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Brown v. Davis

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

September 26, 2019

OLICE EDWARD BROWN, TDCJ No. 02111877, Petitioner,
v.
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          XAVIER RODRIGUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are pro se Petitioner Olice Edward Brown's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 1), Petitioner's Memorandum in Support (ECF No. 5), Respondent's Answer (ECF No. 14), and Petitioner's Reply (ECF No. 18). Having reviewed the record and pleadings submitted by both parties, the Court concludes Petitioner is not entitled to relief under the standards prescribed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Petitioner is also denied a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         In March 2015, Petitioner was indicted in Bexar County, Texas, on two counts of capital murder alleged to have occurred on December 12, 2014. (ECF No. 15-16 at 11). Pursuant to a plea bargain agreement, Petitioner pled no contest to two counts of murder and was sentenced to sixty years of imprisonment in each case, with the sentences to run concurrently. State v. Brown, Nos. 2015-CR-3457 and 2016-CR-9349-W (379th Dist. Ct, Bexar Cty., Tex. Jan. 11, 2017); (ECF No. 15-24 at 12; No. 15-42 at 11). Because he waived the right to appeal as part of the plea bargain agreement, Petitioner did not appeal his convictions and sentences. (ECF No. 15-34 at 6).

         Instead, Petitioner challenged his convictions by filing two state habeas corpus applications which were eventually denied on the merits by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) without written order on September 5, 2018. Ex parte Brown, Nos. 88, 881-01, -02 (Tex. Crim. App.); (ECF Nos. 15-10, 15-27). Five days later, Petitioner placed the instant federal habeas petition in the prison mail system. (ECF No. 1 at 10). In the petition, Petitioner raises the same allegation that was rejected by the TCCA during his state habeas proceedings- namely, that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and present witness statements at the plea bargaining and sentencing proceedings that would have had a mitigating effect on both.

         II. Standard of Review

         Petitioner's federal habeas petition is governed by the heightened standard of review provided by the AEDPA. 28 U.S.C.A. § 2254. Under § 2254(d), a petitioner may not obtain federal habeas corpus relief on any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings unless the adjudication of that claim either: (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. Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005). This intentionally difficult standard stops just short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011) (citing Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 664 (1996)).

         A federal habeas court's inquiry into unreasonableness should always be objective rather than subjective, with a focus on whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was "objectively unreasonable" and not whether it was incorrect or erroneous. McDaniel v. Brown, 558 U.S. 120 (2010); Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520-21 (2003). Even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable, regardless of whether the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion itself. Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. Instead, a petitioner must show that the decision was objectively unreasonable, which is a "substantially higher threshold." Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007); Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76 (2003). So long as "fairminded jurists could disagree" on the correctness of the state court's decision, a state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief. Richter, 562 U.S. at 101 (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). In other words, to obtain federal habeas relief on a claim previously adjudicated on the merits in state court, Petitioner must show that the state court's ruling "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Id. at 103; see also Bobby v. Dixon, 565 U.S. 23, 24 (2011).

         III. Merits Analysis

         As discussed previously, Petitioner alleges he received ineffective assistance from his trial counsel due to counsel's failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence on his behalf at his plea bargain and sentencing proceedings. Specifically, Petitioner faults counsel for not uncovering statements from two witnesses who overheard a physical altercation between Petitioner and one of the victims prior to Petitioner shooting the victims in what he claims was self-defense. Because he voluntarily pleaded guilty to the convictions he is now challenging under § 2254, however, Petitioner waived the right to challenge all non-jurisdictional defects in his proceedings. Moreover, this allegation was rejected by the state court during Petitioner's state habeas proceedings. Because the state court's rejection of the claim was neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent, federal habeas relief is denied.

         It is axiomatic that a guilty plea is valid only if entered voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently, "with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences." Bradshaw v. Stumpf, 545 U.S. 175, 183 (2005); United States v. Hernandez, 234 F.3d 252, 254 (5th Cir. 2000). A plea is intelligently made when the defendant has "real notice of the true nature of the charge against him." Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 618 (1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). And a plea is "voluntary" if it does not result from force, threats, improper promises, misrepresentations, or coercion. United States v. Amaya, 111 F.3d 386, 389 (5th Cir. 1997). The longstanding test for determining the validity of a guilty plea is whether the plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56 (1985); United States v. Juarez, 672 F.3d 381, 385 (5th Cir. 2012).

         The record in this case indicates Petitioner's pleas were a voluntary and intelligent choice and were not a result of any misrepresentation. To start, the voluntariness of Petitioner's plea is demonstrated by his signature on the "Court's Admonishment and Defendant's Waivers and Affidavit of Admonitions" and accompanying "Plea Bargain." (ECF No. 15-16 at 7-10). These documents demonstrate Petitioner was admonished as to the maximum punishment range for the first degree offense of capital murder (five years to ninety-nine years or life) but that Petitioner was pleading guilty to the lesser-included offense of murder with a punishment to be assessed at no less than thirty-five years. Id. Petitioner also makes the following concessions in his plea agreement:

1. I have had my Constitutional and legal rights explained to me by my attorney, and have decided to waive my Constitutional right of trial by jury and enter this plea before the judge. I hereby request the consent and approval of the State's Attorney and of the Court to my ...

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