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Rockwell v. Davis

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 10, 2017

KWAME A. ROCKWELL, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before JONES, SMITH, and DENNIS, Circuit Judges.

          JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge.

         Kwame Rockwell seeks a certificate of appealability ("COA") to challenge the denial of habeas corpus relief. Because reasonable jurists would not debate that the district court acted properly in denying Rockwell's claims, we deny his application for a COA.

         I.

         A Texas jury convicted Rockwell of murdering a gas-station clerk, Daniel Rojas, in the course of a robbery. The jury sentenced Rockwell to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and death sentence.[1]Rockwell filed a state petition for writ of habeas corpus, which was denied.[2]He filed a federal habeas petition, which the district court denied.[3]

         "A state prisoner whose petition for a writ of habeas corpus is denied by a federal district court does not enjoy an absolute right to appeal. Federal law requires that he first obtain a COA from a circuit justice or judge." Buck v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 759, 773 (2017) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)). "A COA may issue 'only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.'" Id. (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2)). "Until the prisoner secures a COA, the Court of Appeals may not rule on the merits of his case." Id. (citing Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 336 (2003)).

         "The COA inquiry . . . is not coextensive with a merits analysis. At the COA stage, the only question is whether the applicant has shown that 'jurists of reason could disagree with the district court's resolution of his constitutional claims or that jurists could conclude the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further.'" Id. (quoting Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 327). Federal courts cannot grant habeas relief if a claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state-court decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or "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).[4]

         Rockwell claims that reasonable jurists would debate (1) whether his trial counsel's decision not to present evidence that he suffers from schizophrenia constitutes ineffective assistance of trial counsel ("IATC"), (2) whether his trial counsel's decision not to present evidence of his steroid use constitutes IATC, (3) whether he is eligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), in light of his purported mental illness, and (4) whether Texas's death-penalty statute unconstitutionally forbids juries from considering mitigating evidence. The state habeas court and the district court rejected each of these claims.[5]

         II.

         A.

         Rockwell first brings two IATC claims, on which he must show "both that counsel performed deficiently and that counsel's deficient performance caused him prejudice." Buck, 137 S.Ct. at 775 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). "Strickland's first prong sets a high bar." Id.[6] Trial counsel is "strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 189 (2011) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In federal habeas proceedings, a petitioner must also show that "the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011).

         1.

         Rockwell's first claim is that his lawyers were ineffective because they failed adequately to investigate his purported schizophrenia and present evidence of it to the jury. Rockwell began exhibiting symptoms of mental illness shortly after his incarceration. Jail medical staff examined him and monitored his symptoms. Ultimately, ...


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