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Davis v. Dunn

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

October 12, 2018

JIMMY DAVIS, JR., Petitioner,
JEFFERSON S. DUNN, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, Respondent.


         This court entered a Memorandum of Opinion and Order of Dismissal on May 26, 2016, denying Jimmy Davis's petition for writ of habeas corpus relief from his state conviction for capital murder and resultant death sentence, and denying a certificate of appealability.[1]

         Davis subsequently filed a timely motion to alter, vacate, or amend the judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] This opinion addresses that motion.


         The text of Rule 59(e) does not set forth specific grounds for relief.[3]Accordingly, the decision of whether the prior judgment should be altered or amended is committed, at least in the first instance, to the sound discretion of the district court. See, e.g., American Home Assurance Co. v. Glenn Estess & Associates, Inc., 763 F.2d 1237, 1238-39 (11th Cir. 1985).

         The only grounds for granting a Rule 59(e) motion are newly-discovered evidence or manifest errors of law or fact. United States v. Marion, 562 F.3d 1330, 1335 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Arthur v. King, 500 F.3d 1335, 1343 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam)).

         Moreover, Rule 59(e) motions may “‘not be used to relitigate old matters or to present arguments or evidence that could have been raised prior to judgment.'” Wilchombe v. TeeVee Toons, Inc., 555 F.3d 949, 957 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Michael Linet, Inc. v. Village of Wellington, Fla., 408 F.3d 757, 763 (11th Cir. 2005)).

         Finally, a judgment should not be altered or amended when it would serve no useful purpose. See 11 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2810.1 (3d ed. 2012).


         A. Does this Court's Decision Denying Relief on Davis's Claim That Counsel Were Ineffective for Failing to Obtain Mitigation Evidence Regarding His Childhood Trauma and Depravity Conflict With the Eleventh Circuit's Decision in Daniel v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, 822 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2016)?

         Davis argues that the court should alter or amend its judgment denying relief on his claim that his trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to obtain mitigation evidence regarding his childhood trauma and depravity because that decision conflicts with the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Daniel v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, 822 F.3d 1248 (11th Cir. 2016).[4] He maintains that, under Daniel, he met both the performance and prejudice prongs of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).[5]

         The petitioner in Daniel argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial attorneys failed to investigate and present mitigation evidence during the penalty phase of his trial. See 822 F.3d at 1254. Carolyn Daniel, the petitioner's mother and sole witness called by the defense, briefly testified as to “some of the low points” in her son's life.[6] Less than three hours after the penalty phase began, the jury returned a 10-2 verdict in favor of imposing the death penalty. Id. Following a sentencing hearing, Daniel was sentenced to death by the trial court.[7] Id. Daniel's convictions and death sentence ultimately were upheld in the appellate courts. Daniel v. State, 906 So.2d 991 (Ala.Crim.App.2004), cert. denied, id. (Ala. 2005), cert. denied, sub nom. Daniel v. Alabama, 546 U.S. 405 (2005).

         Daniel timely filed with the aid of new counsel a Rule 32 petition in the trial court. Daniel's second amended petition was accompanied by twenty-one exhibits,

including school, mental health, and social service records, along with other documentary evidence, all in support of Mr. Daniel's allegations that if trial counsel had conducted even a cursory investigation of his background, they would have discovered compelling mitigating evidence.

Daniel, 822 F.3d at 1257. The trial court summarily dismissed the petition without allowing discovery or conducting an evidentiary hearing. Id. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court's summary dismissal of the petition at the pleading stage because Daniel failed to sufficiently and specifically plead his claims under Alabama law. Id. at 1258. The Alabama Supreme Court summarily denied certiorari review. Id.

         Daniel timely filed a federal habeas petition, accompanied by motions for discovery and an evidentiary hearing. Id. The district court denied relief without an evidentiary hearing or discovery, finding that the Rule 32 court properly dismissed Daniel's penalty phase ineffective assistance of counsel claim for failure to plead the claim with sufficient specificity or failure to state a claim. Id. at 1258, 1260.

         The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the district court's order denying the claim, finding that the Rule 32 state courts' summary dismissal of the claim was contrary to and an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent. Daniel, 822 F.3d at 1263-81. The Court first found that Daniel's “second amended Rule 32 petition pleaded more than sufficient specific facts about trial counsel's acts and omissions to show their penalty phase investigation ‘fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'” Id. at 1263 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688).

         In concluding that “no competent attorney in 2003 would have failed to conduct timely and thorough background interviews with the defendant and his immediate family members when they were ready, willing, and available to speak with trial counsel and even contacted counsel on their own, ” id. at 1264-65, the Eleventh Circuit pointed to the following factual allegations:

For starters, Mr. Daniel pleaded that trial counsel had almost no meaningful contact with him or his family prior to trial. Specifically, he pleaded that “[t]rial [c]ounsel first met [him] at the preliminary hearing for his capital case in October of 2001. The next time [t]rial [c]ounsel spoke to Mr. Daniel was sixteen months later - just three days before the commencement of Mr. Daniel's capital trial.” During the sixteen months Mr. Daniel was waiting for his trial, he wrote letters to trial counsel seeking to meet with them about his case. “Trial [c]ounsel simply ignored his request for a meeting.” Concerned about having such little contact with his trial counsel, Mr. Daniel wrote the Alabama Bar Association before his trial to lodge a complaint against trial counsel. Then when trial counsel did eventually meet with Mr. Daniel, rather than “focusing on the information about his case that Mr. Daniel was attempting to relay, [trial counsel] Mr. Hughes was far more interested in discussing Mr. Daniel's complaint to the Alabama Bar Association.”
Mr. Daniel also pleaded that his family fared no better in their attempts to communicate with trial counsel and as a result, “[t]rial [c]ounsel never interviewed in any meaningful way any members of [his] immediate family.” Specifically, Mr. Daniel pleaded that trial counsel ignored numerous efforts by his mother and sister to provide relevant background information:
46. Carolyn Daniel, Mr. Daniel's mother, made a series of attempts to contact Mr. Hughes by phone and left several messages at his office. When Mr. Hughes finally returned one of those messages, he gave her no more than twenty minutes of his time and expressed no interest in meeting her or having further discussions. The extent of [t]rial [c]ounsel's pretrial communications with Mr. Daniel's mother was one brief telephone call.
47. Had [t]rial [c]ounsel had even a five minute conversation of substance with Mrs. Daniel, it is likely that they would have discovered facts about Mr. Daniel's tragic childhood, including that when Mr. Daniel was just 3 years old he was present when his mother shot and killed his biological father . . . and that his stepfather emotionally, physically, and sexually abused Mr. Daniel including forcing him to engage in sex acts with his two older sisters when Mr. Daniel was less than ten years old.
48. Tammi Daniel, Mr. Daniel's sister, also attempted to contact [t]rial [c]ounsel by telephone on a number of occasions before her brother's trial. After Mr. Hughes failed to return a single one of her calls, she took matters in her own hands and drove all the way from Atlanta to Birmingham to speak to Mr. Hughes in person. He was unavailable.
49. Despite Tammi's demonstrated willingness to assist in her brother's defense, Mr. Hughes spoke with Tammi for less time than he spoke to her mother in the sixteen months leading up to trial. Ms. Haskins never spoke with her. In the one or two abbreviated conversations that they had, Mr. Hughes never asked Ms. Daniel about . . . her family background, Mr. Daniel's character, or her opinion of Mr. Daniel's guilt. Nor did he seek her assistance in contacting any other family members. Had Mr. Hughes engaged in a meaningful conversation with Mrs. Daniel he would have learned about Mr. Daniel's past.

Daniel, 822 F.3d at 1263-64 (alterations and ellipsis in original) (footnote omitted).

         In addition, the Eleventh Circuit found that the second amended Rule 32 petition pleaded sufficient facts to show prejudice under Strickland and its progeny. Id. at 1274-77. The court found that the allegations of Daniel's excruciating life history, which were never presented to the jury, were sufficient to establish a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's failure to present the evidence to the jury, he would have been sentenced to life without parole instead of death:

         Mr. Daniel's second amended Rule 32 petition specifically pleaded that trial counsel's deficient performance during the penalty phase prejudiced him as follows:

192. Trial [c]ounsel's absolute and admitted lack of preparation for the penalty phase all but ensured that Mr. Daniel's constitutional rights would be violated. As a result of [t]rial [c]ounsel's gross ineffectiveness, the jury never heard of the chronic physical and sexual abuse Mr. Daniel suffered at the hands of Mrs. Daniel's second husband, despite obvious indications of the presence of such evidence. The jury also never heard that Mrs. Daniel shot and killed Mr. Daniel's father when Mr. Daniel was only three years old, or that she was incarcerated for this crime, or that Mr. Daniel witnessed his father's death as a toddler. The picture [t]rial [c]ounsel painted for the jury of Mr. Daniel's mental capacity through Mrs. Daniel's testimony was also woefully incomplete. The jury never heard of the chronic problems that Mr. Daniel had in school, and was unaware that he had been diagnosed with borderline intelligence by state officials at a young age and likely suffered from mental retardation. Nor did the jury hear that Mr. Daniel's mother was formally diagnosed with manic depression, a bipolar disorder that is known to run in families, or that Mr. Daniel currently suffers from auditory and visual hallucinations as a result of his childhood trauma. The jury heard no evidence concerning Mr. Daniel's long and troubled history of addiction or his nonviolent character, and was left with the impression that he came close to committing the heinous crime of rape.
193. Had available mitigating evidence been presented, there exists a reasonable probability that Mr. Daniel would have been sentenced to life without possibility of parole. See Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 536, 123 S.Ct. 2527 (noting that “had the jury been confronted with this considerable mitigating evidence, there is a reasonable probability that it would have returned with a different sentence”); see also Collier, 177 F.3d 1184 (failure to present the available evidence of defendant's upbringing, compassion, his poverty, and gentle disposition rendered performance ineffective); Harris v. Dugger, 874 F.2d at 756 (because the jury knew little about defendant including the fact that family members described defendant as a devoted father, husband, and brother, counsel was ineffective); Armstrong v. Dugger, 833 F.2d at 1434 (finding the “demonstrated availability of undiscovered mitigating evidence clearly met the prejudice requirement” under Strickland ); Blanco, 943 F.2d at 1505 (finding a “reasonable probability” that “jury might have recommended a life sentence” had counsel presented the mitigating evidence that would have been available “had they more thoroughly investigated”). But for [t]rial [c]ounsel's errors, there is a reasonable probability that the jury would have recognized a very different balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052.
Beyond these paragraphs taken verbatim from Mr. Daniel's second amended Rule 32 petition, any fair reading of his Rule 32 petition and its supporting exhibits includes many details about Mr. Daniel's background and character that were never discovered by trial counsel. We have quoted many of those details already, such as Mr. Daniel's childhood sexual abuse and borderline intellectual functioning, and need not repeat them here.

Daniel, 822 F.3d at 1274-75 (alterations in original).

         Here, Davis challenges this court's conclusion that counsel's failure to obtain mitigation evidence concerning his childhood was excused by the failure of both Davis and his family to divulge more detailed, unsavory evidence that he claims would have been beneficial to his case.[8] Davis argues that the court's conclusion was “inconsistent with the Eleventh Circuit's recent opinion in the Daniel [c]ase, the ...

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