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Sanchez v. Davis

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 28, 2019

ROBERTO SANCHEZ, Petitioner-Appellant,

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before DAVIS, HIGGINSON, and WILLETT, Circuit Judges.


         A Texas jury took just 24 minutes to convict Roberto Sanchez of murder for chasing down unarmed Sergio Gonzalez and stabbing him in the heart. In this federal habeas action, Sanchez claims his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated because his trial attorney failed to object when the prosecution asked a witness whether Sanchez was in the United States legally. (He was not.) Even if the nonobjection constituted ineffective assistance, Sanchez cannot show prejudice-a "reasonable probability" that his trial would've gone better had his lawyer spoken up. Evidence of Sanchez's guilt was overwhelming, to put it mildly, including his bragging "it felt good to kill somebody" immediately after he killed somebody. Sanchez is not entitled to habeas relief, and we AFFIRM.

         I. The Murder, The Trial, The Appeals, and Then Habeas

         Ten years ago, Roberto Sanchez went to a Fort Worth nightclub where his two cousins worked. At closing time, one of his cousins told a customer with whom she'd been talking that she was getting a ride with Sanchez. Frustrated, the customer confronted Sanchez and his cousins in the parking lot as they prepared to drive away, banging on their car window. Sanchez got out and drew a knife. The unarmed customer fled. Sanchez chased him, caught him, and stabbed him. According to Sanchez's cousins, he then returned to the car "happy," boasting "it felt good to kill somebody."

         Sanchez refused the State's plea deal-25 years-despite knowing that his cousins would testify. At trial, the prosecution had this exchange with one cousin:

Q. And did you-how old were you when you met Roberto?
A. Ever since I was a baby. I don't recall since I was a little girl.
Q. Did you both live in Honduras together?
A. No. He was living in a little town and I was living in another.
Q. So you were living in different towns, but they were nearby in Honduras?
A. Yes, yes.
Q. And did you come here before or after he did?
A. I came-I came here first.
Q. And are you aware, is Roberto Sanchez here legally or illegally?
A. Well, illegal, he doesn't have papers.

         Sanchez's lawyer didn't object to this mention of Sanchez's immigration status, and the topic never came up again. After closing arguments, the jury deliberated 24 minutes before convicting Sanchez.

         During sentencing deliberations, the jury sent this note: "If [Sanchez] is ever released on parole, will [he] remain in our country, or would he be deported back to Honduras?" The court replied that it was "not able to supply additional information," and the jury sentenced him to 70 years in prison.

         On appeal, Sanchez argued that the trial court should've declared a mistrial when the prosecution asked whether Sanchez was in the country "legally or illegally." The state appellate court disagreed, citing Sanchez's failure to timely object.[1]

         After exhausting direct appeals, Sanchez filed a state habeas application asserting, among other things, ineffective assistance of counsel. In an affidavit, Sanchez's trial counsel insisted his nonobjection was strategic-that Sanchez, if he took the stand, would've been "up front and truthful" about his unlawful status in hopes of appearing credible and forthright to the jury. The plan was for Sanchez to admit it "on his own" to bolster his believability, particularly since counsel wanted Sanchez to testify in support of various defenses and also intended to cross-examine the cousins on whether their incriminating testimony was coerced with threats of deportation. The lawyer added that he stood ready to object if the question arose again.

         The state trial court denied Sanchez's habeas application, holding there was no deficient performance (counsel's "chosen defense was the result of reasonable trial strategy") and no prejudice (no "reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different had counsel objected to a single reference to [Sanchez's] illegal status"). On appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the application without written order.

         Sanchez then filed a federal habeas petition, raising the same ineffective-assistance claim. The district court held that Sanchez was not entitled to habeas relief and denied him a certificate of appealability (COA).

         In denying relief, the district court determined that the state court reasonably applied the Supreme Court's decision in Strickland, [2] noting:

• the "overwhelming evidence of [Sanchez's] guilt";
• the prosecution didn't "predicate its trial strategy or shape its closing argument around [his ...

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