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Thomas v. Estes

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

September 12, 2018

JAMES E. THOMAS, JR., # 183374, Petitioner,
v.
DEWAYNE ESTES, et al., Respondents.

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Susan Russ Walker United States Magistrate Judge.

         Acting pro se, Alabama inmate James E. Thomas, Jr. brings this petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his guilty plea conviction for reckless murder. Doc. No. 1.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Guilty Plea and Sentence

         On May 25, 2012, Thomas pleaded guilty in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County to the offense of reckless murder, in violation of § 13A-6-2(a)(2), Ala. Code 1975. The indictment charged that Thomas recklessly engaged in conduct that manifested extreme indifference to human life and created a grave risk of death to another person, specifically, by operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and/or a controlled substance, causing the death of another person by striking that person's vehicle with his own vehicle. Doc. 10-2 at 12. On June 1, 2012, the trial court sentenced Thomas to 20 years in prison. Id. at 13-15. Thomas took no appeal.

         B. State Post-Conviction Proceedings

         On February 19, 2013, Thomas filed a pro se petition in the trial court seeking post-conviction relief under Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure. Doc. No. 10-1 at 8-22. Thomas's Rule 32 petition, as later amended (see id. at 30-38), raised the following claims:

1. Trial counsel was ineffective for failing to negotiate a reasonable plea bargain.
2. Trial counsel was ineffective for failing to (a) explain the elements and required mental state of the offense of reckless murder; (b) explain the elements of the lesser-included offenses; (c) obtain the indictment and explain it to him; and (d) obtain the presentence report and explain it to him before he entered his guilty plea.
3. His guilty plea was the product of duress, deception, and misrepresentations by his counsel.
4. His guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary because the trial court did not advise him he would not be eligible for parole until he served 15 years of his sentence.
5. Trial counsel was ineffective for advising him he could be paroled after serving no more than 5 years in prison if he pleaded guilty when, under Alabama law, he would not be eligible for parole consideration before serving 15 years of his sentence.

Doc. No. 10-1 at 8-22 & 30-38.

         On July 25, 2013, the trial court entered an order denying Thomas's Rule 32 petition.[2] Doc. No. 10-1 at 53. Thomas appealed, essentially reasserting the claims from his Rule 32 petition. Doc. No. 10-6. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for the trial court to make specific findings of fact regarding Thomas's claim that his counsel was ineffective for advising him he could be paroled after serving no more than five years in prison if he pleaded guilty when, under Alabama law, he would not be eligible for parole consideration until serving 15 years in prison. Doc. No. 10-3 at 5-6. After conducting an evidentiary hearing on this claim, the trial court entered an order denying relief, finding that Thomas's trial counsel had not assured him of a specific sentence or promised him he would serve only five years in prison. Doc. No. 10-3 at 7.

         On March 11, 2016, on return to remand, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued a memorandum opinion affirming the trial court's denial of Thomas's Rule 32 petition. Doc. No. 10-8. Thomas applied for rehearing, which was overruled. On July 8, 2016, the Alabama Supreme Court denied Thomas's petition for writ of certiorari. Doc. Nos. 10-9 & 10-10.

         C. Section 2254 Petition

         On July 25, 2016, Thomas initiated this habeas action by filing a § 2254 petition in which he essentially reasserts the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel he presented in his state Rule 32 petition. Doc. No. 1 at 3-14. For the reasons that follow, it is the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge that Thomas's § 2254 petition be denied without an evidentiary hearing and this case dismissed with prejudice.

         II. AEDPA Standard of Review

         “When it enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (‘AEDPA'), Congress significantly limited the circumstances under which a habeas petitioner may obtain relief.” Hardy v. Allen, 2010 WL 9447204, at *7 (N.D. Ala. Sep. 21, 2010). To prevail on a § 2254 claim adjudicated on the merits by the state courts, a petitioner must show that a decision by the state courts was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ” or 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)(1) & (2); see Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-05 & 412-13 (2000).

         A state court's decision is “contrary to” federal law either if it fails to apply the correct controlling authority, or if it applies the controlling authority to a case involving facts “materially indistinguishable” from those in a controlling case, but nonetheless reaches a different result. Williams, 529 U.S. at 404-06; Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). A state court's decision is an “unreasonable application” of federal law if it either correctly identifies the governing rule but then applies it to a new set of facts in a way that is objectively unreasonable, or it extends or fails to extend a clearly established legal principle to a new context in a way that is objectively unreasonable. Williams, 529 U.S. at 407.

         “Objectively unreasonable” means something more than an “erroneous” or “incorrect” application of clearly established law, and a reviewing federal court may not substitute its judgment for the state court's even if the federal court, in its own independent judgment, disagrees with the state court's decision. See Williams, 529 U.S. at 411; Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 76 (2003). The reviewing court “must determine what arguments or theories supported or … could have supported[ ] the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of [the Supreme] Court.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011). “This is a ‘difficult to meet,' and ‘highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'” Cullen v. Pinholster, 536 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (internal citations omitted).

         Federal courts are likewise directed to determine whether the state court based its findings on “an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). A federal court “may not characterize these state-court factual determinations as unreasonable ‘merely because [we] would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance.'” Brumfield v. Cain, 135 S.Ct. 2269, 2277 (2015) (citation omitted) (alteration in original). A state court's determination of a factual issue is “presumed to be correct, ” and the habeas petitioner “shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Voluntariness ...


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