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Hough v. Cartledge

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

February 27, 2017

Michael A. Hough, Petitioner,
Leroy Cartledge, Respondent.


          Richard Mark Gergel United States District Court

         Michael A. Hough ("Petitioner") is a state prisoner confined at McCormick Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Petitioner is proceeding pro se and seeks habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R. & R.") of the Magistrate Judge to grant Respondent's motion for summary judgment and deny the habeas petition. (Dkt. No. 17.) Petitioner filed objections to the R. & R. in October 2016. (Dkt. No. 23.) This Court has reviewed the record in this matter, the decisions of the state courts, the briefs of the parties, the Magistrate's R. & R., Petitioner's objections to the R. & R., and the relevant case law. For the reasons below, this Court GRANTS Respondent's motion for summary judgment and DENIES the habeas petition.

         I. Background

         A. Indictment and Trial

         Petitioner was indicted on one count of murder in October 2008, and he proceeded to trial by jury on June 22, 2009. (Dkt. No. 11-1 at 179-80.) Cornelius J. Riley and Jason D. Kirincich represented Petitioner at trial. The trial court dissolved the jury when one juror discovered information about Petitioner's criminal history and shared it with the other jurors. On July 28, 2009, represented by Mr. Riley, Petitioner pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and waived his right to a jury trial. (Id. at 88-109.) The court sentenced Petitioner to twenty-three (23) years in prison. (Id. at 108.) There were no direct appeals.

         B. Post-Conviction Relief

         On November 20, 2009, Petitioner filed a pro se application for post-conviction relief (PCR) based on ineffective assistance of counsel. (Id. at 110.) Petitioner alleged that Mr. Riley coerced him to plead guilty when he incorrectly told Petitioner that he could not receive an involuntary manslaughter jury instruction at trial. Petitioner argued that because there was evidence of a struggle over a weapon between himself and the victim, he may have been able to obtain an involuntary manslaughter instruction at trial. (Id. at 118.) The State filed a return to the petition on March 19, 2010 and requested an evidentiary hearing. (Id. at 119-22.) Jeremy Thompson represented Petitioner at his PCR hearing on June 7, 2011.

         In its July 22, 2011 order granting Petitioner's PCR application, the PCR court made the following findings of fact from the record and that hearing:

The facts in this case are not in significant dispute. According to the Applicant, on April 17, 2008, he and two other individuals planned to rob the home of Rodney Baskins, a known drug dealer. They went by the house but saw that there were people at the home, so they left and planned to come back when the home was [unoccupied]. When they returned, they saw that there [were] people still in the home. The Applicant told the others that he would just go up to the home and rob Baskins. However, on his way up to the home, the Applicant thought better of his plan and decided he was going to sell his gun. Before he reached the home, the Applicant encountered Francis "Puddin" Horton, the victim in this case, and offered to sell him the gun. The victim asked to examine the gun, but the Applicant refused. The victim then grabbed the gun and a struggle ensued. During the struggle, the victim was fatally shot. [FN1] The Applicant testified that he did not know who pulled the trigger and that he did not mean to shoot the victim.
At the time of the incident, the Applicant was on community supervision. Following the Applicant's arrest, his community supervision was revoked and he was placed back into SCDC custody. For the bulk of the Applicant's service of this sentence, he was housed at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, South Carolina. The Applicant was released from SCDC custody on April 1, 2009, and was returned to the Kershaw County Detention Center, where he remained until his plea. Although the Applicant was scheduled to proceed to trial the week of June 22, 2009, defense counsel had only met with the Applicant for a total of three to four hours on a few occasions prior to that date. See 6/22/09 Tr, p. 4 at 23-25. At the outset of that trial, the Applicant attempted to have defense counsel relieved, but the motion was denied. The trial was ultimately continued after a juror obtained the Applicant's criminal record and shared it with the other jurors. See 6/22/09 Tr. p. 66, lines 12-22; p. 72, lines 3-22.
Prior to the aborted trial, the Applicant told defense counsel that he was not present at Baskins' home the night of the shooting and that he had nothing to do with the death of the victim. Following the trial, the Applicant sent defense counsel a letter detailing his involvement in the death of the victim. Defense counsel sent a letter back to the Applicant stating
Please remember that, as you've told me, [I] you went to Rodney's house with a gun; [2] you had the gun out and it went off in a struggle; and [3] a man died. If the prosecution can prove those three things, as I believe they can, the jury will have no choice but to convict you of at least voluntary manslaughter, which the State has offered.
Letter to Applicant dated July 17, 2009. [FN2] Defense counsel testified before this Court that while he did not recall the Applicant telling him about the attempted sale of the firearm, the letter to the Applicant effectively summarized his advice to the Applicant about accepting a plea deal. The Applicant testified that defense counsel never advised him that evidence of a struggle over the gun could be used to argue for the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter at trial. The Applicant further testified that had he known that the jury could have been instructed on the crime of involuntary manslaughter, he would have proceeded to trial.
[FN1:] Although the State's witnesses would have disagreed with the Applicant as to how the incident began, the State informed the plea court that a struggle over the gun did occur. See Guilty Plea Tr, p. 8, lines 2-6.
[FN2:] This letter was admitted as an exhibit during the hearing.

(Id. at 171-72.) Relying on these facts and the decisions of two South Carolina courts which had found that evidence of a struggle over a weapon supports submission of an involuntary manslaughter charge to the jury, the PCR court found that "counsel's advice was incorrect as a matter of law." (Dkt. No. 11-1 at 174); see Tisdale v. State, 662 S.E.2d 410, 412 (S.C. 2008) ("Evidence of a struggle between the defendant and the victim over a weapon supports submission of an involuntary manslaughter charge."); see also Casey v. State, 409 S.E.2d 391, 392 (S.C. 1991) ("Evidence of a struggle between a defendant and a Victim over a weapon is sufficient for submission of an involuntary manslaughter instruction to the jury.") Respondent argued that the struggle over the gun alone was not sufficient to support a charge of involuntary manslaughter when Petitioner's conduct did not otherwise meet either definition of involuntary manslaughter. The PCR court disagreed with Respondent's position on this point, but it nonetheless found that Petitioner might have been entitled to an involuntary manslaughter charge at trial based on the first definition[1] of involuntary manslaughter: the unintentional killing of another without malice but while engaged in an unlawful activity not tending to cause death or great bodily harm.[2]

         Notably, the PCR court found that to the extent there was any dispute at the PCR hearing about whether Petitioner had given counsel the full version of events prior to pleading guilty, "Counsel's failure to sufficiently communicate with the Applicant led to a breakdown in the attorney/client relationship that resulted in the Applicant holding back information from defense counsel." (Dkt. No. 11-1 at 175.) Defense counsel met with Petitioner for only three to four hours in advance of Petitioner's scheduled trial for murder. (Id.)

         At his PCR hearing, Petitioner testified that he was prejudiced by his counsel's deficient performance because he would have proceeded to trial instead of pleading guilty had he received correct legal advice. The PCR court found Petitioner credible on this point: "[P]roper advice about the possible results at trial, instead of the improper advice which was given, would have resulted in this case ending at trial, not at a plea, " (Id. at 176)

         C. PCR Appeal

         On September 26, 2011, the state filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court of South Carolina on the following two issues:

1) Whether Counsel's advice was correct that involuntary manslaughter did not apply considering the factual scenario ...

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