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Williams v. Blades

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 28, 2017



          B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge.

         Pending before the Court is a First Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Idaho state prisoner Michael C. Williams (“Petitioner” or “Williams”), challenging Petitioner's state court conviction. (Dkt. 15.) The Petition is now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. The Court takes judicial notice of the records from Petitioner's state court proceedings, which have been lodged by Respondent. (Dkt. 20.) See Fed. R. Evid. 201(b); Dawson v. Mahoney, 451 F.3d 550, 551 n.1 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Having carefully reviewed the record in this matter, including the state court record, the Court concludes that oral argument is unnecessary. See D. Idaho L. Civ. R. 7.1(d). Accordingly, the Court enters the following Order (1) dismissing all but one of Petitioner's claims as noncognizable or procedurally defaulted and (2) denying the remaining claim on the merits.


         The following facts are taken from the decision of the Idaho Court of Appeals on appeal from the dismissal of Petitioner's state post-conviction petition:

Williams and his brother, Doug, exited a bar to return home. Upon exiting, Doug entered into a dispute with some other men, while Williams opened his pickup door and sat down inside. After learning of the dispute, one of the men, Chris Adams, broke a beer bottle on the ground and began to walk towards Williams. A verbal altercation ensued, and Williams produced a gun and shot Adams three times in the chest, killing him.

         (State's Lodging D-6 at 1.) A jury found Petitioner guilty of voluntary manslaughter, along with a deadly weapon sentencing enhancement, but acquitted him of first- and second-degree murder. (State's Lodging A-1 at 137-38.) Petitioner received a unified sentence of 30 years in prison with 25 years fixed. (State's Lodging D-6 at 1-2.)

         Petitioner appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing Petitioner and in denying Petitioner's motion for reduction of sentence under Idaho Criminal Rule 35. (State's Lodging B-1, B-3.) The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Idaho Supreme Court denied review. (State's Lodging B-4, B-7.)

         Before the conclusion of his direct appeal, Petitioner filed a petition for state post-conviction relief. (State's Lodging C-1 at 8-41.) The state district court summarily dismissed all but one of Petitioner's claims. (State's Lodging C-2 at 348-75.) Following an evidentiary hearing, the court dismissed Petitioner's remaining claim-that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to file a motion to suppress statements made by Petitioner. (Id. at 420-26.)

         Petitioner appealed the dismissal of his post-conviction petition, arguing only that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by abandoning a self-defense theory, [1] that counsel's abandonment of the self-defense theory also denied Petitioner his right to a jury and right to a fair trial, and that the lower court did not address all of the claims in the post-conviction petition, including a claim that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). (State's Lodging D-1, D-3.) The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed. (State's Lodging D-6.) Petitioner sought review in the Idaho Supreme Court, raising only the claim that counsel was ineffective in abandoning a self-defense theory. (State's Lodging D-8.) The Idaho Supreme Court denied the petition for review. (State's Lodging D-9.)

         Petitioner then filed a second Rule 35 motion in the state district court, asserting that his consecutive sentence for the firearm enhancement was illegal. (State's Lodging E-2 at 8-10.) That motion was denied. (Id. at 37-43.) Petitioner appealed, contending (a) that, under State v. Caramillo, 116 Idaho 413, 775 P.2d 1255, (Idaho Ct. App. 1989), the sentencing judge improperly described the firearm enhancement as a consecutive sentence, (b) that the fixed portion of his sentence exceeded the statutory maximum under Idaho law, (c) that his due process and equal protection rights were violated, and (d) that he was entitled to counsel and a telephonic hearing prior to denial of the Rule 35 motion. (State's Lodging F-1.) The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Idaho Supreme Court denied review. (State's Lodging F-4, F-7.)

         In his instant federal petition, Petitioner raises numerous claims.[2] Claim A asserts that the prosecution violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to disclose a ballistics report and “exculpatory witness statements.” (Dkt. 15 at 4.) Claim B asserts numerous sub-claims. First, Claim B asserts ineffective assistance of trial counsel-under both Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984)-based on counsel's alleged abandonment of a self-defense theory, including counsel's failure to present evidence that the victim and his companions were intoxicated. (Id. at 6-7.) Claim B also asserts that Petitioner's sentence is illegal-presumably as a violation of due process-because the firearm enhancement purportedly extended the fixed portion of Petitioner's sentence beyond the statutory maximum penalty; Petitioner also asserts that the enhancement penalty was improperly characterized by the sentencing judge as a consecutive sentence.[3] (Id. at 7.) Finally, Claim B appears to contend that trial/sentencing and direct appeal counsel may have rendered ineffective assistance in failing to raise the due process argument regarding Petitioner's sentence. (Id. at 5-8.)


         1. Petitioner's Claim that the Firearm Sentencing Enhancement Was Mischaracterized Is Noncognizable

         Federal habeas corpus relief may be granted on claims adjudicated on the merits in a state court judgment when the federal court determines that the petitioner “is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). “[F]ederal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law, ” Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1990).

         Petitioner's assertion, in Claim B, that the trial court “erred when characterizing the sentence for the deadly weapon enhancement as ‘consecutive' to the voluntary manslaughter sentence” (Dkt. 15 at 7), appears to be based-as it was in state court (see State's Lodging D-1, D-6 at 2)-on a claim that Idaho law treats such enhancements as part of one continuous sentence, rather than as a separate consecutive sentence. This claim relies on a state law principle set forth in State v. Caramillo, which held that “[i]t is well established in [Idaho] case law that, regardless of the terminology employed, a firearm enhancement is part of a single sentence.” 775 P.2d at 1256. The state court of appeals rejected this state-law claim, noting that Caramillo did not afford Petitioner relief because his sentence was substantively legal, despite the sentencing court's use of inaccurate terminology. (State's Lodging D-6 at 2-3.)

         Because Petitioner's claim that the firearm enhancement was mischaracterized as a consecutive sentence relies only on state law, that claim is subject to dismissal as noncognizable.

         2.All of Petitioner's Other Claims, with the Exception of His Self-Defense Ineffectiveness Claim under Strickland v. Washington, Are Subject to Dismissal as Procedurally Defaulted

         A. Procedural Default Standards of Law

         A habeas petitioner must exhaust his or her remedies in the state courts before a federal court can grant relief on constitutional claims. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999). To do so, the petitioner must invoke one complete round of the state's established appellate review process, fairly presenting all constitutional claims to the state courts so that they have a full and fair opportunity to correct alleged constitutional errors at each level of appellate review. Id. at 845. In a state that has the possibility of discretionary review in the highest appellate court, like Idaho, the petitioner must have presented all of his federal claims at least in a petition seeking review before that court. Id. at 847. “Fair presentation” requires a petitioner to describe both the operative facts and the legal theories upon which the federal claim is based. Gray v. Netherland, 518 U.S. 152, 162-63 (1996).

         The mere similarity between a federal claim and a state law claim, without more, does not satisfy the requirement of fair presentation. See Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365-66 (1995) (per curiam). General references in state court to “broad constitutional principles, such as due process, equal protection, [or] the right to a fair trial, ” are likewise insufficient. See Hiivala v. Wood, 195 F.3d 1098, 1106 (9th Cir. 1999). The law is clear that, for proper exhaustion, a petitioner must bring his federal claim before the state court by “explicitly” citing the federal legal basis for his claim. Lyons v. Crawford, 232 F.3d 666, 669 (9th Cir. 2000), as amended, 247 F.3d 904 (9th Cir. 2001).

         When a habeas petitioner has not fairly presented a constitutional claim to the highest state court, and it is clear that the state court would now refuse to consider it because of the state's procedural rules, the claim is said to be procedurally defaulted. Gray, 518 U.S. at 161-62. Procedurally defaulted claims include those within the following circumstances: (1) when a petitioner has completely failed to raise a claim before the Idaho courts; (2) when a petitioner has raised a claim, but has failed to fully and fairly present it as a federal claim to the Idaho courts; and (3) when the Idaho courts have rejected a claim on an adequate and independent state procedural ground. Id.; Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 32 (2004); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991).

         “To qualify as an adequate procedural ground, a state rule must be firmly established and regularly followed.” Walker v. Martin, 562 U.S. 307, 316 (2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). That is, the state procedural bar must be one that is “‘clear, consistently applied, and well-established at the time of the petitioner's purported default.” Martinez v. Klauser, 266 F.3d 1091, 1093-94 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Wells v. Maass, 28 F.3d 1005, 1010 (9th Cir. 1994)). A state procedural bar can be considered adequate even if it is a discretionary rule, even though “the appropriate exercise of discretion may permit consideration of a federal claim in some cases but not others.” Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53, 61 (2009). A state rule's “use of an imprecise standard . . . is no justification for depriving a rule's language of any meaning.” Walker, 562 U.S. at 318 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted).

         A state procedural bar is “independent” of federal law if it does not rest on, and if it is not interwoven with, federal grounds. Bennett v. Mueller, 322 F.3d 573, 581 (9th Cir. 2003). A rule will not be deemed independent of federal law “if the state has made application of the procedural bar depend on an antecedent ruling on federal law such as the determination of whether federal constitutional error has been committed.” Id. (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted); see also Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 75 (1985) (stating that “when resolution of the state procedural law question depends on a federal constitutional ruling, the state-law prong of the court's holding is not independent of federal law, and our jurisdiction is not precluded, ” and holding that a state waiver rule was not independent because, “[b]efore applying the waiver doctrine to a constitutional question, the state court must rule, either explicitly or implicitly, on the merits of the constitutional question”).

         B. Analysis of Procedural Default

         The most straightforward manner in which to resolve the exhaustion and procedural default status of Petitioner's federal claims is to review which claims were raised and addressed on the merits in the state court appellate proceedings. On direct appeal, Petitioner argued only that the trial court abused its discretion, under state law, in sentencing Petitioner and in denying Petitioner's first Rule 35 motion. (State's Lodging B-1, B-3.) Neither is a federal claim cognizable in this Court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Lewis, 497 U.S. at 780. Thus, Petitioner did not properly exhaust any federal claim on direct appeal.

         Petitioner initially raised several arguments on appeal from the dismissal of his state post-conviction petition. However, in the petition for review to the Idaho Supreme Court, Petitioner raised only the claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for abandoning a self-defense theory. (State's Lodging D-1, D-3, D-8.) Thus, he did not fairly present his other claims. See O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. at 847 (holding that, to fairly present a claim, petitioners must include that claim in ...

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