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Pridgen v. Director, TDCJ-CID

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Tyler Division

April 21, 2019



          Ron Clark, Senior District Judge.

         The Petitioner Robert Pridgen, proceeding through retained counsel Randy Schaffer, filed this application for the writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. §2254 complaining of the legality of his conviction. This Court referred the matter to the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1) and (3) and the Amended Order for the Adoption of Local Rules for the Assignment of Duties to United States Magistrate Judges.

         I. Background

         Pridgen was charged with the murder of Paul Rohne. According to the opinion of the Twelfth Judicial District Court of Appeals, Pridgen called 911 at 1:25 a.m. on the morning of January 27, 2009, to tell them he had shot Rohne, explaining that Rohne had been attacking him. Law enforcement personnel found no sign of a struggle; instead, Rohne was sitting on a love seat, slumped over, with his ankles crossed. He had a tight grip on his glasses with his left hand and no grip at all on a knife that was in his right hand. Rohne also had a blood alcohol level of .33 and bruises on his face, arms, and legs as well as a fatal shotgun wound to his chest. One of the investigating officers, Sgt. Foster, testified that he believed the scene had been staged because of Rohne's loose grip on the knife, but the forensic pathologist, Dr. Van Dusen, testified that there was nothing significant about the fact that Rohne had a tighter grip on his glasses and his right hand was loose and open around the knife.

         Pridgen's first trial resulted in a hung jury, but on retrial, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He took a direct appeal, arguing that the evidence established his claim of self-defense as a matter of law and that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding evidence of Rohne's sexual proclivities, but the Twelfth Court of Appeals affirmed Pridgen's conviction. See Pridgen v. State, slip op. no. 12-13- 00136-CR, 2014 WL 6792583 (Tex.App.-Tyler, December 3, 2014, pet. ref'd). Pridgen's petition for discretionary review was refused by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on June 17, 2015.

         Pridgen then sought state habeas corpus relief, contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when his trial attorney, Jeff Haas, failed to object to certain testimony, failed to file a motion in limine, failed to object to the exclusion of photographs, and failed to enter phone records into evidence. The trial court secured an affidavit from Haas and entered findings of fact and conclusions of law on January 4, 2017. Pridgen filed objections to these findings and conclusions, but on February 1, 2017, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied the state habeas application without written order. Pridgen then filed his federal habeas corpus petition.

         II. The Federal Habeas Petition

         Pridgen argued that: (1) counsel failed to object to Sgt. Foster's opinion that Pridgen had planted a knife in Rohne's hand after the shooting; (2) counsel failed to impeach Sgt. Foster's opinion about Pridgen allegedly planting the knife and Dr. Van Dusen's opinion that Rohne had died some two to three hours before the paramedics arrived with their prior inconsistent testimony; (3) counsel failed to file a motion in limine and object to repeated references by the prosecutors and witnesses to the deceased as “the victim;” and (4) counsel failed to offer telephone records to show that Pridgen and his brother did not speak to each other before or after Pridgen called 911. The Director filed a response arguing that Pridgen failed to establish that the state court's rejection of his claims was objectively unreasonable. Pridgen filed a reply to this response.

         III. The Report of the Magistrate Judge and the Petitioner's Objections

         The Magistrate Judge issued a Report setting out the standards for habeas corpus review, explaining that the petitioner must show that the state court's adjudication of his claim resulted in a decision which was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, or resulted in a decision based upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. 28 U.S.C. §2254(d); Moore v. Cockrell, 313 F.3d 880, 881 (5th Cir. 2002). This is a highly deferential standard for evaluating state court rulings, demanding that state court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt. Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773, 130 S.Ct. 1855, 176 L.Ed.2d 678 (2010).

         The Magistrate Judge also set out the standards applicable to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. In order to prevail on such a claim, a state prisoner seeking federal habeas corpus relief must show that his attorney's performance was deficient and that the deficiency prejudiced him to the point that he was denied a fair trial. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). This means that the habeas petitioner must establish both that (1) counsel's performance was deficient in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonable competence and (2) the deficient performance so prejudiced the defense that the outcome of the trial was unreliable and there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's performance, the result of the trial would have been different. Unless a petitioner makes both showings, he is not entitled to relief. Del Toro v. Quarterman, 498 F.3d 486, 490 (5th Cir. 2007).

         A “reasonable probability” is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial. This requires a substantial, not merely a conceivable, likelihood of a different result. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 189, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 179 L.Ed.2d 557 (2011).

         The Magistrate Judge observed that under these standards, counsel has wide latitude in making tactical decisions, including formulating a strategy which was reasonable at the time. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 107, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011). This means, for example, that it is reasonable trial strategy for counsel to try to cast “pervasive suspicion of doubt [rather] than to try to prove a certainty that exonerates.” Id. at 109.

         A conscious and informed decision on trial tactics and strategy cannot be the basis of constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel unless it is so ill chosen that it permeates the entire trial with obvious unfairness. Pape v. Thaler, 645 F.3d 281, 291 (5th Cir. 2011). A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time. There is a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable ...

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