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Williams v. Stirling

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

March 8, 2018

Charles Christopher Williams, Petitioner,
Bryan P. Stirling, Commissioner, South Carolina Department of Corrections, and Willie D. Davis, Warden of Kirkland Correctional Institution, Respondents.


         This matter is before the court pursuant to Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald's Report and Recommendation. (ECF No. 146.) Petitioner Charles Christopher Williams, an inmate incarcerated in Kirkland Correctional Institution in the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) under a sentence of death, seeks habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Id.) The petitioner filed fifteen grounds for relief. (ECF No. 74.) The Magistrate Judge recommends that (1) the petitioner's amended habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 be granted as to Ground Six, thereby returning him to state court for resentencing; (2) Grounds Eleven through Fifteen be dismissed without prejudice; (3) the petitioner's Motion for Evidentiary Hearing and to Expand the Record be denied; and (4) the petitioner's Motion to Stay pending the decision in Ayestas v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 1433, No. 16-6795, be denied. (ECF No. 146.)

         The petitioner and respondents filed objections and replies to the Report and Recommendation. (ECF Nos. 155, 156, 163, 164.) The Report and Recommendation, filed on December 11, 2017, sets forth the relevant factual and procedural background, which this court incorporates herein without a recitation. (ECF No. 146.)

         For the reasons set forth below, the court ACCEPTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation as to Grounds One through Ten, and REJECTS the Report and Recommendation as to Grounds Eleven through Fifteen (ECF No. 146). Therefore, the court GRANTS the respondents' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Grounds One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten and DENIES it as to Ground Six (ECF No. 101). Consequently, the court GRANTS petitioner's amended habeas petition as to Ground Six (ECF No. 74). Further, as to Grounds Eleven through Fifteen, the court GRANTS the petitioner a stay pending exhaustion of these claims in state court. Finally, the court DENIES WITHOUT PREJUDICE the petitioner's Motion to Expand the Record and for Evidentiary Hearing (ECF No. 109) and his Motion to Stay pending the decision in Ayestas v. Davis (ECF No. 121). Accordingly, the court REJECTS the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation as to petitioner's Motion to Stay pending the decision in Ayestas v. Davis (ECF No. 139).


         A. The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

         The Magistrate Judge's Report I'm j and Recommendation is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(c) for the District of South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See 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 and Recommendation to which specific objection is made, and the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge's recommendation or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         B. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the materials in the record show 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). “[I]n ruling on a motion for summary judgment, ‘the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863 (2014) (per curiam) (brackets omitted) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, ” and a fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         The party seeking summary judgment shoulders the initial burden of demonstrating to the court that there is no genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant has made this threshold demonstration, the nonmoving party, to survive the motion for summary judgment, may not rest on the allegations averred in its pleadings. Rather, the nonmoving party must demonstrate that specific, material facts exist which give rise to a genuine issue. See Id. at 324.

         C. Section 2254 Standard

         Because the petitioner filed the petition after the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), his claims are governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended. Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997). Section 2254 “sets several limits on the power of a federal court to grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a state prisoner.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). For instance, § 2254 authorizes review of only those applications asserting a prisoner is in custody in violation of the Constitution or federal law and only when, except in certain circumstances, the prisoner has exhausted remedies provided by the state. Id.

         When a § 2254 petition includes a claim that has been adjudicated on the merits in a state court proceeding, § 2254 provides that the application shall not be granted with respect to that claim, unless the state court's adjudication of the claim:

a. 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
b. 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). “This is a ‘difficult to meet, ' and ‘highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'” Pinholster, 563 U.S. at 181 (internal citations omitted) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011); Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam)).

         D. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         The Sixth Amendment provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” U.S. Const. amend. VI. The Supreme Court has held that this right is violated when counsel retained by, or appointed to, a criminal defendant fails to provide adequate or effective legal assistance. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). Strickland established a two-prong test for a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment, under which the criminal defendant must show deficient performance and resulting prejudice. Id. at 687.

         “The performance prong of Strickland requires a defendant to show ‘that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'” Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156');">566 U.S. 156, 163 (2012) (quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985)). “[C]ounsel should be ‘strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment, '” and courts should indulge in a “‘strong presumption that counsel's conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'” Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 17 (2013) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689-90). “To establish Strickland prejudice a defendant must ‘show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'” Lafler, 566 U.S. at 163 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694).

         The standard for an ineffective assistance claim under Strickland in the first instance is already “a most deferential one, ” and “‘[s]urmounting Strickland's high bar is never an easy task.'” Richter, 562 U.S. at 105 (quoting Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 (2010)). Consequently, “[e]stablishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is all the more difficult, as the standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both ‘highly deferential, ' and when the two apply in tandem, review is ‘doubly' so.” Id. (internal citations omitted) (quoting Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009)); Lindh, 521 U.S. at 333, n. 7 (1997); Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). “When § 2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel's actions were reasonable... [but] whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 89.

         E. Procedural Default

         A petitioner's failure to raise in state court a claim asserted in his § 2254 petition “implicates the requirements in habeas of exhaustion and procedural default.” Gray v. Netherland, 518 U.S. 152, 161 (1996). “The habeas statute generally requires a state prisoner to exhaust state remedies before filing a habeas petition in federal court.” Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 92 (2006). Thus, “[a] state prisoner is generally barred from obtaining federal habeas relief unless the prisoner has properly presented his or her claims through one ‘complete round of the State's established appellate review process.'” Id. (quoting O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 844 (1999)). In a similar vein, “a habeas petitioner who has failed to meet the State's procedural requirements for presenting his federal claims has deprived the state courts of an opportunity to address those claims in the first instance” and has procedurally defaulted those claims. Coleman v. Thompson, 501722, 732 (1991).

         Absent an exception, a federal court will not entertain a procedurally defaulted claim, so long as the state procedural requirement barring the state court's review is adequate to support the judgment and independent of federal law. See Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 9-10 (2012); Walker v. Martin, 562 U.S. 307, 315-16 (2011). “Thus, if state-court remedies are no longer available because the prisoner failed to comply with the deadline for seeking state-court review or for taking an appeal, those remedies are technically exhausted, but exhaustion in this sense does not automatically entitle the habeas petitioner to litigate his or her claims in federal court. Instead, if the petitioner procedurally defaulted those claims, the prisoner generally is barred from asserting those claims in a federal habeas proceeding.” Woodford, 548 U.S. at 93 (internal citation omitted) (citing Gray, 518 U.S. at 161-62; Coleman, 501 U.S. at 744-51).

         However, “[t]he doctrine barring procedurally defaulted claims from being heard is not without exceptions. A prisoner may obtain federal review of a defaulted claim by showing cause for the default and prejudice from a violation of federal law.” Martinez, 566 U.S. at 10 (citing Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750). “In Coleman, . . . the Supreme Court held that . . . a federal habeas ‘petitioner cannot claim constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel in [state post-conviction] proceedings to establish cause.'” Fowler v. Joyner, 753 F.3d 446, 460 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Coleman, 501 U.S. at 752). Subsequently, in Martinez, the Supreme Court recognized a “narrow exception” to the rule stated in Coleman and held that, in certain situations, “[i]nadequate assistance of counsel at initial-review collateral proceedings may establish cause for a prisoner's procedural default of a claim of ineffective assistance at trial.” Martinez, 566 U.S. at 9. The Fourth Circuit has summarized the exception recognized in Martinez:

[A] federal habeas petitioner who seeks to raise an otherwise procedurally defaulted claim of ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel before the federal court may do so only if: (1) the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim is a substantial one; (2) the “cause” for default “consists of there being no counsel or only ineffective counsel during the state collateral review proceeding;” (3) “the state collateral review proceeding was the initial review proceeding in respect to the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim;” and (4) state law “requires that an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding.”

Fowler, 753 F.3d at 461 (internal brackets omitted) (quoting Trevino v. Thaler, 133 S.Ct. 1911, 1918 (2013)).

         In the alternative to showing cause and prejudice, a petitioner may attempt to demonstrate a miscarriage of justice, e.g., actual innocence, Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 623 (1998); see also Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327-28 (1995), or abandonment by counsel. See Maples v. Thomas, 565 U.S. 266, 283 (2012) (inquiring “whether [the petitioner] ha[d] shown that his attorneys of record abandoned him, thereby supplying the extraordinary circumstances beyond his control, necessary to lift the state procedural bar to his federal petition” (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)).

         II. ANALYSIS

         The parties were advised of their right to file objections to the Report and Recommendation. (ECF No. 146 at 101.) On January 12, 2018, the petitioner and respondents filed objections to the Report and Recommendation. (ECF Nos. 155, 156.) On February 4, 2018, the petitioner filed a reply to respondents' objection (ECF No. 163), and on the following day, respondents filed a reply to the petitioner's objection (ECF No. 164).

         After reading the petitioner's objections to Grounds One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten (which the court will grant in favor of respondents), the court does not find that the petitioner has made arguments sufficient to allege any error in the Magistrate Judge's thoroughly reasoned Report and Recommendation.[1] Therefore, because the court will grant the petitioner's amended habeas petition as to Ground Six and order the petitioner to return to state court for resentencing, the court finds it only necessary to discuss Ground Six and the grounds that will be pertinent to the state court's resentencing (i.e., Grounds 11-15).

         A. Ground Six

         In Ground Six, the petitioner contends that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to investigate and present evidence in mitigation of punishment that he suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (“FAS”). (ECF No. 108 at 22.)[2] The petitioner asserts that his condition is compelling evidence of his mental state and could have led one jury member to make a different decision at sentencing. (Id. at 53.)

         Ground Six was essentially presented to the post-conviction relief (“PCR”) court as Ground (n) in attachment II of the PCR petition (ECF No. 20-9 at 156) and was rejected on the merits by the PCR court (ECF No. 20-12 at 207-19). This claim was then rephrased and presented as Ground One in the petitioner's writ of certiorari to the South Carolina Supreme Court (ECF No. 19-17). The South Carolina Supreme Court granted certiorari (ECF No. 19-20 at 1), but later dismissed it as improvidently granted (ECF No. 19-24). As such, this claim is procedurally exhausted and ripe for habeas review by this court. See In Re Exhaustion of State Remedies, 471 S.E.2d 454 (S.C. 1990) (“[W]hen the claim has been presented to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, and relief has been denied, the litigant shall be deemed to have exhausted all available state remedies.”). The respondents do not dispute that Ground Six is procedurally exhausted and is ripe for review by this court.[3] (ECF No. 100 at 167.)

         1. Background

         The petitioner claims that his trial counsel were ineffective for failing to investigate, develop, and present evidence in mitigation of punishment that he suffers from FAS. (ECF No. 74 at 16-18.) The petitioner argues that trial counsel were deficient because they failed to recognize evidence that the petitioner suffered from organic brain damage and FAS, and therefore, conducted no investigation into those issues. (Id.) The petitioner argues that if presented with this additional evidence, “there is a reasonable possibility that at least one juror might have struck a different balance” at sentencing (ECF No. 108 at 26 (citing Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 537 (2003))).

         Under Strickland, a trial counsel's failure to conduct an “adequate investigation in preparing for the sentencing phase of a capital trial” may amount to ineffective assistance of counsel. Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 380 (2005). “Counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691.

         Counsel is not required to “investigate every conceivable line of mitigating evidence.” Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 523. In considering the reasonableness of counsel's investigation the court must “judge the reasonableness of counsel's challenged conduct on the facts of the particular case, viewed as of the time of counsel's conduct.” Id. at 690. Trial counsel's failure to make a reasonable investigation and to present this information as mitigating evidence as to whether the petitioner suffered from FAS can constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. See, e.g. Sears v. Upton, 561 U.S. 945, 946 (2010) (holding that evidence of brain damage was “significant mitigating evidence that a constitutionally adequate investigation would have uncovered.”).

         Counsel's decision not to investigate in a particular area “must be assessed for reasonableness in all the circumstances, applying a heavy measure of deference to counsel's judgments, ” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691. “A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time.” Id. at 689.

         a. ...

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