United States District Court, D. Maryland
K. BREDAR CHIEF JUDGE.
Rodney Chester Pitts, Jr. (hereinafter referred to as
“Pitts”), seeks habeas corpus relief pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2254, attacking the constitutionality of his
2010 convictions in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County.
This matter has been fully briefed. ECF No. 25. Upon review,
the court finds no need for an evidentiary hearing.
See Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2254
Cases in the United States District Courts and Local
Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016); see also Fisher v. Lee,
15 F.3d 438');">215 F.3d 438, 455 (4th Cir. 2000) (petitioner not entitled to
a hearing under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2)). For reasons
that follow, Pitts's petition for habeas corpus will be
denied and dismissed with prejudice.
and Procedural History
was indicted on May 10, 2010, and charged with solicitation
to commit first-degree murder, solicitation to commit
first-degree assault, solicitation to commit second-degree
assault, solicitation to intimidate a witness, intimidation
of a witness, and obstruction of justice. ECF No. 25, Filed
Separately Exhibit No. 1. The charges arose out of letters
Pitts sent to his girlfriend Latoya Robinson and his cousin
Jordan Criner, while he was awaiting trial at the Wicomico
County Detention Center (“WCDC”) on a
second-degree assault charge stemming from an altercation
with Robinson. Id., Filed Separately Exhibit 9.
Pitts filed a motion to suppress the letters to Criner,
arguing that they were seized in violation of his Fourth
Amendment rights. The motion was heard before Judge W. Newton
Jackson on August 20, 2010. The Circuit Court denied the
motion, finding that Pitts did not have an objectively
reasonable expectation of privacy in the letters and, even if
he did so, that expectation was outweighed by the Wicomico
County Detention Center's reasonable security needs. ECF
No. 25, Filed Separately Exhibit 2, p. 43.
jury trial occurred over a two-day period from October 20 to
October 21, 2010, with Circuit Court Judge Kathleen L.
Beckstead presiding. Id., Filed Separately Exhibits
facts adduced at trial as recounted by the Court of Special
Appeals of Maryland are as follows:
While incarcerated at the WCDC awaiting trial on a
second-degree assault charge arising from an altercation with
Robinson, Pitts sent two letters to Robinson and two letters
to Criner. These letters formed the basis of the charges
before the circuit court. The letters to Robinson were date
stamped January 5, 2010 and February 24, 2010. Both letters
asked Robinson to drop her charges against Pitts and to
refuse to testify against him. In the second letter to
Robinson, Pitts also threatened to file perjury charges
against Robinson's mother based on her expected
On March 2, 2010, Pitts sent a letter to Criner, which asked
Criner to take steps to prevent Robinson from testifying at
Pitts's trial for second-degree assault. In the letter,
Pitts suggested that Criner attack Robinson, kidnap her,
shoot at her house, or kill her. Pitts told Criner that he
could not think straight in jail. When Pitts placed the
letter in the WCDC mail system, the letter was in a sealed
envelope with Criner's address and Pitts's return
address on the envelope.
Prior to Pitts mailing the first letter to Criner, the WCDC
began monitoring all of Pitts's outgoing mail pursuant to
the WCDC's policy of reviewing the mail of validated gang
members and those affiliated with validated gang members.
Thus, when Pitts sent the first letter to Criner, Officer
Richard Elliott, a member of the WCDC intelligence unit,
intercepted the letter and read it as part of his regular
duties. Upon determining that the letter discussed harming
another person, Ofc. Elliott notified the Wicomico Bureau of
Investigation (“WBI”) and turned the letter over
to Detective Taylor, of the Wicomico County Sheriff's
Department, on assignment to the WBI. Det. Taylor
subsequently passed the letter on to Sergeant Cook, a member
of the Maryland State Police Homicide Unit.
On March 5, 2010, Sgt. Cook and Trooper Steve Peters, of the
WBI, visited Criner at his home. The two officers explained
the contents of the letter to Criner and had Criner write a
response which was dictated by Sgt. Cook. The response asked
Pitts how much money he would pay if Criner performed the
acts requested in Pitts's letter. Sgt. Cook
hand-delivered the response to the WCDC with instructions to
deliver the letter to Pitts and to be alert for future
Several days later, Ofc. Elliott intercepted a second letter
from Pitts to Criner. In this letter, Pitts instructed Criner
not to kill Robinson; however, Pitts offered $300-$500 to
have someone shoot at Robinson's parents' house, $300
to have Robinson shot in the leg, and $150 to have Robinson
pistol-whipped. Ofc. Elliott turned the second letter over to
Sgt. Cook, who sent both letters to the crime lab for
analysis. On March 16, 2010, Ofc. Elliott searched
Pitts's cell, seized several letters, and forwarded them
to the crime lab.
25, Filed Separately Exhibit 9, pp. 3-6 (footnote omitted).
jury heard testimony from WCDC Intelligence Officer Richard
Elliott, Latoya Robinson, Maryland State Police (MSP) Crime
Scene Technician Sam Woods, MSP latent print examiner expert
Timothy Ostendarp, MSP forensic scientist Diane Lawder,
Wicomico County Sheriff's Detective Chris Taylor, MSP
Officer Scott Cook, and defendant Rodney Pitts. Id.,
Filed Separately Exhibits 3 & 4. On October 21, 2010, a
jury acquitted Pitts of solicitation to commit first-degree
murder, but found him guilty on the remaining counts.
Id., Filed Separately Exhibit 4, pp. 210-11. On
December 16, 2010, Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Beckstead
sentenced Pitts to a term of twenty years' incarceration
as to solicitation to commit first-degree assault, merged the
other counts of solicitation to commit second-degree assault,
solicitation to intimidate a witness, and intimidation of a
witness, and sentenced Pitts to a five-year sentence on the
obstruction of justice count, to run concurrently with the
twenty-year sentence. Id., Filed Separately Exhibit
5, pp. 22-23.
direct appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, Pitts, through
counsel, raised the following claims:
I. The motions court erred by failing to suppress sealed,
outgoing mail from a pre-trial detention center, which was
seized in violation of Mr. Pitts' Fourth Amendment
II. The trial court erred when it prevented the defense from
eliciting testimony from Mr. Pitts that was probative of his
intent, a central issue in the case.
III. The trial court erred when it denied the defense motion
for judgment of acquittal pertaining to direct witness
intimidation, count five, because the evidence did not
support the charge of direct witness intimidation “on
or about” March 11, 2010.
25, Filed Separately Exhibit 6, p. 2.
unreported opinion filed on May 10, 2012, the Court of
Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed Pitts's convictions,
rejecting his claims of error. Id., Filed Separately
Exhibit 9. Pitts's self-represented petition for a writ
of certiorari was summarily denied by the Court of Appeals of
Maryland on August 21, 2012. ECF No. 25, Filed Separately
Exhibits 10 & 11.
the pendency of his direct appeal, Pitts filed a petition for
post-conviction review in the Circuit Court for Wicomico
County raising multiple claims of ineffective assistance of
counsel. He subsequently supplemented his petition to present
trial court error and prosecutorial misconduct grounds. ECF
No. 25, Filed Separately Exhibits 12-13. On February 21 and
July 11, 2013, Pitts appeared before Circuit Court Judge Leah
J. Seaton for his post-conviction hearing. Id.,
Filed Separately Exhibits 14-15. At the post-conviction
hearing, Pitts testified regarding the ineffectiveness of
trial counsel James Murray, trial court error, and
prosecutorial misconduct. Id., Filed Separately
Exhibit 14, pp. 33-143. During the second day of the hearing,
Pitts's defense attorney, James Murray, testified.
Id., Filed Separately Exhibit 15, pp. 11-72. On July
31, 2013, Judge Seaton issued an exhaustive 34-page opinion
denying post-conviction relief. Noting that Pitts had filed
seven self-represented post-conviction petitions, some of
which were filed after the commencement of the hearing,
without counsel's signature and without a certificate of
service, Judge Seaton only considered Pitts's original
petition and his petition filed on January 24, 2013.
Id., Filed Separately Exhibit 16. Pitts's
application for leave to appeal the denial of post-conviction
relief raised claims that exculpatory evidence was withheld
(a Google map); that the State failed to produce all of its
evidence prior to trial; that the State failed to properly
examine witnesses; that the trial court erred in failing to
discharge the defense attorney; and that counsel failed to
perform his duties. ECF No. 25, Filed Separately Exhibit 17.
On September 14, 2014, the Court of Special Appeals of
Maryland summarily denied the application. Id.,
Filed Separately Exhibit 18.
original and supplemental federal petitions for writ of
habeas corpus, filed prior to the respondents' answer,
Pitts raises the following claims as generously construed by
the court:[1" name="FN1" id=
"FN1">1](1) his WCDC cell was subject to an illegal
search and seizure; (2) the prosecution committed misconduct
by (a) failing to correct Latoya Robinson's trial
testimony regarding her unfamiliarity with his cousin Jordan
Criner and the inconsistent statements of MSP Officer Cook
regarding his control and production of letters, (b)
withholding a video recording, “mail cover, ”
gang-point sheet, and Google map as part of discovery, and
(c) contaminating and tampering with evidence; (3) defense
counsel was ineffective as he (a) did not question the
State's handwriting expert's conclusions that were
made without obtaining a handwriting sample from Pitts, (b)
had himself and Pitts stand during the course of the
state's handwriting expert Diane Lawder's testimony,
(c) did not obtain a handwriting expert, and (d) failed to
file an additional discovery request in regard to a Google
(4) the trial judge (a) was biased due to her familiarity
with the evidence in his other criminal case and should have
removed herself and (b) failed to grant his request for
renewed counsel; (5) he received an illegal sentence; and (6)
he was actually innocent of the offense. ECF Nos. 1, 6-8, 12,
20, & 23.
Exhaustion and Procedural Default
respondents do not contend, and the court does not find, that
the petition was filed outside the one-year limitations
period set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). Further,
insofar as Pitts is reasserting his appellate and
post-conviction issues, the claims are exhausted for the
purpose of federal habeas corpus review.
a petitioner may seek habeas relief in federal court, he must
exhaust each claim presented to the federal court by pursuing
remedies available in state court. See Rose v.
Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 521 (1982). This exhaustion
requirement is satisfied by seeking review of the claim in
the highest state court with jurisdiction to consider the
claim. See O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838,
845 (1999); 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b) and (c). In Maryland, this
may be accomplished by raising certain claims on direct
appeal and other claims by way of post-conviction
proceedings. Exhaustion is not required if, at the time a
federal habeas corpus petition is filed, petitioner has no
available state remedy. See Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S.
288, 297-98 (1989).
petitioner has failed to present a claim to the highest state
court with jurisdiction to hear it, whether it be by failing
to raise the claim in post-conviction proceedings or on
direct appeal, or by failing timely to note an appeal, the
procedural default doctrine applies. See Coleman v.
Thompson, 1 U.S. 722');">501 U.S. 722, 749-50 (1991) (failure to note
timely appeal); Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478,
489-91 (1986) (failure to raise claim on direct appeal);
Murch v. Mottram, 1');">409 U.S. 41, 46 (1972) (failure to
raise claim during post-conviction); Bradley v.
Davis, 1 F.Supp. 479');">551 F.Supp. 479, 481 (D. Md. 1982) (failure to
seek leave to appeal denial of post-conviction relief). A
procedural default also may occur where a state court
declines “to consider the merits [of a claim] on the
basis of an adequate and independent state procedural
rule.” Yeatts v. Angelone, 166 F.3d 255');">166 F.3d 255, 260
(4th Cir. 1999). As the United States Court of Appeals for
the Fourth Circuit has explained:
If a state court clearly and expressly bases its dismissal of
a habeas petitioner's claim on a state procedural rule,
and that procedural rule provides an independent and adequate
ground for the dismissal, the habeas petitioner has
procedurally defaulted his federal habeas claim. See
Coleman v. Thompson, 1 U.S. 722');">501 U.S. 722, 731-32 (1991). A
procedural default also occurs when a habeas petitioner fails
to exhaust available state remedies and “the court to
which the petitioner would be required to present his claims
in order to meet the exhaustion requirement would now find
the claims procedurally barred.” Id. at 735
Breard v. Pruett, 134 F.3d 615');">134 F.3d 615, 619 (4th Cir. 1998).
procedural default has occurred, a federal court may not
address the merits of a state prisoner's habeas claim
unless the petitioner can show (1) both cause for the default
and prejudice that would result from failing to consider the
claim on the merits; or (2) that failure to consider the
claim on the merits would result in a miscarriage of justice,
i.e., the conviction of one who is actually
innocent. See Murray, 477 U.S. at 495-96;
Breard, 134 F.3d at 620. “Cause”
consists of Asome objective factor external to the defense
[that] impeded counsel's efforts to raise the claim in
state court at the appropriate time.” Breard,
134 F.3d at 620 (quoting Murray, 477 U.S. at 488)
(alteration in original). Even where a petitioner fails to
show cause and prejudice for a procedural default, a court
must still consider whether it should reach the merits of a
petitioner's claims in order to prevent a fundamental
miscarriage of justice. See Schlup v. Delo,
13 U.S. 298');">513 U.S. 298, 314 (1995). A habeas petitioner who has
defaulted his federal claims in state court meets the
technical requirements for exhaustion; there are no state
remedies any longer “available” to him.
See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b); Engle v.
Isaac, 107');">456 U.S. 107, 125-26, n.28 (1982).
reasons to be discussed, the court finds that several of
Pitts's claims are procedurally defaulted.
application for writ of habeas corpus may be granted only for
violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States.
28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The federal habeas statute at 28
U.S.C. § 2254 sets forth a “highly deferential
standard for evaluating state-court rulings, ”
Lindh v. Murphy, 1 U.S. 320');">521 U.S. 320, 333 n.7 (1997);
see also Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447 (2005). The
standard is “difficult to meet” and requires
courts to give state-court decisions the benefit of the
doubt. Cullen v. Pinholster, 170');">563 U.S. 170, 181
(2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted);
see also White v. Woodall, __ U.S., __, 134 S.Ct.
1697, 1702 (2014) (quoting Harrington v. Richter,
562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011) (state prisoner must show state court
ruling on claim presented in federal court was “so
lacking in justification that there was an error well
understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any
possibility for fair minded disagreement.”));
Virginia v. LeBlanc, __ U.S. __,, 137 S.Ct. 1726');">137 S.Ct. 1726,
federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus unless
the state's adjudication on the merits 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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). A state
adjudication is contrary to clearly established federal law
under § 2254(d)(1) where the state court 1)
“arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by
[the Supreme] Court on a question of law, ” or 2)
“confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable
from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a
result opposite to [the Supreme Court].” Williams
v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000).
the “unreasonable application” analysis of §
2254(d)(1), a “state court's determination that a
claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as
‘fairminded jurists could disagree' on the
correctness of the state court's decision.”
Harrington, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (quoting Yarborough
v. Alvarado, 1 U.S. 652');">541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). “Rather,
that application must be objectively unreasonable.”
Id. Thus, “an unreasonable application of
federal law is different from an incorrect application of
federal law.” Id. at 785 (internal quotation
marks omitted). Further under § 2254(d)(2), “a
state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely
because the federal habeas court would have reached a
different conclusion in the first instance.” Wood
v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010). “[E]ven if
reasonable minds reviewing the record might disagree about
the finding in question, ” a federal habeas court may
not conclude that the state court decision was based on an
unreasonable determination of the facts. Id.
“[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply
because [it] concludes in its independent judgment that the
relevant state-court decision applied established federal law
erroneously or incorrectly.” Renico v. Lett,
599 U.S 766, 773 (2010).
habeas statute provides that “a determination of a
factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be
correct, ” and the petitioner bears “the burden
of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and
convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
“Where the state court conducted an evidentiary hearing
and explained its reasoning with some care, it should be
particularly difficult to establish clear and convincing
evidence of error on the state court's part.”
Sharpe v. Bell, 593 F.3d 372, 378 (4th Cir. 2010).
This is especially true where state courts have
“resolved issues like witness credibility, which are
‘factual determinations' for purposes of Section
2254(e)(1).” Id. at 379.
Search and Seizure” of Evidence.
challenges the search and seizure of letters from his WCDC
cell. The law concerning Fourth Amendment claims in federal
habeas corpus proceedings is well established and well-known
to this court. “[W]here the State has provided an
opportunity for full and fair litigation of a Fourth
Amendment claim, a state prisoner may not be granted federal
habeas corpus relief on the ground that the evidence obtained
in an unconstitutional search or seizure was introduced at
his trial.” Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 494
(1976) (footnotes omitted).
Stone did not define the phrase “full and fair
opportunity to litigate, ...