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Elders v. Stevenson

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

March 28, 2016

Randy Elders, Petitioner,
Robert Stevenson, Warden, Broad River Correctional Institution, Respondent.


R. Bryan Harwell United States District Judge

Petitioner Randy Elders, a state prisoner currently represented by counsel, initiated this action by filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.[1] See ECF No. 1. Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment, as well as a return and supporting memorandum. See ECF Nos. 13 & 14. Petitioner filed a response in opposition to Respondent’s motion for summary judgment. See ECF No. 24. The matter is now before the Court for consideration of Petitioner’s objections to the Report and Recommendation (R & R) of United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin, who recommends granting Respondent’s motion for summary judgment.[2] See R & R, ECF No. 26; Pet.’s Objs., ECF No. 31.

For the reasons stated below, the Court overrules Petitioner’s objections, adopts the Magistrate Judge’s R & R, grants Respondent’s motion for summary judgment, and dismisses Petitioner’s § 2254 petition with prejudice.


In 2005, the State of South Carolina indicted Petitioner on six charges: two counts of kidnapping, one count of armed robbery, two counts of assault and battery with intent to kill (ABIK), and one count of carjacking. ECF No. 14-12 at 156-75.[4] The State alleged that after Petitioner (accompanied by his girlfriend) received a car ride from the two victims, he stabbed one victim, tackled and robbed the other victim, and stole their car. ECF No. 14-9 at 85-92. April W. Sampson and Stacy R. Owings[5] (collectively, “trial counsel”) represented Petitioner throughout the criminal proceedings. R & R at 2.

In 2006, after first selecting a jury, Petitioner pled guilty to two of the indictments-the carjacking charge and one of the ABIK charges-and proceeded to trial on the four remaining indictments.[6], [7] ECF No. 14-9 at 68-80. The jury found Petitioner guilty of the armed robbery charge, both kidnapping charges, and (on the other ABIK indictment) the lesser included offense of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature (ABHAN). ECF No. 14-11 at 75-76. The trial court imposed the following terms of imprisonment: thirty years for armed robbery, twenty years for carjacking, thirty years for each kidnapping conviction, fifteen years for the ABIK conviction, and ten years for the ABHAN conviction. Id. at 80; ECF No. 14-12 at 156-75. All sentences except that for the ABIK conviction were concurrent; the ABIK sentence was consecutive to the carjacking sentence.[8] ECF No. 14-12 at 156-75.

In 2010, the South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner’s convictions in a published decision and remitted the case. See ECF Nos. 14-3 & 14-4; see also State v. Elders, 386 S.C. 474, 688 S.E.2d 857 (Ct. App. 2010). Petitioner filed timely applications for post-conviction relief (PCR) for both his guilty pleas and his trial convictions, which the state PCR court denied and dismissed with prejudice in 2012 after an evidentiary hearing. See ECF No. 14-11 at 82-87, 101-07; ECF No. 14-12 at 139-55. After the South Carolina Supreme Court denied Petitioner’s petition for a writ of certiorari and remitted the matter in December 2014, Petitioner filed the instant § 2254 habeas petition the same month. See ECF Nos. 1, 7, & 8.

In his § 2254 petition, Petitioner alleged three grounds for relief: (1) trial counsel were ineffective for advising him to plead guilty to two indictments and proceed to trial on the remaining four indictments; (2) trial counsel were ineffective for failing to object to the State’s closing argument; and (3) PCR counsel was ineffective for failing to file a motion to alter or amend pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. See ECF No. 1 at 7-30. Respondent moved for summary judgment on all grounds, and Petitioner filed a response in opposition to Respondent’s motion for summary judgment. See ECF Nos. 13, 14, & 24. The Magistrate Judge issued an R & R recommending that the Court grant Respondent’s motion for summary judgment and deny Petitioner’s habeas petition. R & R at 2, 24. After receiving two extensions, Petitioner filed timely objections to the R & R. See ECF Nos. 28, 30, & 31.

Legal Standards

I. Review of the Magistrate Judge’s R & R

The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to the Court. The Magistrate Judge’s recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The Court must conduct a de novo review of those portions of the R & R to which specific objections are made, and it may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

The Court must engage in a de novo review of every portion of the Magistrate Judge’s report to which objections have been filed. Id. However, the Court need not conduct a de novo review when a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the [C]ourt to a specific error in the [M]agistrate [Judge]’s proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of specific objections to the R & R, the Court reviews only for clear error, Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005), and the Court need not give any explanation for adopting the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation. Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199-200 (4th Cir. 1983).

II. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Reyazuddin v. Montgomery Cty., Md., 789 F.3d 407, 413 (4th Cir. 2015); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . .; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The facts and inferences to be drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Reyazuddin, 789 F.3d at 413, but the Court “cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015).

III. Federal Habeas Review Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254[9]

Because Petitioner filed his petition after the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2254 governs review of his claims. Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997); Breard v. Pruett, 134 F.3d 615, 618 (4th Cir. 1998). Under the AEDPA, federal courts may not grant habeas corpus relief unless the underlying state adjudication:

(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). “Section 2254(d)(1) describes the standard of review to be applied to claims challenging how the state courts applied federal law, while § 2254(d)(2) describes the standard to be applied to claims challenging how the state courts determined the facts.” Winston v. Kelly, 592 F.3d 535, 553 (4th Cir. 2010).

“[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 411 (2000). “A state court’s determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fairminded jurists could disagree’ on the correctness of the state court’s decision, ” and “[e]ven a strong case for relief does not mean the state court’s contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 88 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). Moreover, state court factual determinations are presumed to be correct, and Petitioner has the burden to rebut this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

Under the AEDPA, a federal court must afford a state court’s decision the “deference and latitude that are not in operation when the case” is being considered on direct review. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 101. Federal review of a state court decision under the AEDPA standard does not require an opinion from the state court explaining its reasoning. See Id. at 98 (observing “[t]here is no text in [§ 2254] requiring a statement of reasons” by the state court). If no explanation accompanies the state court’s decision, a federal habeas petitioner must show there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. Id. Pursuant to § 2254(d), a federal habeas court must (1) determine what arguments or theories supported or could have supported the state court’s decision; and (2) ask whether it is possible that fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding of a prior decision of the United States Supreme Court. Id. at 102.

In other words, to obtain habeas corpus from a federal court, “a state prisoner must show that the state court’s ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Id. at 103. “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Id. at 102. Section 2254(d) codifies the view that habeas corpus is a “guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Id. at 102-03 (internal quotation marks omitted).

IV. Strickland Test for Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel must be reviewed under the two-part test enunciated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). A habeas petitioner must first show counsel’s performance was deficient and fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. Id. at 687-88; see also Harrington, 562 U.S. at 105 (“Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under § 2254(d).”). Second, the petitioner must show prejudice, meaning “there is a reasonable probability ...

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