United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division
JESSE ALVAREZ, TDCJ No. 2176191, Petitioner,
LORIE DAVIS, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, Respondent.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
KATHLEEN CARDONE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Jesse Alvarez, a state prisoner, challenges Respondent Lori
Davis's custody of him through a pro se petition
for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF
No. 8). Alvarez claims the state trial judge was biased, his
counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance, and
his guilty plea was involuntary. Pet'r's Pet 6-7, ECF
No. 8. Davis avers “Alvarez's first claim was
waived by his voluntary guilty plea, the second is meritless,
and the third is procedurally defaulted and meritless.”
Resp't's Answer 1, ECF No. 25. After reviewing the
record and for the reasons discussed below, the Court finds
that Alvarez is not entitled to federal habeas relief.
Consequently, the Court will deny his petition and,
additionally, deny him a certificate of appealability.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
December 30, 2013, Alvarez robbed Justin Cynor at knifepoint.
Clerk's R., ECF No. 27-7, p. 5 (Indictment). On January
27, 2014, he was found with less than four grams of
methamphetamine in his possession. Clerk's R., ECF No.
22-9, p. 5 (Indictment). Consequently, he was indicted by a
grand jury for aggravated robbery in cause number 20140D00804
and possession of a controlled substance in cause number
20140D001491 in the 41st Judicial District Court of El Paso
County, Texas. Pet'r's Pet. 2, ECF No. 8. The
indictments noted Alvarez had prior convictions for robbery
in cause number 960D11357 in the 243rd District Court and for
possession of a controlled substance in cause number
20070D02952 in the 41st Judicial District Court. Alvarez pled
guilty, pursuant to a plea agreement, to both offenses and,
on January 8, 2018, he was sentenced to twenty-five
years' confinement for the aggravated robbery in cause
number 20140D00804 and twenty years' confinement for the
possession of a controlled substance in cause number
20140D001491. Clerk's R., ECF No. 22-7, pp. 6-18 (J. and
Plea Agreement); Clerk's R., ECF No. 22-9, pp. 6-18 (J.
and Plea Agreement). The Court sentenced Alvarez for other
offenses during the same hearing. Alvarez waived his right to
appeal in his plea agreement except in very limited
circumstances. Hence, he did not appeal.
filed timely state applications for writs of habeas corpus
for each offense on June 26, 2018. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7,
pp. 19-34 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF
22-9, pp. 19-36 (State Writ Application - 05). In both
applications he asserted the same four claims. First, he
maintained he was not competent to stand trial and
“Judge Perez refused to accept six exhibits stating
[he] was incompetent to stand trial.” Clerk's R.,
ECF 22-7, p. 25 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's
R., ECF 22-9, p. 25 (State Writ Application - 05). Second, he
argued he was denied due process because he was not competent
at the time of his plea hearing. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p.
26 (State Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9,
p. 26 (State Writ Application - 05). Third, he claimed Judge
Perez erred when she did not seek amicus counsel to advise
her on his competency. Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p. 29 (State
Writ Application - 04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, p. 29
(State Writ Application - 05). Finally, he complained his
counsel provided ineffective assistance when he did not
research his prior psychiatric evaluations-including one
conducted as recently as twenty days before his plea
hearing-and argue he was not competent to stand trial.
Clerk's R., ECF 22-7, p. 30 (State Writ Application -
04); Clerk's R., ECF 22-9, p. 30 (State Writ Application
- 05). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied both
applications without written order on July 18, 2018. Action
Taken, ECF 22-6; Action Taken, ECF 22-8.
subsequently filed two more state writ applications.
Clerk's R., ECF 22-14, pp. 22-38 (State Writ Application
- 06); ECF 22-20, pp. 22-38 (State Writ Application - 07). In
these applications he claimed his pleas were
“involuntary” because his lawyers ignored his
mental health and coached him to get through his plea
hearing. Clerk's R., ECF 22-14, p. 44 (State Writ
Application - 06); ECF 22-20, p. 44 (State Writ Application -
07). The Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed both
applications as subsequent and an abuse of the writ statute
under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure article 11.07, §
4(a)-(c), on November 7, 2018. Action Taken, ECF 22-10;
Action Taken, ECF 22-15. Alverez's federal petition
followed on December 3, 2018.
now asserts three grounds for relief. Pet'r's Pet
6-7, ECF No. 8. First, he alleges the trial judge exhibited
bias “by not participating impartially in the matter of
Petitioner's incompetence to stand trial.”
Id., at 13. He maintains she ignored the mental
health diagnoses given to him at the Rusk and Vernon state
mental hospitals and “sought state-sponsored doctors,
who would give contrary diagnoses.” Id.
Second, he contends his counsel provided constitutionally
ineffective assistance when they “failed to investigate
and take proper ‘pre-trial' measures to present
‘material evidence' in support of Petitioner's
only line of defense, which was his ‘incompetence to
stand trial.'” Id., at 15. Finally, he
claims he “was sedated on strong psychotropic
medications” at the time of his plea hearing and, as a
consequence, “his plea of guilty was involuntary, and
not made knowingly, nor intelligently.” Id.,
at 17. Alvarez asks for an evidentiary hearing and for the
Court to “revers[e] and remand . . . his conviction or
in the alternative [enter a judgment of] acquittal.”
Id., at 17-18.
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.”).
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).
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.
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;
(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).
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,
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).
A. Judicial Bias
alleges the trial judge exhibited bias “by not
participating impartially in the matter of Petitioner's
incompetence to stand trial” at his plea hearing.
Pet'r's Pet. 13, ECF No. 8. He maintains she ignored
the mental health diagnoses given to him at the Rusk and
Vernon state mental hospitals and “sought
state-sponsored doctors, who would give contrary
Constitution does not permit trial of an individual who lacks
‘mental competency.'” Indiana v.
Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 170 (2008). But a defendant is
deemed competent to stand trial if he has “sufficient
present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable
degree of rational understanding [and if] he has a rational
as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against
him.” Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402,
402 (1960) (per curiam). And competency to stand trial is a
question of fact. Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111,
117 (1983) (per curiam).
§ 2254(e)(1), “a determination of a factual issue
made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct”
and the habeas petitioner bears “the burden of
rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and
convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
Because competency to stand trial is a question of fact, a
federal court must afford the state trial court the deference
due under § 2254(e)(1). Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d
203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). In other words, under §
2254(e)(1), the state trial court's determination that a
defendant is competent to stand trial and plead guilty is
state trial judge determined Alverez was competent to stand
trial at his plea hearing on November 30, 2017, in cause
numbers 20140D00804 and 20140D001491, as well as cause
numbers 20090D01738, 20110D02034, 20140D03710, 20150D00866,
20150D01060, 20110D04489, 20130D00795, 20130D03372, and
THE COURT: Ms. Estrada, have you had an opportunity to
explain State's Exhibits Number 1 [the plea agreement] to