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Stevenson v. Lamas

United States District Court, D. Delaware

November 28, 2018


          Lamott Stevenson. Pro se petitioner.

          Gregory E. Smith, Deputy Attorney General, Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware. Counsel for respondents.


          Noreika, Judge

         Pending before the Court is a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 ("Petition") filed by Petitioner Lamott Stevenson ("Petitioner"). (D.I. 3; D.I. 13). The State filed an Answer in opposition. (D.I, 19). For the reasons discussed, the Court will deny the Petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As set forth by the Delaware Supreme Court in Petitioner's post-conviction appeal the facts leading up to his arrest, convictions, and sentences are as follows:

On December 15, 2011, [Petitioner] and two accomplices broke into the home of a married couple to rob them. They beat the husband with a crowbar and threatened the wife with a gun. Eventually, the husband was able to get to his own gun and fired some shots, which convinced the robbers to flee. The police later tracked down [Petitioner][3] and arrested him. The State charged [Petitioner] in a twenty-three count indictment.
The State offered [Petitioner] a single plea deal on three occasions before his trial. The terms were that if [Petitioner] agreed to plead guilty, identify his co-conspirators, and testify truthfully against them, the State would drop all but six of the counts against him. There would then be a pre-sentence investigation and open sentencing, and [Petitioner] would face between 14 and 117 years incarceration. [Petitioner] rejected the deal each time it was offered.
Trial Counsel and the State knew that [Petitioner] had two felony convictions in Delaware state court. But just before trial, the State learned that [Petitioner] also pled guilty in 2009 in federal district court to possession of a firearm by a felon. Although the State had turned over [Petitioner's] DELJIS criminal history report to Trial Counsel during discovery, the DELJIS report did not include the federal conviction. Trial Counsel did not learn of the federal conviction until sometime during trial. The federal conviction made [Petitioner] eligible for sentencing as an habitual offender under 11 Del.C. § 4214(a).
The jury convicted [Petitioner] of two counts of robbery first degree, burglary first degree, assault second degree, conspiracy second degree, two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, three counts of possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony, and wearing a disguise during the commission of a felony. Before sentencing, the State filed a petition to have [Petitioner] declared an habitual offender, which the Superior Court granted. The trial judge sentenced [Petitioner] to an aggregate of 192 years incarceration.

Stevenson v. State, 132 A.3d 1 (Table), 2016 WL 258783, at* 1 (Del. Jan. 19, 2016). The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed Petitioner's convictions and sentences on direct appeal. See Stevenson, 2013 WL 6798899, at *4.

         In April 2014, Petitioner filed in the Delaware Superior Court a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 ("Rule 61 motion"). (D.I. 19 at 3).

         In February 2015, a Superior Court Commissioner recommended that Petitioner's Rule 61 Motion be denied. See Stevenson, 2016 WL 258783, at *2. The Superior Court adopted the Commissioner's Report and Recommendation and denied the Rule 61 Motion in May 2015, and the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed that decision. See Stevenson, 2016 WL 258783, at *2, *4.


         A. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

         Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") "to reduce delays in the execution of state and federal criminal sentences . . . and to further the principles of comity, finality, and federalism." Woodford v. Garceau, 538 U.S. 202, 206 (2003). Pursuant to AEDPA, a federal court may consider a habeas petition filed by a state prisoner only "on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). AEDPA imposes procedural requirements and standards for analyzing the merits of a habeas petition in order to "prevent federal habeas 'retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002).

         B. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

          Absent exceptional circumstances, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief unless the petitioner has exhausted all means of available relief under state law. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842-44 (1999); Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275 (1971).

         AEDPA states, in pertinent part:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that -
(A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State; or
(B) (i) there is an absence of available State corrective process; or (ii) circumstances exist that render such process ineffective to protect the rights of the applicant.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1).

         The exhaustion requirement is based on principles of comity, requiring a petitioner to give "state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process." O'Sullivan, 526 U.S. at 844-45; Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 192 (3d Cir. 2000). A petitioner satisfies the exhaustion requirement by demonstrating that the habeas claims were "fairly presented" to the state's highest court, either on direct appeal or in a post-conviction proceeding, in a procedural manner permitting the court to consider the claims on their merits. See Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 451 n.3 (2005); Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989).

         A petitioner's failure to exhaust state remedies will be excused if state procedural rules preclude him from seeking further relief in state courts. See Lines v. Larkins, 208 F.3d 153, 160 (3d Cir. 2000); see Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 297-98 (1989). Although treated as technically exhausted, such claims are nonetheless procedurally defaulted. See Lines, 208 F.3d at 160; Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750-51 (1991). Similarly, if a petitioner presents a habeas claim to the state's highest court, but that court "clearly and expressly" refuses to review the merits of the claim due to an independent and adequate state procedural rule, the claim is exhausted but procedurally defaulted. See Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750; Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 260-64 (1989). Federal courts may not consider the merits of procedurally defaulted claims unless the petitioner demonstrates either cause for the procedural default and actual prejudice resulting therefrom, or that a fundamental miscarriage of justice will result if the court does not review the claims. See McCandless v. Vaughn, 172 F.3d 255, 260 (3d Cir. 1999); Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750-51.

         C. Standard of Review

         When a state's highest court has adjudicated a federal habeas claim on the merits, [4] the federal court must review the claim under the deferential standard contained in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), federal habeas relief may only be granted if the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," or the state court's decision was an unreasonable determination of the facts based on the evidence adduced in the trial. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) & (2); see Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). The deferential standard of § 2254(d) applies even when a state court's order is unaccompanied by an opinion explaining the reasons relief has been denied. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98-101 (2011). As explained by the Supreme Court, "it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary." Id. at 99.

         A state court decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law "if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. The mere failure to cite Supreme Court precedent does not require a finding that the decision is contrary to clearly established federal law. See Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002). For instance, a decision may comport with clearly established federal law even if the decision does not demonstrate an awareness of relevant Supreme Court cases, "so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts them." Id. In turn, an "unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law occurs when a state court "identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of a prisoner's case." Williams, 529 U.S. at 413; see also White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 426 (2014).

         Finally, when performing an inquiry under § 2254(d), a federal court must presume that the state court's determinations of factual issues are correct. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Appel, 250 F.3d at 210. This presumption of correctness applies to both explicit and implicit findings of fact, and is only rebutted by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Campbell v. Vaughn, 209 F.3d 280, 286 (3d Cir. 2000); Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 341 (2003) (stating that the clear and convincing standard in § 2254(e)(1) applies to factual issues, whereas the unreasonable application standard of § 2254(d)(2) applies to factual decisions).


         Petitioner's timely filed habeas Petition alleges four grounds for relief: (1) the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct during its rebuttal closing argument; (2) the Superior Court improperly admitted the medical records of "Bryant Brown" during Petitioner's criminal proceeding; (3) there was insufficient evidence supporting Petitioner's conviction for wearing a disguise during the commission of a felony ("WDDCF"); and (4) defense counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to discover Petitioner's prior federal conviction that made him eligible for habitual offender sentencing. The State filed an Answer to the Petition, arguing that the Claims should be dismissed as meritless ...

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