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Adams v. Carlin

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 30, 2019

CLAYTON ADAMS, Petitioner,
TEREMA CARLIN, Respondent.


          Ronald E. Bush, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Pending before the Court is a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Idaho state prisoner Clayton Adams (“Petitioner” or “Adams”), challenging Petitioner's Canyon County convictions of second-degree murder and aggravated battery. (Dkt. 1.) 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. (Dkts. 8 & 12.) See Fed. R. Evid. 201(b); Dawson v. Mahoney, 451 F.3d 550, 551 n.1 (9th Cir. 2006).

         All parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge to conduct all proceedings in this case in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. (Dkt. 7.) 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 denying habeas corpus relief.


         Absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), the following facts of Petitioner's case, as described by the Idaho Court of Appeals, are presumed correct:

Three friends, Tyler Gorley, Stephen Maylin and Mikeal Campbell, were leaving a Caldwell bar at closing time when they ran into Adams and his friend, Sergio Madrigal, outside the entrance. Campbell spoke to Adams, whom he knew, and the group decided to go to a private party at another location, with the intent to buy beer and drop off Maylin at his home along the way. The five men got into Adams' car. According to the State's evidence at Adams' subsequent trial, the following events then unfolded. En route, Adams asked for beer and gas money from Gorley, Maylin and Campbell, and when he was told that they had no money, Adams became enraged. Adams told the men that he had a knife and a gun and that someone was going to get hurt if he was not given money. In an apparent attempt to scare the men into compliance, Adams started driving recklessly, speeding and running stop lights and stop signs. Gorley, Maylin and Campbell demanded to be let out of the car, but Adams initially refused to stop. Eventually, Adams slammed on his brakes in the middle of a rural road, and the three men got out of the car to escape from him. Campbell was successful in doing so but the other two men were not. As Maylin was exiting by the left-rear passenger door, he was met by Adams, who stabbed Maylin once in the side before Maylin got away. Adams then stabbed Gorley five times, killing him. Adams then got back in his car and drove away, with Madrigal still a passenger. The two men then bought beer, unsuccessfully looked for the party and then drove to Adams' home where he was arrested.
Adams was charged with first degree premeditated murder, or in the alternative, first degree felony murder, three counts of attempted robbery, and one count of aggravated battery.

State v. Adams, 216 P.3d 146, 148-49 (Idaho Ct. App. 2009) (Adams I) (see also State's Lodging B-4 at 1-2).

         The jury found Petitioner guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated battery but acquitted him of first-degree murder and attempted robbery. Petitioner received a unified sentence of life imprisonment with 25 years fixed for second-degree murder, as well as a consecutive 10-year term, with three years fixed, for aggravated battery.

         The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions and sentences, and the Idaho Supreme Court denied review. (State's Lodging B-4; B-7.)

         Petitioner pursued post-conviction relief. The state district court ordered resentencing on the second-degree murder conviction, but summarily dismissed Petitioner's other claims. (State's Lodging E-1 at 1669-71; E-5 at 1859-60.) Upon resentencing, the trial court again sentenced Petitioner to life imprisonment with 25 years fixed on the second-degree murder conviction; that sentence was affirmed on appeal.[1](State's Lodging C-1 at 129-30; D-4.)

         Petitioner appealed the dismissal of six of his post-conviction claims. The Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Idaho Supreme Court denied review. (State's Lodging F-4; F-12; F-10.)

         In his federal Petition, Petitioner asserts seven claims: (1) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to call Lynette Skeen as a witness; (2) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to object to a paramedic's testimony that Gorley and Maylin suffered stab wounds; (3) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to seek independent DNA testing of Gorley's clothing; (4) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for allegedly abandoning Petitioner's self-defense theory and conceding that Petitioner was guilty of manslaughter; (5) denial of the right to an impartial based on the trial court's failure to excuse a juror for cause sua sponte; (6) prosecutorial misconduct based on the prosecutor's statements in rebuttal closing argument; and (7) cumulative error. (Dkt. 1 at 9-20.)


         Federal habeas corpus relief may be granted when a 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). If the state court has adjudicated a claim on the merits, habeas relief is further limited by § 2254(d), as amended by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Under AEDPA, federal habeas relief may be granted only where the state court's adjudication of the petitioner's 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). “Deciding whether a state court's decision involved an unreasonable application of federal law or was based on an unreasonable determination of fact requires the federal habeas court to train its attention on the particular reasons- both legal and factual-why state courts rejected a state prisoner's federal claims and to give appropriate deference to that decision.” Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1191-92 (2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         When a party contests the state court's legal conclusions, including application of the law to the facts, § 2254(d)(1) governs. That section consists of two alternative tests: the “contrary to” test and the “unreasonable application” test.

         Under the first test, a state court's decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law “if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases, or if it decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] [has] done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). Under the second test, to satisfy the “unreasonable application” clause of § 2254(d)(1), the petitioner must show that the state court-although identifying “the correct governing legal rule” from Supreme Court precedent-nonetheless “unreasonably applie[d] it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case.” Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 407 (2000). “Section 2254(d)(1) provides a remedy for instances in which a state court unreasonably applies [Supreme Court] precedent; it does not require state courts to extend that precedent or license federal courts to treat the failure to do so as error.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1706 (2014) (emphasis omitted).

         A federal court cannot grant habeas relief simply because it concludes in its independent judgment that the decision is incorrect or wrong; rather, the state court's application of federal law must be objectively unreasonable to warrant relief. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003); Bell, 535 U.S. at 694. If there is any possibility that fair-minded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision, then relief is not warranted under § 2254(d)(1). Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011). The Supreme Court has emphasized that “even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. To be entitled to habeas relief under § 2254(d)(1), “a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being 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 fairminded disagreement.” Id. at 103.

         Though the source of clearly established federal law must come only from the holdings of the United States Supreme Court, circuit precedent may be persuasive authority for determining whether a state court decision is an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent. Duhaime v. Ducharme, 200 F.3d 597, 600-01 (9th Cir. 2000). However, circuit law may not be used “to refine or sharpen a general principle of Supreme Court jurisprudence into a specific legal rule that th[e] Court has not announced.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U.S. 58, 64 (2013).

         “[R]eview under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 180 (2011). Therefore, evidence that was not presented to the state court cannot be introduced on federal habeas review if a claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court and if the underlying factual determinations of the state court were reasonable. See Murray v. Schriro, 745 F.3d 984, 999-1000 (9th Cir. 2014) (“After Pinholster, a federal habeas court may consider new evidence only on de novo review, subject to the limitations of § 2254(e)(2).”); Hurles v. Ryan, 752 F.3d 768, 778 (9th Cir. 2014) (“If we determine, considering only the evidence before the state court, that the adjudication of a claim on the merits ... was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, we evaluate the claim de novo, and we may consider evidence properly presented for the first time in federal court.”).

         To be eligible for relief under § 2254(d)(2), the petitioner must show that the state court decision was based upon factual determinations that were “unreasonable ... in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 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); see also Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007) (“The question under AEDPA is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.”). State court factual findings are presumed to be correct and are binding on the federal court unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         If a petitioner satisfies § 2254(d)-either by showing that the state court's adjudication of the claim was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent or by establishing that the state court's factual findings were unreasonable-then the federal habeas court must review the petitioner's claim de novo, meaning without deference to the state court's decision. Hurles, 752 F.3d at 778.

         When considering a habeas claim de novo, a district court may, as in the pre-AEDPA era, draw from both United States Supreme Court and well as circuit precedent, limited only by the non-retroactivity rule of Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989). Even under de novo review, however, if the factual findings of the state court are not unreasonable under § 2254(d)(2), the Court must apply the presumption of correctness found in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) to any facts found by the state courts. Pirtle, 313 F.3d at 1167-68. Conversely, if a state court factual determination is unreasonable, the federal court is not limited by § 2254(e)(1) and may consider evidence outside the state court record, except to the extent that § 2254(e)(2) might apply. Murray v. Schriro, 745 F.3d at 1000.

         Generally, even if a petitioner succeeds in demonstrating a constitutional error in his conviction, he is entitled to federal habeas relief only if the petitioner “can establish that [the error] resulted in ‘actual prejudice.'” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993). Under the Brecht standard, an error is not harmless, and habeas relief may be granted, only if the federal court has “grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.” O'Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, some types of claims “are analyzed under their own harmless error standards, which can render Brecht analysis unnecessary.” Jackson v. Brown, 513 F.3d 1057, 1070 (9th Cir. 2008). Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are included in this category. Musladin v. Lamarque, 555 F.3d 830, 834 (9th Cir. 2009) (“[W]here a habeas petition governed by AEDPA alleges ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), we apply Strickland's prejudice standard and do not engage in a separate analysis applying the Brecht standard.”).


         Respondent argues that Petitioner's claims do not survive review under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). For the following reasons, the Court agrees.

         1.The Idaho Court of Appeals Reasonably Rejected Petitioner's Ineffective Assistance Claims (Claims 1 through 4)

         The state's theory of the case was that Petitioner became angry at his three passengers and tried to rob them, stabbed Maylin with a knife, and then fatally stabbed Gorley. Petitioner told a different story-that the passengers attacked him and that he stabbed Gorley in self-defense. Claims 1 through 4 essentially assert that trial counsel's actions undermined, or even abandoned, Petitioner's claim of self-defense.

         A. Clearly-Established Law

         The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that a criminal defendant has a right to the effective assistance of counsel in his defense. The standard for ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) claims was set forth by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). A petitioner asserting IAC must show that (1) “counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment, ” and (2) those errors prejudiced the defendant by “depriv[ing] the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. A petitioner must establish both deficient performance and prejudice. Id. at 697. On habeas review, a court may consider either prong of the Strickland test first, or it may address both prongs, even if one prong is not satisfied and would compel denial of the IAC claim. Id.

         Whether an attorney's performance was deficient is judged against an objective standard of reasonableness. Id. at 687-88. A reviewing court's inquiry into the reasonableness of counsel's actions must not rely on hindsight:

Judicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential. It is all too tempting for a defendant to second-guess counsel's assistance after conviction or adverse sentence, and it is all too easy for a court, examining counsel's defense after it has proved unsuccessful, to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable. A fair assessment of attorney performance requires that every effort be made to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time. Because of the difficulties inherent in making the evaluation, a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy. There are countless ways to provide effective assistance in any given case. Even the best criminal defense attorneys would not defend a particular client in the same way.

Id. at 689 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Strategic decisions, such as the choice of a defense, “are virtually unchallengeable” if “made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. Moreover, an attorney who decides not to investigate a potential defense theory is not ineffective so long as the decision to forego investigation is itself objectively reasonable:

[S]trategic choices made after less than complete investigation are reasonable precisely to the extent that reasonable professional judgments support the limitations on investigation. In other words, counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary. In any ineffectiveness case, a particular decision not to investigate must be directly assessed for reasonableness in all the circumstances, applying a heavy measure of deference to counsel's judgments.

Id. at 690-91. That is, “the duty to investigate does not force defense lawyers to scour the globe on the off chance something will turn up; reasonably diligent counsel may draw a line when they have good reason to think further investigation would be a waste.” Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 383 (2005). Further, counsel is not deficient in an area where an investigation would not have been fruitful for the defense.

         The Ninth Circuit has provided some insight into the Strickland standard when evaluating an attorney's “strategy calls.” These cases are instructive in the Court's assessment of whether the state court reasonably applied Strickland. See Duhaime, 200 F.3d at 600.

         First, tactical decisions do not constitute IAC simply because, in retrospect, better tactics are known to have been available. Bashor v. Risley, 730 F.2d 1228, 1241 (9th Cir. 1984). Second, a mere difference of opinion as to strategy does not render counsel's assistance ineffective. United States v. Mayo, 646 F.2d 369, 375 (9th Cir. 1981). Third, Strickland gives a trial attorney wide discretion with respect to abandoning inconsistent defenses. See Correll v. Stewart, 137 F.3d 1404, 1411 (9th Cir. 1998) (holding that counsel's failure to develop a mens rea defense was reasonable because such a defense “would have conflicted with the primary defense theory of misidentification”); Turk v. White, 116 F.3d, 1264, 1267 (9th Cir. 1997) (counsel's selection of self-defense theory was reasonable and obviated his need to investigate defendant's claim of incompetency). Fourth, “counsel's investigation must determine trial strategy, not the other way around.” Weeden v. Johnson, 854 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2017); see also Id. (“Weeden's counsel could not have reasonably concluded that obtaining a psychological examination would conflict with his trial strategy without first knowing what such an examination would reveal.”).

         If a petitioner shows that counsel's performance was deficient, the next step is the prejudice analysis. “An error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691. To satisfy the prejudice standard, a petitioner “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 694. As the Strickland Court instructed:

In making this determination, a court hearing an ineffectiveness claim must consider the totality of the evidence before the judge or jury. Some of the factual findings will have been unaffected by the errors, and factual findings that were affected will have been affected in different ways. Some errors will have had a pervasive effect on the inferences to be drawn from the evidence, altering the entire evidentiary picture, and some will have had an isolated, trivial effect. Moreover, a verdict or conclusion only weakly supported by the record is more likely to have been affected by errors than one with overwhelming record support. Taking the unaffected findings as a given, and taking due account of the effect of the errors on the remaining findings, a court making the prejudice inquiry must ask if the defendant has met the burden of showing that the decision reached would reasonably likely have been different absent the errors.

Id. at 695-96. To constitute Strickland prejudice, “[t]he likelihood of a different result must be substantial, not just conceivable.” Richter, 562 U.S. 86 at 112.

         The foregoing standard, giving deference to counsel's decision-making, is the de novo standard of review. Another layer of deference-to the state court decision-is afforded under AEDPA. In giving guidance to district courts reviewing Strickland claims on habeas corpus review, the United States Supreme Court explained:

The pivotal question is whether the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable. This is different from asking whether defense counsel's performance fell below Strickland's standard. Were that the inquiry, the analysis would be no different than if, for example, this Court were adjudicating a Strickland claim on direct review of a criminal conviction in a United States district court. Under AEDPA, though, it is a necessary premise that the two questions are different. For purposes of § 2254(d)(1), “an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.” Williams, supra, at 410, 120 S.Ct. 1495. A state court must be granted a deference and latitude that are not in operation when the case involves review under the Strickland standard itself.

Richter, 562 U.S. at 101. That is, when evaluating an IAC claim under § 2254(d), this Court's review of that claim must be “doubly deferential.” Pinholster, 563 U.S. at 190 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Petitioner Is Not Entitled to Relief on Claims 1, 2, 3, or 4

         The Idaho Court of Appeals considered and rejected Petitioner's ineffective assistance claims, presented here as Claims 1 through 4, on appeal from the partial dismissal of Petitioner's post-conviction petition.

         i. Claim 1

         In Claim 1, Petitioner asserts that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to investigate and call a witness in his defense.

         After the altercation that resulted in Gorley's death, Lynette Skeen-who lived nearby-reported that she heard a male voice outside her home yell, “Get the Fuck back here.” (State's Lodging E-1 at 393.) She also saw the headlights of Petitioner's car. Though the state listed Lynette Skeen as a witness, it did not call her at trial. Adams v. State, 387 P.3d 153, 167 (Idaho Ct. App. 2016) (Adams II). Petitioner's counsel also did not call Skeen to testify as a witness.

         Petitioner asserts that trial counsel should have investigated Skeen, and called her as a witness, because Skeen's statement-that she heard a male yelling “Get the Fuck back here”-corroborated Petitioner's self-defense theory.[2] (Dkt. 21 at 13.)

         The Idaho Court of Appeals rejected this claim. In doing so, it addressed both Strickland prongs:

Adams only offered conclusory allegations as to what [Skeen] would have testified to at trial based on a police report. Such argument is mere speculation and inadmissible. Thus, Adams failed to provide admissible evidence concerning the substance of [Skeen's] testimony. Moreover, Adams failed to show that [Skeen] would have been available to testify and that [she] would have testified consistently with her respective alleged statements and consistently with Adams's version of the events. Adams has not provided evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption that trial counsel made a strategic decision not to call either witness.

Adams II, 387 P.3d at 167-68. That is, the state court held that trial counsel reasonably decided not to call Skeen and that Petitioner could not show prejudice in any event, since he had not shown that Skeen would have testified consistently with Petitioner's story about the altercation.[3]

         The Idaho Court of Appeals' rejection of Claim 1 was not unreasonable under AEDPA. There was no evidence that Skeen could identify the voice she heard. As this Court previously explained when it denied Petitioner's motion for discovery with respect to this claim, “even if the jury had heard Skeen's report of the incident, it is highly unlikely that the jurors would have assumed that the victim-rather than Petitioner- made the statement, ‘Get the fuck back here, '” especially given that “multiple witnesses testified that Petitioner was the aggressor.” (Dkt. 32 at 6.) Petitioner cannot show prejudice based on counsel's failure to investigate Skeen or to call her as a witness at trial.

         For the foregoing reasons, the state court's decision on Claim 1 was not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent, nor was it based on an unreasonable ...

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