United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division
Scott Coogler United States District Judge.
an action for a writ of habeas corpus action filed by
petitioner Sonny Lee Lawson, pro se, on or about
November 12, 2015. (Doc. 1). Lawson challenges his 2010
conviction and sentence for Theft of Property, First Degree,
in Lauderdale County Circuit Court. (Id., at 1). On
March 29, 2018, the magistrate judge to whom the case was
referred entered a report and recommendation pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 636(b), recommending that habeas relief be
denied. (Doc. 15). Because the record was unclear as to
whether the report and recommendation was sent to the
petitioner at his current address, on April 24, 2018, an
additional copy of the report and recommendation was mailed
to the petitioner at Bibb County Correctional Facility. (Doc.
16). Lawson has filed timely objections to the report and
recommendation. (Doc. 17).
convicted the petitioner of Theft of Property, First Degree,
for stealing a van. (See doc. 15 at 2). Although the
petitioner raised multiple grounds in his petition, his
objections focus on whether his trial counsel was
constitutionally deficient for failing to object to the lack
of an instruction on the term “deprive” in the
trial court's jury charge. (Doc. 17).
petitioner first asserts that under Jackson v.
Virgina, 443 U.S. 307 (1979), the elements of a crime
must be given to the jury. However, Jackson
concerned conviction of a juvenile based on a
“preponderance of the evidence” standard.
Id., at 314-15. That case stands for the proposition
that when a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence is
made, “the relevant question is whether, after viewing
the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution,
any rational trier of fact could have found the
essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable
doubt.” Id., at 319. The Court cautioned that
in reviewing a sufficiency of the evidence challenege, the
critical inquiry “must be not simply to determine
whether the jury was properly instructed, but to determine
whether the record evidence could reasonably support a
finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Id., at 318.
instruction which omits an element of the offense does not
automatically render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair.
Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 9 (1999).
Rather, such an omission is subject to the harmless error
analysis. Parker v. Sec'y, Dept. of Corr., 331
F.3d 764, 776-77 (11th Cir. 2003). The Parker Court
“The question in ... a collateral proceeding is whether
the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial
that the resulting conviction violates due process.”
Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154 (1977)
(quotation omitted). The challenged instruction must not be
viewed in isolation; the habeas court should consider the
context of the instructions as a whole as well as the entire
trial record. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 72
(1991); Agan v. Vaughn, 119 F.3d 1538, 1545 (11th
Cir. 1997) (“A defendant's right to due process is
not violated unless an erroneous instruction, when viewed in
light of the entire trial, was so misleading as to make the
trial unfair.”). Moreover, “[a]n omission, or an
incomplete instruction, is less likely to be prejudicial than
a misstatement of the law.” Kibbe, 431 U.S. at
155. In such cases, the habeas petitioner's burden is
“especially heavy.” Id.; Devier v.
Zant, 3 F.3d 1445, 1465 (11th Cir. 1993). This is
especially true where the habeas petitioner failed to object
to the incomplete instruction at trial. Kibbe, 431
U.S. at 154 (“It is the rare case in which an improper
instruction will justify reversal of a criminal conviction
when no objection has been made in the trial court.”).
Parker, 331 F.3d at 779.
according to the petitioner's argument, the instruction
in question was “incomplete, ” not
“erroneous.” Even if Lawson established the trial
court erred by failing to give a charge further defining the
term “deprive, ” any such error was harmless. The
petitioner fails to demonstrate prejudice, and thus fails to
“meet his heavy burden of showing that the incomplete
… instruction so infected his trial as to violate due
process.” Parker, 331 F.3d at 780 (citing
Kibbe, 431 U.S. at 154). Merely arguing the outcome
of the trial might have been different is insufficient for
habeas relief. See Kibbe, 431 U.S. at 157
(“Even if we were to make the unlikely assumption that
the jury might have reached a different verdict pursuant to
an additional instruction, that possibility is too
speculative to justify the conclusion that constitutional
error was committed.”).
petitioner next argues “the state court's
decision has violated petitioner[']s federal
constitutional rights to the due process of law and a fair
trial under the 14th Amendment, and the Sixth
Amendment to the effective assistance of counsel.”
(Doc. 16 at 2). Nothing in this statement provides a basis to
find Lawson is entitled to habeas relief. Because the
petitioner failed to establish his due process rights to a
fair trial were violated, his counsel could not have been
constitutionally ineffective for not objecting to a due
process violation. See e.g. Schwab v. Crosby, 451
F.3d 1308, 1319 (11th Cir. 2006) (quoting Bush v.
Singletary, 988 F.2d 1082, 1092-93 (11th Cir. 1993)
(“We agree with the district court that
‘Strickland does not compel an attorney to
urge an argument which he reasonably finds to be futile
petitioner's third objection is related to his first. He
asserts the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed four
cases where the definition of “deprive” was not
provided to the jury, again arguing that “the jury
would have found petitioner not guilty if they had been
instructed on the definition of ‘deprive.'”
(Doc. 17 at 2). As set forth in the report and
recommendation, whether Alabama law requires an additional
instruction to define “deprive” beyond that in
the Alabama Pattern Jury Instructions is a matter of state
law. (Doc. 15 at 13). Even if the failure to give this
instruction would require reversal under state law, that is
of no consequence in considered whether Lawson's
conviction was in violation of federal law. See Estelle
v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67 (1991) (“federal
habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state
law.”). The Court in Estelle specifically held
“[t]oday, we reemphasize that it is not the province of
a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court
determinations on state-law questions. In conducting habeas
review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a
conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of
the United States.” Id., at 67-68 (citations
omitted). This objection is without merit.
renewal of his motion for appointment of counsel is
carefully reviewed and considered de novo all the
materials in the court file, including the magistrate
judge's Report and Recommendation and Lawson's
objections thereto, the court is of the opinion that the
magistrate judge's findings are due to be and are hereby
ADOPTED and his recommendation is
ACCEPTED. Lawson's objections are
OVERRULED. Accordingly, the petition for
writ of habeas corpus is due to be DENIED
and DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Further,
because the petition does not present issues that are
debatable among jurists of reason, a certificate of
appealability is also due to be DENIED.
See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c); Slack v.
McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484-85 (2000); Rule 11(a),
Rules Governing § 2254 Proceedings. A separate
Final Order will be entered.