United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division
Bryan Harwell United States District Judge.
Sammie Louis Stokes, a state prisoner sentenced to death,
initiated this action by filing a motion to stay his
execution along with a motion to appoint counsel.
See ECF No. 1. Petitioner has since filed a petition
for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254
and an amended petition. See ECF Nos. 22, 51, &
75. In conjunction with his amended petition, Petitioner
filed a motion to stay these proceedings pending the
exhaustion of state remedies-specifically, Petitioner has
filed a state habeas corpus action and asks this Court to stay
the instant matter while that state action is pending. The
matter is now before the Court for review of the Report and
Recommendation (R & R) of United States Magistrate Judge
Shiva V. Hodges. See R & R, ECF No. 87. The
Magistrate Judge recommends denying the motion to stay.
R&Rat8. Petitioner has filed objections to the R & R,
and Respondents have filed a reply to the objections.
See ECF Nos. 91 & 95.
an abundance of caution, the Magistrate Judge made only a
recommendation to the Court on the motion to
stay. 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).
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 & Ace.
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).
State of South Carolina indicted Petitioner for murder,
criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and first-degree criminal
sexual conduct in May 1999. Petitioner was convicted of all
counts and sentenced to death. Thereafter, he pursued both
direct appeal and post-conviction relief (PCR) remedies in
state court but was unsuccessful.
federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus is currently
pending in this Court. On December 20, 2016, Petitioner filed
a motion to stay this action so that he can pursue a state
habeas corpus action, which he simultaneously filed in the
South Carolina Supreme Court on December 20, 2016.
See ECF No. 76. Petitioner's claim in both his
state habeas action and the instant federal habeas action (as
Ground VI) is that his trial counsel and PCR counsel were
ineffective by failing to investigate, develop, and present
any mitigation evidence regarding Petitioner's background
and history. See ECF No. 75 at 5 (federal petition);
ECF No. 91-1 at 12-28 (state habeas petition). Respondents
filed a response opposing the motion, and Petitioner filed a
reply. See ECF Nos. 79 & 82. The Magistrate
Judge issued an R & R recommending that the Court deny
Petitioner's motion to stay. R & R at 8. Petitioner
filed timely objections to the R & R,  and Respondents
filed a timely reply to Petitioner's objections.
See ECF Nos. 91 & 95.
Magistrate Judge recommends denying Petitioner's motion
to stay because the information currently available does not
establish a stay is warranted under the framework set forth
by the United States Supreme Court in Rhines v.
Weber, 544 U.S. 269 (2005). R & R at 8. The
Magistrate Judge concluded Petitioner (1) failed to
demonstrate good cause and (2) failed to show his unexhausted
claim was potentially meritorious. See R & R at
4-8. Petitioner objects to both conclusions.
asserts the Magistrate Judge erred in finding "that Mr.
Stokes failed to demonstrate good cause for the failure to
raise the claim in state court because he failed to
demonstrate that PCR counsel was presumptively
ineffective." Pet.'s Objs. at 4. The Court
disagrees with Petitioner's characterization and notion
that the Magistrate Judge imposed a requirement on Petitioner
to show presumptive ineffective assistance of PCR counsel to
demonstrate good cause. Rather, the Magistrate Judge agreed
with Respondents' contention that Petitioner attempted to
demonstrate good cause by asking the Court to assume
PCR counsel was ineffective-for not pursuing a claim
regarding trial counsel's alleged failure to present
mitigation evidence-without tendering any evidence other than
the fact that PCR counsel did not pursue that claim.
See R & R at 5. The Court finds the Magistrate
Judge properly declined to follow Petitioner's own
reasoning and assume ineffectiveness from PCR counsel's
mere failure to pursue the claim, given that the record
reflects PCR counsel initially raised this claim but
subsequently abandoned it, and that the record contains no
evidence supporting a blind assumption that abandonment of
the claim was ineffectiveness as opposed to a strategic
decision on PCR counsel's part.
Petitioner argues "[abandonment of a claim is not per se
effective assistance of counsel." Pet.'s Objs. at
6-7. However, the Magistrate Judge simply concluded, for the
sole purpose of ruling on the motion to stay, that the mere
failure to pursue a particular claim against trial counsel
did not necessarily indicate ineffectiveness on PCR
counsel's part. The Magistrate Judge further noted (and
all parties agree) that PCR counsel initially raised the
claim regarding trial counsel's alleged ineffectiveness
(at least generally), but did not pursue it in the PCR
proceedings. See R & R at 5. There is no finding
in the R & R that such actions were the result of either
effective or ineffective assistance on PCR counsel's
reviewed the relevant parts of the record, as well as the
parties' arguments, the Court finds the good cause
requirement of Rhines has not been sufficiently
satisfied at this time to warrant a stay while Petitioner
pursues his state habeas corpus claim. At this point, the
Court has only Petitioner's allegation-raised in both the
instant case (as a Martinez claim) and in his
pending state habeas action-that PCR counsel was ineffective
for failing to pursue the claim that trial counsel was
ineffective for failing to properly investigate and present ...