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Merritt v. McFadden

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

April 20, 2016

Darell A. Merritt, #201444, Petitioner,
Joseph McFadden, Respondent.


          KAYMANI D. WEST, Magistrate Judge.

         Darell A. Merritt ("Petitioner"), a state prisoner, filed this pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(c) (D.S.C.), for a Report and Recommendation ("Report") on Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment and Return. ECF Nos. 15, 16. Pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), the court advised Petitioner of the summary judgment and dismissal procedures and the possible consequences if he failed to respond adequately to Respondent's Motion. ECF No. 17. Petitioner filed a Response in opposition to Respondent's Motion. ECF No. 22. Having carefully considered the parties' submissions and the record in this case, the undersigned recommends that Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted.

         I. Procedural History

         Petitioner is currently incarcerated at Perry Correctional Institution, part of the South Carolina Department of Corrections prison system. ECF No. 21. At the time he filed the Petition in this case, Petitioner was incarcerated at Lieber Correctional Institution. Pet. 1, ECF No. 1. Petitioner was charged by grand jury in Greenwood County with murder and third-degree arson. ECF No. 16-1.[1] On June 3, 2014, Petitioner, represented by Greenwood County Public Defender Janna A. Nelson and Assistant Public Defender Thomas Adducci ("plea counsel"), appeared in General Sessions Court at Laurens, South Carolina before Honorable Frank R. Addy, Jr. ("plea judge") to enter a guilty plea to two of the charged crimes. The State was represented at the plea hearing by Attorney David Stumbo, an Assistant Solicitor, who informed the plea judge that the State had agreed to allow Petitioner to plea "straight up" to murder and arson, with dismissal of the other two pending charges. ECF No. 16-2 at 3-4. Upon questioning by the plea judge, plea counsel Nelson indicated that she agreed with the plea, stated that she and plea counsel Adducci had discussed the sentencing possibilities with Petitioner, and stated that she believed the State had sufficient evidence against Petitioner to convict him if he went to trial. Id. at 5-6. Petitioner told the plea judge that he was disabled by back problems and blindness and had been hospitalized twice in the past for depression. He stated that he was taken off several medications "cold turkey" around the time of the incident resulting in the charges against him. Id. at 6-7. Petitioner testified that he was taking an antidepressant on the day of the plea, but that it only made him "mellow" and did not sedate him. He told the plea judge that he understood what was going on, and plea counsel Nelson told the plea judge that Petitioner had been evaluated and found competent to stand trial. Id. at 8. Petitioner answered affirmatively when he was asked if he understood the potential sentences he was facing if he pleaded guilty and that he understood that no specific sentence was negotiated. Id. at 9. After hearing the State's recitation of the facts on the charges against him and agreeing with most of them, but denying that he intended to hurt the victim, id. at 11-13, Petitioner responded affirmatively to the plea judge's extensive questions about whether he understood the trial-related rights he was giving up by pleading guilty. Id. at 14-20. Petitioner also responded that he was satisfied with plea counsel's representation, had met with them enough, and had understood all the conversations he had with counsel. Id. at 20-21. Petitioner specifically stated, "I'm the one that wanted to plead guilty." Id. at 21. Petitioner denied that anyone had threatened or promised him anything except the dismissal of the other two charges to get him to plead guilty. Id. at 21-22. Petitioner told the plea judge that he understood everything that had gone on during the hearing and had answered the questions truthfully. He also said that he was sure he did not want to go to trial, and immediately thereafter, the plea judge found that there was a factual basis for a voluntary plea and accepted Petitioner's guilty plea. Id. at 23. After hearing from counsel and the victim's mother and sister and from Petitioner and his brother, the plea judge sentenced Petitioner to forty-five years on the murder conviction and concurrent fifteen years on the arson conviction. Id. at 37-38. Petitioner did not file a direct appeal.

         Petitioner filed a post-conviction relief ("PCR") application on September 3, 2014, raising numerous grounds for relief charging ineffective assistance of counsel. ECF No. 16-4 at 3-5. The following is a brief summarization of the grounds for relief: failure to adequately investigate; failure to properly investigate mental health and addiction issues; involuntary plea due to improper advice of counsel and threat of more serious sentence to cover up unpreparedness; coerced plea due to attorney saying he was guilty. Id. at 5. After the State filed its Return to the PCR application, ECF No. 16-5, an evidentiary hearing was convened on February 17, 2015 at the Greenwood County Courthouse before the Honorable Donald B. Hocker ("PCR judge). Attorney Laura M. Saunders ("PCR counsel") represented Petitioner and Assistant Attorney General J. Rutledge Johnson represented the State at the hearing. ECF No. 16-6 at 1. At the beginning of the hearing, Petitioner, through PCR counsel, moved to dismiss the PCR application with prejudice. The PCR judge placed Petitioner under oath and questioned him about the voluntariness of his request and dismissed the application.[2] The PCR court's order dated March 2, 2015 is quoted below in its entirety.

This matter comes before the Court by way of an Application for Post-Conviction Relief filed September 3, 2014. A hearing was convened at the Greenwood County Courthouse on February 17, 2015, at which time the Applicant was present in court and represented by Laura M. Saunders, Esquire. The Respondent was represented by J. Rutledge Johnson of the South Carolina Attorney General's Office. At the hearing, the Applicant and his attorney informed this Court that the Applicant wished to withdraw his application for post-conviction relief with prejudice.
The Applicant was sworn and questioned by the Court about his withdrawal request, to ensure that the withdrawal of the application was free and voluntary and that the Applicant had not been promised anything or threatened, coerced, or induced into withdrawing the application; and that the Applicant was fully satisfied with the services of his appointed attorney in this matter.
Based upon the Applicant's testimony, this Court finds that the dismissal of this application for post-conviction relief is voluntary and that the Applicant has knowingly and intelligently elected to have his application dismissed with prejudice.


1. That the application for post conviction relief be dismissed with prejudice; and
2. That the Applicant be remanded to the custody of the Respondent. Id. at 1-2. Petitioner thereafter filed documents with the Supreme Court of South Carolina that were construed as a pro se notice of appeal. On April 8, 2015, the court dismissed the appeal upon a holding that Petitioner could not appeal the dismissal of the PCR application that he, himself, had requested. ECF No. 16-7.

         II. Discussion

         A. Federal Habeas Issues

         Petitioner raises the following issues in his federal Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, quoted verbatim:

GROUND ONE: Post-conviction counsel advised, no ground of merits of ineffectiveness of plea counsel, their noting do [sic] get you any relief.
This P.C.R. counsel was paid protect for prejudice & cause for the Federal Court's Hear claims of ineffective assistance of plea counsel. See Martinez v. Ryan 2012 W.L. 912950 . U.S. cause prejudiced. P.R.C. [sic] counsel influence - confuse - discourage signing waiver contest his state hearing - no - merits get you relief. No ground challenge sentence ineffective assistance of plea counsel. Tenth Grade untelligent [sic] made waiving federal constitutional rights - Nature of elements.
GROUND TWO: For ineffective assistance of guilty plea counsel ineffectiveness for protect client of untelligent [sic] knowingly waiver mandate signing federal constitution 6th amendment right intelligent made.
See Boykin -v- Alabama Rule 395 U.S. 238 1969. Ineffective assistance plea counsel. Ineffectiveness at stage protect for the indigent of 6th amendment of const. U.S.C.A. us cont's [sic] of counsel, unprofessional error's for not challegn [sic] the intellegent [sic] knowingly waiver, explaining all rights being given up possibility out come of all circumstance - psychiatric mental illness condition Gone cold turkey jerk off medication time crime occurred.
GROUND THREE: Ineffective assistance - post-conviction-counsel advised sign away that actually prejudice biase [sic] cause 6th Amend Right.
Indigent state has rights to fairness of due process clause of 14th Amendment's challegen [sic] violation of deprivation an equal protect Sixth Amendment U.S. Const: at post-conviction-hearing-that was paid with State funds by State taxepayer [sic] dollar. Post-conviction counsel should been more help to her client at this stage. Man with just 10th grade education. Know nothing about all constitution rights giving up. Prejudice, post-conviction counsel, failure protection Sixth Amendment of indigent without knowledge of laws rigths [sic] being waived. Constitution right's counsel competence was below standard for her client defense.

         ECF No. 1 at 5-8.

         B. Standard for Summary Judgment

         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 a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that summary judgment is appropriate; if the movant carries its burden, then the burden shifts to the non-movant to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. SeeCelotex Corp. v. Catrett,477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). If a movant asserts that a fact cannot be disputed, it must support that assertion either by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the ...

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