Thornton v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr.

Decision Date21 May 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 3:18-cv-762-MMH-PDB
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Florida
I. Status

Petitioner Darrell Thornton, an inmate of the Florida penal system, initiated this action on June 8, 2018,1 by filing a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Petition; Doc. 1), with a memorandum of law (Memorandum; Doc. 2). In the Petition, Thornton challenges a 2010 state court (Clay County, Florida) judgment of conviction for attempted second-degree murder, battery, robbery with a deadly weapon, carjacking, and second-degree arson. Thornton raises eight grounds for relief. See Memorandum at 2-21.2 Respondents have submitted a memorandum in opposition to the Petition. SeeAnswer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Response; Doc. 19) with exhibits (Resp. Ex.). Thornton declined to file a brief in reply. See Doc. 23. This case is ripe for review.

II. Relevant Procedural History

On April 6, 2009, the State of Florida (State) charged Thornton by way of Information with attempted first-degree murder with a weapon (count one), kidnapping with a weapon (count two), armed robbery (count three), carjacking (count four), and second-degree arson (count five). Resp. Ex. A at 7-8. Following a trial,3 a jury convicted Thornton of attempted second-degree murder, a lesser included offense of count one; battery, a lesser included offense of count two; robbery with a deadly weapon; carjacking; and second-degree arson. Id. at 33-35. The circuit court sentenced Thornton to a term of incarceration of fifteen years in prison as to counts one and five, thirty years in prison as to counts three and four, and one-year in jail as to count two. Id. at 180-87. The circuit court ordered each count to run concurrently with the others. Id. at 187.

Thornton appealed his convictions and sentences to Florida's First District Court of Appeal (First DCA). Id. at 192. With the assistance of counsel, Thornton argued in his initial brief that: (1) there was insufficient evidence to establish that he used a deadly weapon, (2) the circuit court erred in failing toinstruct the jury on the offense of grand theft of a motor vehicle, and (3) his convictions for armed robbery and carjacking violated the Double Jeopardy Clause. Resp. Ex. C. The State filed an answer brief. Resp. Ex. D. The First DCA stayed the appeal pending the resolution of an issue before the Florida Supreme Court. Resp. Ex. G. Following the resolution of that issue, the First DCA lifted the stay and directed the State to show cause why Thornton's conviction for attempted second-degree murder should be not be reversed. Resp. Ex. H. The State conceded Thornton's conviction on that count should be reversed and the case remanded. Resp. Ex. I. On September 10, 2014, the First DCA reversed the conviction and sentence for attempted second-degree murder and remanded the case for a new trial on that count. Resp. Ex. J. In all other aspects, the First DCA affirmed Thornton's convictions and sentences without further explanation. Id. The Mandate issued on September 29, 2014. Resp. Ex. K. On remand, the State entered a nolle prosequi as to the attempted second-degree murder charge. Resp. Ex. L.

On June 11, 2015, Thornton filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850, Resp. Ex. N, which he later voluntarily dismissed on July 23, 2015, Resp. Exs. P; Q. On November 5, 2015, Thornton again filed a pro se motion for postconviction relief (Rule 3.850 Motion). Resp. Ex. R at 4-24. In the Rule 3.850 Motion, Thornton alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to: (1) adequately argue a motionfor judgment of acquittal; (2) request a jury instruction on grand theft; (3) adequately argue a motion for judgment of acquittal; (4) object to the prosecutor's closing arguments; and (5) object to an increased penalty without the proper jury finding. Id. The circuit court denied the Rule 3.850 Motion. Id. at 57-70. Thornton appealed; however, the First DCA initially dismissed the appeal as untimely. Resp. Exs. W; X; Z. Thornton filed a petition for belated appeal, Resp. Ex. BB, which the First DCA ultimately granted, Resp. Ex. EE. On May 9, 2018, the First DCA per curiam affirmed the denial of relief on the Rule 3.850 Motion, Resp. Ex. JJ, and on June 6, 2018, it issued the mandate, Resp. Ex KK.

On August 1, 2016, Thornton filed a pro se motion to correct illegal sentence pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.800(a) (Rule 3.800(a) Motion). Resp. Ex. LL at 5-8. The circuit court dismissed the Rule 3.800(a) Motion without prejudice. Id. at 11-12. Thornton appealed, and on February 28, 2017, the First DCA per curiam affirmed the dismissal without a written opinion. Resp. Ex. NN. The First DCA issued the Mandate on March 28, 2017. Resp. Ex. OO.

III. One-Year Limitations Period

This proceeding was timely filed within the one-year limitations period. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d).

IV. Evidentiary Hearing

In a habeas corpus proceeding, the burden is on the petitioner to establish the need for a federal evidentiary hearing. See Chavez v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 647 F.3d 1057, 1060 (11th Cir. 2011). "In deciding whether to grant an evidentiary hearing, a federal court must consider whether such a hearing could enable an applicant to prove the petition's factual allegations, which, if true, would entitle the applicant to federal habeas relief." Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007); Jones v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 834 F.3d 1299, 1318-19 (11th Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 2245 (2017). "It follows that if the record refutes the applicant's factual allegations or otherwise precludes habeas relief, a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing." Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474. The pertinent facts of this case are fully developed in the record before the Court. Because the Court can "adequately assess [Thornton's] claim[s] without further factual development," Turner v. Crosby, 339 F.3d 1247, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003), an evidentiary hearing will not be conducted.

V. Governing Legal Principles
A. Standard of Review

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) governs a state prisoner's federal petition for habeas corpus. See Ledford v. Warden, Ga. Diagnostic & Classification Prison, 818 F.3d 600, 642 (11th Cir.2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1432 (2017). "'The purpose of AEDPA is to ensure that federal habeas relief functions as a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, and not as a means of error correction.'" Id. (quoting Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 38 (2011) (quotation marks omitted)). As such, federal habeas review of final state court decisions is "'greatly circumscribed' and 'highly deferential.'" Id. (quoting Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d 1335, 1343 (11th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks omitted)).

The first task of the federal habeas court is to identify the last state court decision, if any, that adjudicated the claim on the merits. See Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1285 (11th Cir. 2016). The state court need not issue a written opinion explaining its rationale in order for the state court's decision to qualify as an adjudication on the merits. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 100 (2011). Where the state court's adjudication on the merits is unaccompanied by an explanation, the United States Supreme Court has instructed:

[T]he 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). The presumption may be rebutted by showing that the higher state court's adjudication most likely relied on different grounds than the lower state court's reasoned decision, suchas persuasive alternative grounds that were briefed or argued to the higher court or obvious in the record it reviewed. Id. at 1192, 1196.

If the claim was "adjudicated on the merits" in state court, § 2254(d) bars relitigation of the claim unless the state court's decision (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); Richter, 562 U.S. at 97-98. The Eleventh Circuit describes the limited scope of federal review pursuant to § 2254 as follows:

First, § 2254(d)(1) provides for federal review for claims of state courts' erroneous legal conclusions. As explained by the Supreme Court in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 120 S. Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000), § 2254(d)(1) consists of two distinct clauses: a "contrary to" clause and an "unreasonable application" clause. The "contrary to" clause allows for relief only "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." Id. at 413, 120 S. Ct. at 1523 (plurality opinion). The "unreasonable application" clause allows for relief only "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.
Second, § 2254(d)(2) provides for federal review for claims of state courts' erroneous factual determinations. Section 2254(d)(2) allows federalcourts to grant relief only if the state court's denial of the petitioner's claim "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in

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