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Meza v. Stephens

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

May 25, 2018

WILLIAM STEPHENS, et al, Respondents.


          George C. Hanks Jr. United States District Judge

         A Texas jury convicted Mario Guadalupe Meza of arson and made an affirmative finding that he used a deadly weapon in the commission of the offense. After unsuccessfully seeking state appellate and habeas relief, Meza seeks a federal writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Docket Entry No. 1). Respondent Lorie Davis moves for summary judgment, arguing that Meza's claims are without merit and that he is not entitled to relief. (Docket Entry No. 21). Meza has not filed a response. After reviewing the record, the pleadings, and the applicable law, with special consideration given to the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act's (“AEDPA”) deferential standard of review, the Court will grant Respondent's motion for summary judgment and deny Meza's petition. The Court will not certify any issue for appellate review.

         The Court sets forth the reasons for its adjudication below.


         The State of Texas charged Meza with first degree felony arson in 2011. Specifically, the indictment charged that, with “intent to damage or destroy a habitation located in League City, Texas, ” Meza “start[ed] a fire . . . by igniting an ignitable substance, knowing that said habitation was within the limits of an incorporated city or town . . . .” Clerk's Record at 6. Meza stood trial under cause number 11-CR-0345 in the 10th Judicial District Court of Galveston County, Texas. Meza retained Joa Sherman and Gene A. Whatkins as defense counsel. As summarized on appeal, the facts presented at trial showed the following:

Alejandra Quezada and [Meza] had been in a relationship since 2007. [Meza] had assisted Alejandra in finding the location of her home and in designing the house to accommodate her disabled son. Alejandra and [Meza] also had a son, M.C., and had been involved in a long custody battle over him. [Meza] had never been inside the new home. On the night of the fire, [Meza] returned M.C. to Alejandra at a corner store. Alejandra and her two sons stayed at another home that night because the walls in the new house had recently been painted. Alejandra was woken up by her mother and told her house was on fire. Alejandra rushed home.
Officer Eric Leland of the League City Police Department was dispatched to a house fire at approximately 2:00 a.m. When Alejandra came to the police department later that day she told Officer Leland that she believed her ex-boyfriend, [Meza], caused the fire.
[Meza] gave a statement to Officer Leland that was videotaped. The statement was admitted into evidence and played to the jury. [Meza] claimed that on the morning in question, he got home from a bar between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. He said his receipt from the bar reflected a time of 2:22, but subsequently indicated it might have been 2:00.
Detective Joseph J. Jack, Deputy Fire Marshal for the City of League City, testified he is a certified arson investigator and peace officer. He was dispatched to the fire at Alejandra's home. Detective Jack retrieved a DVR player that was part of the home's security system. Detective Jack testified the burn patterns emanated from the garage. Three walls in the garage had very little damage but one wall had significant damage. The garage was the point of origin and the fire spread upward into the attic. Detective Jack found no sign of forcible entry.
Officer Jonathan Cox of the Pearland Police Department was asked to recover any video from the DVR system. Officer Cox was able to view the video up to a point where the fire stopped the video from recording and he copied that video onto a disk. The video was admitted into evidence. The video depicts the following events, in order and all over a period of approximately two minutes: a male approaching the camera in a hooded jacket, then stooping such that only the top of the jacket remained in the frame, remaining in that position for no more than a minute, standing up, disappearing from the frame, returning to the frame facing away from the camera, walking away from the camera, and then, shortly thereafter, smoke and flickering.
During his statement to Officer Leland, [Meza] admitted the person in the recovered video looked like him, but said he did not have a jacket like the one the person in the video was wearing. [Meza] denied being the person on the video. Officer Leland also testified about an interview with [Meza's] current girlfriend in which she was able to identify not only the person in the video, but also the jacket that the person was wearing. Finally, Alejandra testified at trial and identified the person in the video as [Meza].
Detective Jack testified the video shows [Meza] leaving the garage and there is smoke coming out of the garage. There is a flicker of light in the garage; it grows brighter from the fire growing inside the garage. Detective Jack testified the fire was intentionally set by [Meza].
Gabriel Moreno, a fire explosion investigator, took samples of the debris at the scene. He determined the origin of the fire was the garage. Jeremy Rummel, a senior analyst at Armstrong Forensic Laboratory, tested Moreno's samples. He found the samples contained “a heavy petroleum distillate of the fuel oil series” typical of kerosene, an ignitable liquid. Rummel testified an ignitable liquid was found in the debris.

Meza v. State, 2014 WL 1852760, at *1-2 (Tex. App. -Houston [14 Dist.], 2014) (footnotes omitted).

         The jury found Meza guilty as charged in the indictment. Clerk's Record at 57.

         The jury also answered affirmatively a special verdict question which asked whether Meza used a deadly weapon during the commission of the offense. Clerk's Record at 58. Meza elected for the trial court to assess punishment. Clerk's Record at 66.[1] The trial court sentenced Meza to twenty years confinement. Clerk's Record at 65.

         Trial counsel withdrew from representing Meza after sentencing. Clerk's Record at 74. The trial court appointed Joseph G. Salhab to represent Meza on appeal. Clerk's Record at 78, 80. Meza filed a motion for new trial arguing that trial counsel provided ineffective representation, but without identifying any specific errors committed by counsel. Clerk's Record at 82.

         On appeal to the Fourteenth Court of Appeals for the State of Texas, Meza claimed that insufficient evidence supported his conviction. Meza based his claim on two arguments: (1) the evidence was insufficient to prove he started the fire and (2) the State did not prove that the fire had an incendiary origin. The appellate court affirmed Meza's conviction in an unpublished opinion. Meza v. State, 2014 WL 1852760, at *1-2 (Tex. App. -Houston [14 Dist.], 2014). Meza did not seek discretionary review in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

         Meza filed a state application for a writ of habeas corpus raising three claims: (1) trial counsel provided ineffective representation by inadequately preparing for trial and not presenting expert testimony; (2) the evidence was insufficient to support the deadly weapon finding; and (3) appellate counsel performed deficiently. The trial-level habeas court ordered Meza's trial and appellate attorneys to provide affidavits. State Habeas record at 69. Finding the affidavits to be credible, and relying on the State's answer to the habeas application, the trial court entered a short order recommending the denial of relief. State Habeas Record at ...

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