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Garza v. Stephens

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 20, 2013

Manuel GARZA, Petitioner-Appellant,
William STEPHENS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent-Appellee.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Michael Clark Gross, San Antonio, TX, for Petitioner-Appellant.

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Ellen Stewart-Klein, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Austin, TX, for Respondent-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Before JOLLY, ELROD, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.


In 2002, a Texas jury found Manuel Garza guilty of murdering San Antonio Police Officer John Riojas, and the state trial court imposed a sentence of death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Garza's conviction and sentence on direct appeal and denied post-conviction relief. In an exhaustive opinion, the district court denied Garza's federal habeas petition and denied him a certificate of appealability (COA). Garza now seeks a COA so that he may pursue his Strickland ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims in this court. We conclude that reasonable jurists would not debate the district court's decision to deny habeas relief on Garza's Strickland claims. We therefore deny his request for a COA.


On February 2, 2001, Officer Riojas stepped out of his marked police car and approached Garza on a street in San Antonio, Texas. Officer Riojas asked Garza for his name. Garza knew that several warrants for his arrest were outstanding. When Officer Riojas asked Garza to place his hands on the police car, Garza sprinted away, explaining later: As I started running the cop was telling me to stop. I just wanted to get away. I knew I was gonna go to jail and I didn't want that. Officer Riojas gave chase, eventually catching up to and physically engaging Garza. In the course of the altercation, Officer Riojas drew his firearm, which Garza wrested away. Garza fired one shot, killing Officer Riojas. Garza was arrested two days later.

A grand jury indicted Garza on one count of capital murder for the shooting death of Officer Riojas.[1] The state trial court appointed two attorneys to represent Garza, Vincent Callahan as lead counsel and Edward Camara as second chair. The guilt/innocence phase of the trial commenced in October 2002. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, the punishment phase ensued. The jury answered affirmatively to the special issues submitted under Article 37.071 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure— i.e., the jury found that there was a probability that Garza would commit criminal acts of violence constituting a continuing threat to society and that the mitigating circumstances were not sufficient to warrant a sentence of life instead of death. Accordingly, the trial court imposed a sentence of death.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Garza's conviction and sentence on direct appeal. Garza v. State, No. 74,467, 2005 WL 395442 (Tex.Crim.App. Feb. 16, 2005). Garza filed his first state application for a writ of habeas corpus in 2004. In 2008, after a hearing, the state habeas court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, recommending that the application be denied. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals adopted the state habeas court's findings and conclusions and denied habeas relief. Ex Parte Garza, No. 70,797-01, 2008 WL 5245545 (Tex.Crim.App. Dec. 17, 2008). Garza filed his original federal habeas petition in 2009. The district court granted a motion to stay those

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proceedings to allow Garza to return to state court and exhaust remedies based on new claims and evidence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the second state habeas application as an abuse of the writ. Ex Parte Garza, No. 70,797-02, 2011 WL 4826968 (Tex.Crim.App. Oct. 12, 2011). Garza filed his amended federal habeas petition in 2012, which the district court denied. Garza v. Thaler, 909 F.Supp.2d 578, 691 (W.D.Tex.2012). The district court also denied Garza a COA. Id. Garza now requests a COA from this court.


The AEDPA governs our consideration of Garza's request for a COA. Under the AEDPA, a state habeas petitioner must obtain a COA before he can appeal the federal district court's denial of habeas relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(A); see Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 336, 123 S.Ct. 1029, 154 L.Ed.2d 931 (2003) (describing a COA as a jurisdictional prerequisite without which federal courts of appeals lack jurisdiction to rule on the merits of the appeals from habeas petitioners). A COA is warranted upon a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right. § 2253(c)(2). A petitioner satisfies this standard if reasonable jurists would find the district court's assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or wrong. Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484, 120 S.Ct. 1595, 146 L.Ed.2d 542 (2000). To obtain a COA when the district court has denied relief on procedural grounds, such as procedural default, a petitioner must show both a debatable claim on the merits and that the district court's procedural ruling is debatable. See id. at 484-85, 120 S.Ct. 1595. The issue is the debatability of the underlying constitutional claim, not the resolution of the debate. Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 342, 123 S.Ct. 1029; see id. at 338, 123 S.Ct. 1029 ( [A] claim can be debatable even though every jurist of reason might agree, after the COA has been granted and the case has received full consideration, that petitioner will not prevail.). This threshold inquiry does not require full consideration of the factual or legal bases adduced in support of the claims. In fact, the statute forbids it. Id. at 336, 123 S.Ct. 1029. In cases involving the death penalty, any doubts as to whether a COA should issue must be resolved in [the petitioner's] favor. Hernandez v. Johnson, 213 F.3d 243, 248 (5th Cir.2000).

We evaluate the debatability of Garza's constitutional claims against the backdrop of the AEDPA's highly deferential standard. Under the AEDPA, a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the petitioner has first exhausted state remedies with respect to the claim at issue. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b). To prevail, the habeas petitioner must prove that the state court's constitutional adjudication resulted in either 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 a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding. § 2254(d)(1)-(2). Clearly established federal law is comprised of the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000). A state-court decision is contrary to clearly established federal law when it arrives at a conclusion opposite to that ...

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