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Wood v. Stirling

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

September 9, 2019

JOHN R. WOOD, Petitioner,
BRYAN P. STIRLING, Commissioner, South Carolina Department of Corrections; and WILLIE D. DAVIS, Warden, Kirkland Reception and Evaluation Center, Respondents.



         Petitioner John R. Wood (“Wood”) is a death row inmate in the custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”). He filed a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on September 19, 2013. This matter is before the court for consideration of Wood's objections to the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of United States Magistrate Judge Paige J. Gossett, who recommends granting respondents' motion for summary judgment and granting in part and denying in part Wood's motion for an evidentiary hearing and to expand the record. For the reasons stated below, the court adopts the R&R, grants the respondents' motion for summary judgment, and grants in part and denies in part Wood's motion for further factual development.


         Wood was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death for the murder of Trooper Eric Nicholson (“Nicholson”). The R&R ably recites the facts of this case, as summarized by the Supreme Court of South Carolina. In short, Wood was driving a moped on I-85 in the Greenville area, and Nicholson informed the dispatcher that he was going to pull Wood over. Several witnesses observed the moped, followed by a trooper with activated lights and sirens, take the off-ramp to leave the interstate and turn right onto a frontage road. Nicholson sped up to drive alongside the moped and then veered to the left and stopped at a raised median to block the moped's path. The moped came to a stop close to the driver's side window of Nicholson's car.

         Upon stopping, Wood stood up over the moped, fired several shots in the driver's side window, turned the moped around, and fled. Officers heard Nicholson scream on the radio, went to the scene, and found that Nicholson had been shot five times. Both of Nicholson's pistols were secured in their holsters, and eight shell casings were found at the scene. While fleeing, Wood drove into a parking lot and jumped into the passenger's seat of a Jeep. The police began pursuing the Jeep, and Wood opened fired on the officers. One officer was struck in the face by a bullet fragment, but he survived the injury. Wood then abandoned the Jeep and hijacked a truck but was eventually stopped and taken into custody.

         Wood was indicted in May 2001 in Greenville County for murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. ECF No. 45-3 at 74. At trial, Wood was represented by attorneys John I. Mauldin, James Bannister, and Rodney Richey (referred to collectively or individually as “trial counsel”). On February 11, 2002, the jury found Wood guilty of both charges and recommended a death sentence on the murder charge, finding the aggravating factor of murdering a state law enforcement officer during the performance of his official duties. ECF Nos. 42-7 at 20; 43-3 at 25-27. On February 16, 2002, the state circuit court sentenced Wood to death. ECF No. 43-3 at 30.

         Wood appealed his case to the Supreme Court of South Carolina. On December 6, 2004, the Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed Wood's convictions and sentence. ECF No. 43-5 at 107. Wood petitioned for rehearing, which the court denied on January 20, 2005. ECF No. 43-5 at 108. Then on July 28, 2005, Wood filed a pro se application for post-conviction relief (“PCR”). ECF No. 43-5 at 112. The PCR court appointed attorneys to handle Wood's PCR proceeding. On February 9, 2007, Wood filed an amended PCR application. ECF No. 40-15. The PCR court held an evidentiary hearing from March 6-8, 2007, ECF Nos. 44-1 at 34 through 44-7 at 8, and on December 19, 2007, the PCR court dismissed Wood's application, ECF Nos. 45-2 at 92 through 45-3 at 73. Wood filed a motion to reconsider, which the PCR court denied. ECF No. 45-4 at 21, 55. Wood then filed a petition for writ certiorari with the Supreme Court of South Carolina. ECF No. 40-6. After the petition was fully briefed, the Supreme Court of South Carolina denied Wood's petition on November 2, 2012, ECF No. 40-16, and issued a remittitur on November 26, 2012, ECF No. 40-8.

         On December 7, 2012, Wood commenced this action by filing a motion for stay of execution and a motion to appoint counsel. ECF No. 1. Wood then filed his petition for writ of habeas corpus under § 2254 on September 19, 2013. ECF No. 85. Wood contemporaneously filed a motion to stay his habeas proceeding while he pursued his unexhausted claims in state court. ECF No. 86. The court granted the motion to stay on October 23, 2013. ECF No. 93.

         On September 26, 2013, Wood filed a second PCR application in state court. ECF No. 134-1. On July 19, 2016, the PCR court dismissed the application as untimely and improperly successive under state law. ECF No. 135-1. Wood moved to alter or amend the court's order, ECF No. 135-2, and the PCR court denied that motion on August 3, 2017, ECF No. 135-3. This ended Wood's state court proceedings, and the court lifted the stay in Wood's habeas proceeding on August 29, 2017. ECF No. 126.

         Respondents filed their motion for summary judgment on November 2, 2017. ECF No. 136. Wood filed his response and traverse on December 17, 2017, ECF No. 150, and respondents replied on January 7, 2018, ECF No. 154. In addition, on December 17, 2017, Wood filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing and an opportunity to expand the record with respect to Grounds Four, Five, Seven, and Ten. ECF No. 151. Respondents responded on January 2, 2018, ECF No. 153, and Wood replied on January 16, 2018, ECF No. 160. On October 1, 2018, the magistrate judge issued her report recommending that respondents' motion for summary judgment be granted and her order granting in part and denying in part Wood's motion for an evidentiary hearing and expansion of the record.[1] Wood filed timely objections to the R&R and order on November 14, 2018. ECF No. 193. Respondents replied to Wood's objections on November 28, 2018. ECF No. 194. Wood's claims are now ripe for resolution.

         II. STANDARDS

         A. Magistrate Judge Review

         1. R&R

         The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to the court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The recommendation carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the court. Id. at 270-71. The court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge . . . or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portion of the R&R to which a specific objection is made. Id. When a party's objections are directed to strictly legal issues “and no factual issues are challenged, de novo review of the record may be dispensed with.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (citation omitted). Analogously, de novo review is unnecessary when a party makes general and conclusory objections without directing a court's attention to a specific error in the magistrate judge's proposed findings. Id.

         2. Order

         Magistrate judges have “the authority to hear and determine any pretrial matter pending before the court” except for dispositive motions. United States v. Benton, 523 F.3d 424, 430 (4th Cir. 2008). A party may object to a magistrate judge's order on a nondispositive matter within 14 days of service of the order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). The district court reviews such orders for clear error. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Springs v. Ally Fin. Inc., 657 Fed.Appx. 148, 152 (4th Cir. 2016).

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment shall be granted if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show 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(c). “By its very terms, this standard provides that the 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.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. at 248. “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249. The court should view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all inferences in its favor. Id. at 255.

         C. Habeas Corpus

         1. Standard for Relief

         This court's review of Wood's petition is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which was amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1213. See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997). Section 2254(a) provides federal habeas jurisdiction for the limited purpose of establishing whether a person is “in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” This power to grant relief is limited by § 2254(d), which provides as follows:

An 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 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The “contrary to” and “unreasonable application” clauses contained in § 2254(d)(1) are to be given independent meaning-in other words, a petitioner may be entitled to habeas corpus relief if the state court adjudication was either contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

         A state court decision can be “contrary to” clearly established federal law in two ways: (1) “if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law, ” or (2) “if the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [the Supreme Court].” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000) (plurality opinion). Section 2254(d)(1) restricts the source of clearly established law to holdings of the Supreme Court as of the time of the relevant state court decision. See Id. at 412; see also Frazer v. South Carolina, 430 F.3d 696, 703 (4th Cir. 2005).

         With regard to “unreasonable” application of the law, a state court decision can also involve an “unreasonable application” of clearly established federal law in two ways: (1) “if the state court identifies the correct governing legal rule from [the Supreme Court's] cases but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case, ” or (2) “if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from [Supreme Court] precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 407.

         It is important to note that “an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law, ” and that “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.” Id. at 410-11 (emphasis in original). Indeed, “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.” Humphries v. Ozmint, 397 F.3d 206, 216 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 410).

         2. Procedural Default

         A petitioner seeking habeas relief under § 2254 may only do so once the petitioner has exhausted all remedies available in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). “To satisfy the exhaustion requirement, a habeas petitioner must fairly present his claim to the state's highest court.” Matthews v. Evatt, 105 F.3d 907, 911 (4th Cir. 1997), abrogated on other grounds by United States v. Barnette, 644 F.3d 192 (4th Cir. 2011). Under the doctrine of procedural default, “a federal court will not review the merits of claims, including constitutional claims, that a state court declined to hear because the prisoner failed to abide by a state procedural rule.” Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 9 (2012); see also Lawrence v. Branker, 517 F.3d 700, 714 (4th Cir. 2008) (explaining that generally “[f]ederal habeas review of a state prisoner's claims that are procedurally defaulted under independent and adequate state procedural rules is barred.”).

         However, “[t]he doctrine barring procedurally defaulted claims from being heard is not without exceptions.” Martinez, 566 U.S. at 10. One such exception occurs when a prisoner seeking federal review of a defaulted claim can show cause for the default and prejudice from a violation of federal law. Id. “Inadequate 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.” Id. at 10. In order to establish such cause, the following elements must be established:

(1) the claim of “ineffective assistance of trial counsel” was a “substantial” claim; (2) the “cause” consisted 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.”

Trevino v. Thaler, 569 U.S. 413, 423 (2013) (quoting Martinez, 566 U.S. at 14, 17-18). A claim is “substantial” if it has “some merit.” Martinez, 566 U.S. at 14.

         D. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         A petitioner asserting ineffective assistance of counsel must demonstrate that (1) his counsel's performance was deficient, and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the petitioner. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Counsel's performance is deficient when “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688. In assessing counsel's performance, “a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. “Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential[, ] and “[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.

         To establish prejudice, “[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. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. at 694. When considering prejudice in the context of a death penalty case, “the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the sentencer-including an appellate court, to the extent it independently reweighs the evidence-would have concluded that the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death.” Id. at 695.

         Because “[s]urmounting Strickland's high bar is never an easy task, ” Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 (2010), “[e]stablishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is all the more difficult, ” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 105 (2011). The Supreme Court has explained that “[t]he standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both ‘highly deferential.'” Id. (quoting Strickland, 466 at 689). Therefore, a court's review of an ineffective assistance counsel claim under the § 2254(d)(1) standard is “doubly deferential.” Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009).


         Wood raises two general objections to the R&R and various specific objections to Grounds Three, Four, and Five.

         A. General Objections

         Wood makes two “general objections” to the R&R. Objections must be “sufficiently specific to focus the district court's attention on the factual and legal issues that are truly in dispute.” Page v. Lee, 337 F.3d 411, 416 n.3 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting United States v. 2121 E. 30th Street, 73 F.3d 1057, 1060 (10th Cir. 1996)). Although Wood labels his initial objections as “general, ” the court finds that they are specific enough to warrant review.

         1. Standard of Review

         Wood first objects to the standard of review employed by the R&R. He argues that the R&R's discussion of Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86 (2011), erroneously suggests that the standard of review enunciated in Richter should apply to all § 2254(d) cases.

         After discussing the general principles of the § 2254 standard of review, the R&R notes that “review of a state court decision under the AEDPA standard does not require an opinion from the state court explaining its reasoning.” ECF No. 190 at 22 (citing Richter, 562 U.S at 98). The R&R went on to explain that

Pursuant to § 2254(d), a federal habeas court must (1) determine what arguments or theories supported or could have supported the state court's decision; and then (2) ask whether it is possible that fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding of a prior decision of the United States Supreme Court. Id. at 102. “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Id. Section 2254(d) codifies the view that habeas corpus is a “‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,' not a substitute for ...

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