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Ross v. Wolfe

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

May 1, 2013

JAMES ALAN ROSS, Petitioner
v.
WARDEN JOHN S. WOLFE et al., Respondents

MEMORANDUM

JAMES K. BREDAR, District Judge.

I. Background

Petitioner James Alan Ross pro se filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, contesting the constitutionality of his Maryland state court conviction and sentence for four counts of first-degree assault. (Petition, ECF No. 1.) After receipt and review of the State's response to the show-cause order, as well as supplemental filings by Ross, the Court issued a lengthy opinion addressing most of the issues in the case and denied in part and held in abeyance in part Ross's petition. (ECF Nos. 18, 19.) Concern about the remaining undecided issues prompted the Court to grant Ross's motion for appointment of counsel and to appoint the Federal Public Defender for Maryland to represent Ross going forward. ( Id. ) Both Ross, through appointed counsel, and the State then filed supplemental briefs. (ECF Nos. 31, 36.) No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). Upon the conclusions that counsel rendered ineffective assistance when he lied to his client in order to persuade him to accept a plea bargain, and that this ineffective assistance rendered the later guilty plea involuntary, the petition will be granted.

II. Standard for the Writ of Habeas Corpus

The federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended, provides a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings." Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333 n.7 (1997). See also Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 455 (2005). This "highly deferential" standard is "difficult to meet" and "demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt." Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011); see also Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011) ("If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be."). Petitioner carries the burden of proof to meet this standard. See Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. at 1398. Even so, "deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review. Deference does not by definition preclude relief." Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003).

Section 2254 provides:

d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim-
(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.

See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2) (amendments enacted as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)).

"Under the contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000) (O'Connor, J., concurring). "Under the unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. The AEDPA amendments to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 require this Court to limit its analysis to the law as it was "clearly established" by precedent at the time of the state court's decision.[1] Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. at 1399.

Thus, under the "unreasonable application" prong, "a federal court may grant relief when a state court has misapplied a governing legal principle to a set of facts different from those of the case in which the principle was announced." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). To be "unreasonable, " the state court's application of Supreme Court precedent must have been more than incorrect or erroneous. Id. "The state court's application must have been objectively unreasonable.'" Id. (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 409).

The Supreme Court has also articulated the standard for review of state-court factual determinations:

Factual determinations by state courts are presumed correct absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, § 2254(e)(1), and a decision adjudicated on the merits in a state court and based on a factual determination will not be overturned on factual grounds unless objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding, § 2254(d)(2)... A federal court can disagree with a state court's credibility determination and, when guided by AEDPA, conclude the decision was unreasonable or that the factual premise was incorrect by clear and convincing evidence.

Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 340, 341-48 (casting doubt on state postconviction court's credibility determination as to prosecutorial discrimination in jury selection when strong, objective evidence was at odds with credibility determination).

Thus, under AEDPA, a state court's conclusion that a defendant received effective assistance of counsel or entered a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent guilty plea may be incorrect, but a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the state court's determination was either "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law... or 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)(1), (2).

III. Exhaustion

In the State's original response to the show-cause order it was stated, "Respondents read Ross's petition to be raising claims that were raised and developed previously in state court." (Resp. 14, ECF No. 9.) Although Respondents added some perfunctory disclaimer language about not waiving exhaustion and advocating dismissal for lack of exhaustion "[i]f it is found that Ross intends to proceed on a claim or factual basis not previously developed in state court" ( id. ), the Court reasonably construed the original response as conceding exhaustion for the issues raised by Ross in his federal habeas petition.

In its supplemental response, however, the State has advanced an argument to the effect that Ross's precise claim for habeas relief was not raised in state courts and should be dismissed as unexhausted. Specifically, although Ross had earlier claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, his claim was premised upon counsel's advice to Ross that he would serve only ten years in prison, thereby giving Ross misleading advice for him to consider in deciding whether to plead guilty. (Supp. Resp. 7, ECF No. 36.) The State now contends that the Court's focus on defense counsel's misleading advice as to the prosecutor's expectation of what sentence Ross was likely to receive and how it was to be executed is a different claim that was not exhausted. ( Id. )

The State seeks to put too fine a point on the exhaustion doctrine. Notably, it cites no authority to support its argument. And Supreme Court precedent unequivocally refutes the State's contention. In Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270 (1971), the Court stated that the substance of a federal habeas claim must first have been fairly presented to the state courts. Id. at 275, 278. See also Matthews v. Evatt, 105 F.3d 907, 911 (4th Cir. 1997) ("both the operative facts and the controlling legal principles must be presented to the state court" (internal quotation marks omitted)). But the Connor Court noted that if the ultimate legal theory has been articulated to the state court so that it can apply controlling legal principles, then it matters not whether a particular variation of that legal theory is articulated. 404 U.S. at 277. In the Connor case, the petitioner claimed an invalid indictment in state court was a violation of due process, but claimed in federal court that an indictment unlawfully discriminated against him and, thus, was a violation of equal protection. Id. at 277-78. Citing Sanders v. United States, 373 U.S. 1 (1963), as precedent for how to determine whether grounds previously presented were substantially equivalent to those later pressed, the Court concluded the petitioner had not fairly presented the substance of his federal habeas claim to the state courts and, therefore, had not exhausted it. 404 U.S. at 278. In Sanders, the Court dealt with a motion under § 2255 and addressed the question of whether a prior ground could be considered the same as the ...


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