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Beckworth v. Dunn

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 25, 2017

JEFFERSON DUNN, Commissioner, Respondent.




         Petitioner Rex Allen Beckworth, a death-sentenced inmate in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections, filed this habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the legality of his conviction for the capital murder of Bessie Thewatt in January of 2000. Beckworth was convicted in September of 2002. (Doc. # 1.) He asserts claims of trial court error, Brady violations by the prosecution, and claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, both in the guilt and penalty phases of trial.

         This matter is before the court on Beckworth's Motion for an Atkins Hearing (Doc. # 22) and his Motion for Discovery of Brady Evidence (Doc. # 23). After these motions had been fully briefed, they were heard on January 17, 2017. Beckworth's motions are due to be denied without prejudice.

         A. Motion for Atkins Hearing

         This motion is based on Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), which held that the execution of mentally retarded criminals was “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Post-Atkins, one who is intellectually disabled cannot be executed. Beckworth claims that he is intellectually disabled and was not afforded a fair opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability at trial; therefore, he submits that he is entitled to an Atkins hearing in federal court. Beckworth seeks to present additional evidence of his intellectual disability in this action that was not presented to the state court.

         Atkins was decided in June 2002, nearly three months before Beckworth's trial in September 2002. Beckworth raised an Atkins claim before trial, moved to dismiss the capital indictment against him, and requested a pretrial hearing and ruling on the Atkins claim. The trial court denied the motions to dismiss and for a pretrial hearing of the Atkins claim, electing to submit the Atkins claim to the jury post-trial at sentencing. Both parties presented evidence relative to Beckworth's Atkins claim at the sentencing hearing. The trial court submitted a form to the jury to determine whether Beckworth was mentally retarded and instructed the jury that its decision on the intellectual disability issue had to be unanimous. Beckworth contends that the trial court committed constitutional error by not considering the Atkins claim until the sentencing hearing.

         Atkins recognized that “mentally retarded defendants in the aggregate face a special risk of wrongful execution” because they may be less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel and are typically poor witnesses. Atkins, 536 U.S. at 320-21. The Atkins Court also pointed out that “reliance on mental retardation as a mitigating factor can be a two-edged sword that may enhance the likelihood that the aggravating factor of future dangerousness will be found by the jury.” Id.

         Arguably, the take-away from Atkins is that the intellectual disability issue should be resolved prior to trial rather than at a sentencing hearing. However, the Atkins Court left the matter to the states to develop appropriate procedures for the presentation and resolution of intellectual disability claims. Atkins, 536 U.S. at 317. Given that Atkins was decided on the eve of Beckworth's trial, no procedures had been established in Alabama for considering Atkins claims prior to Beckworth's trial. Thus, the trial court had no road map and was left on its own to fashion a procedure for considering Beckworth's Atkins claim. The Alabama courts have since established procedures to be followed in Alabama cases dealing with Atkins claims. See Ex parte Perkins, 851 So.2d 453 (Ala. 2002), Smith v. State, No. 1060427, 2007 WL 1519869 at *13 (Ala. 2007) (“Generally, an Atkins claim should be raised and addressed by the trial judge in a pretrial hearing without a jury.”) However, these procedures were not in place at the time of Beckworth's trial.

         When Beckworth first raised his Atkins claim before trial, he argued that in keeping with Atkins and Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, (2002), a jury must determine whether he was mentally retarded. Beckworth also requested that this determination be made pre-trial. As previously stated, the trial court deferred consideration of the Atkins claim until the sentencing hearing and submitted a special interrogatory to the jury during the penalty-phase deliberations to decide whether Beckworth was mentally retarded. The trial court instructed the jury on the definition of “mental retardation” as the American Association for Mental Retardation (AAMR) defined it. The Supreme Court in Atkins quoted the AAMR's definition of mental retardation. The judge stated that he thought it was the safest course of action to take, and the parties agreed. Beckworth v. State, 946 So.2d 490, 509 n.6 (Ala.Crim.App.2005). The jury determined that Beckworth was not mentally retarded.

         In considering Beckworth's Atkins claim on appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals (ACCA) acknowledged that Beckworth scored below 70 on one of the IQ tests, but that on the other IQ test, he scored 73. The State's expert testified that the IQ test on which Beckworth scored 73 “was a more reliable indicator of Beckworth's intelligence.” Beckworth, 946 So.2d at 510. In the final analysis, the ACCA concluded, “because there was evidence that supported a determination that Beckworth did not demonstrate significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, we can determine that Beckworth, even under the broadest definition of mental retardation, is not mentally disabled.” Id. The ACCA also reviewed the procedure employed by the trial court to consider Beckworth's Atkins claim and found no fault with it, stating: “We note that nothing in Alabama or federal law requires that this procedure be followed, but we note that the able trial court acted out of an abundance of caution while attempting to comply with the dictates of a newly announced rule of law.” Id. The ACCA affirmed the denial of his Atkins claim.

         Beckworth asserts that he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing in this action on his Atkins claim for two different reasons: (1) the trial court committed constitutional error by not considering his Atkins claim before trial, and (2) the ACCA's rejection of his Atkins claim on direct appeal contravened Atkins by employing a strict IQ score cutoff of 70 and the ACCA's conclusion that he is not mentally retarded is an unreasonable determination of the facts, similar to what happened to the defendants in Brumfield v. Cain, 135 S.Ct. 2269 (2015), Burgess v. Commissioner, 723 F.3d 1308 (11th Cir. 2013), and Smith v. Campbell, 620 F.App'x 734 (11th Cir. 2015).

         1. Trial court's procedure for handling the Atkins claim

         Beckworth submits that he received the same inadequate process as Brumfield, Burgess, and Smith did in their respective cases. Beckworth asserts that in each of those cases, evidence of intellectual disability was presented at sentencing, rather than pretrial. Beckworth points out that the appellate courts in Brumfield, Burgess, and Smith reversed the denial of Atkins relief because the evidence of intellectual disability was presented at sentencing. Beckworth notes that the Supreme Court and Alabama courts have recognized that an Atkins claim is a separate issue from the guilt and sentencing phases of trial. Therefore, it should have been considered separately pre-trial and that by waiting until sentencing to consider his Atkins claim, the trial court unfairly and erroneously combined or merged his Atkins claim with the determination of guilt and punishment. For these reasons, Beckworth contends that he is entitled to an Atkins hearing in federal court.

         a. Brumfield v. Cain

         Brumfield was convicted of murder in a Louisiana court and sentenced to death prior to Atkins. Post-Atkins, the Louisiana Supreme Court determined that an evidentiary hearing is required when a defendant “provide[s] objective factors” sufficient to raise a “a reasonable ground” to believe that he has an intellectual disability, which the court defined as “(1) subaverage intelligence, as measured by objective standardized IQ tests; (2) significant impairment in several areas of adaptive skills; and (3) manifestations of this neuro-psychological disorder in the developmental stage.” State v. Williams, 831 So.2d 835, 857, 861, 854 (La. 2002). Post-Williams, Brumfield amended his state post-conviction petition to raise an Atkins claim. Seeking an evidentiary hearing, he pointed to evidence introduced at sentencing that he had an IQ of 75, had a fourth-grade reading level, had been prescribed numerous medications and treated at psychiatric hospitals as a child, had been identified as having a learning disability, and had been placed in special education classes. The trial court dismissed Brumfield's petition without holding a hearing or granting funds to conduct additional investigation.

         Brumfield subsequently sought federal habeas relief. The district court found that the state court's rejection of Brumfield's claim was both “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law, as determined by” this Court and “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)(1), (2). The court went on to determine that Brumfield was intellectually disabled. The Fifth Circuit found that Brumfield's petition failed to satisfy either of § 2254(d)'s requirements and reversed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed, holding that because Brumfield satisfied § 2254(d)(2)'s requirements, he was entitled to have his Atkins claim considered on the merits in federal court. Brumfield, 135 S.Ct. at 2276-2283.

         b. Burgess v. Commissioner

         Burgess was convicted of capital murder on March 1, 1994, for the murders of his girlfriend and two of her children. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. See Burgess v. State, 723 So.2d 742 (Ala. Crim. App.1997), aff'd, 723 So.2d 770 (Ala. 1998), cert. denied, 526 U.S. 1052 (1999).

         Subsequently, Burgess sought post-conviction relief pursuant to Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32 in March 2000, arguing, inter alia, that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate adequately and present evidence regarding his mental health. During the penalty phase of Burgess's trial, the defense introduced some evidence regarding Burgess's mental health as part of its theory of mitigation, focusing on his mental disorder and the history of mental illness in his family. While Burgess's Rule 32 petition was pending, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Atkins. Shortly thereafter, Burgess then sought to amend the petition to reference the Eighth Amendment claim that he could not be executed because he was mentally retarded. He also requested funds to retain a mental health expert and asked that mental health experts be granted access to him to conduct examinations. The state trial court denied both requests, and held no the Eighth Amendment claim, as the Alabama trial court found that claim to be procedurally defaulted. Burgess v. State, 962 So.2d 272, 298 (Ala.Crim.App. 2005). Thus, the state trial court never considered the substance of Burgess's Eighth Amendment Atkins claim.

         The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals (ACCA) reversed the trial court ruling on procedural default recognizing that “the decision in Atkins . . . applies retroactively to cases that are on collateral review.” Burgess, 962 So.2d at 299 (quoting Clemons v. State, 55 So.3d 314, 319 (Ala.Crim.App.2003)). However, the ACCA rejected Burgess's argument that “now that Atkins has declared unconstitutional the execution of the mentally retarded, ” he should be permitted to develop “the record on [his] mental retardation.” Burgess also claimed that even though the trial record indicated that he was mentally retarded, he was “prevented from adequately developing these claims during his Rule 32 hearing by the [trial c]ourt's denial of his ex parte applications for funds for expert assistance” and the denial of his motion for experts to obtain access to him in the prison, “which prevented him from utilizing any expert that could have been procured independently of state funds.”

         The ACCA denied Burgess's Eighth Amendment claim on the merits, based solely on the state court record from pre-Atkins proceedings, and concluded that he was not mentally retarded. Id. The Supreme Court of Alabama, to whom Burgess also argued he should be allowed to develop the record on his mental retardation claim, denied review. Ex parte Burgess, No. # 1050290, 4 So.3d 588 (Ala.Crim.App.Feb. 23, 2007).

         Burgess then filed a habeas petition in federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court rejected, without conducting an evidentiary hearing, Burgess's claim that he is mentally retarded. The district court also rejected Burgess's claim that his trial counsel was ineffective in investigating, preparing for, and presenting mitigating circumstances related to his mental health in the penalty phase of his trial. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court's ruling as to Burgess's Atkins claim and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the Atkins claim. Burgess v. Commissioner, 723 F.3d 1308 (11th Cir. 2013). The Eleventh Circuit also determined that the ACCA erroneously determined that Burgess was not intellectually disabled based only upon the record before the state court. Id. at 1315-1319.

         c. Smith v. Campbell

         In September of 1998, Smith was convicted of the capital murder of Durk Van Dam. As part of his penalty-phase defense, Smith presented evidence to establish mitigating circumstances, including a report from a clinical psychologist who had diagnosed him with major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol dependence, learning disorder, anti-social personality, and borderline intellectual functioning. The jury returned an advisory verdict recommending a death sentence. The trial court found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and sentenced Smith to death.

         On direct appeal, Smith's conviction and death sentence were affirmed. In 2002, Smith then filed a post-conviction Rule 32 petition in state court. It was dismissed as untimely, but the Alabama Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that it was timely filed. Ex Parte Joseph Clifton Smith, 891 So.2d 286 (Ala. 2004). In 2002, Smith filed an amended Rule 32 petition alleging that he was intellectually disabled. Smith requested an evidentiary hearing. In 2005, the trial court found that Smith was not mentally retarded, rejected his Atkins claim without an evidentiary hearing, and dismissed ...

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