contrary to" clearly established 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 (2000)] at 413, 120 S. Ct. 1495. A state court decision involves 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. To justify issuance of the writ under the "unreasonable application" clause, the state court's application of Supreme Court precedent must be more than just wrong in the eyes of the federal court; it "must be 'objectively unreasonable.'" Virginia v. LeBlanc, --- U.S. ----, 137 S. Ct. 1726, 1728, 198 L.Ed.2d 186 (2017)(quoting Woods v. Donald, --- U.S. ---, 135 S. Ct. 1372, 1376, 191 L.Ed.2d 464 (2015)); see also Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694, 122 S. Ct. 1843, 152 L.Ed.2d 914 (2002) (explaining that "an unreasonable application is different from an incorrect one.").

Knight, 936 F.3d at 1330-31.

To obtain habeas relief, the state court decision must unquestionably conflict with Supreme Court precedent, not dicta. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011). If some fair-minded jurists could agree with the lower court's decision, habeas relief must be denied. Meders v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic Prison, 911 F.3d 1335, 1351 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 140 S. Ct. 394 (2019). Therefore, unless the petitioner shows the state-court's

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ruling was so lacking in justification that there was error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement, there is no entitlement to habeas relief. Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. 12, 19-20 (2013).

This Court must accept that a state court's finding of fact, whether a state trial court or appellate court, is entitled to a presumption of correctness under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). "The state court's factual determinations are presumed correct, absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary." Sealey, 2020 WL 1527977, at *9 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)). This presumption of correctness, however, applies only to findings of fact, not mixed determinations of law and fact. Brannan v. GDCP Warden, 541 F. App'x 901, 903-904 (11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (recognizing the distinction between a pure question of fact from a mixed question of law and fact), cert. denied, 573 U.S. 906 (2014). Where there has been one reasoned state court judgment rejecting a federal claim followed by an unexplained order upholding that judgement, federal habeas courts employ a "look through" presumption: "the federal court should 'look through' the unexplained decision to the last related state-court decision that does provide a relevant rationale. It should then presume that the unexplained decision adopted the same reasoning." Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S. Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018) (Wilson).

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Thus, the reviewing federal court's habeas corpus consideration of a petition under AEDPA is a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a mechanism for ordinary error correction. Richter, 562 U.S. at 102-103 (citation and quotation marks omitted). As noted in Sealey, 2020 WL 1527977, at *9 (citations omitted), when reviewing whether there has been an unreasonable application of federal law, "[t]he key word is 'unreasonable,' which is more than simply incorrect." Consequently, state-court judgments will not easily be set aside due to the applicability of the highly deferential AEDPA standard that is intentionally difficult to meet. See Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. Although a high hurdle, this high standard does not impose a complete bar to issuing a writ, but it severely limits those occasions to those "where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts" with Supreme Court precedent. Id.

V. GROUNDS ONE, TWO, AND THREE

GROUND ONE: THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED FUNDAMENTAL ERROR BY FAILING TO APPLY THE LAW OF THE CASE AND IMPOSING UPON PETITIONER THE BURDEN TO PROVE THAT THE KILLING WAS AN ACT OF JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE[.]

Petitioner alleges fundamental error committed by the trial court in its failure to apply the law of the case and by imposing a burden on the defense to prove the killing was an act of justifiable homicide (Doc. 1-1 at 1). Petitioner raised a

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comparable claim in Issue I of his counseled initial direct appeal brief following his second jury trial. Ex. PP at i, 17-18. He argued, "[s]ince the jury was instructed that the state bears the burden of proof as to the elements of the offense, the jury may have reasonably assumed[,]" the trial court's self-defense instruction shifted the burden to the defense to prove the defense of self-defense or justifiable use of deadly force. Id. at 18. The record demonstrates the trial court instructed: "[a]n issue in this case is whether the defendant acted in self-defense. It is a defense to the offense with which Steven Montgomery is charged if the death of Tarnesha Ellis resulted from the justifiable use of deadly force." Ex. KK at 494. The court continued its instruction on the Justifiable Use of Deadly Force,

Deadly force means force likely to cause death or great bodily harm.

The use of deadly force is justifiable only if the defendant reasonably believes that the force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself while resisting, one, another's attempt to murder him or, number two, an attempt to commit an aggravated assault upon him or, three, an attempt to commit an aggravated assault upon [or in] any dwelling, residence or vehicle occupied by him.

Id.

On direct appeal, in a counseled brief, Petitioner argued the instructions included an erroneous shifting of the burden of proof

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on the disputed mens rea element of second degree murder or manslaughter by act. Ex. PP at 23. Although acknowledging state case law holding otherwise, id., Petitioner urged the 1st DCA to find that the law of his case, State v. Montgomery, 39 So. 3d 252 (Fla. 2010), should take precedence over the rule of the court set forth in Elliott v. State, 49 So. 3d 269 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (per curiam), rev. denied, 69 So. 3d 277 (Fla. 2011) and Mosansky v. State, 33 So. 3d 756 (Fla. 1st DCA 2010) (per curiam), rev. denied, 46 So. 3d 48 (Fla. 2010), to the extent inconsistent with the law of the case. Ex. PP at 23-24.

The state, in its Answer Brief of Appellee, responded that this issue was waived as the defense accepted...

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