Robinson v. Ignacio

Decision Date10 March 2004
Docket NumberNo. 02-17298.,02-17298.
Citation360 F.3d 1044
PartiesAntonio Darnell ROBINSON, Petitioner, v. John IGNACIO, Warden, Respondent.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

John C. Lambrose, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Las Vegas, Nevada, for the petitioner.

John M. Warwick, Deputy Attorney General, Carson City, Nevada, for the respondent.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada; David Warner Hagen, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-99-00435-DWH.

Before: Michael Daly HAWKINS, Sidney R. THOMAS, and Richard R. Clifton, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge Clifton.


CLIFTON, Circuit Judge.

This case requires us to consider (1) whether the application of a Nevada state procedural default bar also serves under the adequate and independent state ground doctrine to preclude our consideration in a federal habeas proceeding of an alleged Sixth Amendment violation, and (2) whether it is a violation of "clearly established federal law" for a trial court to deny a defendant's request for counsel at sentencing simply because of his prior waiver of the right to counsel at trial.

Nevada state prisoner Antonio Darnell Robinson appeals the District Court's denial of his 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition, in which he challenges the state sentencing proceedings that adjudicated him a habitual criminal and sentenced him to life without parole. Robinson argues that the state trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel when the court denied his timely request to be represented during sentencing. Before we reach this issue, we must determine whether Nevada Revised Statute (NRS) § 34.810(1)(b)(2) procedurally bars Robinson from asserting his Sixth Amendment claim in this § 2254 petition. Because we believe that the claim is not barred, and because we hold that under clearly established federal law, the state trial court's denial of Robinson's request did violate the Sixth Amendment, we reverse and direct the district court to grant the writ and remand Robinson's case for re-sentencing.


In 1992, the State of Nevada charged Robinson with robbery with the use of a deadly weapon and with conspiracy to commit robbery. The State's complaint alleged that Robinson wielded a knife while he and a co-conspirator robbed a convenience store. Following a jury trial in September 1992, Robinson was found guilty on both counts. After the guilty verdict, Robinson filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds that he had not been afforded a probable cause hearing on the conspiracy charge. The trial court granted Robinson a new trial. The State then filed an amended information which omitted the conspiracy charge, but added a charge alleging that Robinson was a habitual criminal.

Before the second trial, the trial court granted Robinson's request to represent himself, after extensively canvassing him on the issue. The trial court ordered the attorney who represented Robinson in the first trial, Robert Witek, to act as "standby" counsel in the second trial. After a two-day trial on November 23 and 24, 1992, Robinson was again found guilty of robbery with the use of a deadly weapon.

One week prior to sentencing, on or around December 9, 1992, Robinson (who was then in custody) allegedly sent a letter to the trial court, requesting that an attorney be appointed to represent him during his sentencing hearing. The letter proposed a specific attorney, Jennifer Kafchinski. The trial court did not respond to this written request, however, and it is unclear whether this letter was actually received.

During the sentencing hearing on December 16, Robinson again brought his request for appointment of counsel before the court, stating that he could not adequately defend himself due to his unfamiliarity with the sentencing standards of the habitual criminal statute. The trial court denied the request, reasoning:

I note at the time Mr. Robinson decided to represent himself I canvassed at great length, discussed each charge in this case ... the consequences of each charge and the nature of the sentence the Court could impose.... Based upon the extensive canvass of the Court and contrary to my suggestions to Mr. Robinson, he elected to represent himself in this proceeding. And therefore, based upon all those circumstances, the request for a continuance is denied.

The sentencing continued with Robinson representing himself and with Kafchinski acting as advisory counsel. The court did permit Kafchinski to make a general argument on Robinson's behalf for mitigation of the sentence, but Kafchinski did not challenge the government's proffered prior convictions. The court ultimately found Robinson to be a habitual criminal and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A. The Direct Appeal Proceedings

On June 24, 1993, Robinson filed his direct appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. In that appeal, Robinson presented two claims: (1) the trial court erred when it adjudged him to be an habitual criminal, and (2) the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing him to life in prison without possibility of parole. The appeal was submitted without oral argument in February 1994. In June 1994, the Supreme Court granted Robinson's motion for leave to file a supplemental brief. Robinson used this opportunity to present several new claims, but he again failed to raise a Sixth Amendment claim based on the trial court's denial of his request for counsel at sentencing.

Although the Nevada Supreme Court did not deny Robinson's direct appeal until more than two years later in August 1996, Robinson did not again attempt to add claims to his direct appeal.

B. The State Habeas Proceedings

In September 1993, while Robinson's direct appeal was still pending in the Nevada Supreme Court, he filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Second Judicial District Court for the State of Nevada. In March 1994, Robinson filed a second pro se habeas petition in the same court. Both petitions presented nearly identical issues and in both petitions, Robinson failed to raise a Sixth Amendment denial of counsel claim.

In March 1994, before the Second Judicial District Court had addressed the merits of Robinson's habeas petition, Robinson requested that District Judge Brent T. Adams — the same judge who had denied Robinson's request for counsel at sentencing — recuse himself from hearing Robinson's petition. In October 1994, this request was granted and the case was transferred to another department of the court. After his case was transferred, Robinson, through his new court-appointed counsel Joseph Plater, filed Supplemental Points and Authorities in support of his habeas petition on December 5, 1994 ("December 1994 Supplement"). The December 1994 Supplement focused on just three claims, including a denial of counsel claim. With regard to the denial of counsel claim, the December 1994 Supplement alleged in relevant part:

It was error to deny Robinson counsel at sentencing. Although Mr. Robinson may have once elected to represent himself, he clearly relinquished that right in timely fashion before sentencing in his case. His right to have counsel represent him at sentencing was absolute and guaranteed. Therefore, Robinson would respectfully request that he be granted a new sentencing with appointed counsel.

In response, the State filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Robinson's December 1994 Supplement "is in fact an additional claim for relief" and "should be denied because petitioner has not demonstrated good cause for failure to raise the issue of prosecutorial vindictiveness1 in the first petition for writ of habeas corpus." The State did not, however, argue that Robinson's denial of counsel claim was similarly barred.

Robinson opposed this motion to dismiss, but the court never ruled on the motion, instead allowing the parties to enter into a stipulated agreement. In July 1996, the court approved this stipulation and in its order stated:"[T]he parties stipulated that the only issues properly before the Court were those presented in [the December 1994 Supplement] prepared by Attorney Joe Plater. In exchange, the State agreed not to seek any relief arising from the alleged untimely nature of the supplement." The State acknowledged this stipulation in its Answer to Robinson's December 1994 Supplement, and thus, when the State denied Robinson's claim that he was improperly denied counsel at sentencing, it notably refrained from raising any procedural defenses.

In July 1996, the Second Judicial District Court conducted an evidentiary hearing in order to address the claims raised in the December 1994 Supplement, and accordingly conducted an inquiry into whether Robinson had submitted a timely request to be represented at his sentencing hearing. During this inquiry, Judge Adams testified that he could neither confirm nor deny that he received the letter that Robinson purportedly sent him on December 9, 1992. The court, however, ultimately concluded that it would assume that the letter was sent "because Robinson verbally requested appointment of counsel during the sentencing hearing, and made reference to the letter."

Despite finding that Robinson's letter had been sent, the Second Judicial District Court nonetheless denied Robinson's petition on July 30, 1996. In doing so, the court concluded that "to the extent the issue [was] reviewable," the trial court's denial of Robinson's request for counsel at sentencing did not constitute an abuse of discretion. The court reasoned: "Judge Adams had the discretion to allow or refuse to allow Robinson to be relieved of the decision to waive the right to counsel. When considering the initial waiver, the timing of the request for counsel and the lack of any reasons given for the request, this Court finds no abuse of...

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