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Cruz v. Davis

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

August 6, 2019

QUINN PALACIOS CRUZ JR., TDCJ No. 1476178, Petitioner,
v.
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID C. GUADERRAMA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Petitioner Quinn Palacios Cruz Jr., a state prisoner confined at the Telford Unit in New Boston, Texas, challenges Respondent Lorie Davis's custody of him through a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. After reviewing the record and for the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that Cruz is not entitled to federal habeas relief. Accordingly, the Court will deny his petition and deny him a certificate of appealability.

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Cruz was indicted for the capital murder of his girlfriend, Tonya West, and her unborn fetus, in Cause Number 20060D581 in the 205th Judicial District Court in El Paso County, Texas. Cruz v. State, No. 08-08-00213-CR, 2010 WL 2949292, at *1 (Tex. App.-El Paso, July 28, 2010). The State gave notice it would not seek the death penalty.

         Evidence at trial established Cruz and West moved into an apartment in El Paso, Texas, on October 18, 2005. Approximately one week later, they broke up and West moved into another apartment-Apartment 809-in the same complex.

         On the morning of November 18, 2005, residents of the apartment complex observed Cruz, West, and West's two-year old daughter in the apartment parking lot. They heard a gunshot and a woman scream. They saw West try to get away as Cruz followed her through the parking lot while firing a weapon at her. A resident who rushed to West's side asked if she knew who shot her. West replied, "Quinn Cru-." Id. Another resident testified Cruz calmly walked away. West died later at the hospital.

         The medical examiner, Dr. Juan Contin, performed the autopsy on West. He determined four bullets had entered West's body, including one fired at close range, approximately twelve to fifteen inches from her body. He concluded West died from internal bleeding caused by multiple gunshot wounds. He also discovered West was about two-to-three weeks pregnant at the time of her death.

         Cruz's medical expert, Dr. Harry Wilson, agreed with Dr. Contin's estimate of the embryo's stage of development. According to Dr. Wilson, there were no visible signs of pregnancy.

         The trial court submitted the charged offense of capital murder-for both West and the unborn child-and the lesser-included offense of murder-West only-to the jury. The jury found Cruz guilty of capital murder as charged in the indictment. By statute, his punishment was automatically set at life in prison without parole. See Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 12.31 (Vernon Supp. 2009) ("An individual adjudged guilty of a capital felony in a case in which the state does not seek the death penalty shall be punished by imprisonment in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for ... life without parole ...").

         On appeal, the State conceded the evidence was legally insufficient to prove Cruz intended to kill the unborn child, as there was no evidence that Cruz knew West was pregnant. Id., at *3. But it argued the appellate court should reform the judgment to reflect a conviction for the murder of West and remand the cause to the trial court for a new punishment hearing. The Eighth Court of Appeals agreed. Id. It found error, reformed the judgment to reflect the lesser-included offense of murder, and ordered a new punishment hearing. Id., at *2-3. After the new punishment hearing, Cruz was sentenced to life in prison.

         Cruz appealed again, but this time the appellate court affirmed the judgment. Cruz v. State, No. 08-14-00058-CR, 2016 WL 3194924 (Tex. App.-El Paso, 2016, pet. ref d). He filed a petition for discretionary review, but it was refused. Cruz v. State, No. PD-1098-16 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017).

         Cruz next filed a state application for writ of habeas corpus. State Writ Application 79-96, ECF 21-45. He raised five grounds for relief:

(1) His trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial. Specifically, his trial counsel failed to present evidence that the victim had pulled a gun on him and threatened to shoot him on a prior occasion, had started several verbal arguments with him while they lived in Denver, Colorado, and had filed harassment and terroristic threat charges against him. Id., at 84.
(2) His trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance during his second punishment trial. Specifically, all of his counsel were employed by the El Paso County Public Defender's Office, and, as a consequence, he believed his trial counsel at his second punishment hearing did not raise errors made by his counsel at the guilt/innocence phase of his trial. Id., at 88.
(3) The State engaged in pervasive misconduct during trial. Specifically, the State made improper sidebar comments during the cross-examination of Cruz. The State also made improper arguments regarding probation, facts not in evidence, and community expectations. Id., at 86.
(4) The State engaged in misconduct during closing argument. Specifically, the State discussed facts outside the record and misstated facts and the law. For example, the State asked the jury to impose the maximum fine of $10, 000 because Cruz could work while he was in prison and earn money to pay off the fine. This statement was incorrect, but, as a result, he was fined $10, 000. Id., at 90.
(5) The trial court erred when it ruled on various motions. Specifically, it erred when it denied his trial counsel's motion to withdraw due to a conflict of interest, denied his motion for a new trial, and then granted his trial counsel's motion to withdraw and substitute counsel. Id., at 92.

         Cruz's application was denied without written order by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Ex parte Cruz, WR-69, 786-02 (Action Taken), ECF No. 21-41. Cruz's federal petition followed on August 13, 2018.

         Cruz again raised five grounds for relief:

(1) His trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial. Specifically, his trial attorneys refused to submit the guns found in West's apartment as mitigating evidence in his defense. He claimed West threatened to shoot him on a previous occasion and she filed numerous false accusations against him to get him in trouble. He conceded the guns and rebuttal evidence were later offered as defense evidence at his second punishment hearing, which occurred several years later. Pet'r's Pet. 6, ECF No. 1.
(2) His trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance during his second punishment trial. Specifically, his lead attorney, Felix Castanon, filed a pre-trial "Motion to Withdraw" citing a "conflict of interest." The trial court denied the motion, forcing Castanon to represent Cruz at the punishment phase of his trial. Consequently, Castanon did not raise the trial errors committed by his co-workers, who had represented Cruz at guilt/innocence phase of his trial several years before, and his client, Cruz, was sentenced to life and fined the maximum amount of $10, 000. Id., at 7.
(3) The State engaged in pervasive misconduct during trial. Specifically, the State made several improper sidebar comments during Cruz's cross-examination. Additionally, the State continued its improper misconduct by eliciting testimony that did not exist in the record from three witnesses. Also, the State forced Cruz to object another five times for improper arguments regarding probation, facts not in evidence, and community expectations. Id., at 6.
(4) The State engaged in misconduct during closing argument. Specifically, Cruz was fined the maximum amount of $10, 000 because the State incorrectly told the jury that he could work while he is in prison and earn money to pay off the fine. Id., at 7.
(5) The trial court erred when it ruled on various motions. Specifically, the trial court denied Cruz's pre-trial "Motion to Withdraw," which cited existing conflict of interest; denied his "Motion for New Trial"; and granted his counsel's "Motion to Withdraw and Substitute Counsel" after he was sentenced to life in prison and fined $ 10, 000. Id., at 8.

         Cruz asks the Court to order his immediate release from State custody. Id., at 7. In the alternative, he asks the Court to order a new trial on both the guilt/innocence and punishment phases. Id. He also asks for an evidentiary hearing. Id.

         Cruz's claims are the same or similar in his state application and federal petition. As a result, Davis "believes Cruz exhausted his state court remedies for the above claims and filed his petition in a timely manner." Resp't's Answer 5, ECF 18.

         APPLICABLE LAW

         "[C]ollateral review is different from direct review," and the writ of habeas corpus is "an extraordinary remedy," reserved for those petitioners whom "society has grievously wronged." Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 633-34 (1993). It "is designed to guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice system." Id. (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring)). It provides an important, but limited, examination of an inmate's conviction and sentence. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011) ("[S]tate courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions.").

         As a result, the federal habeas courts' role in reviewing state prisoner petitions is exceedingly narrow. "Indeed, federal courts do not sit as courts of appeal and error for state court convictions." Dillard v. Blackburn, 780 F.2d 509, 513 (5th Cir. 1986). They must generally defer to state court decisions on the merits. Moore v. Cockrell, 313 F.3d 880, 881 (5th Cir. 2002). And they must defer to state court decisions on procedural grounds. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729-30 (1991); Muniz v. Johnson, 132 F.3d 214, 220 (5th Cir. 1998). They may not grant relief to correct errors of state constitutional, statutory, or procedural law, unless a federal issue is also present. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); West v. Johnson, 92 F.3d 1385, 1404 (5th Cir. 1996).

         In sum, the federal writ serves as a "'guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,' not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal." Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102-03 (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 332, n.5). "If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be." Id. at 102.

         A. Adjudicated Claims

         For claims previously adjudicated in state court, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) imposes a highly deferential standard which demands a federal habeas court grant relief only where the state court judgment:

(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). The focus of this well-developed standard "is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect, but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold." Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007). Moreover, the federal habeas court's focus is on the state court's ultimate legal conclusion, not whether the state court considered and discussed every angle of the evidence. Neal v. Puckett, 286 F.3d 230, 246 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc); see also Catalan v. Cockrell, 315 F.3d 491, 493 (5th Cir. 2002) ("we review only the state court's decision, not its reasoning or written opinion"). And state courts are presumed to "know and follow the law." Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). Factual findings, including credibility choices, are entitled to the statutory presumption, so long as they are not unreasonable "in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). Further, factual determinations made by a state court enjoy a presumption of correctness which the petitioner can rebut only by clear and convincing evidence. Id. § 2254(e)(1); see Clark v. Quarterman, 457 F.3d 441, 444 (5th Cir. 2006) (noting that a state court's determination under § 2254(d)(2) is a question of fact).

         The presumption of correctness applies not only to express findings of fact, but also to "unarticulated findings which are necessary to the state court's conclusions of mixed law and fact." Valdez v. Cockrell, 274 F.3d 941, 948 n.11 (5th Cir. 2001).

         B. Unadjudicated Claims

         A state prisoner must exhaust available state remedies before seeking federal habeas corpus relief, thereby giving the state the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1) (explaining that habeas corpus relief may not be granted "unless it appears that... the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State"); Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999).

         When a state prisoner presents unexhausted claims, the federal habeas court may dismiss the petition. Whitehead v. Johnson, 157 F.3d 384, 387 (5th Cir. 1998) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A); Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 519-20 (1982)). If a state prisoner presents a "mixed petition" containing both exhausted and unexhausted claims, the federal habeas court may stay the proceedings or dismiss the petition without prejudice to allow the petitioner to return to state court and exhaust his claims. Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269, 278 (2005); Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 227 (2004). Alternatively, the federal habeas court may deny relief on an unexhausted or mixed claim on the merits, notwithstanding the petitioner's failure to exhaust the remedies available in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2). A federal habeas court may grant relief on an unexhausted or procedurally defaulted claim only if the petitioner demonstrates cause for the default and actual prejudice arising from the default-or shows the failure to consider the claim would result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 749-50; Barrientes v. Johnson, 221 F.3d 741, 758 (5th Cir. 2000). This means that before a federal habeas court may grant relief on an unexhausted claim, the petitioner must show that some objective, external factor prevented him from complying with the state procedural rule. Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 13-14 (2012). When reviewing an unexhausted claim on the merits, the deferential standard of review does not apply. Instead, the federal habeas court examines unexhausted claims under a de novo standard of review. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 185-86 (2011); Carty v. Thaler, 583 F.3d 244, 253 (5th Cir. 2009).

         ANALYSIS

         (1) Cruz asserts his counsel provided ineffective assistance when they failed to introduce evidence of West's threats against him during the guilt/innocence phase of his trial.

         (2) Cruz contends his counsel provided ineffective assistance when they failed to raise errors in the guilt/innocence phase of his trial and during the second punishment phase of his trial.

         Cruz argues his counsel provided ineffective assistance during the guilt/innocence phase of his trial when they failed to introduce mitigating evidence in the form of the victim's gun ownership and the ...


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