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Dennis v. Headley

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

October 26, 2018

KARVIS LAMAR DENNIS, #292373, Petitioner,
JOSEPH HEADLEY, et al., Respondents.



         Petitioner Karvis Lamar Dennis (“Dennis”), an inmate of the Alabama Department of Corrections, petitions the court for habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He challenges his conviction for murder in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Alabama. Doc. 1. For the following reasons, the court recommends that the petition be denied and the case dismissed.


         Dennis admitted he shot and killed the victim. He argued he acted in self-defense. State v. Dennis, CR-13-0591 (Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 22, 2014), Doc. 8-6 at 11. The jury found Dennis guilty of murder. The circuit court sentenced him to twenty-two years in prison. Id. at 1.

         A. Direct Appeal

         Dennis appealed, raising two issues. First, he argued the circuit court erred in denying his motion for mistrial after an emotional outburst during testimony by the victim's mother. Id. at 2. He argued the outburst denied him a fair trial before an impartial jury. Id. Second, he argued the circuit court erred in denying his motion for new trial because a juror failed to disclose during voir dire her familiarity with the area of the shooting and her alleged medical condition. Id. at 6. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals rejected both grounds and affirmed the judgment. Id. at 11. It denied Dennis's application for rehearing. Docs. 8-7, 8-8. The Alabama Supreme Court denied Dennis's petition for writ of certiorari, and a certificate of judgment issued on October 10, 2014. Doc. 8-9.

         B. Rule 32 Proceedings

         Dennis sought postconviction relief under Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32. Doc. 8-10 at 4. The circuit court summarily dismissed Dennis's claims because two of them were the same ones he raised on direct appeal, and the third alleging ineffective assistance of counsel was “not pleaded with the requisite specificity.” Doc. 8-11 at 9.

         Dennis appealed, raising two issues. First, he reasserted his claim regarding the emotional outburst at trial. Doc. 8-14 at 2. Second, he argued he was denied due process because he was not served with a copy of the State's response to his petition. Id. at 3. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. It held his claim regarding the emotional outburst was barred under Alabama procedural law because it already was raised and addressed on appeal. Id. It further held Dennis was, in fact served properly, and the circuit court followed proper procedure in dismissing the petition. Id. It deemed abandoned the claims Dennis did not reassert. Id. at 2. It denied his application for rehearing. Doc. 8-16. A certificate of judgment issued on December 31, 2015. Doc. 8-17.


         Dennis raises three claims for § 2254 relief. First, he argues his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to a fair trial before an impartial jury were violated when the circuit court refused to grant a mistrial after the emotional outburst in the gallery. Doc. 1 at 16-18. Second, Dennis argues his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the circuit court refused to grant a new trial after learning a juror failed to disclose during voir dire that she was familiar with the area and people where the crime occurred, and that she was biased based on a connection she felt with the deceased. Id. at 19-20. Finally, Dennis argues his equal protection rights were violated because the court records do not include a transcript of the outburst. Id. at 21- 22.

         Respondents answered, arguing the court should deny relief on Dennis's claims regarding (1) the emotional outburst and (2) the juror's answers during voir dire because the state court rulings were not contrary to or an unreasonable application of United States Supreme Court precedent. Doc. 8 at 5, 10. Respondents further argue this court cannot review Dennis's third claim regarding the transcript of the outburst because he did not raise it in state court, and it is procedurally defaulted under state law. Id. at 10-11.

         This court entered an order giving Dennis an opportunity to respond to the answer, and advising Dennis of the constraints that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) places on federal courts to grant relief, including procedural default of federal claims, as well as the ways to overcome default. Doc. 9.

         Dennis responded. Doc. 10. He asserts the trial court's personal observations used to resolve the outburst were “contrary to the facts of what actually occurred.” Id. at 3. Dennis maintains the court's failure to provide any curative charge, the lack of a record for a reviewing court, and the admission of a juror's influence from the outburst demonstrate that he did not receive a fair and impartial trial. Id. Dennis argues the state court adjudication of his “claims was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state courts proceeding. Clearly prejudice is obvious that failure to consider the claims would result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Id. at 4. Dennis asserts he “is innocent of intentionally/intentional murder, given the facts of the case.” Id. He asserts he challenged the lack of record in Doc. 8-8 at 3, but the state court did not address it.[1] Id. at 7. He argues “[f]ailure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice in [his] case”; the failure to record the incident undermines the appellate process; and Respondents waived his equal protection claim by not addressing it. Id. at 8-9. Throughout his response, Dennis reiterates his arguments on the merits of his claims regarding the outburst in the gallery and the juror's disqualification.

         The court has reviewed the § 2254 petition, the state court record, the parties' arguments, and applicable federal law. The court concludes that no evidentiary hearing is required, and the petition is due to be denied in accordance with the provisions of Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in United States District Courts.


         A. Claim Regarding the Incomplete Record Cannot Be Reviewed

         Dennis claims his constitutional rights were violated by the trial court's failure to ensure the record included a transcript of the outburst in the gallery. The court determines that Dennis did not adequately exhaust his state remedies on the claim. The claim is now defaulted under an adequate and independent state ground, and he demonstrates no excuse allowing the court to consider it. Consequently, this court cannot review the claim.

         The procedural default doctrine is closely related to the exhaustion requirement in § 2254 cases. To preserve a federal claim for habeas review, principles of exhaustion require a petitioner to present the federal claim and facts supporting it to the state's highest court, either on direct appeal or on collateral appeal through postconviction proceedings. See Pruitt v. Jones, 348 F.3d 1355, 1358-59 (11th Cir. 2003) (holding exhaustion principles apply to state postconviction proceedings as well as direct appeal). A petitioner “must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process, ” including review by the state's court of last resort, even if review in that court is discretionary. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999); Pruitt, 348 F.3d at 1359. In Alabama, this requires filing an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, an application for rehearing, and a petition for discretionary review with the Alabama Supreme Court. See Pruitt, 348 F.3d at 1359 (describing Alabama procedures for discretionary review); Smith v. Jones, 256 F.3d 1135, 1140 (11th Cir. 2001) (“Alabama's discretionary direct review procedures bring Alabama prisoner habeas petitions within the scope of the Boerckel rule.”). Doing so gives the state courts the first opportunity to apply controlling law to their case and petitioner's claim. See Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 179 (2001) (“The exhaustion rule promotes comity in that ‘it would be unseemly in our dual system of government for a federal district court to upset a state court conviction without an opportunity to the state courts to correct a constitutional violation.'” (further quotation marks and citations omitted)).

         Federal habeas review is also unavailable if the state court decision was made on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991). If a petitioner did not present a claim to the highest state court but would now be unable to present the claim in state court because of a state procedural rule, such a petitioner “meets the technical requirements for exhaustion; there are no state remedies any longer ‘available' to him.” Id. at 732. But the petitioner has “procedurally defaulted” the federal claim under an adequate and independent state rule. See Id. at 750. Federal claims which have never been presented to a state court or claims which were not exhausted properly in the state courts are procedurally defaulted if presentation of the claims in state court would be barred by firmly established and regularly followed state procedural rules. Gray v. Netherland, 518 U.S. 152, 161-62 (1996) (where state court remedies are no longer available because petitioner failed to present claim on direct appeal or in state postconviction action, petitioner has procedurally defaulted claims and is generally barred from asserting claims in a federal habeas proceeding); Coleman, 501 U.S. at 735 n.1 (“[I]f the petitioner failed to exhaust state remedies and the court to which the petitioner would be required to present his claims in order to meet the exhaustion requirement would now find the claims procedurally barred[, ] . . . there is a procedural default for purposes of federal habeas.”) (citations omitted).

         Dennis asserts he raised the argument in his petition for writ of certiorari before the Alabama Supreme Court. Doc. 10 at 7. Dennis did not raise the issue until he filed his petition for writ of certiorari. Docs. 8-4, 8-7, 8-8. When the Alabama Supreme Court denied the petition, its ruling was not a decision on the merits. See Waldrop v. Commissioner, Ala. Dep't Corr., 711 Fed.Appx. 900, 918 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing Ex parte McDaniel, 418 So.2d 934, 935 (Ala. 1982)). Presenting a claim for the first and only time to the Alabama Supreme Court on discretionary review, where review on the merits is granted “only when there are special and important reasons, ” does not satisfy the exhaustion requirement to fairly present a claim to the state court, especially where the state court exercises its discretion to decline to review the mertis of the claim. Id. (relying on Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989) (holding petitioner did not fairly present claims “where the claim has been presented for the first and only time in a procedural context in which its merits will not be considered unless ‘there are special and important reasons therefor'”) (citing state procedural rule)); see also Ala. R. App. P. 39(a) (Alabama Supreme Court's discretionary review is granted). State procedural rules preclude Dennis from returning to state court to raise his claim in Rule 32 proceedings. Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.2(a) precludes Dennis from raising most claims that were or could have been raised in previous proceedings. Rule 32.2(b) precludes successive petitions. And Rule 32.2(c) sets a one-year deadline for most Rule 32 claims. See Ala. R. Crim. P. 32.2(a), (b), (c). These independent and adequate state procedural grounds are firmly established and regularly followed by Alabama appellate courts. E.g., Tucker v. State, 956 So.2d 1170, 1171-73 (Ala.Crim.App.2006) (Rules 32.2(a)(3), 32.2(a)(5), and 32.2(c)); Horsley v. State, 675 So.2d 908, 909 (Ala.Crim.App.1996) (Rules 32.2(a)(3), 32.2(a)(5), 32.2(b), and 32.2(c)); Siebert v. Allen, 455 F.3d 1269, 1271 (11th Cir. 2006) (Rule 32.2(c)); see Boyd v. Comm'r, Alabama Dep't of Corr., 697 F.3d 1320, 1335 (11th Cir. 2012) (holding claims barred under Ala. R. Crim. P. 32.2(a)(3) and 32.2(a)(5), requiring claims to be raised at trial and on direct appeal, are procedurally defaulted from federal habeas review). Consequently, Dennis's claim regarding the record in state court is procedurally defaulted for purposes of federal habeas review.

         This court may reach the merits of procedurally defaulted claims in two instances:

First, a petitioner may obtain federal review of a procedurally defaulted claim if he can show both “cause” for the default and actual “prejudice” resulting from the default. See Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 485 (1986); [Wainwright v.] Sykes, 433 U.S. [72], 87 [(1977)]. “To establish ‘cause' for procedural default, a petitioner must demonstrate that some objective factor external to the defense impeded the effort to raise the claim properly in the state court.” Wright v. Hopper, 169 F.3d 695, 703 (11th Cir. 1999). To establish “prejudice, ” a petitioner must show that there is at least a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id.; Crawford v. Head, 311 F.3d 1288, 1327-28 (11th Cir. 2002). Second, a federal court may also grant a habeas petition on a procedurally defaulted claim, without a showing of cause or prejudice, to correct a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Murray, 477 U.S. at 495-96. A “fundamental miscarriage of justice” occurs in an extraordinary case, where a constitutional violation has resulted in the conviction of someone who is actually innocent. Id.

Henderson v. Campbell, 353 F.3d 880, 892 (11th Cir. 2003); see also Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750. The miscarriage of justice standard is directly linked to innocence. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 321 (1995). Innocence is not an independent claim; instead, it is the “gateway” through which a petitioner must pass before a court may consider constitutional claims which are defaulted. Id. at 315. This exception applies where a petitioner establishes that “a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent.” Murray, 477 U.S. at 496; Schlup, 513 U.S. at 321. “[T]he Schlup standard is demanding and permits review only in the ‘extraordinary' case.” House v. Bell,547 U.S. 518, 538 (2006) (citations omitted). Thus, “[i]n the usual case the presumed guilt of a prisoner convicted in state court counsels against federal review of defaulted claims.” Id. at 537. “To establish actual innocence, [a habeas petitioner] must demonstrate that . . . ‘it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him.'” Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 623 (1998) (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 327-28); House, 547 U.S. at 538. In this context, a petitioner must show constitutional error coupled with newly discovered, reliable evidence that was not presented at trial that would establish factual innocence ...

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