SHEIKH v. STATE OF MAINE
REPORT AND RECOMMENDED DECISION re 1 PETITION for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed by RAHMA SHEIKH. Objections to R&R due by 7/13/2017. By MAGISTRATE JUDGE JOHN C. NIVISON. (CWP)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MAINE
STATE OF MAINE,
RECOMMENDED DECISION ON 28 U.S.C. § 2254 PETITION
In this action, Petitioner Rahma Sheikh seeks relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254
from her commitment to the custody of the Commissioner of Health and Human Services,
following a charge of aggravated assault and a plea of not guilty/not criminally
responsible.1 (Petition, ECF No. 1; Attachment, ECF No. 1-3.) Petitioner argues it is
“impossible to know whether Petitioner entered a voluntary plea,” because the state court
did not employ certain procedural safeguards at the hearing. (Reply, ECF No. 11 at 2;
Petition at 5.) More specifically, Petitioner argues that because a state psychologist,
approximately one week before the plea, concluded Petitioner was only minimally
competent, and because competency can fluctuate between the time of a pre-hearing
evaluation and a hearing, due process requires an evaluation or assessment immediately
before the plea is entered to ensure the plea is knowing and voluntary. (Reply at 2.) The
State asks the Court to deny relief, and dismiss the petition. (Response, ECF No. 3.)
The petition was signed by Petitioner’s sister and legal guardian.
Following a review of the record, the petition, and the State’s response, I
recommend the Court grant the State’s request, and dismiss the petition.
FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Petitioner was indicted in October 2012 for aggravated assault (Class B),
17-A M.R.S. § 208(1)(B).
(State v. Sheikh, No. CUMCD-CR-2012-06014 Unified
Criminal Docket (Cumberland Cty., Oct. 5, 2012), Indictment, Docket Record at 2.)
The indictment alleged that Petitioner caused bodily injury by use of a knife. (Indictment.)
The court held a hearing on February 7, 2013, at which hearing the court found,
based on an undisputed forensic report dated February 1, 2013, that there was a factual
basis for a plea of not guilty/not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, and that
Petitioner was competent to enter the plea. (Hearing Tr. at 1, 3-4, 8-9.) The discussion
and colloquy included the following:2
THE COURT: It’s true, you don’t want a trial? You don’t want a jury trial?
You don’t want the right to contest the State’s charge?
THE DEFENDANT: Yeah.
THE COURT: All right. And so what I also have to find out – I’m assuming,
does anyone think I need – we need to do the full Rule 11 under these
circumstances? I’m assuming that all we need to do is make sure that
[counsel] has explained those rights – since no one’s contesting this, that
[counsel] has explained those rights, that Ms. Shelkh understands those
rights, and that she understands the implications of this plea, of the not
criminally responsible plea.
[COUNSEL]: I think that’s accurate.
The state court’s post-conviction order explains that the petitioner’s last name was spelled “Shelkh” in
some of the documents in the case, but that Petitioner spelled her name “Sheikh” at the post-conviction
hearing. (Sheikh v. State, No. CR-15-2497 Unified Criminal Docket (Cum. Cty, Sept. 16, 2015),
Post-conviction Order at 1 n.1.)
THE COURT: Okay. So, Ms. Shelkh, here’s all I have to tell you, is that,
and I know [counsel] has almost certainly already told you this, that by
pleading not criminally responsible and having that plea accepted without it
– by the Court, and with no objection from the State, the result will be you’ll
go back to Riverview –
THE DEFENDANT: Uh-huh.
THE COURT: -- Psychiatric Center.
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
THE COURT: And you – they will be keeping you there and offering
treatment and evaluation. And how long you will remain there is unclear; it
could be a substantial amount of time.
THE DEFENDANT: Okay.
THE COURT: Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes. Yes.
THE COURT: All right. And what will happen is that you’ll have some
various evaluations and they will be proposing various plans of treatment.
And at some point, if you disagree with them about what’s happening, you
can have a hearing.
THE DEFENDANT: Okay.
THE COURT: It won’t be in front of me. It’ll be in front of a judge up in
Augusta, but you’ll have a chance to have some hearing. You’ll have a
chance to come to court, but there is no guarantee when you’ll – when you’ll
get out or what will happen at such a court hearing. Do you understand all
THE DEFENDANT: Yes.
(Id. at 5-7.)
The court ordered Petitioner to be committed to the custody of the
Commissioner of Health and Human Services, pursuant to 15 M.R.S. § 103. (Commitment
Petitioner subsequently filed a motion to withdraw the plea; the court denied the
motion without prejudice after Petitioner filed a post-conviction petition. (Order, Docket
Record at 6.) In April 2015, Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction review in which
petition she argued the plea was not knowing and voluntary, and that counsel provided
ineffective assistance. (Sheikh v. State, No. CUMCD-CR-2015-02497 (Cumberland Cty.
Apr. 6, 2015), Petition at 2, Docket Record at 1.)
In August 2015, the court held an evidentiary hearing on the post-conviction
petition. (Post-conviction Tr. at 1, Docket Record at 1.) On September 16, 2015, the court
denied the petition. (Order at 5.) On Petitioner’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel,
the court credited counsel’s testimony that she correctly explained the ramifications of the
plea, “including the potentially indeterminate commitment;” the court concluded that
counsel did not provide ineffective assistance. (Id. at 2-3.)
On Petitioner’s challenge to the voluntariness of the plea, the court found that
Petitioner “did in fact possess the minimal skills associated with competency” when she
entered the plea. (Id. at 4.) The court based the finding on the competency evaluation
report, on a review of the transcript of the hearing, and on counsel’s testimony that
Petitioner “was engaged and medically compliant when she met with [counsel] in late
January and on the day of her plea.” (Id.)
The court also found that the plea was knowing and voluntary. (Id.) In support of
the finding, the court cited counsel’s testimony that Petitioner “was very averse to going
back to jail,” and that Petitioner believed commitment was in her best interest. (Id.) The
court further determined, based on counsel’s explanation of the plea to Petitioner, and
based on Petitioner’s statements at the hearing, that Petitioner “understood that her
commitment was indeterminate.” (Id.)
In October 2015, Petitioner requested discretionary review by the Law Court, solely
of the claim challenging the involuntariness of the plea; Petitioner asserted that she did not
wish to pursue the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on discretionary appeal.
(Sheikh v. State, No. Cum-15-501, Memorandum in Support of Certificate of Probable
Cause, Docket Record at 1.)
In her request for review by the Law Court, Petitioner argued that due to mental
illness and the effects on her cognition of injuries from a 2007 car accident, her mental
competency was subject to change, and therefore, the court should have employed
additional procedural safeguards to ensure a knowing and voluntary plea. (Memorandum
in Support of Certificate of Probable Cause.) Petitioner’s suggested procedural safeguards
included a meeting with counsel and the evaluating psychologist just before the plea, and
the presence of the evaluating psychologist during the competency hearing. (Id.)
In February 2016, the Law Court denied a certificate of probable cause. The Court
wrote: “After review of the record, the Court has determined that no further hearing or
other action is necessary to a fair disposition of the matter with regard to [Petitioner’s]
assertions.” (Order Denying Certificate of Probable Cause.) Petitioner subsequently
initiated this action.
Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a
state court may apply to a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus “only on the
ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United
Petitioner exhausted the claim in state court, pursuant to section 2254(b)(1)(A).
Relief may not be granted on a claim that has been fully adjudicated on the merits in state
court unless (1) the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable
application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the
United States,” pursuant to section 2254(d)(1); or (2) the decision “was based on an
unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court
proceeding,” pursuant to section 2254(d)(2).3 See Brumfield v. Cain, --- U.S. ---, ---,
135 S. Ct. 2269, 2276-77 (2015) (noting that a state court’s conclusion that the record
included “no evidence” on an issue was reviewed under section 2254(d)(2)).
Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) addresses claims that were adjudicated on the merits in state court and 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−
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
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.
Petitioner’s argument is pursuant to section 2254(d)(1), rather than section
2254(d)(2), as she does not argue the decision was based on an unreasonable determination
of specific facts at the hearing. Instead, Petitioner argues that as a matter of law, under the
circumstances of her case, the process should include additional safeguards to ensure her
plea is knowing and voluntary. (Petition at 5; Reply at 3.)
“It is settled that a federal habeas court may overturn a state court’s application of
federal law only if it is so erroneous that ‘there is no possibility fairminded jurists could
disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts with this Court’s precedents.’” Nevada v.
Jackson, --- U.S. ---, ---, 133 S.Ct. 1990, 1992 (2013) (quoting Harrington v. Richter,
562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011)). In Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437 (1992), the Supreme
Court held that “the Due Process Clause permits a State to require a defendant who alleges
incompetence to stand trial to bear the burden of proving so by a preponderance of the
evidence.” 505 U.S. at 439, 452-53. The Court noted that “‘[t]raditionally, due process
has required that only the most basic procedural safeguards be observed; more subtle
balancing of society’s interests against those of the accused ha[s] been left to the legislative
branch.’” 505 U.S. at 453 (quoting Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 210 (1977)).4
Regarding the substantive competency standard, which Petitioner does not contest, in Cooper v.
Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996), the Court noted: “The test for incompetence is . . . well settled.
A defendant may not be put to trial unless he ‘has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with
a reasonable degree of rational understanding . . . [and] a rational as well as factual understanding of the
proceedings against him.’” 517 U.S. at 354 (quoting Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960) (per
curiam)) (quotation marks omitted); see Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 396-97 (1993) (holding that a
single substantive standard governs both competence to stand trial and competence to plead guilty). “In a
competency hearing, the ‘emphasis is on [the defendant’s] capacity to consult with counsel and to
comprehend the proceedings, and . . . this is by no means the same test as those which determine criminal
responsibility at the time of the crime.’” Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 448 (1992) (quoting Pate v.
Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 388-89 (1966) (Harlan, J., dissenting)).
Petitioner has not cited and research has not revealed established Supreme Court
precedent at the time of the state court decision (or now) in support of Petitioner’s due
process argument. See Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 660-61 (2004) (“For
purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), clearly established law as determined by this Court
‘refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of this Court’s decisions as of the time of
the relevant state-court decision.’”) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412
(2000)). The case on which Petitioner relies, Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637 (1976),
does not address the issue. (Reply at 3-4.) Rather, in Henderson, the issue was “whether
a defendant may enter a voluntary plea of guilty to a charge of second-degree murder
without being informed that intent to cause the death of his victim was an element of the
offense.” Id. at 638. The Court, in concluding that the plea was involuntary, noted that the
trial court had determined that the element of intent had not been explained to the defendant
and cited the defendant’s “unusually low mental capacity” as a likely reason for counsel’s
failure to explain the element of intent to the defendant, and as a basis on which to conclude
that the lack of explanation was not harmless error. Id. at 647. The competency of the
defendant and the due process issue raised by Petitioner were not issues in Henderson.
In this case, the court’s reliance on the undisputed forensic report, observations of
Petitioner during the colloquy at the hearing, and counsel’s assurance that Petitioner did
not contest a finding of competency, was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of
the procedural due process standard set forth in Medina.5 See Rosenthal v. O’Brien,
Because in this case the Law Court did not provide the reasoning for its denial of a certificate of probable
cause, the final reasoned analysis of the state court, for purposes of review under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, is the
713 F.3d 676, 684 (1st Cir. 2013) (holding that a state court decision, on a motion for a
new trial, that the trial court reasonably decided not to hold a competency hearing
sua sponte, was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of federal law). Petitioner
is thus not entitled to relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).6
Based on the foregoing analysis, an evidentiary hearing is not warranted under
Rule 8 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases. I recommend the Court dismiss
Petitioner’s petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and that the Court deny a
certificate of appealability pursuant to Rule 11 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases
because there is no substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right within the
meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2).
A party may file objections to those specified portions of a magistrate
judge's report or proposed findings or recommended decisions entered
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) for which de novo review by the district
court is sought, together with a supporting memorandum, and request for oral
argument before the district judge, if any is sought, within fourteen (14) days
of being served with a copy thereof. A responsive memorandum and any
order of the Unified Criminal Docket on post-conviction review. “Where there has been one reasoned state
judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same
claim rest upon the same ground.” Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803-04 (1991); Hittson v. Chatman,
135 S. Ct. 2126 (2015) (Ginsburg, J., concurring in denial of certiorari).
Although Petitioner apparently does not claim that he is entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2),
such a claim would not have been successful in any event, because Petitioner alleges no facts that would
support a claim that the state court’s competency determination constituted an unreasonable determination
of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the hearing. See Rosenthal v. O’Brien, 713 F.3d 676, 684
n.4 (1st Cir. 2013) (“A finding of competency is treated as a purely factual matter.”) (citing Demosthenes
v. Baal, 495 U.S. 731, 735 (1990) (per curiam)) (citations omitted).
request for oral argument before the district judge shall be filed within
fourteen (14) days after the filing of the objection.
Failure to file a timely objection shall constitute a waiver of the right
to de novo review by the district court and to appeal the district court's
/s/ John C. Nivison
U.S. Magistrate Judge
Dated this 29th day of June, 2017.
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