Williams v. Thomas
MEMORANDUM OPINION ADOPTING and ACCEPTING 12 Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. Signed by Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins on 2/6/2017. (JLC)
2017 Feb-06 AM 11:30
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
JEFFERSON S. DUNN1, Commissioner,
Alabama Department of Corrections,
This is a habeas corpus case filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 by Petitioner
Donderrious Williams, an Alabama state prisoner. (Doc.2 1). Williams is serving a
sentence of life without parole following his conviction for capital murder.
Represented by counsel, Williams has raised habeas claims alleging that his Fifth
Petitioner’s pleadings name as the sole respondent Kim T. Thomas, in his official
capacity as the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. (Docs. 1 & 3).
However, since those filings, Thomas has been replaced by Jefferson S. Dunn. See http://www.
doc.state.al.us/ExecutiveBios.aspx; http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/01/Alabama_ prison
_commissioner_ki.html. The Clerk is hereby DIRECTED to substitute Dunn for Thomas as the
respondent on the docket sheet. See FED. R. CIV. P. 25(d). By so doing, the court is not purporting
to determine whether the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections is, in fact,
the proper respondent. See generally Rule 2(a), RULES GOVERNING § 2254 HABEAS CASES; 28
U.S.C. § 2243; Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 542 U.S. 426, 435-36 (2004).
Citations herein to “Doc(s). ___” are to the document number(s) of the pleadings,
motions, and other materials in the court file, as compiled and designated on the docket sheet by
the Clerk of the Court. Unless otherwise noted, pinpoint citations are to the page of the
electronically filed document in the court’s CM/ECF system, which may not correspond to
pagination on the original “hard copy” of the document presented for filing.
Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated and that his appointed trial
counsel rendered ineffective assistance, in violation of the Sixth Amendment. (Doc.
3). On November 7, 2016, the magistrate judge to whom the case was referred entered
a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), recommending that
Williams’s habeas petition be denied. (Doc. 12 (“R&R”)). On December 29, 2016,
Williams filed objections to the R&R. (Doc. 20).
Williams’s objections to the R&R relate specifically to the magistrate judge’s
recommendation to reject his Fifth Amendment claim, which is founded on Edwards
v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981). In Edwards, the United States Supreme Court
recognized that once “an accused has invoked his right [under Miranda v. Arizona,
384 U.S. 436 (1966),] to have counsel present during custodial interrogation ... [he] is
not subject to further interrogation by the authorities until counsel has been made
available to him unless the accused himself reinitiates further communication,
exchanges, or conversations with police.” 451 U.S. at 484-85. On direct appeal,
Williams claimed that an incriminating statement he made to police had been admitted
at trial in violation of Edwards because it was elicited some two weeks after an initial
interrogation in which he had allegedly asked for a lawyer. However, the Alabama
Supreme Court rejected that claim, concluding that, assuming that Williams had
unequivocally asked for a lawyer in his initial interrogation, he had reinitiated contact
with police, based on findings by the trial judge that, while in custody, Williams had
told members of his family he wanted to talk further with police and that those family
members then relayed that message to the detective in charge. See Ex parte Williams,
31 So. 3d 670, 683 (Ala. 2009) (per curiam plurality opinion joined by Woodall,
Stuart, Smith, and Parker, JJ.); id. (Cobb, C.J., and Lyons, J., concurring in the result
without opinion); id. at 684-85 (Bolin, J., concurring specially). In so holding, the
Alabama Supreme Court expressly acknowledged that Edwards did not specifically
address whether a defendant might reinitiate communication with police through a
third party, as the trial court had found to have occurred in Williams’s case. Id. at
679-80 (per curiam plurality opinion). Nevertheless, the Court concluded that such
indirect reinitiation may render a defendant’s subsequent statement constitutionally
admissible, relying primarily upon the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Van Hook v.
Anderson, 488 F.3d 411 (6th Cir. 2007) (en banc), as well as a host of other lower
federal appellate decisions also holding to that effect. See Ex parte Edwards, 31 So.
3d at 679-83 (per curiam plurality opinion) (citing and discussing Van Hook, supra,
and citing Owens v. Bowersox, 290 F.3d 960 (8th Cir. 2002); United States v.
Michaud, 268 F.3d 728 (9th Cir. 2001); Whitehead v. Cowan, 263 F.3d 708 (7th Cir.
2001); Holman v. Kemna, 212 F.3d 413 (8th Cir. 2000); United States v. Gonzalez,
183 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 1999), overruled on other grounds, United States v. Farese,
248 F.3d 1056 (11th Cir. 2001); United States v. Rodriguez, 993 F.2d 1170 (5th Cir.
1993); United States v. Gaddy, 894 F.2d 1307 (11th Cir. 1990); and Harvell v. State,
275 Ga. 562 S.E.2d 180 (Ga. 2002)); see also Ex parte Edwards, 31 So. 3d at 684-85
(Bolin, J.) (agreeing that Van Hook lays out the proper standard for evaluating
whether the accused has validly reinitiated contact with police).
Having lost on his Edwards claim in the Alabama state courts, Williams pressed
it again in this court as a ground for federal habeas relief. In recommending that the
claim should be denied, the magistrate judge relied upon 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which
provides in relevant part that a state prisoner’s habeas petition “shall not be granted
with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in the State court
proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim ... resulted in a decision that was
contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal
law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,” 28 U.S.C. §
2254(d)(1). (R&R at 17-19, 21). That is, the magistrate judge found that the Alabama
Supreme Court’s conclusion that an accused may initiate further interrogation with
police through a third party was neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application
of, clearly established Supreme Court precedent, including Edwards. (R&R at 21-22).
That is “plain,” the magistrate judge explained, insofar as (1) the Supreme Court has
never faced an Edwards claim in a factual setting raising the third-party reinitiation
issue and (2) numerous other courts, including the United States Court of Appeals for
the Eleventh Circuit, have read Edwards as authorizing the admission of statements
following renewed contact with the police by the accused through communications
with a third party. (Id.)
The thrust of Williams’s objections to the R&R is that the magistrate judge
erred in concluding that § 2254(d)(1) precludes habeas relief on his Edwards claim.
Williams insists that because the Edwards opinion itself states that, once an accused
has requested counsel, questioning must cease “unless the accused himself initiates
further communication, exchanges, or conversations with the police,” 451 U.S. at 485
(emphasis added), its “holding is very clear” that it “forecloses ... an indirect
reinitiation of questioning.” (Doc. 20 at 2). This court disagrees.
“[C]learly established Federal law under § 2254(d)(1) is the governing legal
principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court
renders its decision.” Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71-72 (2003) (quotation
omitted). “It includes only ‘the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme]
Court’s decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.’” Jones v.
Secretary, Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 834 F.3d 1299, 1311 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting
Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 71 (quotation omitted)). “A state-court decision is contrary to
[the Supreme] Court’s clearly established precedents if it applies a rule that
contradicts the governing law set forth in our cases, or if it confronts a set of facts that
is materially indistinguishable from a decision of this Court but reaches a different
result.” Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529
U.S. 362, 405 (2000); Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002) (per curiam)). “A
state-court decision involves an unreasonable application of [the Supreme] Court’s
clearly established precedents if the state court applies [the Supreme] Court’s
precedents to the facts in an objectively unreasonable manner.” Id. (citing Williams,
529 U.S. at 405; Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-25 (2002)). In other words, “a
state prisoner must show that the challenged state-court ruling rested on ‘an error well
understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded
disagreement.’” Netrish v. Lancaster, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 133 S. Ct. 1781, 1787 (2013)
(quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)); see also Loggins v. Thomas,
654 F.3d 1204, 1220 (11th Cir. 2011) (“[I]f some fairminded jurists could agree with
the state court’s decision, although others might disagree, federal habeas relief must
It is undisputed that neither Edwards nor any other United States Supreme
Court case decided to this point has involved a claim that the accused might have
initiated further questioning by expressing to a third party that he desired to talk again
with the police. Thus, no Supreme Court decision holds that only direct
communications between a suspect and a law enforcement official may be deemed to
reinitiate questioning for purposes of Edwards. And despite Williams’s insistence that
“the Edwards jurisprudence” is “very clear” that it “forecloses an indirect reinitiation
of questioning” (Doc. 20 at 2), conspicuously absent from his objections is a citation
to any case so holding. On the other hand, as noted by both the Alabama Supreme
Court and the magistrate judge, numerous federal courts of appeals have held that an
accused’s communications conveyed to police through a third party may authorize
renewed questioning under Edwards so as to render a subsequent statement
admissible. (R&R at 22); Ex parte Williams, 31 So. 3d at 680 (citing cases). And
significantly, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is among
that group. See Gonzalez, 183 F.3d at 1324; United States v. Gaddy, 894 F.2d at 131012; and United States v. Valdes-Fiallo, 213 F. App’x 957, 962 (11th Cir. 2007).
Williams responds by maintaining that it is “beside the point” that those courts
have held that Edwards does not preclude reinitiated contact through a third party
“because none of those cases have obtained the imprimatur of or any endorsement
from the Supreme Court.” (Doc. 20 at 4). “For purposes of § 2254(d)(1),” Williams
maintains, “Van Hook and the other third-party initiation cases cannot extend or
modify Edwards.” (Id. at 5 (footnote omitted)). Rather, he says, “[o]nly a Supreme
Court opinion can do that for purposes of the AEDPA inquiry.” (Id.) Williams further
contends that all of these non-Supreme Court decisions “have taken liberties with
Edwards” and “have extended [it] in improvident” and “ill-advised” ways. (Id. at 4).
As such, he claims, those decisions themselves amount to “an unreasonable
application of Edwards” for purposes of § 2254(d)(1). (Doc. 20 at 4). These
arguments, however, are not persuasive.
To start with, Williams seems to be operating under the assumption that this
court might grant habeas relief unless the Alabama Supreme Court’s conclusion that
an accused may be deemed to renew contact with the police for purposes of Edwards
through third-party communication is directly supported by clearly established
Supreme Court precedent. That is wrong, of course. Rather, review under § 2254(d)(1)
is essentially the reverse, i.e., habeas relief is unavailable unless the state court
decision conflicts with, or is objectively unreasonable in light of, clearly established
Supreme Court precedent. In other words, if Supreme Court precedent on the point of
Federal law in question is non-existent, vague, ambiguous, or otherwise uncertain, the
benefit of the doubt goes to the state court’s disposition, not to the habeas petitioner.
See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (recognizing that § 2254(d)
imposes a “highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which
demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt” (quoting
Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted)); see also Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102–03 (“Section 2254(d)
reflects the view that habeas corpus is a ‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the
state criminal justice systems,’ not a substitute for ordinary error correction through
appeal.” (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n. 5 (1979) (Stevens, J.,
concurring in judgment))).
Williams is also incorrect to suggest that non-Supreme-Court decisions can
have no role to play in determining whether a state-court decision is contrary to, or
involves an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law under §
2254(d)(1). It is true that only decisions of the Supreme Court can give rise to “clearly
established Federal law” for purposes of the statute. See Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766,
778-79 (2010). Thus, habeas relief may not be granted on the ground that a state
court’s resolution conflicts only with decisions of the Federal courts of appeals. Id.;
Johnson v. Williams, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 133 S. Ct. 1088, 1098 (2013). Also, the fact
that the state court’s resolution is in accord with one or more other, non-SupremeCourt decisions does not itself preclude a determination that the state court’s decision
is contrary to, or involves an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent.
See Williams, 529 U.S. at 409-10 (“The federal habeas court should not transform the
inquiry into a subjective one by resting its determination ... on the simple fact that at
least one of the Nation’s jurists has applied the relevant federal law in the same
manner the state court did in the habeas petitioner’s case.”). Nevertheless, decisions of
courts other than the Supreme Court may be persuasive or instructive as it relates to
determining what constitutes a reasonable application of Supreme Court precedent.
See Meriwether v. Chatman, 292 F. App’x 806, 822 n. 7 (11th Cir. 2008); Serrano v.
Fischer, 412 F.3d 292, 299 n. 3 (2d Cir. 2005); Bruce v. Terhune, 376 F.3d 950, 954
(9th Cir. 2004); Williams v. Bowersox, 340 F.3d 667, 671 (8th Cir. 2003); Grant v.
Warden, Maine State Prison, 616 F.3d 72, 79 n. 5 (1st Cir. 2010); Chadwick v.
Janecka, 312 F.3d 597, 613 (3d Cir. 2002). And to that end, the fact that numerous
non-Supreme Court decisions, even if not binding on this court, have interpreted
Edwards as authorizing renewed questioning following a third-party communication
tends to support that the Alabama Supreme Court’s like determination is neither
contrary to, nor involves an unreasonable application of, Supreme Court precedent,
including Edwards itself.
And more importantly, Williams is wrong insofar as he seems to assume that
this court may ignore Eleventh Circuit precedent holding that an accused may trigger
renewed questioning based on third-party communications. Generally speaking, of
course, this court must follow published holdings of the Eleventh Circuit. McGinley v.
Houston, 361 F.3d 1328, 1331 (11th Cir. 2004); Johnson v. DeSoto Cty. Bd. of
Comm’rs, 72 F.3d 1556, 1559 n. 2 (11th Cir. 1996). In fact, this court must do so even
if it might believe that an Eleventh Circuit decision did not properly apply an earlierdecided Supreme Court case. See Smith v. GTE Corp., 236 F.3d 1292, 1302-04 (11th
Cir. 2001). But because only Supreme Court decisions can constitute “clearly
established Federal law” under § 2254(d)(1), an Eleventh Circuit “decision favorable
to a habeas petition cannot clearly establish that a state court decision of a federal
constitutional is contrary to or an unreasonable application of federal law....” Evans v.
Secretary, Fla. DOC, 699 F.3d 1249, 1266 (11th Cir. 2012) (emphasis added). On the
other hand, it is also clear that Eleventh Circuit “decisions that are unfavorable to a
habeas petitioner can defeat his claim under § 2254(d)(1).” Id., 699 F.3d at 1267 n. 11
(emphasis added). Our court of appeals has explained:
If we have rejected a materially identical claim in a published opinion,
that means it is the law of the circuit that the claim has no merit, and if
the claim has no merit a state court’s rejection of it cannot be “contrary
to, or involv[e] an unreasonable application of, clearly established
Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” 28 U.S.C. §
2254(d)(1). Otherwise, we would not have rejected the claim ourselves.
This Court sitting en banc or the Supreme Court can, of course, overrule
our decisions but until that happens we are bound to follow our own
published decisions to the extent that they are inconsistent with a habeas
petitioner’s claim that a contrary position is “clearly established Federal
law” within the meaning of § 2254(d)(1).
Id.; see also Serrano, 412 F.3d 292, 299 n. 3 (2d Cir. 2005) (“[N]othing in AEDPA
authorizes this Court to ignore its own precedents in determining what constitutes a ‘[
]reasonable application’ of Supreme Court law under § 2254(d)(1)”); see also, e.g.,
Henness v. Bagley, 644 F.3d 308, 320 (6th Cir. 2011) (relying on prior circuit
precedent concluding that Edwards did not prohibit renewed police contact through a
third party to hold that the state-court ruling to that same effect under habeas review
passed muster under § 2254(d)(1)).
Again, published Eleventh Circuit decisions have held that a defendant may be
deemed to have reinitiated questioning under Edwards based upon a communication
he made to a third party indicating that he wanted to speak further with police about
his case. See Gonzalez, 183 F.3d at 1324; Gaddy, 894 F.2d at 1310-12. So as far as the
law of this circuit is concerned, that interpretation of Edwards cannot be deemed
unreasonable for purposes of § 2254(d)(1).3 See Evans, 699 F.3d at 1267 n. 11. It
simply does no good for Williams to cast those decisions so “extending” Edwards as
“unreasonable,” “improvident,” or “ill-advised.” The court concludes, therefore, that
Both Gonzalez and Gaddy were decided on direct appeal from convictions in federal
district court. In that procedural posture, the Eleventh Circuit reviews purely legal issues de novo,
affording no deference to lower court’s conclusion. See United States v. Chirinos, 112 F.3d 1089,
1102 (11th Cir. 1997); United States v. Alexander, 835 F.2d 1406, 1408 (11th Cir. 1988). Thus,
neither Gonzalez nor Gaddy employed habeas review standards, including those imposed by §
2254(d)(1). Even so, the Eleventh Circuit’s analysis in both cases necessarily implies that
admission of the statements at issue was not contrary to, nor involved an unreasonable
application of, Edwards or Supreme Court precedent because the standard of § 2254(d)(1) is
more deferential to the ruling under review. See Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370, 389
(2010) (“The state court’s decision rejecting Thompkins’s Miranda claim was thus correct under
de novo review and therefore necessarily reasonable under the more deferential AEDPA standard
of review, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).”); Holland v. Rivard, 800 F.3d 224, 237 (6th Cir. 2015) (given
that habeas petitioner’s Edwards claim failed “even under a de novo review,” “[a] fortiori, ... it
was not unreasonable for the state court to determine that the Edwards protections ... did not
the Alabama Supreme Court’s like holding here, sanctioning the validity of renewed
questioning based on a communication through a third party, is neither contrary to,
nor involves an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court
precedent, including Edwards itself.
Having carefully reviewed and considered de novo all the materials in the court
file, including the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation and the petitioner’s
objections thereto, the court is of the opinion that the magistrate judge’s findings are
due to be and are hereby ADOPTED and his recommendation is ACCEPTED.
Petitioner’s objections are OVERRULED. The petition for a writ of habeas corpus is
due to be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Further, the court concludes that the
petition does not present issues that are debatable among jurists of reason, so a
certificate of appealability is also due to be DENIED. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c); Slack
v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484-85 (2000); Rule 11(a), Rules Governing § 2254
Proceedings. A separate Final Order will be entered.
DONE this 6th day of February, 2017.
VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS
United States District Judge
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