Thomas v. Sec'y, Case No: 2:14-cv-95-FtM-29MRM

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
Writing for the CourtJOHN E. STEELE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
PartiesMICHEL THOMAS, Petitioner, v. SECRETARY, DOC and FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL, Respondents.
Decision Date26 October 2015
Docket NumberCase No: 2:14-cv-95-FtM-29MRM

MICHEL THOMAS, Petitioner,
v.
SECRETARY, DOC and FLORIDA ATTORNEY GENERAL, Respondents.
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Case No: 2:14-cv-95-FtM-29MRM

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT MIDDLE DISTRICT OF FLORIDA FORT MYERS DIVISION

October 26, 2015


OPINION AND ORDER

This matter comes before the Court upon an amended petition for habeas corpus relief filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 by Michel Thomas ("Petitioner") who is presently confined at the Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Florida (Doc. 5, filed March 7, 2014). Petitioner, proceeding pro se, attacks the convictions and sentences entered against him by the Twentieth Judicial Circuit Court in Charlotte County, Florida for second degree murder. Id. Respondent filed a response to the petition (Doc. 19). Petitioner filed a reply (Doc. 45).

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Petitioner raises seven claims in his petition. Upon due consideration of the pleadings and the state court record, the Court concludes that each claim must be dismissed or denied. Because the Court may resolve the Petition on the basis of the record, an evidentiary hearing is not warranted. See Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007) (if the record refutes the factual allegations in the petition or otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing).

I. Background and Procedural History

On July 2, 2004, Petitioner was charged by information with second degree murder in violation of Florida Statute § 782.04(2) (Ex. 1 at 4).2 After a jury trial, he was found guilty as charged (Ex. 1 at 176-79). He was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison (Ex. 1 at 191). Petitioner's conviction and sentence were affirmed by Florida's Second District Court of Appeal (Ex. 4); Thomas v. State, 42 So. 3d 241 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010).

Petitioner filed a state petition for writ of habeas corpus in which he alleged that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that the trial court erred when it denied defense counsel's motion for a judgment of acquittal (Ex. 14). The motion

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was denied by Florida's Second District Court of Appeal (Ex. 15); Thomas v. State, 83 So. 3d 727 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012).

Petitioner filed an amended motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Rule 3.850 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure ("Rule 3.850 motion") (Ex. 21) The motion was denied by the post-conviction court, and Florida's Second District Court of Appeal per curiam affirmed (Ex. 25; Ex. 30); Thomas v. State, 132 So. 3d 234 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013).

Petitioner filed his original 28 U.S.C. § 2254 petition on February 18, 2014 (Doc. 1). His amended petition is presently before the Court (Doc. 5).

II. Governing Legal Principles

A. Standard of Review Under the Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA")

Pursuant to the AEDPA, federal habeas relief may not be granted with respect to a claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication of the claim:

(1) resulted in a decision that 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) resulted in a decision that 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). This standard is both mandatory and difficult to meet. White v. Woodall, 134 S. Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014). A state

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court's summary rejection of a claim, even without explanation, qualifies as an adjudication on the merits which warrants deference. Ferguson v. Culliver, 527 F.3d 1144, 1146 (11th Cir. 2008). Notably, a state court's violation of state law is not sufficient to show that a petitioner is in custody in violation of the "Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. 1, 16 (2010).

"Clearly established federal law" consists of the governing legal principles, rather than the dicta, set forth in the decisions of the United States Supreme Court at the time the state court issues its decision. White, 134 S. Ct. at 1702; Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74 (2006) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)). That said, the Supreme Court has also explained that "the lack of a Supreme Court decision on nearly identical facts does not by itself mean that there is no clearly established federal law, since 'a general standard' from [the Supreme Court's] cases can supply such law." Marshall v. Rodgers, 133 S. Ct. 1446, 1449 (2013) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). State courts "must reasonably apply the rules 'squarely established' by [the Supreme] Court's holdings to the facts of each case. White, 134 S. Ct. at 1706 (quoting Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009)).

Even if there is clearly established federal law on point, habeas relief is only appropriate if the state court decision was

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"contrary to, or an unreasonable application of," that federal law. 29 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). A decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if the state court either: (1) applied a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth by Supreme Court case law; or (2) reached a different result from the Supreme Court when faced with materially indistinguishable facts. Ward v. Hall, 592 F.3d 1144, 1155 (11th Cir. 2010); Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 16 (2003).

A state court decision involves an "unreasonable application" of the Supreme Court's precedents if the state court correctly identifies the governing legal principle, but applies it to the facts of the petitioner's case in an objectively unreasonable manner, Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 134 (2005); Bottoson v. Moore, 234 F.3d 526, 531 (11th Cir. 2000), or "if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from [Supreme Court] precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply." Bottoson, 234 F.3d at 531 (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 406). The unreasonable application inquiry "requires the state court decision to be more than incorrect or erroneous," rather, it must be "objectively unreasonable." Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-77 (2003) (citation omitted); Mitchell, 540 U.S. at 17-18; Ward, 592 F.3d at 1155. The petitioner must show that the state court's ruling was "so lacking in justification

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that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." White, 134 S. Ct. at 1702 (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011)). Moreover, "it is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by [the Supreme] Court." Knowles, 556 U.S. at 122.

Finally, when reviewing a claim under § 2254(d), a federal court must bear in mind that any "determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct[,]" and the petitioner bears "the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Burt v. Titlow, 134 S. Ct. 10, 15 (2013) ("[A] state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.") (quoting Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 293 (2010)).

B. Standard for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

In Strickland v. Washington, the Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining whether a convicted person is entitled to relief on the ground that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance. 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984). A petitioner must establish that counsel's performance was deficient and fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that the

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deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Id. This is a "doubly deferential" standard of review that gives both the state court and the petitioner's attorney the benefit of the doubt. Burt, 134 S. Ct. at 13, (citing Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S. Ct. 1388, 1403 (2011)).

The focus of inquiry under Strickland's performance prong is "reasonableness under prevailing professional norms." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688-89. In reviewing counsel's performance, a court must adhere to a strong presumption that "counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689. Indeed, the petitioner bears the heavy burden to "prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that counsel's performance was unreasonable[.]" Jones v. Campbell, 436 F.3d 1285, 1293 (11th Cir. 2006). A court must "judge the reasonableness of counsel's conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct," applying a "highly deferential" level of judicial scrutiny. Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 477 (2000) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690).

As to the prejudice prong of the Strickland standard, Petitioner's burden to demonstrate prejudice is high. Wellington v. Moore, 314 F.3d 1256, 1260 (11th Cir. 2002). Prejudice "requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. That is, "[t]he defendant

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must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. A reasonable probability is "a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694.

The foregoing analysis also applies to claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. "A defendant can establish ineffective assistance of appellate counsel by showing: (1) appellate counsel's performance was deficient, and (2) but for counsel's deficient performance he would have prevailed on appeal." Shere v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 537 F.3d 1304, 1310 (11th Cir. 2008)...

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