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Russi v. Davis

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

September 23, 2019

CEASAR RUSSI, TDCJ #01928516 Petitioner,
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.



         Ceasar Russi, a Texas state inmate, has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, to challenge his 2014 state-court convictions for aggravated robbery and aggravated assault.[1] The respondent, Lorie Davis, has answered with a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Russi is not entitled to the relief he seeks.[2] Russi has filed a response, objecting to the respondent's arguments and requesting an evidentiary hearing.[3]

         Based on careful consideration of the pleadings, the motions, the record, and the applicable law, this Court finds that there are no genuine factual disputes material to deciding the claims and that the respondent is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. The reasons are explained below.

         I. Procedural Background and Claims

         Russi is in custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Correctional Institutions Division (TDCJ) as the result of state-court felony convictions for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in Harris County Cause Numbers 1307885 and 1307886. On May 7, 2014, following a jury trial, the jury sentenced Russi to a 60-year prison term for the aggravated robbery offense and a 20-year prison term for the aggravated assault offense, to run concurrently. Russi filed a motion for new trial, which the court denied after a hearing.

         The Fourteenth Court of Appeals of Texas affirmed Russi's convictions on direct appeal. Russi v. State, Nos. 14-14-00397-CR, 14-14-00398-CR, 2016 WL 1444040 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] April 12, 2016). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused discretionary review. Russi v. State, Nos. PD-0527-16, PD-0528-16. (Tex. Crim. App. Oct. 19, 2016).

         Russi filed applications for a state writ of habeas corpus under Article 11.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, challenging his convictions. On June 6, 2018, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied the applications without a written order. Ex parte Russi, Application Nos. 88, 442-01 to -02.

         In his federal habeas petition, executed on March 4, 2018, Russi raises the following grounds for federal habeas relief:

1. The trial court erred in denying Russi's motion for new trial when trial counsel failed to call a readily available alibi witness.
2. Trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance because he failed to object to impermissible judicial comment on the weight of the evidence during jury deliberations.
3. Appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance because he failed to request a rehearing on the ground that the appellate court applied the wrong standard of review.[4]

         Each claim and argument is analyzed against the record and the applicable legal standards.

         II. Factual Background

         The statement of facts is taken from the Texas Court of Appeals opinion affirming Russi's convictions.

According to the State's evidence, around 5:30 a.m. on May 25, 2011, appellant approached Zoila Quintanilla's vehicle as she was pulling into her driveway. Appellant had a gun and pulled Zoila out of the vehicle. She began screaming for help, and her brother, husband, and son came out of the house. Zoila's husband, Pedro German, pulled appellant out of the vehicle, and appellant fled on foot. German got into the driver's seat, Isaias Quintanilla, Zoila's brother, got into the passenger seat, and Sergio Zacarias, Zoila's son, got into the backseat. They followed appellant and spotted him hiding in some brush near their home. As they drove up, appellant came out of the brush, grabbed onto the vehicle, and fired multiple shots, striking Isaias once in the forehead.
Then, appellant crossed the street, and German again followed him. While Zacarias ran home to call the police, German attempted to stop appellant, but he ran away. After the police arrived at the scene and Isaias was taken away in an ambulance, a forensic sketch artist met with Zoila, German, and Zacarias separately. The police then canvassed the neighborhood with the resulting sketch, receiving tips that led them to the apartment complex where appellant resided. Once the police had identified appellant as a suspect, they placed his photo into a photo lineup. When presented with the photo lineup separately on the day after the incident, Zoila and German each positively identified appellant, and Zacarias tentatively identified appellant.
Isaias survived his wound but suffered severe, and likely permanent, injuries. At trial, Zoila, Zacarias, and German described the event, again identifying appellant. Appellant called Carlesha Rossi, appellant's sister, as his sole witness. Rossi testified that at the time of the charged offenses, appellant was at Rossi's apartment.
A jury convicted appellant of both aggravated robbery and aggravated assault. The jury assessed punishment at sixty years' confinement for aggravated robbery, twenty years' confinement for aggravated assault, and a $10, 000 fine.
Appellant filed a motion for new trial arguing, among other things, that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The trial court held a hearing and denied appellant's motion for new trial.

Russi, 2016 WL 1444040, at *1.

         III. The Applicable Legal Standards

         Russi's petition is governed by the applicable provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Under AEDPA, federal habeas relief cannot be granted on legal issues adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state adjudication was contrary to clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98-99 (2011); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-05 (2000); 28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(d)(1), (2). A state-court decision is contrary to federal precedent if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth by the Supreme Court, or if it confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from such a decision and arrives at a result different from the Supreme Court's precedent. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 7-8 (2002).

         A state court unreasonably applies Supreme Court precedent if it unreasonably applies the correct legal rule to the facts of a particular case, or unreasonably extends a legal principle from Supreme Court precedent to a new context where it should not apply, or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply. Williams, 529 U.S. at 409. In deciding whether a state court's application was unreasonable, this Court considers whether the application was objectively unreasonable. Id. "It bears repeating that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. As stated by the Supreme Court in Richter,

If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be. As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. It 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. It goes no farther. Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a "guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems," not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.

Id. at 102-03 (emphasis added; internal citations omitted).

         AEDPA affords deference to a state court's resolution of factual issues. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), a decision adjudicated on the merits in a state court and based on a factual determination will not be overturned on factual grounds unless it is objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding. Miller-El v. Cockrell,537 U.S. 322, 343 (2003). A federal habeas court must presume the underlying factual determination of the state court to be correct, unless the petitioner rebuts the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); seealso Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 330-31. This ...

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