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McLaughlin v. Cartledge

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

January 10, 2019

Travis McLaughlin, # 291562, Petitioner,
v.
Warden Leroy Cartledge, Respondent.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARY GORDON BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Travis McLaughlin (“Petitioner”), a state prisoner, seeks habeas relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. This matter is before the Court upon Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 33; 45.) Pursuant to the provisions of Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1)(B), and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(c), D.S.C., this magistrate judge is authorized to review the instant Petition for relief and submit findings and recommendations to the District Court.

         Petitioner filed this action on July 10, 2017. (Dkt. No. 1.) On October 2, 2017, Respondent filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 12.) Petitioner responded to the Motion for Summary Judgment on November 30, 2017. (Dkt. No. 21.) In an Order issued by the Court on July 31, 2018, the Court construed Petitioner's Response in Opposition as a Motion to Amend his § 2254 petition and granted that motion. (Dkt. No. 25.) The Court found further briefing was warranted with respect to Petitioner's newly added claim that counsel was ineffective in failing to advise Petitioner of, and failing to seek immunity pursuant to, South Carolina's Protection of Persons and Property Act. (Id. at 5.) The Court dismissed Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment as premature. (Id. at 6.) On August 29, 2018, Respondent filed a second Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 33.) Petitioner responded to the Motion for Summary Judgment on October 9, 2018. (Dkt. No. 39.) That same day, Petitioner also filed a reply brief pursuant to the Court's July 31, 2018 Order regarding the newly added claim. (Dkt. No. 38.) Respondent filed a reply brief to its Motion for Summary Judgment on October 16, 2018. (Dkt. No. 40.) At the Court's request (Dkt. No. 41), Respondent filed an additional supplemental briefing to its Motion for Summary Judgment on December 13, 2018 to address the newly added claim (Dkt. No. 44). On the same date, Respondent filed a one-page Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 45.) For the reasons set forth herein, the undersigned recommends granting Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 33; 45).

         BACKGROUND

         Petitioner is currently confined within the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”) at McCormick Correctional Institution. In May of 2010, the Marion County Grand Jury indicted Petitioner on charges of murder and possession of a weapon during commission of a violent crime. (Dkt. No. 13-1 at 97.) Petitioner was represented by Henry M. Anderson, Jr., Esquire. (Id. at 3.) On December 2, 2011, Petitioner pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter before the Honorable William H. Seals, Jr. (Id. at 3-23.) Judge Seals sentenced Petitioner to twenty-five years. (Id. at 24.)

         Petitioner did not file a direct appeal. However, on April 4, 2012, he filed an application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”). (Id. at 26-30.) The following questions and answers appeared on Petitioner's application for PCR (verbatim):

         9. State concisely the grounds on which you base your allegation that you are being held in custody unlawfully.

(a) Ineffective asst. of counsel
(b) Guilty plea was not voluntarily nor intelligently made
(c) Prosecutorial misconduct

         10. State concisely and in the same order the facts which support each of the grounds set out in (9):

Counsel failed to investigate and misinformed me about matter on my case thus my guilty plea was not voluntarily nor intelligently made. Plus, the State withheld exculpatory and favorable evidence from my case-including but not limited to pictures from the crime scene, and statement from this person (unknown) allegedly stated that I tried to sale the gun that was used in the crime for drugs.

(Id. at 27.) Through Attorney Joshua A. Bailey, Petitioner subsequently filed an amended application for PCR. (Id. at 31-33.) Therein, Petitioner raised the following grounds for review:

Applicant was denied the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the South Carolina Constitution and the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution in the following particulars:
11(a)(1). Applicant's plea counsel failed to adequately conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances of Applicant's case; 11(a)(2). Applicant's plea counsel failed to retain experts necessary to refute the theory of the State's case against Applicant; 11(a)(3). Applicant's plea counsel failed to adequately inform Applicant of the defenses available to the Applicant; 11(a)(4). Applicant's plea counsel failed to properly and adequately inform Applicant of the applicable law in his case to the extent that Applicant's guilty plea was not made freely, voluntarily and with sufficient knowledge to render it valid.

(Id. at 32.)

         On October 8, 2014, an evidentiary hearing was held before the Honorable Edgar W. Dickson. (Id. at 39-40.) Petitioner was present and represented by Joshua Bailey, Esquire. (Id.) In an order dated December 10, 2014, Judge Dickson denied the application for post-conviction relief and dismissed the petition. (Id. at 83-95.)

         Petitioner appealed, and on August 28, 2015, through Attorney Tiffany L. Butler of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense, he filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari. (Dkt. No. 13-2.) Therein, Petitioner raised the following issue:

Did the PCR judge err by finding trial counsel provided effective representation in Petitioner's murder case where counsel did not hire a private investigator to conduct an independent assessment of the evidence collected at the crime scene, since Petitioner pled guilty only because counsel incorrectly stated Petitioner had no defense at trial where self-defense and involuntary manslaughter were viable verdicts?

(Dkt. No. 13-2 at 3 of 13.) In an Order dated December 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of South Carolina denied the petition for a writ of certiorari. (Dkt. No. 13-4.) The matter was remitted to the lower court on December 20, 2016. (Dkt. No. 13-5.)

         On July 10, 2017, Petitioner filed the instant habeas petition, wherein he raised the following grounds for review (verbatim):

GROUND ONE: Petitioner was deprived of his 6th and 14th Amendment right to the ‘effective assistance of counsel.' Supporting facts: Petitioner involuntarily pled guilty to charge(s) upon the erroneous advice of counsel, despite counsel failing to investigate and inform Petitioner of available defenses (i.e., ‘self defense'), or obtain an independent expert to refute the State's theory constituting murder; counsel misinformed Petitioner about case, leading to the Petitioner pleading guilty and waiving viable defenses that a jury probably would've acquitted Petitioner of.
GROUND TWO: Involuntary guilty plea (unconscionable agreement) Supporting facts: Petitioner involuntarily pled guilty to charge(s) whereof being inadequately advised of the available defenses which could've been supported by the irrefuted fact of Petitioner being in a position where he had felt the need to protect himself from the violent situation created by the victim.

(Dkt. No. 1 at 6, 8.)

         Pursuant to the Court's July 31, 2018 Order, the following claim is also added to the habeas petition:

GROUND THREE: Counsel was ineffective in failing to advise Petitioner of, and failing to seek immunity pursuant to, South Carolina's Protection of Persons and Property Act.

(Dkt. No. 25 at 5.)

         STANDARDS

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment “shall” be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Facts are ‘material' when they might affect the outcome of the case, and a ‘genuine issue' exists when the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” The News & Observer Publ'g Co. v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., 597 F.3d 570, 576 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, “the nonmoving party's evidence is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in that party's favor.” Id. (quoting Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999)); see also Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 123-24 (4th Cir. 1990).

         B. Habeas Standard of Review

         Since the Petitioner filed his petition after the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), review of his claims is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended. Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 322-23 (1997); Breard v. Pruett, 134 F.3d 615, 618 (4th Cir. 1998). Under the AEDPA, federal courts may not grant habeas corpus relief unless the underlying state adjudication:

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 at the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 398 (2000). “[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 410. “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)).

         C. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         The United States Supreme Court has said that a meritorious ineffective assistance of counsel claim must show two things: first, that counsel's performance was deficient and, second, that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-96 (1984). A court's evaluation of counsel's performance under this standard must be “highly deferential, ” so as to not “second-guess” the performance. Id. at 689. “[A] court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Bowie v. Branker, 512 F.3d 112, 119 n.8 (4th Cir. 2008); Fields v. Att'y Gen. of Md., 956 F.2d 1290, 1297-99 (4th Cir. 1992); Roach v. Martin, 757 F.2d 1463, 1467 (4th Cir. 1985).

         In order to establish the second prong of Strickland, “[t]he 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.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. A “reasonable probability” has been defined as “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. While Strickland itself is a deferential standard, when both § 2254(d) and Strickland apply, “review is doubly” deferential. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 105. Indeed, when § 2254(d) applies, “[t]he question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard.” Id. at 105.

         FACTS

         As noted above, Respondent seeks summary judgment in the instant case. (Dkt. No. 33; 45.) Petitioner's grounds for relief are addressed below.

         A. Ground One

         In Ground One, Petitioner asserts that his plea counsel was ineffective, and his guilty plea was involuntary, because counsel failed to investigate and inform Petitioner of available defenses “(i.e., self defense)”; failed to “obtain an independent expert to refute the State's theory” of the case; and “misinformed Petitioner about the case.” (Dkt. No. 1 at 6.)

         The United States Supreme Court has said that a meritorious ineffective assistance of counsel claim must show two things: first, that counsel's performance was deficient and, second, that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the defense. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-96. A court's evaluation of counsel's performance under this standard must be “highly deferential, ” so as to not “second-guess” the performance. Id. at 689. “[A] court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Id. (internal quotation marks and ...


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