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Bell v. Bishop

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 19, 2019

EDWARD HALL BELL, Petitioner,
v.
FRANK B. BISHOP, JR., et al., Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PETER J. MESSITTE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending is Petitioner Edward Hall Bell's pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. ECF No. 1. Petitioner challenges the validity of his 2004 conviction in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of use of a handgun in a crime of violence. Id. at 1, 2. Respondents filed an Answer, arguing Bell's petition is time-barred, which they supplemented at direction of the Court, further seeking dismissal based on the merits. ECF Nos. 13, 25. Bell opposes dismissal of the Petition. ECF Nos. 16, 35. After reviewing the submissions, the Court concludes there is no need for an evidentiary hearing. See Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts; see also 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2). For reasons set forth herein, the Petition is DENIED. A Certificate of Appealability shall not issue.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 7, 2004, Bell was indicted in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and several related counts arising from events that took place at a liquor store on March 14, 2004. ECF No. 25-1 at 6. In October 2004, a jury convicted Bell of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of use of a handgun in a crime of violence. Id. at 9. On January 28, 2005, Bell was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, plus forty years. ECF No. 25-6 at 19-20.

         After his sentencing, Bell mounted a series of challenges to his conviction. On direct appeal, the Court of Special Appeals corrected an error on the docket regarding sentencing but otherwise affirmed Bell's conviction. ECF No. 25-1 at 71. On July 24, 2007, Bell filed a state petition for post-conviction relief. Id. at 72. In his petition, Bell alleged that trial counsel was ineffective for: (1) failing to object to Bell's absence during certain parts of his trial, specifically bench conferences and the discussion of jury notes; (2) failing to object to the State's service of a notice of intent to seek life without parole on defense counsel but not Bell; and (3) failing to timely file a motion for modification or reduction of sentence. Id. at 75, 87. On January 11, 2011, the Circuit Court for Prince George's County held a hearing on Bell's post-conviction petition. ECF No. 25-7 at 1. During the hearing, Bell orally raised an additional ineffective assistance claim, arguing his counsel failed to request a transcript of grand jury testimony. Id. at 8. The Circuit Court orally denied relief as to Bell's ineffective assistance claims but granted Bell's request to file a belated motion for modification or reduction of sentence. Id. at 149-53. Bell then filed an application for leave to appeal the decision, which the Court of Special Appeals summarily denied. ECF No. 25-1 at 104-14.

         On May 12, 2014, Bell filed a motion to correct an illegal sentence pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-345(a). ECF No. 25-1 at 115. Bell argued that the Circuit Court could not properly sentence him to life without parole due to the State's failure to serve written notice directly to Bell. Id. at 116. Further, Bell claimed the jury's verdict was "defective" based on a "lack of unanimity." Id. at 118. After the jury verdict was hearkened, Bell's counsel requested that the jury be polled. Id. at 117. Bell asserted that one of the 12 jurors was not polled, making it "impossible to know if the jury was unanimous," and resulting in an invalid conviction and sentence. Id. at 119. The Circuit Court summarily denied the motion, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the denial. Id. at 125-27.

         On June 7, 2016, Bell filed his federal Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. ECF No. 1. Bell raises the following grounds for relief: (1) counsel was ineffective because Bell was denied the right to be present at bench conferences and the reading of jury notes; (2) counsel was ineffective for failing to request the grand jury transcript; (3) the jury verdict was not unanimous based on a polling error; (4) counsel failed to investigate other suspects; and (5) the State did not turn over a firearms examination report. ECF No. 1 at 5-6. The latter two claims were never raised in state court. Id. Respondents moved to stay the case, asserting that a pending case before the Court of Appeals of Maryland could determine the timeliness of Bell's federal habeas petition. ECF No. 9 at 3. On September 30, 2016, the Court granted the stay. ECF No. 10.

         After the Maryland Court of Appeals rendered its decision, Respondents filed an Answer in this case, arguing Bell's petition should be dismissed as time-barred. ECF No. 13 at 6-7. The Court then directed Respondents to supplement their Answer by addressing Bell's claims on the merits. ECF No. 17. Respondents filed a Supplemental Answer, arguing Bell's claims should be dismissed as time-barred, based on exhaustion, and on the merits. ECF No. 25 at 5.

         With respect to exhaustion, Respondents argued Bell's claims that trial counsel failed to investigate other suspects and that the State failed to turn over a firearms examination report were unexhausted, as they were never raised in state court. In response, Bell moved for a stay and abeyance to attempt to reopen his state post-conviction proceedings and exhaust these claims. ECF No. 26 at 2. On March 19, 2019, the Court issued a Memorandum Opinion, finding the two claims were procedurally defaulted rather than unexhausted and denying Bell's motion to stay. ECF No. 32 at 8. Bell has argued cause and prejudice exists to overcome his default of those claims and has replied to Respondents' Supplemental Answer on the merits. ECF Nos. 34, 45. Further, Bell has filed a second motion to stay based on a case pending before the Supreme Court of the United States. ECF No. 36.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         An 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, 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, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (internal marks and citations omitted).

         A 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). Under the § 2254(d)(1) "unreasonable application" analysis, 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 v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Aharado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). Thus, "an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "[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, 559 U.S 766, 773 (2010).

         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. The 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 ...


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