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Watson v. Davis

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

August 31, 2017

ROBERT JAMES WATSON, TDCJ No. 547826, Petitioner,
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.


          ORLANDO L. GARCIA, Chief United States District Judge

         Before the Court are Petitioner Robert James Watson's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Docket Entry "DE" 1), Respondent's Answer (DE 9), and Petitioner's Traverse (DE 16).[1] Also before the Court are Petitioner's Motion for Expansion of the Record (DE 17), Motion for Leave to Amend Petition (DE 18), and Motion for Evidentiary Hearing (DE 19). Having reviewed the record and pleadings submitted by both parties, the Court concludes Petitioner is not entitled to relief under the standards prescribed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Petitioner is also denied a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         In May 2012, Petitioner was found guilty by a Bexar County jury of delivery of a controlled substance (enhanced) and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. State v. Watson, No. 11-1543-CR (274th Dist. Ct., Guadalupe Cnty., Tex. May 15, 2012). The facts of Watson's offense were accurately summarized by the Fourth Court of Appeals on direct appeal:

In April of 2011, the Guadalupe County Sheriffs Office Narcotics Division entered into an agreement with a confidential informant, Melvin Bruns, to help secure several drug cases for indictment. In exchange for Bruns's help, the District Attorney's Office agreed not to file an evading arrest charge pending against Bruns. One of the individuals identified by Bruns was [Petitioner] Robert Watson.
On April 12, 2011, Lieutenant John Flores fitted Bruns with an audio/video recording device. Under surveillance by the sheriffs office, Bruns drove to Watson's residence, parked the vehicle, and entered Watson's home. During the transaction, Bruns allegedly purchased cocaine from Watson. Bruns then drove to a predetermined location to meet Lieutenant Flores and Investigator Kris Deslatte. Investigator Deslatte obtained the substance in question from Bruns's vehicle. The entire proceedings, from shortly after Bruns was fitted with the recording device until Investigator Deslatte removed the substance from Bruns's vehicle, were recorded. Later analysis proved the substance in question was approximately 1.83 grams of cocaine.
On May 15, 2011, Watson was charged with one second-degree felony count-delivery of a controlled substance, namely cocaine. Because Bruns's whereabouts were unknown at the time of trial, Bruns did not testify. The jury returned a guilty verdict, and after finding the State's enhancement allegation true, assessed punishment at ten years confinement.

Watson v. State, 421 S.W.3d 186, 189 (Tex. App.-San Antonio, Dec. 4, 2013, pet. refd).

         Watson's conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused his petition for discretionary review on May 14, 2014. Id.; Watson v. State, No. 0294-14 (Tex. Crim. App.). On March 12, 2015, Watson filed a state habeas corpus application challenging the constitutionality of this state court conviction and sentence, which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later denied without written order on December 23, 2015. DE 11-21 at 90; DE 11-16; Ex parte Watson, No. 25, 844-10 (Tex. Crim. App.).

         The instant federal petition was filed a month later on January 20, 2016. DE 1 at 10. In the petition, Watson argues: (1) the judgment is invalid because it incorrectly reflects the court in which the case was tried; (2) the judgment is invalid because a visiting judge presided over his trial; (3) his trial was a nullity because it was held at a time not authorized under Texas law; (4) he was denied the effective assistance of counsel by counsel's cumulative failure to challenge the above errors; (5) the State unlawfully obtained his conviction by securing an indictment without probable cause and by illegally using a confidential informant; (6) the State committed prosecutorial misconduct by soliciting false testimony, suppressing material evidence, and making a misleading opening statement; (7) trial counsel failed to file a motion to suppress all evidence related to the confidential informant; (8) trial counsel failed to raise Confrontation Clause objections to the hearsay testimony of the confidential informant; (9) trial counsel failed to raise an objection to scientific testimony under Rule 702 of the Texas Rules of Evidence; (10) he received ineffective assistance on direct appeal by counsel's failure to adequately challenge the trial court's rulings; and (11) he received ineffective assistance on direct appeal by counsel's failure to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, the trial court's ruling on the motion to suppress, and the trial court's refusal to rule on his motion for new trial.

         II. Petitioner's Motions

         A. Motion to Expand Record

         Petitioner's first motion (DE 17) asks this Court to expand the record pursuant to Rule 7 of the Rules Governing Habeas Corpus Cases. Under Rule 7, "the judge may direct the parties to expand the record by submitting additional materials relating to the petition." In discussing this rule, the Fifth Circuit has observed that a federal habeas petitioner is "entitled to careful consideration and plenary processing of [his claims], including full opportunity for presentation of the relevant facts." Stewart v. Estelle, 634 F.2d 998, 1000 (5th Cir. 1981) (quoting Harris v. Nelson, 394 U.S. 286, 298 (1969)).

         Watson moves for expansion of the record to include "all exhibits and affidavits attached to his § 2254 petition and memorandum brief." He also requests that the record be expanded to include all of the motions filed in state court in connection with his state habeas proceedings. No exhibits or affidavits were attached to his § 2254 petition, however, and the state court record already includes the motions Watson filed during his state habeas proceedings. See DE 11. Because an expansion of the record is unnecessary to afford Watson a "full opportunity" to present relevant facts, Stewart, 634 F.2d at 1000, Watson's motion (DE 17) is denied.

         B. Motion to Amend

         Watson next requests leave to amend his § 2254 petition with a new claim challenging the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction. DE 18. A petitioner's motion to amend must be considered in the context of the rules that apply in § 2254 cases. Mayle v. Felix, 545 U.S. 644, 654 (2005) (holding the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases govern federal habeas proceedings launched by state prisoners). Rule 12 provides that the "Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to the extent that they are not inconsistent with any statutory provisions or these rules, may be applied to a proceeding under these rules." Rule 12, Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases. The applicable civil rule is Rule 15(a)(2), which provides that a "court should freely grant leave [to amend] when justice so requires." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2).[2]

         Rule 15(a) evinces a liberal amendment policy and a motion to amend should not be denied absent a substantial reason to do so. See Jacobsen v. Osborne, 133 F.3d 315, 318 (5th Cir. 1998). In exercising its discretion, the Court may consider a variety of factors, including "undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failures to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party[], and futility of the amendment." United States v. Trevino, 554 F.App'x 289, 293 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Jones v. Robinson Prop. Group, L.P., 427 F.3d 987, 994 (5th Cir. 2005)). Leave to amend should be denied when doing so is required for fairness to the party opposing the motion for leave to amend. Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltime Research, Inc., 401 U.S. 321 (1971).

         Here, Respondent has not opposed the motion for leave to amend, nor does there appear to be an issue of undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, or repeated failures to cure deficiencies. Watson's motion for leave to amend requests permission to present an issue bearing upon the fundamental fairness of his state court trial. Moreover, Watson's proposed amendment of his petition to include a stand-alone sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim does little more than expand upon the allegation that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise such a claim on direct appeal. The Court will permit Watson to amend his original petition to include his standalone challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence.

         C. Motion for Evidentiary Hearing

         Watson next requests an evidentiary hearing (DE 19) to challenge the state court's resolution of his claims for relief. His request is denied, as habeas petitioners are not entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing to develop new evidence to attack the state court's resolution of their claims. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181-82 (2011) ("If a claim has been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, a federal habeas petitioner must overcome the limitation of § 2254(d)(1) on the record that was before that state court."). Under the AEDPA, the proper place for development of the facts supporting a claim is the state court. See Hernandez v. Johnson, 108 F.3d 554, 558 n.4 (5th Cir. 1997) (holding the AEDPA clearly places the burden on a petitioner to raise and litigate as fully as possible his federal claims in state court). Thus, as in this case, when a petitioner's claims have been rejected on the merits by the state courts either on direct appeal or during petitioner's state habeas corpus proceeding, further factual development in federal court is effectively precluded. Pinholster, 563 U.S. at 181-88 (2011) (holding an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary when a state court has rejected a claim on the merits and federal habeas review of that rejection is governed by §2254(d)(1)); Woodfox v. Cain, 772 F.3d 358, 368 (5th Cir. 2014) ("The Supreme Court has clarified that when a claim is adjudicated on the merits, for the purposes of review under § 2254(d)(1), the record is limited to the one before the state court, even if the state court issued a summary affirmance.").

         Likewise, where a federal habeas corpus petitioner's claims lack merit on their face, further factual development is not necessitated. See Register v. Thaler, 681 F.3d 623, 627-30 (5th Cir. 2012) (recognizing the discretion inherent in district courts to allow factual development, especially when confronted with claims foreclosed by applicable legal authority). "In cases where an applicant for federal habeas relief is not barred from obtaining an evidentiary hearing by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2), the decision to grant such a hearing rests in the discretion of the district court." Richards v. Quarterman, 566 F.3d 553, 562 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S.465, 468 (2007)). "In determining whether to grant a hearing, under Rule 8(a) of the Habeas Court Rules 'the judge must review the answer [and] any transcripts and records of state-court proceedings ... to determine whether an evidentiary hearing is warranted.'" Richards, 566 F.3d at 562-63 (quoting Hall v. Quarterman, 534 F.3d 365, 368 (5th Cir. 2008)). In making this determination, courts must consider whether an evidentiary hearing could "enable an applicant to prove the petition's factual allegations, which, if true, would entitle the applicant to federal habeas relief." Richards, 566 F.3d at 563 (quoting Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474).

         The only claim before the Court that was not adjudicated on the merits in state court is Watson's new stand-alone challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence raised for the first time in his motion to amend. As this is a purely record-based claim, however, no evidentiary hearing is warranted. See Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474 (recognizing that "an evidentiary hearing is not required on issues that can be resolved by reference to the state court record") (citation omitted). Moreover, as discussed more thoroughly later in this opinion, Watson's allegation lacks merit on its face. Further factual development is therefore unnecessary. Register, 681 F.3d at 627-30.

         III. Standard of Review

         Watson's federal petition is governed by the heightened standard of review provided by the AEDPA. 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254. Under § 2254(d), a petitioner may not obtain federal habeas corpus relief on any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings, unless the adjudication of that claim either: (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. Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005). This intentionally difficult standard stops just short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011) (citing Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 664(1996)).

         A federal habeas court's inquiry into unreasonableness should always be objective rather than subjective, with a focus on whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was "objectively unreasonable" and not whether it was incorrect or erroneous. McDaniel v. Brown, 558 U.S. 120 (2010); Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520-21 (2003). Even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable, regardless of whether the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion itself. Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. Instead, a petitioner must show that the decision was objectively unreasonable, which is a "substantially higher threshold." Schriro, 550 U.S. at 473; Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76 (2003). So long as "fairminded jurists could disagree" on the correctness of the state court's decision, a state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief. Richter, 562 U.S. at 101 (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). In other words, to obtain federal habeas relief on a claim previously adjudicated on the merits in state court, Watson must show that the state court's ruling "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Id. at 103; see also Bobby v. Dixon, 565 U.S. 23, 24(2011).

         IV. Merits Analysis

         A. State Law Violations (Claims 1-3).

         Watson's first three grounds for relief assert the judgment under which he is confined is void under Texas law. Specifically, Watson contends his judgment is invalid because (1) it reflects that he was convicted in the 274th District Court despite the fact he was indicted in the 25th District Court and the case was never transferred; (2) his trial was presided over by a visiting judge who had no jurisdiction over his proceedings; and (3) his trial occurred at an unauthorized time. Each claim essentially argues that the state court incorrectly applied Texas law when it rejected the claims during Watson's state habeas proceeding. Because such claims do not raise cognizable federal constitutional issues, Watson fails to demonstrate the state court's rejection of the claims was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent.

         It is well settled that claims challenging a state court's determination of state law are not cognizable in a federal habeas corpus proceeding, and that federal courts must defer to the state- court determination of Texas law. See Swarthout v. Cooke, 562 U.S. 216, 219 (2011) (stating that the Court has repeatedly held that "federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law.")(citations omitted); Fuller v. Johnson, 158 F.3d 903, 908 (5th Cir. 1998) (failure to follow Texas law is not reviewable). Federal habeas corpus relief may be granted only to remedy violations of the Constitution and laws of the United States; mere violations of state law will not suffice. 28 U.S.C. § 2254; Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 119 (1983). "[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Trevino v. Johnson, 168 F.3d 173, 184 (5th Cir. 1999) (quoting Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991)); Dickerson v. Guste, 932 F.2d 1142, 1145 (5th Cir. 1991) ("We will not review a state court's interpretation of its own law in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. We do not sit as a 'super' state supreme court in such a proceeding to review errors under state law.") (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Consequently, even if the state courts misapplied state law as Watson now suggests, it would have no impact on this proceeding. Relief is therefore denied.

         B. Prosecutorial Misconduct Claims (Claims 5, 6).

         Watson next accuses the State of using unlawful methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction. In his fifth ground for relief, he asserts the prosecution secured his indictment without probable cause and through the "illegal" use of Melvin Bruns as an informant. In his sixth allegation, he contends the prosecution (1) solicited false testimony to secure his conviction; (2) suppressed material evidence regarding Bruns that could have been used to suppress evidence and impeach State witnesses; and (3) knowingly made false and misleading statements in their opening statement. As discussed below, Watson fails to demonstrate the state court's rejection of the claims was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent.

         1. Challenges to the Indictment

         Watson first contends that his indictment was secured without probable cause because no testimony was presented to the grand jury from a witness who actually saw Watson commit the offense for which he was charged. This contention appears to be more related to Watson's new assertion, raised for the first time in his motion to amend, that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction, and will be addressed separately. Watson also alleges the indictment was unlawfully obtained through the use of an informant, Melvin Bruns, who had an outstanding warrant for his arrest in another county. Because the Sheriffs Department policy prohibited the use of confidential informants with outstanding warrants, Watson argues the use of Bruns as an informant was illegal and thus his indictment was obtained without probable cause. However, Watson ...

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