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Almaguer v. Davis

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, McAllen Division

March 1, 2018

LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.


          Peter E. Ormsby, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Petitioner Arturo Sanchez Almaguer, a state prisoner proceeding pro se, initiated this action by filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Docket Entry No. 1.) In 2014, Petitioner stood trial in Hidalgo County, Texas, on capital murder charges stemming from the 1988 shooting deaths of Evan and Wilda Squires, who were killed in their home during a burglary. Although the Squires' murder was initially unsolved and became a “cold case, ” Petitioner was later implicated by DNA evidence, which the State presented at his trial. The jury convicted Petitioner on three counts of capital murder, one of which was dismissed before sentencing. The trial judge sentenced Petitioner to two concurrent life sentences. After unsuccessfully availing himself of state appellate and post-conviction review, Petitioner now seeks federal habeas corpus relief.

         Petitioner's principal claim is that there is insufficient evidence to support the verdicts. He also claims that the trial court violated his right against double jeopardy by dismissing count one after the jury had returned a verdict of guilty and that appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise the double-jeopardy issue on direct appeal. Respondent has filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that Petitioner fails to show entitlement to relief under the stringent standards of review set forth in the Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). (Docket Entry No. 8.)

         After carefully considering the parties' pleadings and the state court record in light of the applicable law, the undersigned concludes that Petitioner has not shown a basis for federal habeas corpus relief. Petitioner has failed to show that the state court's decision denying his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence was contrary to or an unreasonable application of Jackson v. Viriginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979). The strong DNA evidence, together with the other evidence presented at trial, supports the state court's conclusion that rational jurors could have found proof of Petitioner's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Similarly, Petitioner has failed to show that the state court's denial of relief on his double jeopardy claims was contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. Accordingly, for the reasons explained further below, the undersigned recommends that the District Court grant Respondent's motion for summary judgment and deny habeas relief. It is further recommended that the Court not issue a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. State Court Proceedings

         Petitioner is currently in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice pursuant to two judgments from the 206th Judicial District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas, in criminal cause number CR-1214-12-D. (Docket Entry No. 10-18 at 27-32.)[1]

         Late in the evening on November 12, 1988, Evan Squires and his wife, Wilda Squires, were found shot to death in their mobile home in Weslaco, Texas. (Docket Entry No. 10-19 at 28.) This case remained opened for many years and eventually became a “cold case.” Subsequent DNA testing implicated Petitioner in the crime. See Almaguer v. State, 13-14-00312-CR, 2015 WL 5602267, at *1 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi June 25, 2015, pet. ref'd) (not designated). In January 2012, Petitioner was indicted on three counts of capital murder for the deaths of Evan and Wilda Squires. (Docket Entry No. 10-19 at 28.) Count one alleged that Petitioner caused the death of the two individuals, Evan and Wilda Squires, in the same transaction. See Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 19.03(a)(7)(A). Count two alleged that Petitioner intentionally caused the death of Evan Squires by shooting him to death with a firearm in the course of committing or attempting to commit the offense of burglary of Mr. Squires' habitation. See Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 19.03(a)(2). Count three was the same charge as count two, except the decedent was Wilda Squires. See Id. Petitioner pleaded not guilty and proceeded to a jury trial. Petitioner was represented by two attorneys at trial. (Docket Entry No. 10-19 at 285-86.)

         Texas's Thirteenth Court of Appeals provided the following summary of the facts presented at trial:

On November 12, 1988, Officer Roberto Moreno of the Weslaco Police Department responded to a report of shots fired at the Magic Valley Trailer Park in Weslaco, Texas. Upon his arrival, residents of the trailer park directed him to the Squires home. Inside the trailer, he discovered a male and a female body on the floor. Officer Moreno identified the bodies as those of Evan and Wilda Squires. Both appeared to have been shot and neither was responsive. Both died as a result of the gunshot wounds. Officer Moreno and other investigators who were called to the scene observed a pile of human feces on the carpet in one of the rooms, as well as a pair of jean shorts covered in feces. They also observed a box of silverware lying on the floor, a machete on a chair, and a radio that appeared to have been wrapped up. Officer Patsy Pemelton observed a trail of clothes leading from the side door of the trailer down to a drain ditch some distance away. At the end of the trail, she found a bag containing clothes as well as a torn shirt that was also covered in feces. Officer Pemelton took these items into evidence.
In 2005, the Texas Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) DNA lab in McAllen, Texas, obtained partial DNA profiles from the fecal stains on both the torn shirt found at the end of the trail and the jean shorts found at the Squires' home. In 2012, the DPS DNA lab received a known DNA sample from appellant. The lab compared the DNA profiles from the shirt and jean shorts to appellant's DNA profile. DNA analyst Alejandro Madrigal testified that appellant could not be eliminated as a potential contributor to the DNA profiles found on the clothing.

Almaguer, 13-14-00312-CR, 2015 WL 5602267, at *1.

         On February 3, 2014, the jury returned three separate verdicts finding Petitioner guilty on each of the three counts in the indictment. (Docket Entry No. 10-2 at 55.) On February 4, 2014, sentencing was held. At the commencement of the sentencing hearing, upon motion by the State and with no objection by Petitioner, the trial court dismissed count one on the basis of double jeopardy. (Docket Entry No. 10-3 at 4; No. 10-19 at 30.) The trial court then sentenced Petitioner to two terms of life imprisonment, to run consecutively. (Docket Entry No. 10-3 at 6.) On February 26, 2014, a new sentencing was held because the State filed a motion to vacate the consecutive life sentences for counts two and three, as it was erroneous to run the sentences consecutively under the statute that applied to the offenses committed in 1988. (Docket Entry No. 10-4 at 4-6.) The trial court vacated the sentences and sentenced Petitioner to two terms of life in prison, to run concurrently. (Id.)

         As previously indicated, Petitioner filed a direct appeal. He raised two principal issues, including the argument that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the jury's verdict. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Almaguer, 13-14-00312-CR, 2015 WL 5602267, at *5. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”) denied his petition for discretionary review (“PDR”). Petitioner's request for rehearing on his PDR was also denied.

         Petitioner later filed a pro se state application for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to Article 11.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. On November 2, 2016, the TCCA denied his claims without written order. (Docket Entry No. 10-13 at 1.)

         Petitioner then promptly filed his federal application pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent does not contend that the petition is time barred or that any of Petitioner's claims are unexhausted.

         B. Federal Review

         Petitioner proceeds pro se. Pro se pleadings are held to less stringent standards than those drafted by attorneys. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). Pleadings filed by a pro se litigant are entitled to a liberal construction. United States v. Pena, 122 F.3d 3, 4 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Nerren v. Livingston Police Dep't, 84 F.3d 469, 473 n.16 (5th Cir. 1996)).

         Consistent with Respondent's construction of Petitioner's claims, which Petitioner does not dispute, the undersigned construes Petitioner's pleadings to raise the following grounds for relief:

(1) The DNA evidence is insufficient to support Petitioner's capital murder convictions, and the Thirteenth Court of Appeals violated his rights by reviewing his sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim under an improper standard (the “hypothetically correct jury charge” standard) based on jury instructions not presented in his case (instructions premised on Texas's law-of-the-parties doctrine);
(2) Because the trial court lacked the authority to dismiss the first count of capital murder, Petitioner stands convicted of all three counts of capital murder in violation of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy; and,
(3) Appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise the double jeopardy violation on direct appeal.

         Respondent filed an answer and motion for summary judgment. (Docket Entry No. 8.) Petitioner filed a reply addressing Respondent's arguments. (Docket Entry No. 11.) In it, Petitioner essentially re-urges the merits of his claims, but he also argues that he meets AEDPA's stringent standards and that de novo review should apply to one or more of his claims. This matter is ripe for adjudication.


         The writ of habeas corpus provides an important, but narrow, examination of a prisoner's conviction and sentence. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011); Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 887 (1983). “Society's resources have been concentrated at [a criminal trial] in order to decide, within the limits of human fallibility, the question of guilt or innocence of one of its citizens.” Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 90 (1977); see also McFarland v. Scott, 512 U.S. 849, 859 (1994) (stating that a “criminal trial is the ‘main event' at which a defendant's rights are to be determined”). The States “possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law. In criminal trials they also hold the initial responsibility for vindicating constitutional rights.” Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 128 (1982).

         If a state prisoner has presented his federal constitutional claims to the state courts in a procedurally proper manner, and the state courts have adjudicated their merits, AEDPA provides for a deferential federal review. “[T]ime and again, ” the Supreme Court “has instructed that AEDPA, by setting forth necessary predicates before state-court judgments may be set aside, ‘erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court.'” White v. Wheeler, 136 S.Ct. 456, 460 (2015) (quoting Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 16 (2013)). Under AEDPA's rigorous standard of review, a petitioner may secure federal habeas relief only after showing that the state court's rejection of his claim was either (1) “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” or (2) 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)(1), (2).

         Petitioners arguing legal error in state court decisions must comply with § 2254(d)(1)'s “contrary to” and “unreasonable application” clauses. See Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). “A state court's decision is deemed contrary to clearly established federal law if it reaches a legal conclusion in direct conflict with a prior decision of the Supreme Court or if it reaches a different conclusion than the Supreme Court on materially indistinguishable facts.” Gray v. Epps, 616 F.3d 436, 439 (5th Cir.2010) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-08 (2002)). To constitute an “unreasonable application of” clearly established federal law, a state court's holding “must be objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice.” Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (quoting White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014)). In contrast to “ordinary error correction through appeal, ” AEDPA review exists only to “guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems.” Woods, 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (quotation omitted). A petitioner must “‘show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'” Woodall, 134 S.Ct. at 1702 (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 103); see also Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370, 380 (2010); Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.

         A petitioner challenging the factual basis for a state decision must show that it was an “unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); see also Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). “[A] state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.” Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010). State court findings are “presumed to be correct” unless the petitioner “rebut[s] the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         Generally, federal courts presume that “[w]here there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground.” Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991); see also Jackson v. Johnson, 194 F.3d 641, 651 (5th Cir. 1999) (“When faced with a silent or ambiguous state habeas decision, the federal court should look through to the last clear state decision on the matter.”). Thus, when the TCCA summarily rejects a prisoner's claim, federal courts can “ignore-and hence, look through-an unexplained state court denial and evaluate the last reasoned state court decision.” Bledsue v. Johnson, 188 F.3d 250, 256 (5th Cir. 1999). AEDPA requires federal courts to defer to the TCCA's summary decision to deny relief. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99 (2011); see also Johnson v. Williams, 133 S.Ct. 1088, 1095 (2013) (observing that AEDPA deference is proper even in “instances in which a state court may simply regard a claim as too insubstantial to merit discussion”).

         Petitioner's grounds for relief will be considered in light of these standards.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence (Claim One)

         Petitioner claims that there is insufficient evidence to support the two capital murder convictions. His argument takes two forms. First, he argues that the DNA evidence is not sufficient to connect him to the murders. Second, he also contends that the Thirteenth Court of Appeals improperly reviewed the sufficiency of the evidence under a “hypothetically correct jury charge” standard based on Texas's law-of-the-parties doctrine, which was not included in the jury instructions in his case.

         In Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), the Supreme Court articulated the constitutional due process standard that applies in determining whether a criminal conviction is supported by sufficient evidence. Under that standard, a state prisoner is entitled to habeas relief only if “upon the record evidence adduced at the trial no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 324. The evidence must be reviewed “in the light most favorable to the prosecution.” Id. at 319.

         In addition, AEDPA imposes a “twice-deferential standard” when a federal court reviews a state prisoner's claim challenging the sufficiency of the evidence. Parker v. Matthews, 5 ...

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