United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division
ORDER DENYING PETITIONER'S MOTION TO VACATE
LAKE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Steven Anthony Butler, currently in the custody of the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice, was convicted of capital
murder and sentenced to death for the murder of Velma demons
during a robbery. The court denied Butler's Amended
Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Docket Entry No. 9) and
subsequently denied Petitioner's Motion to Vacate
Judgment (Docket Entry No. 31). Among the claims raised and
rejected in Butler's Amended Petition was a claim that
Butler's trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by
failing to investigate Butler's life and mental health
history. Butler argues that counsel should have used
information about his life history to have Butler declared
incompetent to stand trial and as mitigating evidence during
the penalty phase of Butler's trial. The court declined
to address that claim because it was procedurally defaulted.
the court issued its decision, the Supreme Court decided
Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309, 1318-19 (2012) .
The Fifth Circuit subsequently remanded this case for review
of Butler's ineffective assistance of counsel claim in
light of Martinez. This court reviewed the remanded
claim under the standards set out in Martinez and
again denied relief. (Memorandum Opinion and Order, Docket
Entry No. 78) Butler then moved to alter or amend the
judgment under Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure. (Petitioner's Motion to Vacate Judgment,
Docket Entry No. 80)
motion to alter or amend under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) "must
clearly establish either a manifest error of law or fact or
must present newly discovered evidence." Schiller v.
Physicians Resource Group Inc., 342 F.3d 563, 567 (5th
Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Relief
under Rule 59(e) is also appropriate when there has been an
intervening change in the controlling law." Id.
Butler fails to demonstrate grounds for relief.
cites no new evidence or change in controlling law. Instead,
Butler largely rehashes the argument rejected by the court,
and does so in the context of claiming that the court
committed manifest error of law by: (1) "den[ying]
relief based on its view that Mr. Butler's mental health
history was irrelevant to a determination of trial competence
. . . ."; and (2) "rel [ying] on the principle that
'counsel is entitled to rely on the opinions of qualified
experts' . . . ." (Petitioner's Motion to Vacate
Judgment, Docket Entry No. 80, pp. 2-3, 8) Butler
fundamentally mischaracterizes the court's opinion.
in the Memorandum Opinion and Order denying relief did the
court say, suggest, or imply that "Mr. Butler's
mental health history was irrelevant to a determination of
trial competence." Instead, the court stated -- citing
relevant Supreme Court authority -- that the controlling
question in determining whether Butler was competent to stand
trial was whether Butler had "(1) sufficient present (at
the time of trial) ability to consult with his lawyer with a
reasonable degree of rational understanding; and (2)
a rational as well as factual understanding of the
proceedings against him." (Memorandum Opinion and Order,
Docket Entry No. 78, pp. 5-6 (citing Godinez v.
Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 396 (1993))) The court further
stated that "[c]ompetency and the presence of mental
illness are not co-extensive. A defendant can be both
mentally ill and competent to stand trial." Id.
at 6. Thus, while a defendant's mental health history may
be relevant to a determination of competency, the controlling
question is the defendant's present ability to
consult with his lawyer and to understand the proceedings. As
the court noted, two contemporaneous evaluations concluded
that Butler was competent. Because Butler's argument
depends on mischaracterizing the court's analysis, he
fails to demonstrate any error of law in that analysis.
argues that the court erred in denying his claim that counsel
was ineffective for failing to investigate Butler's
mental health history. The court concluded that counsel was
entitled to rely on the experts' conclusions.
Id. at 6-7. Butler now argues that this conclusion
was erroneous because the experts were not aware of
Butler's mental health history. This argument ignores the
context of the court's conclusion.
court -- again citing controlling authority -- noted the
standard governing failure to investigate claims:
" [S]trategic choices made after less than complete
investigation are reasonable precisely to the extent that
reasonable professional judgments support the limitations on
investigation." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510,
521 (2003) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted)
(quoting Strickland [v. Washington], 466
U.S. [668, ] at 690-91 [(1984)]). When assessing the
reasonableness of an attorney's investigation, a court
must "consider not only the quantum of evidence already
known to counsel, but also whether the known evidence would
lead a reasonable attorney to investigate further."
Id. at 527.
Id. at 7. In concluding that counsel was reasonable
in deciding not to investigate further, the court stated --
again citing relevant case law -- that "counsel is
entitled to rely on the opinions of qualified experts."
Id. at 6-7. The court found that two qualified
experts concluded that Butler was competent, and that
counsel, who was not himself a mental health expert,
reasonably relied on those two expert opinions in deciding
not to investigate further. That analysis is a correct
statement and application of controlling law.
regard to Butler's claim that failure to develop his
mental health history was damaging to his mitgation case, the
court found that he failed to satisfy the prejudice prong of
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668');">466 U.S. 668 (1984).
Id. at 8-10. Butler does not now identify a manifest
error of law, but instead merely expresses his disagreement
with the court's application of the controlling law to
the particular facts of this case. See
Petitioner's Motion to Vacate Judgment, Docket Entry No.
80, p. 9. Butler's disagreement with the court's
conclusion does not provide grounds for relief under Rule
59(e). Moreover, because the court's finding that Butler
has not demonstrated manifest error is not debatable among
jurists of reason, Butler is not entitled to a certificate of
appealability from this Order. See Hernandez v.
Johnson, 213 F.3d 243, 248 (5th Cir. 2000). Accordingly,
IT IS ORDERED that Petitioner's Motion
to Vacate Judgment (Docket Entry No. 80) is
IS FURTHER ORDERED that no certificate of
appealability shall issue.