May 20, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Miller v. Alabama Only Affected Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Davis v. McCollum on Tuesday, August 25, 2015.

When he was 16, Johnny Davis was involved in a botched convenience store robbery that resulted in the murder of the store clerk. In 1992, under the Oklahoma sentencing scheme in effect at the time, he was sentenced to a discretionary sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Davis appealed, and the OCCA affirmed his sentence in 1995 on direct appeal. He did not appeal the OCCA’s determination and his sentence became final. In June 2013, Davis filed a pro se application for postconviction relief in state court, which claimed his age at the time of the offense precluded the sentence of life without parole. Two weeks later, with the assistance of counsel, he filed a second application, asserting the same claims. The state court denied his applications and the OCCA affirmed those denials.

In May 2014, Davis filed a pro se federal habeas petition, asserting that (1) his life without parole sentence violated the Constitution because of the new standard expressed by the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012); (2) his counsel was ineffective at trial and on appeal; and (3) as a juvenile offender, his sentence was unconstitutional. The district court denied him a COA, finding his second and third claims were time-barred and the first issue lacked merit because Miller was inapposite. Davis appealed.

The Tenth Circuit, using AEDPA deference, agreed with the district court that the second and third claims were time-barred. Because his conviction became final before the enactment of AEDPA, his deadline to file was in April 1997. The Tenth Circuit next addressed whether Miller created a new constitutional rule for all cases in which juvenile offenders were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The Tenth Circuit noted that Miller only created a new rule for cases in which a juvenile offender was sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme; because the Oklahoma court had discretion to impose life with the possibility of parole, Miller was inapplicable to Davis’s case.

The district court’s denial of a COA to Davis was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: No Reasonable Jurist Could Have Found Trial Counsel’s Performance Deficient

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Rodriguez on Wednesday, October 15, 2014.

Samuel Rodriguez pleaded guilty to the distribution of five grams or more of methamphetamine, and the district court sentenced him. The district court applied a career offender sentence enhancement based on Rodriguez’s two prior felony convictions involving crimes of violence or controlled substances. One of Rodriguez’s prior convictions was for simple assault under the Texas Penal Code. The parties disagree on whether the assault conviction constitutes a crime of violence. In an earlier appeal, Rodriguez’s attorney argued unsuccessfully that the conviction should not be considered a crime of violence. Rodriguez then sought collateral relief on a theory that his attorney had mishandled the issue. The district court recharacterized the request as a motion to vacate the sentence and denied it. Rodriguez then sought a Certificate of Appealability (COA), along with leave to amend his motion and a request to file in forma pauperis. The Tenth Circuit denied the COA and mooted the related requests.

The Tenth Circuit first noted that its prior ruling was the law of the case, and even if the current panel disagreed with the finding of the prior panel, it could not overturn that decision. Nevertheless, analyzing Rodriguez’s claim about the requisite mental state underlying his Texas assault offense, the Tenth Circuit found that the issue had been litigated in the prior ruling. The Tenth Circuit found that Rodriguez’s prior counsel advocated well for him, raising the claim that he did not have the requisite mental state, citing case law, and otherwise appropriately advocating, and declined to characterize Rodriguez’s appeal as anything other than an attempt to relitigate an already-decided issue.

The Tenth Circuit denied Rodriguez’s request for a COA and found moot his related requests to amend his motion and file in forma pauperis.

Tenth Circuit: Notice of Fraudulent Testimony Determined on Date of Testimony, Not Date on Which Affidavit Obtained

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Taylor v. Martin on Tuesday, July 8, 2014.

Taylor was convicted of first-degree murder and shooting with intent to kill in Oklahoma on May 9, 2009. He appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed his convictions. He did not appeal that affirmance to the U.S. Supreme Court. On September 16, 2011, Taylor applied for post-conviction relief in state court, based on an affidavit that a government witness, Mr. Cheatham, had lied when he testified that Taylor confessed to the murder. The state court denied his motion and Taylor again appealed to the OCCA, which affirmed the denial. On June 19, 2013, Mr. Taylor filed a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in federal district court. The government moved to dismiss his petition as time-barred, and the district court agreed. Taylor’s case was dismissed with prejudice and he was denied a Certificate of Appealability (COA). Taylor appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

The Tenth Circuit applied 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and found that Taylor’s claims were time-barred. His convictions became final on May 17, 2011, after the OCCA concluded its review and his 90-day period for appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court expired. Given the statutory tolling for his post-conviction proceedings, Taylor would have had until April 5, 2013 to file his petition. Further, the date on which Cheatham’s perjury was discovered was the date of the testimony, not the date on which he submitted an affidavit to that effect.

The Tenth Circuit denied the COA and dismissed the appeal.

Tenth Circuit: Appellant Entited to Evidentiary Hearing on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Milton v. Miller on Friday, March 7, 2014.

Appellant Antonio Milton is an Oklahoma state prisoner serving a life sentence without parole for drug-trafficking-related convictions. After exhausting his state court remedies, Milton filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging that his counsel on direct appeal was ineffective for failing to assert a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, specifically that Milton’s trial counsel failed to inform Milton of a favorable pretrial plea offer. The district court denied Milton’s petition, but the Tenth Circuit granted Milton a certificate of appealability to challenge the district court’s ruling.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that the Oklahoma state courts’ resolution of Milton’s ineffective assistance claim could not survive scrutiny under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), and that unresolved issues of fact prevented the court from completing its de novo review of the claim. The court concluded that reasonable jurists could debate the merit of Petitioner’s claim of ineffective assistance based on the counsel’s alleged failure to inform him of the plea offer.

Milton argued on appeal that the OCCA’s resolution of his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. In turn, Milton argued, he was entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing to resolve his claim.

Milton correctly identified Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) as the clearly established federal law applicable to his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim. Milton challenged the Oklahoma Court of Appeals (OCCA’s) analysis of his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim, arguing that the OCCA’s decision was both contrary to and an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law because the OCCA misstated the legal tests governing the proper inquiry under federal law.

The Tenth Circuit agreed with Milton that the OCCA misstated the standard for analyzing the issue of whether appellate counsel’s performance was deficient. The result was the requirement that the Tenth Circuit review de novo Milton’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, rather than deferring to the OCCA’s resolution of that claim.

In applying the two-pronged Strickland test, the Tenth Circuit agreed with Milton that Milton’s appellate counsel clearly performed deficiently in failing to promptly and meaningfully convey to Milton the existence of a plea offer made by the prosecution at some point prior to the October 30, 2007 preliminary hearing. The focus then turned to the second prong of the Strickland analysis, i.e., whether Milton was prejudiced by his appellate counsel’s deficient performance. The court concluded there was conflicting evidence in the record regarding the precise nature of the plea offer that was purportedly made by the prosecution prior to the October 30, 2007 preliminary hearing. The court concluded there was a reasonable probability that, had Milton’s appellate counsel raised on direct appeal the issue of whether trial counsel failed to inform Milton of the pre-preliminary hearing plea bargain, Milton would have prevailed on this issue in his direct appeal.

The Tenth Circuit held that Mr. Milton was entitled to a federal evidentiary hearing to resolve the disputed factual issues relating to his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim, since disputed issues of fact existed that precluded the court from completing its de novo review of Milton’s ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim.

The Tenth Circuit REVERSED and REMANDED to the district court with directions to conduct an evidentiary hearing on, and to subsequently review on the merits, Milton’s ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim.

Tenth Circuit: Postconviction Discovery Motion Does Not Toll Statute of Limitations for Filing Certificate of Appealability Application

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Woodward v. Clline on Friday, September 7, 2012.

In 1991, applicant David Woodward pleaded guilty in Kansas state court to kidnapping, two counts of sexual exploitation of a child, rape, indecent liberties with a child, and felony murder. In 1994, he filed a motion requesting DNA testing for the purpose of his exoneration. It was unclear to the Court whether that motion was ever ruled upon. After filing various motions in state court in the intervening years, in 2011, Woodward filed in federal district court a certificate of appealability (COA) application alleging the COA one-year statute of limitations had not run because no court had ever ruled on his motion requesting DNA testing from 1994. Because the Tenth Circuit held that a postconviction discovery motion does not toll the limitations period for filing a COA § 2254 application, the Court denied the application for a COA and dismissed the appeal.