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Miles v. Wainwright

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 17, 2019



          Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge

         On the evening of April 2, 1997, in the trees beyond Old Bradley Road, a single-lane byroad up the east bank of the Nanticoke River, a short-cut between Mardela Springs and Sharptown, Mr. Jody Lee Miles shot and killed Mr. Ed Atkinson. What happened, why it happened, and how the courts probe such quandaries many years later is the subject herein.

         This is a habeas case. Mr. Miles asks this court to vacate his felony murder conviction in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County because his trial counsel failed to pursue an adequate investigation into his life history. This investigation, he contends, would have uncovered a legacy of devastating sexual abuse Mr. Miles suffered as a child that would have recontextualized the facts of this murder case before the trial jury. Critically, this is now an asserted guilt-phase deficiency.[1] An adequate investigation, Mr. Miles asserts, would have provided the jury with a compelling alternative narrative for the tragedy that transpired: What took place in the woods that day was not the product of an preconceived intent to rob the victim, but instead the result of a post-traumatic stress-related episode arising when he was reminded of events that took place in the woods outside his childhood home when he was repeatedly and routinely sodomized, between the ages of eleven and fourteen, by a man named Charlie Stevenson, his mother's boyfriend at the time. (Dr. Blumberg Aff. ¶¶ 3-4, ECF No. 7-1). Had trial counsel adequately performed his duty and discovered this evidence, Mr. Miles claims, there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have declined to find the requisite intent to rob, thereby rendering a different verdict.

         To win here, Mr. Miles must surmount the imposing double-deference standard erected by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Strickland requires deference to trial counsel's decision making, and § 2254(d) requires deference to the state court's Strickland determination. Accordingly, Mr. Miles must show that: (1) trial counsel's performance was deficient, see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-88; (2) prejudice resulted from counsel's deficient performance, see Id. at 691-92; and (3) the Maryland state court decisions rejecting his ineffective assistance of counsel claims were contrary to clearly established federal law, or resulted in a decision based on an unreasonable determination of the facts as presented in the state court proceedings, see § 2254(d)(1)-(2).[2] This is a heavy burden. Mr. Miles's claims have been exhausted in state court and are otherwise procedurally ripe for review here on their merits. While Mr. Miles does show that his constitutional claim was not adequately adjudicated by the state courts, he has not demonstrated that he was prejudiced by his counsel's allegedly deficient performance. Therefore, his request for habeas relief will be denied.


         I. The Facts

         Mr. Miles shot and killed Mr. Atkinson with a single .22 caliber bullet to the left rear of his head on April 2, 1997. Miles v. State, 365 Md. 488, 502-03, 506 (2001). The basic facts of what transpired have never been in dispute. Mr. Atkinson was shopping at Small's tuxedo store at a mall called the Center at Salisbury, Maryland when he received a page. Id. at 499-500; (Trial Tr., Mar. 9, 1998, at 79:14-81:20, ECF No. 66-1).[3] Mr. Atkinson immediately left the mall, Miles, 365 Md. at 500, about five or ten minutes before 4 p.m., (Trial Tr., Mar. 9, 1998, at 81:23 - 82:5).[4] Shortly thereafter, Mr. Miles and Mr. Atkinson met at a rest stop off Route 50, just past Mardela Springs, Maryland.[5] (Trial Tr., Mar. 11, 1998, at 31:10-21, 53:2-54:9, 70:2-71:8, ECF No. 66-3). At 5:30 p.m., Harry Vaughn Hughes., Jr., a man who lived along Old Bradley Road, was taking out the trash when he saw Mr. Atkinson drive by in a Toyota Camry. Miles, 365 Md. at 500; (Trial Tr., Mar. 9, 1998, at 92:17-93:18, 102:19-25). Old Bradley Road is a narrow dirt road off Route 50, less than a mile from the rest stop. (Id., at 107:25-108:13). When Mr. Hughes saw Mr. Atkinson drive by, he was alone in the car. (Id. at 97:22-25). Mr. Atkinson smiled and waved at Mr. Hughes, who waved back. (Id. at 93:18-21). Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Hughes heard a single gunshot. (Id. at 93:24-94:3).

         The events that transpired after the shooting are similarly undisputed. Mr. Atkinson's body was found two days later by his brother. Miles, 365 Md. at 500: Mr. Atkinson's body was located over 300 feet from his car, which was parked at the mouth of a small cabled path off Old Bradley Road. (State's Trial Ex. 6, ECF No. 84-6). There were signs of a struggle, Miles, 365 Md. at 500, and Mr. Atkinson had sustained one gunshot wound to the back left of the head, (State's Trial Ex. 13 at.3-4, ECF No. 84-16). Mr. Atkinson's pockets had been emptied, and his wallet and keys were missing. Miles, 365 Md. at 500. It was later discovered that Mr. Miles had used Mr. Atkinson's credit cards to buy, among other things, gas and a diamond ring. Miles, 365 . Md. at 500-01; (Trial Tr., Mar. 10, 1998, at 53:2-54:9, ECF No. 66-2). Other valuables, meanwhile, were left at the scene, including two strings of pearls in the" center console of Mr. Atkinson's car. (Trial Tr., Mar. 12, 1998, at 63:10-14, ECF No. 66-4). Mr. Miles returned to the scene the next day to bury the body but left because the police were present. Miles, 365 Md. at 503.

         The .22 caliber revolver Mr. Miles carried with him on the day of the murder was discovered to have been taken from James Cooper, the father of a former girlfriend of Mr. Miles with whom he has a-daughter.. (Trial Tr., Mar. 10, 1998, at 78:15-82:19, ECF 66-2). After the murder, Mr. Miles's wife, Ms. Jona Miles, threw the handgun and other inculpatory evidence into the Choptank River near Denton, Maryland, where it was later retrieved. Miles, 365 Md. at 502. Mr. Miles was arrested on April 22, 1997, and shortly thereafter issued a lengthy statement in which he admitted to killing Mr. Atkinson. Id. at 502-03.

         While the broad strokes of what occurred are not in dispute, the nature of the encounter between Mr. Miles and Mr. Atkinson, and specifically the formation of Mr. Miles's intent to rob Mr. Atkinson, is contested and remains central to Mr. Miles's plea for post-conviction relief. A brief background is thus in order. The defense theory at trial was generally consistent with Mr. Miles's statement that he was working on behalf of a loan shark to collect a package from Mr. Atkinson, and that he fired the gun when he became scared that Mr. Atkinson himself was reaching for something (presumably a weapon) in his suit jacket pocket. (Trial Tr., Mar. 12, 1998, at 60:18-66:18, ECF 66-4). According to this theory, Mr. Miles is guilty of second-degree murder, but not premeditated murder or felony-murder based on a preconceived specific intent to rob. (Id. at 67:23-68:16).[6] The state did not have a different version of events to offer the jury for how the two men ended up in the woods; the prosecution simply argued that what occurred was a robbery and a premeditated murder. (Id. at 44:1-55:6, 72:20-73:4).

         On post-conviction, Mr. Miles advances a very different account of what occurred. As reported to Dr. Neil Howard Blumberg, Mr. Miles, severely intoxicated, stopped to use the bathroom at a rest area that served as a homosexual pick-up spot. (Dr. Blumberg Aff. ¶ 5, ECF No. 7-1). The bathroom was occupied, so he left. (Id.). A man from the rest area pursued Mr. Miles as he was leaving and trailed him down Route 50. (Id.). To lose the man, Mr. Miles turned down a narrow dirt road. (Id.). When he thought the man was no longer following him, Mr. Miles stepped out of the car in a wooded area to relieve himself. (Id.). But then the car pulled up and the man got out. (Id.). The man started advancing on Mr. Miles, who hid. (Id.). Mr. Miles then saw the man playing with his pants zipper, an act Mr. Miles thought was sexually motivated. (Id.). Mr. Miles felt trapped, recalling similar circumstances where he was sexually abused as a boy. (Id.). He then used deadly force to protect himself. (Id. ¶ 9)[7] Afterward, he took some of Mr. Atkinson's belongings as a mere afterthought.[8] Mr. Miles argues that knowledge of his history of sexual abuse would have given trial counsel sufficient means to contest the robbery narrative and defeat a finding of the specific intent to rob. (Third Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus ("Third Am. Pet.") at 2-3, ECF No. 65).

         II. Procedural History

         On May 9, 1997, Mr. Miles was indicted in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County, Maryland, where the shooting took place, on homicide, robbery, and related charges. (Third Am. Pet. at 4). The state filed a Notice of Intention to Seek the Death Penalty on July 29, 1997. (Id.). Thereafter, the case was removed to the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County. (Id.). The case went to trial and remained a death penalty case. On March 9, 1998, a jury acquitted Mr. Miles of first-degree premeditated murder, but convicted him of felony murder, robbery with a deadly weapon, and other lesser included offenses. (Id.). A capital sentencing hearing was held the following week, and Mr. Miles was sentenced to death. (Id.). He filed motions for a new trial and a new sentencing hearing with the trial court, but they were denied. (Id. at 5).

         Then came his direct appeal. Mr. Miles timely appealed his convictions to the Court of Appeals of Maryland. They were affirmed, albeit in a 4-3 decision. (Id. at 5).[9] Mr. Miles then filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court from the direct appeal, but it was denied. (Id.).

         Mr. Miles's quest for habeas relief began in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County, where he filed a petition for post-conviction relief on September 19, 2002. (Id.). The Circuit Court held a hearing in 2006 and proceeded to deny Mr. Miles's claims for relief in full. (Id.; Aug. 21, 2006, Mem. Op. and Order, ECF 2-1). Mr. Miles filed an Application for Leave to Appeal from the Denial of Post-Conviction Relief, which the Court of Appeals of Maryland summarily denied in 2007. (Third Am. Pet. at 6, ECF No. 65; Mar. 13, 2007, Ord, ECF 2-2). . Mr. Miles then filed his second petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court-this time from his state habeas denial-which. also was denied. (Third Am. Pet. at 6, ECF No. 65).

         Mr. Miles filed his first federal habeas petition in this court on August 13, 2007. (Pet. for Writ of Habeas Corpus, ECF No. 1). On March 2, .2008, Judge Andre Davis stayed proceedings on this petition to allow Mr. Miles to pursue and exhaust state court remedies. (Third Am. Pet. at 6, ECF No. 65). Mr. Miles did so.

         Back in state court, Mr. Miles raised, for the first time, facts pertaining to sexual assault, claiming that his trial counsel was ineffective for its failure to investigate, discover, and present such evidence. (Id. at 7). But Mr. Miles's motion to reopen proceedings in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County was denied, as was his appeal from that denial. (Id., at 7-8). Mr. Miles also filed multiple motions to correct his allegedly illegal sentence, challenging Maryland's death penalty statute. (Id. at 8). These' too were denied. (Id.). In 2012, Mr. Miles filed a second motion to reopen in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne's County based on additional evidence of sexual. abuse. (Id.). It was denied, as was Mr. Miles's application for leave to appeal. (Id.). In 2015, he filed a third and final motion to reopen, which also was denied. (Id.).

         Mr. Miles's claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for his failure to uncover and present his mental health history and history of sexual abuse is now before this court. He contends that, because the Maryland courts have denied this claim, it has been properly exhausted. (Id). The state does not argue that Mr. Miles's present habeas petition should be dismissed for failure to exhaust. (Answer to Pet. for Writ of Habeas Corpus ("Answer") at 20, [10]ECF No. 74). Mr. Miles has amended his federal habeas petition since its original filing with permission of this court. His third amended petition is the most recent version.[11]

         Procedurally, therefore, Mr. Miles's third amended federal habeas petition-which contains a single claim for ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt-innocence phase of his capital trial-is ripe for review here. He filed his first § 2254 petition within the one-year deadline imposed by 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d). Mr. Miles now asks this court to vacate his felony murder conviction pursuant to § 2254.[12]


         I. Standard of Review

         Under the operative statutory regime, promulgated in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), a federal district court will only entertain a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus if he or she is "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Before any such review may take place, the petitioner must exhaust all state court remedies, meaning that all claims must be first presented before available state tribunals. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b); Jones v. Sussex I State Prison, 591 F.3d 707, 712-13 (4th Cir. 2010). If the state court issues a ruling on the merits on a claim for post-conviction relief, § 2254(d) governs the federal inquiry. Byram v. Ozmint, 339 F.3d 203, 206 (4th Cir. 2003). § 2254(d) specifies:

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 ...

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