Wallace Willingham v. Tony Parker
OPINION filed : AFFIRMED, decision not for publication. Eugene E. Siler , Jr., Circuit Judge; Raymond M. Kethledge, Authoring Circuit Judge and Michael H. Watson, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Ohio, sitting by designation.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 14a0541n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
HENRY STEWARD, Warden,
Jul 22, 2014
DEBORAH S. HUNT, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT
COURT FOR THE MIDDLE
DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
Before: SILER and KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judges; WATSON, District Judge.*
KETHLEDGE, Circuit Judge.
A Tennessee jury convicted Wallace Willingham of
possession of cocaine. He appeals the district court’s denial of his petition for a writ of habeas
corpus attacking that conviction. We affirm.
While executing a search warrant, police found cocaine in Willingham’s house.
Consequently, the State charged him with possession of cocaine. Initially, Willingham was
represented by a public defender. During that representation, Willingham turned down a plea
offer of six years in prison, which the State later withdrew. Willingham then decided to hire
Keith Peterson to replace the public defender. Willingham says that Peterson failed to mention
two facts before trial: first, that Willingham could face 30 years in prison as a career offender if
convicted; and second, that the State had made a nine-year plea offer.
Peterson says he
The Honorable Michael H. Watson, Judge for the Southern District of Ohio, sitting by
Willingham v. Parker
mentioned both facts to Willingham, or at least it was his habit and practice to convey such
information to his clients.
In any event, the State eventually withdrew the nine-year offer and notified Willingham
that it would seek the career-offender sentence upon a conviction. The State made one last plea
offer of 20 years, which Willingham turned down. At trial, a jury convicted Willingham of
possession of more than half a gram of cocaine. The trial court sentenced him to the 30-year
career-offender sentence. Willingham appealed and sought state post-conviction relief to no
effect. He then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which the district court denied. The
court did grant Willingham a certificate of appealability, however, which brings us to this appeal.
Willingham claims that Peterson was constitutionally ineffective for failing to inform him
about the potential career-offender sentence and the nine-year plea offer. Had he known both
facts, Willingham says, he would have taken the nine-year offer.
As an initial matter, the State says that any ineffectiveness as to the nine-year offer is
beyond the certificate of appealability—in which case, we may not review it. Moreland v.
Bradshaw, 699 F.3d 908, 919 (6th Cir. 2012). The district court granted Willingham a certificate
of appealability on his “claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on sentencing issues.”
The State says that the nine-year offer is not a sentencing issue. But in the district court (as here)
Willingham’s ineffective-assistance claim rested upon both of Peterson’s putative failures
together. The district court did nothing to demarcate the two putative failures when it rejected
the claim. And the most important part of a plea offer—for the defendant, at least—is the
sentence. The nine-year plea offer falls within the capacious heading “sentencing issues.”
Hence we turn to the merits of Willingham’s ineffectiveness claim. Ineffective assistance
requires deficient performance and prejudice. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687
Willingham v. Parker
Here, the state court’s rejection of Willingham’s claim turned on the factual
determination that Peterson had indeed told Willingham about the potential career-offender
sentence and the nine-year offer—in which case, no ineffective assistance. Under AEDPA, we
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2).
But we presume the opposite; and Willingham must rebut that
presumption by clear and convincing evidence. Benge v. Johnson, 474 F.3d 236, 241 (6th
To that end, Willingham testified that he and Peterson did not discuss the nine-year offer
at all. Willingham also testified that he and Peterson did not discuss the career-offender sentence
until after the State had notified Willingham that it planned to seek that sentence—at which
point, it was too late since the nine-year offer was gone. Peterson, for his part, did not recall too
many specifics of the case, and his files had been seized during an arrest. But he did testify that
he and Willingham discussed the career-offender sentence at the outset of representation, and the
nine-year plea offer when it came.
He then clarified that he did not recall the specific
discussions, but that it was his “habit and practice” in every case to discuss the defendant’s
sentencing exposure at the outset of representation and any plea offers as they came. Since it is
Willingham’s word against Peterson’s, we have no basis to say the state court’s factual
determination was unreasonable.
Willingham offers two responses. First, he cites Peterson’s admission that he filed a
faulty motion for a new trial, which stated that Willingham had been convicted of second-degree
murder instead of possession of cocaine. Willingham says that this admission proves that
Peterson did not follow his “habit and practice” in this case. But the state court could have
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reasonably concluded that an unrelated mistake does not prove a complete failure to follow one’s
“habit and practice.”
Second, Willingham attacks Peterson’s credibility.
After representing Willingham,
Peterson abandoned his law practice, was disbarred, and later arrested. But Willingham must
overcome the “great deference” we give to state-court credibility determinations. Howell v.
Hodge, 710 F.3d 381, 386 (6th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). And the details
Willingham marshals in that effort—besides the mere facts of disbarment and arrest—were not
before the state court, and are thus beyond our review now. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S. Ct.
1388, 1398 (2011). A state court can reasonably credit a witness who has been disbarred, or
even arrested; indeed, courts and juries credit the testimony of felons every day. Willingham’s
attack on Peterson’s credibility therefore fails.
The district court’s judgment is affirmed.
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