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Jenkins v. Ballard

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston

September 25, 2017

DAVID BALLARD, Warden, Mount Olive Correctional Complex, Respondent


          John T. Copenhaver, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Pending before the court are the petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 filed on July 28, 2016 and the motions for summary judgment filed by the parties.

         This action was previously referred to Cheryl A. Eifert, United States Magistrate Judge, who, on May 2, 2017, submitted her Proposed Findings and Recommendations (“PF&R”) pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Magistrate Judge Eifert recommends that the court deny petitioner's motion for summary judgment and renewed motion for summary judgment, grant respondent's motion for summary judgment, deny the petition for habeas corpus, and dismiss the case from the docket of the court.

         On May 18, 2017, petitioner filed his objections to the PF&R (“Objections, ” ECF No. 37), which largely restate the arguments Magistrate Judge Eifert had thoroughly addressed. Nonetheless, the court considers them in turn below.

         Considering that the claims petitioner raises were adjudicated on the merits in the state courts, the pertinent provision of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) (1996) states,

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 with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim-
(1) resulted in a decision that was contraryto, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that 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).

         First, petitioner challenges the causation standard, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Burrage v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 881 (2014), interpreting the federal Controlled Substances Act, should control the causation standard under the West Virginia felony murder statute. Petitioner argues that the two statutes are closely similar in support of his claim. He argues further that the Burrage result, requiring but-for causation, comports with the ordinary meaning of the statutory text, which he claims West Virginia courts failed to apply in his case. As Magistrate Judge Eifert noted, the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of a federal statute is not binding on state courts interpreting a similar state statute. PF&R, at 36. Accordingly, petitioner's argument does not state a colorable cause of action under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 since petitioner does not argue any violation or misapplication of federal law.

         Second, petitioner again argues that evidence was insufficient to convict him of felony murder, and integrates some of his causation argument. He argues that West Virginia's causation standard for felony murder, along with the available evidence, resulted in a conviction in “violation of the founding principles of due process.” Objections, at 8. For reasons thoroughly discussed in the PF&R, at 38-39, his argument on sufficiency of evidence lacks merit. As the trier of fact, the jury evaluated the evidence in the first instance in reaching its conviction verdict. State courts then found the evidence sufficient to support the conviction, and the court agrees with the PF&R that, in view of their decision, petitioner is unable on that ground to satisfy the 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) criteria for relief. In particular, petitioner does not explain what he means by requiring 100 percent proof of (presumably but-for) causation and why such proof is, in his view, a predicate for observing the requirements of due process under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Objections, at 8. The United States Supreme Court has stated that “the relevant question [in a habeas review of the sufficiency of evidence] 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.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). The court agrees with the PF&R that the question is readily answered in the affirmative.

         Third, petitioner again argues ineffective assistance of counsel on several grounds. As Magistrate Judge Eifert pointed out, the doctrine and the AEDPA compel a highly deferential standard of review of state court adjudications of ineffective assistance claims. It is noteworthy that the trial court (the Circuit Court of Fayette County) reviewed these claims in detail when it denied petitioner's state habeas petition, a denial subsequently affirmed by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in a summary fashion.

         In general, deciding claims of ineffective assistance of counsel under federal law involves the application of a two-prong test articulated in Strickland v. Washington: (1) whether counsel's performance was deficient, and, if the first prong is met, (2) whether such deficient performance caused the defendant prejudice. 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The relevant standard is an objective standard of reasonableness, Id. at 688, and reviewing courts must make “every effort” to “eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight, to reconstruct the circumstances of counsel's challenged conduct, and to evaluate the conduct from counsel's perspective at the time, ” Id. at 689.

         The first ineffective assistance claim states that his trial counsel admitted in his opening statement that there was proof of delivery of oxycodone by the petitioner to the young victim who died from its ingestion. In making this claim, the petitioner seizes upon a comment, underlined below, that was made by his counsel in his opening statement that, the petitioner says, conceded an element of the offense. When that statement is viewed in the context of counsel's ...

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