Ronk v. State

Decision Date17 January 2019
Docket NumberNO. 2015-DR-01373-SCT,2015-DR-01373-SCT
Citation267 So.3d 1239
Parties Timothy Robert RONK a/k/a Timothy Ronk a/k/a Timothy R. Ronk v. STATE of Mississippi
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: OFFICE OF CAPITAL POST-CONVICTION COUNSEL BY: ALEXANDER DUNLAP MOORHEAD KASSOFF

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL BY: BRAD ALAN SMITH, JACKSON

EN BANC.

WALLER, CHIEF JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

¶1. Timothy Ronk was convicted of capital murder and armed robbery. Ronk v. State , 172 So.3d 1112, 1121 (Miss. 2015). He was sentenced to death and thirty years in prison, respectively. Id. We affirmed his convictions and sentences. Id.¶2. Ronk now moves for leave to seek post-conviction relief in the trial court, raising five claims: (1) trial counsel was ineffective; (2) his sentence was disproportionate; (3) Mississippi's death-penalty statute is unconstitutional; (4) cumulative error requires reversal; and (5) trial counsel failed to preserve the record for review.

¶3. We find that Ronk's claims are either barred or fail to present a substantial showing of the denial of a state or federal right; therefore, the motion is denied.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶4. On the morning of August 26, 2008, emergency crews responded to a house fire in Biloxi, Mississippi. Id. In extinguishing the fire, they found Michelle Lynn Craite's remains in the master bedroom. Id. at 1121–22. An autopsy showed multiple stab wounds

to her back; severe burns that "destroyed her flesh down to the bone"; and "blistering and burning to the lining of her mouth, tongue, larynx, and windpipe." Id. at 1121. Her blood also had a high level of carbon monoxide. Id. Evidence thus indicated that she had been alive and breathing during the fire. Id. A forensic pathologist said that the stab wounds not only were likely the cause of her death, but also that they incapacitated her by preventing her escape from the fire. Id.

¶5. Authorities determined the fire had been set intentionally, with gasoline vapors as the ignition source. Id. at 1122. They also learned that Ronk had been living there. Id. At the time, he was on house arrest, having been convicted of grand larceny weeks earlier. Id. at 1147.

¶6. Bank records showed that the morning Craite died, someone had used her debit card at a Walmart in D'Iberville, Mississippi, to withdraw $500 from the ATM and to purchase more than $400 in jewelry. Id. at 1122. Surveillance footage showed that it was Ronk. Id. And the Walmart's manager identified Ronk as the person who had bought a ring that morning. Id. at 1122–23.

¶7. Authorities also learned that Ronk had used one of Craite's cell phones. Id. at 1123. Phone records showed frequent calls to Florida resident Heather Hindall. Id. The morning of Craite's death, Ronk had texted Hindall that he was "loading up and coming to Florida." Id.

¶8. Authorities arrested Ronk in Florida and spoke to Hindall. Id. She said she had met him online. Id. She knew he had a "roommate," but believed he was planning to move to Florida and marry her. Id. The evening of August 26, 2008, he had arrived in Florida and proposed to her with the ring he had bought at Walmart. Id.

¶9. After his arrest, Ronk told Hindall what had happened with Craite. Id. He said they began arguing when he tried to leave for Florida. Id. She tried to attack him with a knife. Id. He disarmed her, however, and then stabbed her when she threatened to get a shotgun and kill him. Id. Afterwards, he poured gasoline on everything, set a fire, drove away, and threw the knife over a bridge. Id. Ronk later confirmed that story in a letter to Hindall. Id.

¶10. Ronk was indicted for armed robbery and capital murder with arson as the underlying felony. Id. at 1124. A jury convicted him of both charges. Id. Following a sentencing hearing, the jury sentenced Ronk to death for capital murder, finding that the mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances: that the offense (a) "was committed while [Ronk] was engaged in the commission of [a]rson"; (b) "was committed by a person under sentence of imprisonment"; and (c) "was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel." Id. For the armed robbery, the trial court sentenced Ronk to thirty years. Id.

¶11. We affirmed the convictions and sentences, id. at 1149, and the mandate issued September 24, 2015.

¶12. On September 23, 2016, Ronk filed this motion for leave to seek post-conviction relief in the trial court, raising five issues:

(1) [He] was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.
(2) A review of cases with facts meaningfully similar to [his] case dispels the notion that [his] sentence was not "disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases."
(3) Mississippi's death[-]penalty statute is unconstitutional because it is arbitrarily and capriciously applied.
(4) Cumulative error
(5) Trial counsel failed to preserve the record for review.

Ronk also says he must file a supplement. He did so, rendering that issue moot. And in his rebuttal, he asks this Court to address issues concerning right of access to experts and litigation expenses. We decline to do so. The trial court ruled on those issues before Ronk filed this motion, and neither party sought relief.

ANALYSIS

¶13. When a conviction and sentence have been affirmed on appeal, the petitioner must seek and obtain leave from this Court before seeking relief in the trial court. Miss. Code Ann. § 99-39-7 (Rev. 2015). Leave is granted only if the application, motion, exhibits, and prior record show that the claims are not procedurally barred and that they "present a substantial showing of the denial of a state or federal right." Miss. Code. Ann. § 99-39-27(5) (Rev. 2015). Well-pleaded allegations are accepted as true. Simon v. State , 857 So.2d 668, 678 (Miss. 2003) (citing Moore v. Ruth , 556 So.2d 1059, 1061–62 (Miss. 1990) ).

¶14. In capital cases, non-procedurally barred claims are reviewed using " ‘heightened scrutiny’ under which all bona fide doubts are resolved in favor of the accused." Crawford v. State , 218 So.3d 1142, 1150 (Miss. 2016) (quoting Chamberlin v. State , 55 So.3d 1046, 1049–50 (Miss. 2010) ). "[W]hat may be harmless error in a case with less at stake becomes reversible error when the penalty is death." Crawford , 218 So.3d at 1150 (quoting Chamberlin , 55 So.3d at 1049–50 ).

¶15. While the parties argue somewhat about the proper standard of review, Neal v. State explains that

Section 99-39-9 suggest[s] a regime of sworn, fact pleadings, based upon personal knowledge. The Court upon examination of the application has the authority to dismiss it outright,
if it plainly appears from the face of the motion, any annexed exhibits and the prior proceedings in the case that the movant is not entitled to any relief....
On the other hand, if the application meets the[ ] pleading requirements and presents a claim procedurally alive "substantial[ly] showing denial of a state or federal right," the petitioner is entitled to an in[-]court opportunity to prove his claims.

Neal v. State , 525 So.2d 1279, 1280–81 (Miss. 1987) (footnote, citation, and internal citation omitted).

I. Ronk fails to present a substantial showing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel.

¶16. Criminal defendants are entitled to effective assistance of counsel. E.g. Read v. State , 430 So.2d 832, 837 (Miss. 1983) (citations omitted). To prove counsel was ineffective, defendants (or here, petitioners) must meet a two-part test. Doss v. State , 19 So.3d 690, 694–95 (Miss. 2009) (quoting Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984) ).

¶17. First, petitioners must show that counsel's performance was deficient, i.e., "counsel's representation ‘fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.’ " Wiggins v. Smith , 539 U.S. 510, 521, 123 S.Ct. 2527, 2535, 156 L.Ed.2d 471 (2003) (quoting Strickland , 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052 ). "Reasonableness" is based on "prevailing professional norms." Wiggins , 539 U.S. at 521, 123 S.Ct. 2527 (quoting Strickland , 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052 ). "Prevailing norms of practice as reflected in American Bar Association [ (ABA) ] standards and the like ... are guides to determining what is reasonable." Strickland , 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052. But those standards are only guides. Bobby v. Van Hook , 558 U.S. 4, 8, 130 S.Ct. 13, 17, 175 L.Ed.2d 255 (2009) (quoting Strickland , 466 U.S. at 688, 104 S.Ct. 2052 ) (" ‘[ABA] standards and the like’ are ‘only guides’ to what reasonableness means, not its definition."). "No particular set of detailed rules for counsel's conduct can satisfactorily take account of the variety of circumstances faced by defense counsel or the range of legitimate decisions regarding how best to represent a criminal defendant." Strickland , 466 U.S. at 688–89, 104 S.Ct. 2052.

¶18. In assessing counsel's performance, courts must be "highly deferential," making "every effort ... to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time." Bell v. Cone , 535 U.S. 685, 698, 122 S.Ct. 1843, 1852, 152 L.Ed.2d 914 (2002) (quoting Strickland , 466 U.S. at 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052 ). A strong presumption exists that counsel's conduct "fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Ross v. State , 954 So.2d 968, 1004 (Miss. 2007) (citing Howard v. State , 853 So.2d 781, 796 (Miss. 2003) ). At the same time, lapses "must be viewed in light of the nature and seriousness of the charges and the potential penalty." Ross , 954 So.2d at 1004 (citing State v. Tokman , 564 So.2d 1339, 1343 (Miss. 1990) ).

¶19. Second, if deficient performance is shown, petitioners must show that the deficiency prejudiced their defense, i.e., "counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Doss , 19 So.3d at...

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