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Eppelsheimer v. Davis

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

April 23, 2018

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



         Petitioner Thomas Joseph Eppelsheimer, a Texas inmate, has filed a pro se application for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. See Dkt. No 3. This resulting action has been referred to the undersigned United States magistrate judge for pretrial management under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and a standing order of reference from United States District Judge David C. Godbey. For the reasons explained below, the Court should deny Eppelsheimer's habeas petition.

         Applicable Background

         “Eppelsheimer entered an open plea of guilty to the offense of sexual assault of a child in three cases and indecency with a child in a fourth case and executed judicial confessions admitting to the offenses.” Eppelsheimer v. State, Nos. 05-13-00182-CR, 05-13-00183-CR, 05-13-00184-CR, & 05-13-00185-CR, 2014 WL 3587374, at *1 (Tex. App.- Dallas July 21, 2014, pet ref'd) (citations omitted); see State v. Eppelsheimer, Nos. F11- 71319-X, F11-71623-X, F11-71624-X, & F11-71625-X (Crim. Dist. Ct. No. 6, Dallas Cty., Tex.). “After a bench trial on punishment, the trial court found appellant guilty in all four cases and sentenced him to four consecutive terms of twenty years in prison.” Eppelsheimer, 2014 WL 3587374, at *1. The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the criminal judgments (some as modified) on appeal. See Id. And the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the “CCA”) refused discretionary review. See Eppelsheimer v. State, PD-1010-14, PD-1011-14, PD-1012-14, PD 1013-14 (Tex. Crim. App. Sept. 24, 2014).

         The CCA also denied Eppelsheimer's state applications for writ of habeas corpus without written order on the findings of the trial court without a hearing. See Ex parte Eppelsheimer, WR-83, 743-02, -03, -04, -05 (Tex. Crim. App. June 1, 2016); see also Ex parte Eppelsheimer, Nos. W11-71319-X(A), W11-71623-X(A), W11-71624-X(A), & W11-71625-X(A) (Crim. Dist. Ct. No. 6, Dallas Cty., Tex. Feb. 18, 2016) (trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law).

         Eppelsheimer's timely-filed Section 2254 petition raises claims that both his trial counsel and counsel on direct appeal were constitutionally ineffective, in violation of the Sixth Amendment. See Dkt. Nos. 3 & 4. The State filed a response opposing relief. See Dkt. No. 16. And Eppelsheimer filed a reply. See Dkt. No. 17.

         The Dallas Court of Appeals's decision extensively sets out the facts underlying the criminal judgments. See Eppelsheimer, 2014 WL 3587374, at *1-*4. The undersigned will incorporate those facts as necessary to address Eppelsheimer's claims.

         Legal Standards

         I. Review of State Court Adjudications Generally

         Where a state court has already rejected a claim on the merits, a federal court may grant habeas relief on that claim only if the state court adjudication:

(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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         A state court adjudication on direct appeal is due the same deference under Section 2254(d) as an adjudication in a state post-conviction proceeding. See, e.g., Dowthitt v. Johnson, 230 F.3d 733, 756-57 (5th Cir. 2000) (a finding made by the CCA on direct appeal was an “issue ... adjudicated on the merits in state proceedings, ” to be “examine[d] ... with the deference demanded by [the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (the “AEDPA”)]” under “28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)”).

         A state court decision is “contrary” to clearly established federal law if “it relies on legal rules that directly conflict with prior holdings of the Supreme Court or if it reaches a different conclusion than the Supreme Court on materially indistinguishable facts.” Busby v. Dretke, 359 F.3d 708, 713 (5th Cir. 2004); see also Lopez v. Smith, 574 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1, 2 (2014) (per curiam) (“We have emphasized, time and time again, that the AEDPA prohibits the federal courts of appeals from relying on their own precedent to conclude that a particular constitutional principle is ‘clearly established.'” (citation omitted)).

         A decision constitutes an “unreasonable application” of clearly established federal law if “the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000). “For purposes of § 2254(d)(1), an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.... A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or ... could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of [the Supreme] Court.” Id. at 102 (internal quotation marks omitted); see Evans v. Davis, 875 F.3d 210, 216 (5th Cir. 2017) (recognizing that Section 2254(d) tasks courts “with considering not only the arguments and theories the state habeas court actually relied upon to reach its ultimate decision but also all the arguments and theories it could have relied upon” (citation omitted)).

         The Supreme Court has further explained that “[e]valuating whether a rule application was unreasonable requires considering the rule's specificity. The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” Id. at 101 (internal quotation marks omitted). And “even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. at 102. The Supreme Court has explained that, “[i]f this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be, ” where, “[a]s amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings, ” but “[i]t preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with this Court's precedents, ” and “[i]t goes no further.” Id. Thus, “[a]s a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner 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.” Id. at 103; accord ...

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