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Stokes v. Stirling

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

March 24, 2017

Sammie Louis Stokes, Petitioner,
v.
Bryan P. Stirling, Director, South Carolina Department of Corrections, and Joseph McFadden, Lieber Correctional Institution, Respondents.

          ORDER

          R. Bryan Harwell United States District Judge.

         Petitioner 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] 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[2] 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.[3] 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.

         Standard of Review

         Out of an abundance of caution, the Magistrate Judge made only a recommendation to the Court on the motion to stay.[4] 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 & 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).

         Background[5]

         The 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.

         Petitioner's federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus[6] 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, [7] and Respondents filed a timely reply to Petitioner's objections. See ECF Nos. 91 & 95.

         Discussion

         The 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).[8] 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.

         Good Cause[9]

         Petitioner 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."[10] 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.

         Next, 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 part.[11]

         Having 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 ...


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