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Baylock v. McFadden

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

July 27, 2017

Elijah Solomon Baylock, Jr., Petitioner,
v.
Joseph McFadden as Warden of Lieber Correctional Institution, Respondent.

          OPINION & ORDER

          Henry M. Herlong, Jr. Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court for review of the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald, made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 for the District of South Carolina.[1] Elijah Solomon Baylock, Jr. (“Baylock”) is a state prisoner seeking habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his Report and Recommendation, Magistrate Judge McDonald recommends granting the Respondent's motion for summary judgment and denying Baylock's petition.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Baylock is currently incarcerated at Lieber Correctional Institution, a South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) facility. In September 2010, Baylock was indicted in South Carolina state court for two counts of criminal sexual conduct with a minor first degree and two counts of committing a lewd act on a minor. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1 (App'x 443-46), ECF No. 8-1.) After a jury trial, Baylock was found guilty of one count of criminal sexual conduct with a minor first degree and one count of committing a lewd act on a minor. (Id. Ex. 1 (App'x 285-86), ECF No. 8-1.) Baylock was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment for criminal sexual conduct and 15 years' imprisonment for committing a lewd act on a minor, such terms to be served concurrently. (Id. Ex. 1 (App'x 299-300), ECF No. 8-1.)

         On April 28, 2011, Baylock appealed his conviction. (Id. Ex. 2 (Not. of App.), ECF No. 8-2.) The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed Baylock's conviction on August 8, 2012. (Id. Ex. 1 (App'x 335-36), ECF No. 8-2.) On April 10, 2013, Baylock filed an application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”), raising ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct claims. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1 (App'x 341-36), ECF No. 8-1.) An evidentiary hearing was held on May 21, 2014. (Id. Ex. 1 (App'x 356-420), ECF No. 8-1.) On August 25, 2014, the PCR court dismissed Baylock's PCR application. (Id. Ex. 1 (App'x 421-42), ECF No. 8-1). Baylock filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the South Carolina Supreme Court on October 6, 2014. (Id. Ex. 3 (Pet. for Writ of Cert.), ECF No. 8-3.) On October 21, 2015, the South Carolina Supreme Court granted Baylock's petition for writ of certiorari. (Id. Ex. 6 (Oct. 21, 2015 Order), ECF No. 8-6.) However, on June 29, 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 7, (Jun. 29, 2016 Order), ECF No. 8-7.)

         Baylock filed the instant § 2254 petition on October 25, 2016, [2] raising the following grounds for relief:

Ground One: Petitioner Elijah Baylock's constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel was denied when his trial counsel failed to object or properly address testimony regarding the prosecution and guilty plea of Petitioner's brother, Deandre Baylock.
Ground Two: The trial court's charge to the jury on corroboration of the victim's testimony was an unconstitutional and impermissible comment on the facts of the case.

(§ 2254 Pet. 20-22, ECF No. 1.) On December 19, 2016, Respondent filed a motion for summary judgment. (Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 9.) Baylock responded in opposition on March 6, 2017. (Resp. Opp'n Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 14.) On March 13, 2017, Respondent replied. (Reply, ECF No. 16.) Magistrate Judge McDonald issued a Report and Recommendation on June 1, 2017, recommending granting Respondent's motion for summary judgment and denying Baylock's petition. (R&R 24, ECF No. 17.) Baylock filed timely objections to the Report and Recommendation on June 29, 2017. (Objs., ECF No. 22.) On July 13, 2017, Respondent responded to Baylock's objections. (Resp. Opp'n Objs., ECF No. 24.) This matter is ripe for consideration.

         II. Discussion of the Law

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate only “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In deciding whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the evidence of the non-moving party is to be believed and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in his favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). However, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. at 248.

         A litigant “cannot create a genuine issue of material fact through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985). “[W]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate.” Monahan v. Cty. of Chesterfield, Va., 95 F.3d 1263, 1265 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Ballenger v. N.C. Agric. Extension Serv., 815 F.2d 1001, 1005 (4th Cir. 1987) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         B. Standard of Review in a § 2254 Petition

         In addition to the standard that the court must employ in considering motions for summary judgment, the court must also consider the petition under the requirements set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Under § 2254(d),

[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in the State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim - (1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

         As “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct, ” the petitioner has “the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). With respect to reviewing the state court's application of federal law, “‘a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.'” Humphries v. Ozmint, 397 F.3d 206, 216 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000)). Further, “an ‘unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law, ' because an incorrect application of federal law is not, in all instances, objectively unreasonable.” Id. (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 410). “Thus, to grant [a petitioner's] habeas petition, [the court] must conclude that the state court's adjudication of his claims was not only incorrect, but that it was objectively unreasonable.” McHone v. Polk, 392 F.3d 691, 719 (4th Cir. 2004).

         C. Objections

         Objections to the Report and Recommendation must be specific. Failure to file specific objections constitutes a waiver of a party's right to further judicial review, including appellate review, if the recommendation is accepted by the district judge. See United States v. Schronce, 727 F.2d 91, 94 & n.4 (4th Cir. 1984). In the absence of specific objections to the Report and Recommendation of the magistrate judge, this court is not required to give any explanation for adopting the recommendation. See Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199 (4th Cir. 1983).

         Baylock specifically objects that the magistrate judge erred in finding that the PCR court did not err because counsel was not ineffective for failing to: (1) object to testimony regarding the guilty plea of Baylock's brother, Deandre Baylock (“Deandre”); (2) request a curative instruction regarding the evidence of Deandre's guilty plea; and (3) object to the solicitor's closing statements concerning Deandre's guilty plea. (Objs. 2-5, ECF No. 22.)

         1. Admission of Testimony

         Baylock objects that the magistrate judge erred in finding no error in the PCR Court's determination that counsel's failure to object to testimony regarding the conviction of his brother, Deandre, was based on a valid trial strategy. (Id. at 2-4, ECF No. 22.) In order to successfully challenge a conviction or sentence on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, Baylock must demonstrate that his counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and that he was prejudiced by his counsel's deficient performance. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). With respect to the first prong, there is “a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. In order to prove prejudice, Baylock must “show there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine the confidence in the outcome.” Id. at 694.

         In regard to counsel's strategy, “[s]tanding alone, unsuccessful trial tactics neither constitute prejudice nor definitively prove ineffective assistance of counsel.” Bell v. Evatt, 72 F.3d 421, 429 (4th Cir. 1995). “For a lawyer's trial performance to be deficient, his errors must have been so serious that he was not functioning as the counsel guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” United States v. Roane, 378 F.3d 382, 404 (4th Cir. 2004) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Baylock argues that counsel's failure to object to the testimony of Jakayiah Beaton (“Beaton”) and Myesha Singleton (“Singleton”) was clearly erroneous because the testimony regarding Deandre's guilty plea for sexually assaulting the victim implied that both he and Baylock sexually assaulted the victim. (Objs. 2-3, ECF No. 22.) Additionally, Baylock argues that his counsel's failure to object could not have been the result of trial strategy because counsel admitted during the PCR hearing that the decision not to object was a mistake. (Id. at 4, ECF No. 22.) Further, Baylock argues that even if the decision not to object was part of counsel's trial strategy, counsel was ineffective because testimony regarding Deandre's guilty plea was analogous to admitting the confession of a co-defendant, which the Supreme Court has found to be prejudicial. See Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123, 132 (1968); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 490-91 (1963).

         The PCR Court addressed counsel's failure to object to testimony regarding Deandre's guilty plea and found that counsel was not ineffective because counsel's decision was based upon sound trial strategy and that counsel was not ineffective. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1 (App'x 430-34), ECF No. 8-1.) Specifically, the PCR court found:

Counsel was not ineffective for failing to object to this line of testimony. This Court finds the testimony of both Beaton and Singleton does not appear to indicate the Applicant's brother admitted the Applicant's guilt, but rather that the Applicant's brother admitted his own guilt, potential sole responsibility for the acts and ultimately was convicted after his admission. This Court does not interpret the testimony of Beaton and Singleton [regarding Deandre's guilty plea] as the Applicant's brother indicating the Applicant's guilt.
Although this Court finds that Counsel's testimony is more credible than the Applicant's testimony, after exhaustive review of the record, this Court finds that Counsel's overreaching defense strategy was to attack the credibility of the victim by highlighting her allegations of assault against multiple people. This Court finds that the admission of Deandre's conviction and the accusation against Katrina Rynes was the subject of the State's motion in limine. The Solicitor intended to introduce evidence of the victim's allegations as a preemptive measure because Counsel's articulated . . . theory of the case: attacking the victim's credibility by emphasizing the victim's false allegations. [sic] Counsel told the court that he and the Solicitor had reached an agreement regarding the admissibility of the victim's allegations. However, the court cautioned Counsel regarding this strategy due to the “all or nothing” nature of the testimony. Even though Counsel stated during his testimony at the PCR hearing that in hindsight, he should have made a contemporaneous objection to the introduction of Deandre's guilty plea, Counsel was well aware of the ramifications of his strategy both at the commencement of trial and throughout the testimony. This Court finds Counsel is not ineffective for employing a particular defense strategy that, after all the testimony in the record has been elicited, later becomes ineffectual.
This Court finds Counsel made a strategic decision to elicit testimony about the accusations against the Applicant's brother at trial in order to exculpate the Applicant and consistent with this strategy question the veracity of the victim. This Court finds after the State presented testimony about the victim's allegations against the Applicant's brother at trial, Counsel effectively in cross examination effectively used the testimony to the defense's advantage. This Court also finds the Applicant was not prejudiced by Counsel's performance since based on the testimony elicited by the State from ...

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