Landers v. Mitchem et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Chief Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn on 3/27/2013. (KAM, )
2013 Mar-27 PM 02:55
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CHRISTOPHER TAFT LANDERS,
BILLY MITCHEM, Warden; LUTHER
STRANGE, Attorney General of
CASE NO. 5:10-CV-0755-HGD
This cause is now before the court on Objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and
Recommendation, filed by the respondents, Billy Mitchem and Luther Strange.1 (Doc. 9.)2
In his Petition, (doc. 1), petitioner Christopher Taft Landers, contends that his guilty plea
should be set aside because he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically,
Landers contends that his counsel misinformed him about the number of years he would have
to serve before he would be eligible for parole. The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and
Recommendation, which recommends that this case be referred to the Magistrate Judge for
the purpose of “conduct[ing] an evidentiary hearing on petitioner’s claim that his guilty plea
The Petition was originally filed against Troy King as Attorney General of Alabama.
Luther Strange took office as Alabama’s Attorney General in January 2011. Therefore, he
is substituted for Troy King pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d).
Reference to a document number, [“Doc. ___”], refers to the number assigned to each
document as it is filed in the court’s record.
was involuntary and induced by ineffective assistance of counsel, after which a supplemental
report and recommendation will be entered.” (Doc. 8 at 22.) Respondents filed Objections
to the Report and Recommendation. (Doc. 9.) Upon consideration of the Objections, the
Report and Recommendation, as well as the court’s record, the court finds that the Objections
are sustained, that the Report and Recommendation Petition is rejected, and that the Petition
is due to be denied.
I. THE SCOPE OF FEDERAL HABEAS REVIEW
“The writ of habeas corpus stands as a safeguard against imprisonment of those held
in violation of the law.” Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S. Ct. 770, 780 (2011).
“Judges must be vigilant and independent in reviewing petitions for the writ, a commitment
that entails substantial judicial resources. Those resources are diminished and misspent,
however, and confidence in the writ and the law it vindicates undermined, if there is judicial
disregard for the sound and established principles that inform its proper issuance.” Id. “The
statutory authority of federal courts to issue habeas corpus relief for persons in state custody
is provided by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death
Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).” Id. at 783.
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), a federal district court is prohibited from entertaining
“[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus [on] behalf of a person in custody pursuant to
the judgment of a State court” unless the petitioner alleges “he is in custody in violation of
the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” In other words, this court’s review
of habeas claims is limited to federal constitutional questions. Claims pertaining solely to
questions of state law fall outside the parameters of this court’s authority to provide relief
under § 2254. Thus, unless otherwise expressly stated, use of the word ‘claim’ in this
opinion presupposes a claim of federal constitutional proportion.
When Congress enacted the AEDPA, it limited the circumstances under which a
habeas petitioner could obtain relief. Indeed, under the AEDPA, a petitioner is entitled to
relief on a federal claim only if he shows that the state court’s adjudication of his claim on
the merits “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable
application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,” or that
the state court’s adjudication “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); see also Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005); Miller-El v.
Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 240 (2005); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404 (2000); Putman
v. Head, 268 F.3d 1223, 1241 (11th Cir. 2001). “Moreover, a state court’s factual
determinations are presumed correct unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.”
McNair v. Campbell, 416 F.3d 1291, 1297 (11th Cir. 2005)(citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)).3
“[A] federal court must take into account [the deferential standards prescribed by § 2254(d)]
The Supreme Court has declined to address explicitly whether a state court’s finding
of fact should be reviewed under § 2254(d)(2), for reasonableness in light of the evidence
in the state court’s record, or under the more deferential standard of § 2254(e)(1)
presumption of correctness unless rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. See Wood v.
Allen, 130 S. Ct. 841, 849 (2010).
in deciding whether an evidentiary hearing is appropriate.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S. Ct.
1388, 1399 (2011)(quoting Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 474 (2007)(internal
quotations omitted). “[T]his means that when the state-court record precludes habeas relief
under the limitations of § 2254(d), a district court is not required to hold an evidentiary
hearing.” Id. (quoting Schriro, 550 U.S. at 474)(internal quotations omitted). Also, “[i]f a
claim has been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, a federal habeas petition must
overcome the limitation of [§ 2254(d)(2)] on the record that was before the state court,” and
“evidence introduced in federal court has no bearing on [§ 2254(d)(2)] review.” Id. at 1400
Section 2254(d) requires that “any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State
court proceedings” be accorded deference in the federal courts. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).
As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete
bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings.
It preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility
fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts with
[the Supreme] Court’s precedents. It goes no farther. 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. As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal
court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being
presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error
well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for
The reasons for this approach are familiar. Federal habeas review of
state convictions frustrates both the States’ sovereign power to punish
offenders and their good-faith attempts to honor constitutional rights. It
disturbs the State’s significant interest in repose for concluded litigation,
denies society the right to punish some admitted offenders, and intrudes on
state sovereignty to a degree matched by few exercises of federal judicial
Section 2254(d) is part of the basic structure of federal habeas
jurisdiction, designed to confirm that state courts are the principal forum for
asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions.
Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 786-87 (internal citations and quotations omitted). Therefore, the
question is not whether the state court “correctly” decided an issue of fact, but whether its
determination was “reasonable,” even if incorrect. See Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694
(2002). “A state court’s determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief
so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court’s decision.”
Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 786 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
In ruling on petitioner’s state-court petition for post-conviction relief, the state court
found that the performance of petitioner’s trial counsel, John Mays, did not fall outside the
range of competence demanded of attorneys in criminal cases. Specifically, without the
benefit of oral testimony and considering conflicting affidavits, the state court found, “as a
matter of fact[,] that [Mays] correctly advised [Landers] regarding the minimum amount of
time he would have to serve if sentenced to a term of eighteen (18) years upon conviction for
sodomy in the first degree, that is, that he would have to serve at least eighty-five (85)
percent of his sentence.” (Doc. 5-1 at 6.) The state court noted it had “personal knowledge
of the proceedings and of counsel’s significant experience representing criminal defendants
who are charged with sexually based offenses.” (Id. at 12.) Also, it noted that it “may elect
to make findings of fact on disputed issues based upon affidavits submitted by parties where,
as in this case, the claims of a Rule 32 petitioner are fully set out in a sworn petition and are
supported by sworn affidavit[s], and the State’s motion to dismiss the petition is supported
by a sworn affidavit joining the issues.” (Id. at 6 n.1.) This decision was affirmed by the
Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and writ of certiorari to the Alabama Supreme Court
The Magistrate Judge noted that Landers’s claim fell within § 2254(d)(2), which
provides for habeas relief when the claim is adjudicated on the merits in the state courts and
the proceedings in the state courts “resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. (See doc. 8 at 17 [citing 28
U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2)].) The Magistrate Judge determined that the state court’s finding – that
Mays had informed Landers that he would be required to serve 85% of his sentence before
he was eligible for parole – is unreasonable based on the fact that only affidavits were
considered. (See id. 14-15.)
The Magistrate Judge concluded that an evidentiary hearing, pursuant to § 2254(e),
is required to determine whether petitioner’s counsel actually informed him of the
The Alabama Supreme Court granted Landers’s original petition for writ of certiorari
and reversed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals that had dismissed Landers’s
appeal as untimely. Ex parte Landers, 53 So. 2d 877, 878 (Ala. 2009). According to the
Supreme Court’s Reporter of Decisions, “On October 2, 2009, on remand from the Alabama
Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, without opinion. On October 30,
2009, that court denied rehearing, without opinion. On February 12, 2010, the Supreme
Court denied certiorari review, without opinion (1090182).” Id. at 878 n.*.
consequences of his guilty plea; he found the state procedure “was not adequate to afford a
full and fair hearing and the merits of the factual dispute were not fairly resolved in the state
hearing.” (Id. at 22.) The court has found no case holding that Alabama’s procedure of
allowing for credibility determinations in post-conviction proceedings to be based on a paper
record, see Ala. R. Crim. P. 32.9(d), violates petitioner’s constitutional rights. Frankly, the
court expected to find some caselaw discussing the issue of whether a habeas petitioner has
the right to confront and to challenge his trial counsel’s sworn affidavit testimony during
post-conviction proceedings raising claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. However,
no such precedent for claims arising under the AEDPA was found.5
The Magistrate Judge cites to cases predating the AEDPA and to a former section of
2254. (See doc. 8 at 16-17 [citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2); Smith v. Zant, 887 F.2d 1407,
1433 n. 15 (11th Cir. 1989)(en banc)(Kravitch, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part);
Agee v. White, 809 F.2d 1487, 1494 n.3 (11th Cir. 1987)].) Indeed, prior to the AEDPA, a
federal court could hold an evidentiary hearing if the petitioner did not get a “full and fair
hearing.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1995).6
However, in a case under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, this court held, ““[T]he acumen gained
by a trial judge over the courts of the proceedings [makes him] well qualified to rule on the
basis of affidavits without a hearing.” Snoddy v. United States, Nos. 2:08-CV-8044-JHHPWG, 2:07-cr-0069-JHH-PWG, 2012 WL 1745591, *7 (N.D. Ala. Apr. 20, 2012)(quoting
United States v. Schlei, 122 F.3d 944, 994 (11th Cir. 1997)(quoting United States v.
Hamilton, 559 F.2d 1370, 1373–74 (5th Cir.1977)))(Greene, M.J.).
The prior version of § 2254(d)(2) stated:
(d) In any proceeding instituted in a Federal court by an application for a writ
Without some caselaw to suggest otherwise, the court finds that not all reasonable
of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State
court, a determination after a hearing on the merits of a factual issue, made by
a State court of competent jurisdiction in a proceeding to which the applicant
for the writ and the State or an officer or agent thereof were parties, evidenced
by a written finding, written opinion, or other reliable and adequate written
indicia, shall be presumed to be correct, unless the applicant shall establish or
it shall otherwise appear . . . –
(2) that the factfinding procedure employed by the State court was not
adequate to afford a full and fair hearing;
And in an evidentiary hearing in the proceeding in the Federal court, when due
proof of such factual determination has been made, unless the existence of . .
. the circumstances respectively set forth in paragraph[ ] numbered [(2)] is
shown by the applicant [or] otherwise appears . . ., the burden shall rest upon
the applicant to establish by convincing evidence that the factual determination
by the State court was erroneous.
28 U.S.C.A. § 2254(d)(1995). In the AEDPA, this subsection was redesignated subsection
in subsec. (e), as so redesignated, substituted provisions establishing
presumption of correctness of issues determined by State courts unless
rebutted by the applicant by clear and convincing evidence, and limiting the
requirement of holding evidentiary hearings, in cases where the applicant has
failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings, to
cases in which the claim relies on a new retroactive rule of constitutional law
or facts not previously discoverable through due diligence, for provisions
which had stated that a presumption of correctness existed unless the applicant
were to establish or it otherwise appeared or the respondent were to admit that
any of several enumerated factors applied to invalidate the State determination
or else that the factual determination by the State court was clearly erroneous.
28 U.S.C. § 2254, Historical and Statutory Notes – Senate Revision Amendments.
jurists would agree that a credibility choice between contradicting affidavits, made without
the benefit of oral testimony, was “an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the
evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2).
“[The] AEDPA sharply limits the circumstances in which a federal court may issue
a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner whose claim was “adjudicated on the merits in
State court proceedings.” Johnson v. Williams, 133 S. Ct. 1088, 1094 (2013)(citing 28
U.S.C. § 2254(d)). As set forth above, § 2254(d)(2) provides, “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 . . . (2) resulted in a decision that was based
on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2)(emphasis added). “[A] state-court factual
determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have
reached a different conclusion in the first instance.” Holsey v. Warden, Georgia Diagnostic
Prison, 694 F.3d 1230, 1260 (11th Cir. 2012)(quoting Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, _____,
130 S. Ct. 841, 849 (2010) “Instead, if some fairminded jurists could agree with the state
court’s decision, although others might disagree, the state court’s decision is not
unreasonable. To be unreasonable, the error in the state court’s finding must be so clear that
there is no possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Id. (quoting Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at
786-87; Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d 1335, 1346 (11th Cir. 2011)).
The state court’s factual finding – that Mays informed Landers of the correct
calculation of his date of eligibility for parole – does not meet this standard and, therefore,
this court does not find that the finding of fact is unreasonable based on the state court’s
The court notes Mays’s affidavit clearly and unequivocally states that he repeatedly
told Landers that Landers would have to serve 85% of his 18-year sentence if convicted of
the sodomy charges. (See doc. 5-1 at 47.) Although Landers, his mother, and his step-father
submitted affidavits that contradicted Mays’s sworn statement, (see doc. 5-1 at 28-29, 54-57),
such contradictory evidence does not demonstrate that the state court’s finding of fact, which
is clearly supported by Mays’s affidavit testimony, was unreasonable, even if that fact, in
light of Landers’s evidence, is debatable. See Wood, 130 S. Ct. at 850.
Without a showing that the state court’s finding of fact regarding Mays’s statements
to Landers before he entered his guilty plea is unreasonable, petitioner cannot establish his
ineffective of assistance of counsel claim. In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984),
the United States Supreme Court has established a national standard for judging the
effectiveness of criminal defense counsel under the Sixth Amendment. “The benchmark for
judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether counsel’s conduct so undermined the
proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied upon as having
produced a just result.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 686.
A convicted defendant’s claim that counsel’s assistance was so
defective as to require reversal of a conviction or death sentence has two
components. First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was
deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that
counsel was not functioning as the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the
Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient
performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel’s
errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose
result is reliable.
Id. at 687. “[T]he two-part Strickland v. Washington test applies to challenges to guilty pleas
based on ineffective assistance of counsel.” Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1384
(2012)(quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58 (1985)).
However, because Landers has not shown that the state court’s finding that Mays gave
him the correct information regarding his eligibility for parole was an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceedings,
Landers cannot establish that Mays “made errors so serious that [he] was not functioning as
the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” See id.
Based on the foregoing, the court finds Landers’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus,
(doc. 1), is due to be denied without an evidentiary hearing. Therefore, Respondents’
Objections to the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation, (doc. 9), are
SUSTAINED, and the court REJECTS the Report and Recommendation.
An Order denying Landers’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, (doc. 1), will be
entered contemporaneously with this Memorandum Opinion.
DONE, this 27th day of March, 2013.
SHARON LOVELACE BLACKBURN
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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