United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division
SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN, District Judge.
Petitioner, Steven Craig Taylor ("Taylor"), an Alabama state prisoner, filed this pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 ("Petition") on May 11, 2011. (Doc. 1). In response to the show cause order issued by the previously assigned magistrate judge, Respondents exclusively argued the Petition was untimely. (Doc. 4). After Taylor replied, the previously assigned magistrate judge entered a report and recommendation concluding the Petition was due to be dismissed as time barred. (Doc. 7). Having received no objections from either party, the Court adopted the report and recommendation and entered final judgment on December 17, 2013. (Docs 8-9).
Subsequently, Taylor moved to reopen these proceedings, claiming he never received the report and recommendation due to a transfer to a different prison. (Doc. 10). The court granted Taylor's motion and withdrew its final judgment. (Doc. 11). Thereafter, Taylor filed objections to the report and recommendation. (Doc. 12). Taylor's objections include new arguments-or at least more thoroughly enunciated arguments-regarding why equitable tolling applies to render the Petition timely. In light of these arguments, the previously assigned magistrate judge's report and recommendation is due to be accepted in part and rejected in part. However, as explained below, resolution of the equitable tolling issue is unnecessary because the Petition is meritless.
The facts set forth in the report and recommendation are as follows:
In October, 2007, a Lauderdale County jury found Taylor guilty of second degree rape and second degree sexual abuse of his cousin. (Doc. # 4 at 2). He was sentenced to 20 years and 10 years, respectively, with the sentences to run concurrently. At the time that Taylor committed these crimes in 2003, he was 20 years old; the victim was 13. (Doc. # 4-2 at 62-63, 72). Taylor timely appealed, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. On May 20, 2009, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued a Certificate of Judgment affirming Taylor's conviction. (Doc. # 4-1 at 2). Thereafter, on December 21, 2009, Taylor filed a Rule 32 petition with the state court. This petition was summarily dismissed because Taylor neither paid his filing fee, nor moved for in forma pauperis status. (Docs. ## 4-9, 4-10).
On March 4, 2010, Taylor filed a second Rule 32 petition on various grounds, including ineffective assistance of counsel. (Doc. # 4-12 at 2). Additionally, Taylor's second Rule 32 petition alleged, for the first time, that he suffers from a life-long mental disability. (Doc. # 4-12 at 86). Specifically, Taylor alleges that he is "Educable Mentally Retarded" ("EMR"). (Doc. # 4-12 at 104). During the evidentiary hearing concerning Taylor's second Rule 32 petition, Taylor's elementary school special education teacher, Steven Jones ("Jones"), gave expert testimony regarding Taylor's EMR status. (Doc. # 4-12 at 102-111). Jones testified that, in order to qualify for EMR classes, one must have an I.Q. of approximately 70 or below. (Doc. # 4-12 at 105). Jones did not remember precisely what Taylor's I.Q. score was, but he testified that Taylor qualified as EMR. (Doc. # 4-12 at 108). While Jones's last contact with Taylor was when Taylor was approximately 10 or 11 years old (approximately 10 years before he committed the rape), Jones further testified that Taylor's I.Q. would not have changed significantly and that he was still suffering from EMR. (Doc. # 4-12 at 110-111). After the evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied Taylor's second Rule 32 petition and Taylor appealed. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court's denial and, after denying Taylor's application for rehearing, issued a certificate of judgment on January 26, 2011. (Doc. # 4-11 at 2). Taylor filed the instant petition on May 10, 2011.
According to Taylor's briefs, all of his pro se filings, whether in state or federal court, have been prepared entirely by his fellow inmates. The Reply, prepared by inmate Jason Rogers, states that Taylor cannot read or write and that he is mentally incompetent due to his EMR. (Doc. # 6 at 8-9). Additionally, the Reply recounts a series of difficulties Taylor encountered with the inmates who prepared his various pro se filings. Jason Rogers assisted Taylor in his pro se appeal of the trial court's denial of Taylor's second Rule 32 petition. (Docs. ## 6-1, 6-2). After the Court of Criminal Appeals denied Taylor's Application for Rehearing, Jason Rogers was planning on filing a writ [of] certiorari. Instead, two other inmates convinced Taylor to abandon Jason Rogers[ ] and to hire them to prepare the writ instead. (Doc. #6 at 9). After charging Taylor $300..., these two inmates were transferred to a different correctional facility. ( Id. ). The Reply cites this as "a clear example of Petitioner Taylor's EMR or mental defect;" it is the only such example that appears in the briefs. ( Id. ). Thereafter, Taylor paid another inmate to prepare this [Petition]. ( Id. ). Following the Government's Response to the Order to Show Cause, Taylor enlisted Jason Rogers to draft his Reply. ( Id. ).
(Doc. 7 at 1-3).
On these facts, the previously assigned magistrate judge recommended dismissal of the Petition as time barred. ( Id. 7). As part of his analysis, the magistrate judge noted Taylor's failure to plead facts that would entitle him to equitable tolling. ( Id. at 7). However, in his objections, Taylor argues for the first time-or at least explicitly articulates for the first time-his EMR status essentially creates a per se rule entitling him to equitable tolling. ( See generally Doc. 12). Taylor's salient objections, based largely upon Hunter v. Ferrell, 587 F.3d 1304 (11th Cir. 2009), cast doubt upon the magistrate judge's conclusion that equitable tolling does not apply. However, even if equitable tolling applies to save Taylor's otherwise untimely claims, it would merely entitle Taylor to a determination of his claims on the merits. Accordingly, for purposes of this opinion, the court assumes, without deciding, that Taylor is entitled to equitable tolling. As explained below, Taylor's claims fail on the merits. However, because the initial briefing and report and recommendation were limited to the issue of timeliness, it is necessary to recite additional facts regarding the merits of Taylor's claims.
The Petition asserts six (6) grounds for habeas relief. (Doc. 1 at 6-8). Four (4) grounds allege ineffective assistance of counsel related to trial counsel's failure to: (1) cross-examine the victim; (2) object to opinion testimony offered by a non-expert; (3) adequately develop the record prior to trial; and (4) request a mental evaluation of Taylor. (Doc. 1 at 6-7). The Petition also asserts Taylor's appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge a defective indictment on appeal. (Doc. 1 at 7). Finally, Taylor contends his EMR status constitutes newly discovered evidence of a mental disease or defect which would have provided an affirmative defense at trial. (Doc. 1 at 8). Taylor presented many of these claims-or similar claims-in his second Rule 32 petition. ( See Doc. 4-12 at 83-87). After holding an evidentiary hearing, the sentencing court denied Taylor's claims on the merits, as explained in more detail below.
Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are governed by the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In Strickland, the Supreme Court established a two-prong test for adjudicating ineffective assistance of counsel claims; both prongs of the test must be met for the petitioner to succeed. Id. at 687. First, a petitioner must show counsel's performance was deficient, i.e., outside the range of professionally competent assistance. Id. The proper measure of an attorney's performance is "reasonableness under prevailing professional norms." Id. at 688. Unless the petitioner can rebut the "strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance, " he cannot show counsel's performance was constitutionally deficient. Id. at 689. "The test has nothing to do with what the best lawyers would have done. Nor is the test even what most good lawyers would have done. We ask only whether some reasonable lawyer at the trial could have acted, in the circumstances, as defense counsel acted at trial." White v. Singletary, 972 F.2d 1218, 1220 (11th Cir. 1992); see also Waters v. Thomas, 46 F.3d 1506, 1514 (11th Cir. 1995) (stating "perfection is not the standard of effective assistance").
Moreover, where a petitioner challenges tactical decisions made by trial counsel, he "must establish that no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take. " Grayson v. Thompson, 257 F.3d 1194, 1216 (11th Cir. 2001) (emphasis in original); see Holladay v. Haley, 209 F.3d 1243, 1253 n.6 (11th Cir. 2000) ("A tactical decision is ineffective only if it was so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have chosen it.'") (quoting Adams v. Wainwright, 709 F.2d 1443, 1445 (11th Cir.1983)). The inquiry is whether, from an objective perspective, some reasonable attorney could have acted as the petitioner's attorney did. See Waters, 46 F.3d at 1512.
Second, a petitioner must establish prejudice, such that there is a reasonable probability that, absent counsel's errors, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694; Chandler v. United States, 218 F.3d 1305, 1312-13 (11th Cir. 2000). "A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. Because the petitioner must meet both parts of the test, the court does not need to address the performance prong if the petitioner cannot meet the prejudice prong, and vice versa. Holladay, 209 F.3d at 1248.
In addition to the deferential standard set forth above, absent narrow exceptions, a federal court hearing a State prisoner's habeas petition must defer to State court adjudications of ineffective ...