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Shackelford v. Blades

United States District Court, D. Idaho

November 1, 2019




         Pending before the Court is an Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by Idaho prisoner Dale Carter Shackelford (“Petitioner” or “Shackelford”), challenging Petitioner's Latah County convictions and fixed life sentences. Dkt. 9. The Court previously dismissed Claims 2(a), 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 of the Amended Petition. See Dkt. 29. The remaining claims in the Amended Petition-Claims 1, 2(b), 3, 4, and 9-are now fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. Dkt. 37, 39, 44.

         The Court takes judicial notice of the records from Petitioner's state court proceedings, which have been lodged by Respondent. (Dkt. 14.) 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 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 Supreme Court, are presumed correct[1]:

Dale Shackelford was convicted of the murders of his ex-wife, Donna Fontaine, and her boyfriend, Fred Palahniuk, which occurred near the Latah County town of Kendrick, Idaho, in May 1999. The State alleged that Shackelford conspired with Martha Millar, Bernadette Lasater, Mary Abitz, Sonja Abitz, and, John Abitz. Millar and Lasater worked for Shackelford's trucking business, Shackelford Enterprises, in Missouri. The Abitz family lived near the residence where the bodies of Donna and Fred were found. Sonja Abitz was Shackelford's fiancée at the time of the murders, and John and Mary Abitz are Sonja's parents. The alleged conspirators eventually pled guilty to charges related to the murders.
Shackelford and Donna married in Missouri in December 1995 and the relationship ended in the summer of 1997, with the couple divorcing in November of that year. Donna accused Shackelford of raping her in July 1997, and charges were filed in 1998. In the spring of 1999, Donna developed a relationship with Fred and, on May 28, 1999, the two visited Donna's brother, Gary Fontaine, at the home Gary and Donna's daughter owned together outside of Kendrick. The morning of May 29, Donna, Fred, and Gary went to the Locust Blossom Festival in Kendrick, where they met John, Mary, and Sonja Abitz.
After leaving the festival, Gary went to the Abitz's house, but he left around dark, returned home, noticed Donna's pickup in the driveway, and smelled smoke. Gary called the Abitz's house and reported that his two-story garage was on fire. Mary, Sonja, Ted Meske (Mary's brother), and Shackelford arrived at the fire and various individuals tried to extinguish it, but were unsuccessful.
At 7:40 p.m., Latah County Sheriff Patrol Deputy Richard Skiles was called to investigate the fire at 2168 Three Bear Road. When Skiles arrived at the scene, nearly an hour later, he observed several persons-including Gary Fontaine, Mary Abitz, Sonja Abitz, Brian Abitz (Sonja's brother), Ted Meske, and Shackelford-standing near the garage that was completely engulfed in flames. Based upon information obtained from Ted and Shackelford, Deputy Skiles contacted dispatch to have an on-call detective sent “because there was a possibility there could be a suicide victim in the fire.” By the time the fire department arrived, the garage had been utterly destroyed. Several hours later, after the fire had been extinguished, two bodies were found in the rubble. The bodies were subsequently identified as the remains of Donna and Fred. At trial, a state fire investigator testified as to his opinion that the fire was arson.
Doctor Robert Cihak conducted autopsies of the remains, which were severely burned. Shotgun pellets were found in Donna's right chest region and a bullet was found in the back of her neck. Dr. Cihak opined that the bullet wound was fatal and was inflicted when Donna was still alive. A bullet was also found in Fred's body behind the upper breastbone, which Dr. Cihak concluded was the cause of death. Dr. Cihak offered his opinion that Donna and Fred were dead at the time of the fire.

State v. Shackelford, 247 P.3d 582, 588-89 (Idaho 2010) (Shackelford I) (also found at State's Lodging C-19 at 2-3) (footnote omitted).

         The jury found Petitioner guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, as well as conspiracy to commit murder, arson, conspiracy to commit arson, and preparing false evidence. Petitioner received fixed life sentences for each murder conviction and the murder-conspiracy conviction, [2] and he received shorter fixed terms of imprisonment on the remaining convictions.


         Petitioner's federal habeas corpus petition asserts numerous claims, five of which remain for adjudication on the merits.[3] Claim 1 asserts that Petitioner was denied his counsel of choice in violation of the Sixth Amendment. Claim 2(b) asserts a due process violation based on the jury instruction on the false-evidence charge, which did not define the word “produced.” In Claim 3, Petitioner asserts a violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause based on the trial court's refusal to give an instruction regarding circumstantial evidence. Claim 4 alleges that the trial court improperly failed to give an instruction requiring unanimity with respect to the overt acts committed, and which co-conspirator committed those acts, in furtherance of the conspiracy to commit arson and murder. And in Claim 9, Petitioner alleges that, under the Sixth Amendment, the jury was required to find aggravating factors that would render Petitioner eligible for a fixed life sentence. See Dkt. 9 at 12-85.


         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 must 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).


         1. Claim 1: Denial of Counsel of Choice

         When Petitioner was arrested on February 12, 2000, the police seized approximately $5, 000 from him. Petitioner claims he had intended to use this money to hire private counsel “for his initial appearance and arraignment in the event of his impending arrest.” (Dkt. 9 at 12.) Claim 1 asserts that, as a result of the seizure of these funds, Petitioner was denied his right to hire private counsel of his choice.

         At Petitioner's initial arraignment, he did not assert his right to hire private counsel. Instead, he requested the appointment of counsel. (State's Lodging A-16 at 16.) The trial court instructed Petitioner to fill out the required financial form, but Petitioner claimed he did not have enough information to do so:

THE DEFENDANT: …I have no information. I didn't even have shoes or glasses until the minute I walked in this door. I don't have any of my information. I have nothing whatsoever.
THE COURT: What information do you need?
THE DEFENDANT: I don't even know where I am right now. I mean, as far as Latah County, I do know that. My current address, anything about employers, things of that nature. My secretaries have been arrested, my friends have been arrested.
I don't even know if I have a house left. I don't even know if my dogs are starving to death.
… [A]s far as my monthly earnings prior to arrest, I don't know of anything. I do know that I had enough money in my pocket when I was thrown to the floor in the sheriff's office to actually hire an attorney to appear with me at this proceeding. But that money has been-according to the deputy-the corporal who was at the jail that evening-was turned over as evidence to a detective over $4, 000.
THE COURT: So you believe you have the wherewithal to retain counsel?
THE DEFENDANT: I may well have, but at this point I don't know what I have left ….
THE COURT: Let's deal with your request to have counsel appointed for you. Do you have other assets that would be available to you to retain counsel?
THE DEFENDANT: It's a possibility, Your Honor. I do not know at this point. I have vehicles which I could sell, but I don't know where the vehicles are right now. I had money in my pocket, but Detective Hall took it as evidence and now I'm being told that I have no money ….
THE COURT: Well, Mr. Shackelford, do you wish to be considered for the appointment of counsel or do you want to have counsel retained by you?
THE DEFENDANT: I do not know if I can afford counsel, Your Honor. I've not been able to … find out if I can retain counsel…. I cannot tell you a lot of the answers that are required on here. In all honesty I cannot.
THE COURT: Well, what information do you need in order to make an informed decision on that?
THE DEFENDANT: Whether I have any income from any source right now would be one of ...

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