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Compton v. Cartledge

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

September 26, 2016

Otis James Compton, Petitioner,
v.
Warden Leroy Cartledge, Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Bruce Howe Hendricks United States District Judge.

         Petitioner, Otis James Compton, (“Petitioner”), filed this application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 1.) In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(d), D.S.C., the action was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Mary Gordon Baker, for pretrial handling and a Report and Recommendation (“Report”). Magistrate Judge Baker recommends that Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted and Petitioner's § 2254 petition be dismissed. (ECF No. 23.) The Report sets forth in detail the relevant facts and standards of law on this matter and the Court incorporates them without recitation.

         BACKGROUND

         Petitioner filed this action against Respondent alleging, inter alia, ineffective assistance of counsel in proceedings related to Petitioner's indictment and subsequent conviction on various charges related to the murder of Johnny Hanna: burglary, murder, armed robbery, malicious injury to real property, and possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of a violent crime. (ECF Nos. 12-9 at 104; 12-12 at 38- 40.) On August 1, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report; and, on September 2, 2016, Petitioner filed his Objections.[1] (ECF No. 27.) Respondent filed a reply on August 19, 2016. (ECF No. 28.) Having carefully reviewed the record, the Court finds that the Magistrate Judge has accurately and adequately summarized the disputed and undisputed facts relevant to this action. The Court has reviewed the objections, but finds them to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.[2]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to the district court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the district court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made, and the court 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 need not conduct a de novo review when a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of a timely filed, specific objection, the Magistrate Judge's conclusions are reviewed only for clear error. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005).

         DISCUSSION

         The Magistrate Judge found that each of Petitioner's claims fail on their merits in her extremely thorough forty-five page Report. While Petitioner purportedly objects to the entire Report, he does not offer any specific objections as to Grounds One and Two. Rather, in objecting to these two grounds, Petitioner “incorporates by reference” the arguments put forth in his “Reply in Opposition to Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment.” (ECF No. 27 at 4-5.) Because Petitioner fails to point to any specific error in the Report as to these grounds, the Court reviews Grounds One and Two for clear error. See Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (“Courts have . . . held de novo review to be unnecessary in . . . situations when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed recommendation”).

         Ground One alleges that Petitioner's constitutional rights were violated when statements he “made to the police in furtherance of an unkept written agreement” were admitted “against him during his subsequent murder trial, where the statements in question were induced by promises of leniency in exchange for information about the murder.” (ECF No. 1-1 at 4.) The Magistrate Judge discussed this claim in exhaustive detail. (ECF No. 23 at 13-20.) She first quoted the entire written plea agreement (“the agreement”) referenced in this claim wherein the State agreed to reduce the sentences on unrelated, [3] unspecified burglary charges “by all reasonable means, ” subject to certain conditions, including Petitioner's truthful cooperation in the investigation of the death of Johnny Hanna (“Hanna”). (Id. at 14-15; ECF No. 12-11 at 259-260.) The Magistrate Judge then quoted both the trial court and appellate court's findings that: (1) the agreement could not be interpreted to affect any potential charges against Petitioner relating to the burglary of Mr. Hanna's home and his murder; and (2) Petitioner breached the agreement by failing to cooperate truthfully. (ECF No. 23 at 16-18.) She correctly found that the “state court's rejection of this claim is not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, nor did the adjudication result in an unreasonable determination of the facts.” (Id. at 19.) The Court finds no error in the Magistrate Judge's conclusions here and grants summary judgment on Ground One.

         Ground Two alleges that the South Carolina Court of Appeals “erred by holding Petitioner's statements to informant Tracey Black [“Black”] were not obtained in violation of Petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to counsel where Black initiated contact with Petitioner while he was a government agent, and while Petitioner was represented by counsel on the plea agreement with the state.”[4] (ECF No. 1-1 at 28.) Here, the Magistrate Judge quoted the South Carolina Court of Appeals' discussion of this allegation. (ECF No. 23 at 21.) Noting that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is offense-specific, the Court of Appeals found that because Petitioner was not indicted on the charges related to the Hanna murder until after he provided information to Black, there was no Sixth Amendment violation regarding information gathered by Black from Petitioner about the Hanna murder. State v. Compton, 623 S.E.2d 661, 666 (S.C. Ct. App. 2005); see State v. Council, 515 S.E.2d, 508, 515 (S.C. 1999) (“The Sixth Amendment right [to counsel] attaches only ‘post-indictment, ' at least in the questioning/statement setting.” (citing Michigan v. Harvey, 494 U.S. 344 (1990)). The Magistrate Judge correctly found that the Court of Appeals findings here were not “contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, nor did the adjudication result in an unreasonable determination of the facts.” (ECF No. 23 at 21.) Finding no error in the Magistrate Judge's conclusions, the Court grants summary judgment on Ground Two.

         As noted above, Petitioner makes specific objections regarding his remaining claims for habeas relief. The Court therefore conducts de novo review on Grounds Three through Seven. Ground Three alleges that the South Carolina Court of Appeals “erred by ruling the trial court did not impermissibly limit his cross-examination of Solicitor Jones regarding his prior testimony at a pre-trial hearing.” (ECF No. 1-1 at 30.) Specifically, Petitioner alleges that the trial court's “limitation on this permissible confrontation” violated his “Constitutional right to confrontation as protected by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments” where the solicitor “admitted in that testimony that he contemplated Petitioner's attorney [Joe Smithdeal] being involved in the future to fulfill the terms of the plea agreement and, therefore, the solicitor's testimony at the prior hearing was admissible as a prior inconsistent statement.” (Id.)

         To address this claim, the Magistrate Judge first quoted the relevant testimony given by Solicitor Jones at Petitioner's trial. She also quoted the South Carolina Court of Appeals' treatment of this claim. (ECF No. 23 at 23-25.) The Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not err in limiting the examination of Solicitor Jones, noting that the testimony counsel sought to elicit from Solicitor Jones “was not relevant to the issue of [Petitioner's] guilt or innocence” and was also “based upon pure speculation that counsel would continue in his involvement.” Compton, 623 S.E.2d at 666-667. The Magistrate Judge agreed with these findings and found that the trial court appropriately exercised its discretion in “declin[ing] to allow the Solicitor to speculate about future events.” (ECF No. 23 at 26 (citing Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 679 (1986) (“[T]rial judges retain wide latitude insofar as the Confrontation Clause is concerned to impose reasonable limits on such cross-examination based on concerns about, among other things, harassment, prejudice, confusion of the issues, the witness' safety, or interrogation that is repetitive or only marginally relevant.”)).)

         Importantly, the Magistrate Judge found that even if the limitation of the examination of Solicitor Jones was erroneous, Petitioner is still not entitled to federal habeas relief under the harmless-error analysis. (Id.) She correctly noted that “the constitutionally improper denial of a defendant's opportunity to impeach a witness, like other Confrontation Clause errors, is subject to a Chapman [v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967)] harmless-error analysis.” (Id. (quoting Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. at 684) (internal quotations omitted).) Here, “[t]he correct inquiry is whether, assuming that the damaging potential of the cross-examination were fully realized, a reviewing court might nonetheless say that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Id. (quoting Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. at 684) (internal quotations omitted).) Applying this standard, the Magistrate Judge found it “difficult to envision any significant alteration to Petitioner's trial” even if counsel had been able to ask Solicitor Jones about his prior statement. (ECF No. 23 at 27.) She emphasized that “Solicitor Jones' testimony had nothing to do with whether Petitioner committed the crimes at issue.” (Id.)

         Here, Petitioner argues that the testimony his counsel sought to elicit from Solicitor Jones was “material to arguments being advanced by the defense . . . [to suppress the] statements made by [Petitioner] after the agreement was entered.” (ECF No. 27 at 6-7.) More specifically, Petitioner asserts that “the Solicitor's belief that Attorney Smithdeal would continue to represent Petitioner on the full subject matter covered by the agreement was relevant to the position of the defense regarding statements made as a consequence of that agreement.” (Id. at 6.) To the extent these arguments focus on immunity allegedly provided by the agreement, the Court of Appeals correctly noted that “[t]he jury was not entitled to determine whether the agreement provided transactional immunity, as that was a question of contract interpretation before the court.” Compton, 623 S.E.2d at 667.

         The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge that the trial court did not violate clearly established federal law in limiting Solicitor Jones testimony concerning his “contemplations” for the future. Further, Petitioner has failed to establish that the alleged constitutional violation was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. On this point, Petitioner argues that “the revelation of these prior inconsistent statements would have cast doubt on the credibility of this important witness by contradicting his trial testimony and would have provided evidence the jury may have found supported Petitioner's claim that his statements regarding this murder were not freely and voluntarily entered.” (ECF No. 27 at 7.) The Court is not convinced of the materiality, much less the purported significance, of the testimony at issue. Petitioner does not explain how Solicitor Jones' “contemplation” of Attorney Smithdeal's future representation of Petitioner would be relevant to determining Petitioner's guilt at trial. As for Petitioner's credibility argument, the Court notes that the jury would likely already have accounted for some bias ...


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