Morrison v. Ghraham et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Paul W. Grimm on 9/21/2016. (c/m 09/22/2016 jf3s, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
VICTOR JAN MORRISON, #358-798,
Civil Action No. PWG-15-2972
RICHARD GRAHAM, JR., et al.,
Petitioner Victor Jan Morrison, a prisoner housed at the Western Correctional Institution,
filed a motion seeking habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C.S 2254 on September 30, 2015.
Pet., ECF NO.1. Morrison claims that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing
to communicate the Sate's plea offers and ensure that he understood them. Id. at 9-10; Pet'r's
Resp. 2, 4, ECF NO.8.
After reviewing the parties' submissions,
See Loc. R. 105(6); 28 U.S.C. S 2254(e)(2).
I find no need for an
For the reasons set forth
herein, the petition shall be dismissed and a certificate of appealability shall not be issued.
Procedural and Factual History
On July 19, 2009, Morrison turned himself in to the authorities for a robbery that
occurred at a Wachovia Bank in Ellicott City, Maryland the previous day. Md. Ct. Spec. App.
Op. 1-2, ECF No. 5-2. Morrison was subsequently charged in the Circuit Court for Howard
County with robbery, second-degree assault, and theft. Cir. Ct. Howard Cnty., Md. Docket 3,
ECF No. 5_1.1
Following a court order for a competency evaluation, Morrison was found
competent and ultimately criminally responsible.
Id. at 5-6; Competency Hr'g Tr. 4:21-5:5,
ECF No. 7-1. A jury convicted Morrison of robbery and theft of over $500. Cir. Ct. Howard
Cnty. Docket 2-3. Morrison was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Answer 4, ECF No.
Morrison appealed, and on March 28, 2011, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals
affirmed the conviction.
Md. Ct. Spec. App. Op. 6. Morrison did not seek further review in the
Maryland Court of Appeals, and, thus, his judgment became final on April 12, 2011, when the
time for seeking such review expired. Answer 5; see also Md. Rule 8-302.
Shortly thereafter, Morrison filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the Circuit Court
for Howard County claiming, among other things, that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing
to communicate the Sate's plea offers to him and ensure that he understood them.
Conviction Relief 5, ECF No. 7-6; Cir. Ct. Howard Cnty. Docket 9. Following a hearing, the
Circuit Court issued a decision on April 2, 2014 granting Morrison a belated panel review of his
sentence before a three-judge
panel, but otherwise denying post-conviction
Conviction Mem. Op. 16, ECF No. 7-7.
Morrison filed an application for leave to appeal the denial of his ineffective of counsel
claim. Appl. Leave Appeal, ECF No. 7-8.
On February 15,2015, the Court of Special Appeals
denied Morrison's application and issued a mandate the following month. Md. Ct. Spec. App.
Mandate, ECF No. 5-3.
Page numbers for citation to the Circuit Court for Howard Count Docket refer to the CM/ECF
As best as I can discern, Morrison's request for habeas relief reasserts his claim that that
trial counsel was ineffective for failing to communicate the plea offers to him. Pet. 9-10; Pet'r's
Resp. 2,4. For the reasons discussed below, Morrison is not entitled to relief.
I previously determined that the petition was filed within the one-year limitations period
set forth in 28 U.S.c.
ECF NO.6. Further, Morrison no longer has any state direct
review available to him with respect to the claim presented. See Answer 8. Thus, his claims are
exhausted for the purpose of federal habeas corpus review. See 28 U.S.c.
Standard of Review
Morrison's ineffective assistance of counsel claim will be analyzed under the statutory
framework of the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.c.
which sets forth a "highly deferential
standard for evaluating state-court rulings." Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320,333 n.7 (1997); see
also Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 455 (2005).
The standard is "difficult to meet," Cullen v.
Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 180 (2011) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011)),
and requires courts to "give state-court deCisions the benefit of the doubt," id. (quoting Woodford
v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19,24 (2002)).
A federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus unless the state's adjudication on
the merits: (1) "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," or (2) "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."
A state adjudication is contrary to clearly established federal law under
where the state court (1) "arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court
on a question of law," or (2) "confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant
Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [the Supreme Court]."
Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000).
Under the "unreasonable
2254(d)(1), 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, 562 U.S. at 101 (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). "[A]
federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because [it] concludes in its independent
judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied established federal law erroneously or
Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 411).
"Rather, that application must be 'objectively unreasonable.'"
ld. (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at
Further, under 9 2254(d)(2) "a state-court factual determination" is not unreasonable
merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first
Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301 (2010). "[E]ven if reasonable minds reviewing the
record might disagree about the finding in question," a federal habeas court may not conclude
that the state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination
marks and citation
of the facts.
determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct," and the
petitioner bears "the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing
"Where the state court conducted an evidentiary hearing and
explained its reasoning with some care, it should be particularly difficult to establish clear and
convincing evidence of error on the state court's part." Sharpe v. Bell, 593 F.3d 372, 378 (4th
This is especially true where state courts have "resolved
issues like witness
credibility, which are 'factual determinations' for purposes ofSec~ion 2254(e)(1)." Id.at 379.
When a petitioner alleges an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, he must show both
(1) "that counsel's
prejudiced his defense."
and (2) that "the deficient
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).
presumption of adequacy attaches to counsel's conduct, so strong in fact that a petitioner alleging
ineffective assistance of counsel must show that the proceeding was rendered fundamentally
unfair by counsel's affirmative omissions or errors. Id. at 696. "[C]ounsel should be 'strongly
presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise
of reasonable professional judgment,'
and the burden to 'show that counsel's performance was
deficient' rests squarely on the petitioner.
Burt v. Titlow, 134 S. Ct. 10, 17 (2013) (quoting
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687,690).
A showing of prejudice requires that (1) "counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive
the defendant of a fair trial whose result is reliable," and (2) that "there is a reasonable
probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceedings would have
been different." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, 694-95.
[of an ineffective
assistance claim] must be whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of
the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result." Id. at
686. It is not enough "to show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the
Id. at 693.
A court need. not address both Strickland prongs if the defendant
furnishes sufficient evidence regarding one prong to defeat the claim. 466 U.S. at 697.
The Supreme Court has held that the Strickland standard applies in the context of plea
Lajjler v. Cooper, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1384-85 (2012); Padilla v. Kentucky, 559
U.S. 356, 373 (2009); Hi/lv. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52,58 (1985); see also McMann v. Richardson,
397 U.S. 759, 771 (1970).
In order to establish deficient performance
must show that counsel's
reasonableness with respect to plea negotiations.
in this context, a
fell below an objective
Lafler, 132 S. Ct. at 1384. In Missouri v.
Frye, 132 S. Ct. 1399 (2012), the Court further emphasized that defining "the duty and
responsibilities of defense counsel in the plea bargain process" is "a difficult question" because
"[b ]argaining is, by its nature, defined to a substantial degree by personal style" and [t]he
alternative courses and tactics in negotiation are so individual that it may be neither prudent nor
practicable to try to elaborate or define detailed standards for the proper discharge of defense
counsel's participation in the process."
ld. at 1408. But the Court did announce a "general
rule" that defense counsel must "communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a
plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the accused." ld.
At the post-conviction
hearing, Morrison testified that his trial counsel, Mary Pizzo
verbally communicated a plea offer of a ten-year sentence. Post-Conviction Hr'g Tr. 10:8-13,
ECF No. 12-1. He further testified that he did not immediately accept the plea deal because he
had additional questions about the details of the offer and because he wished to see the deal in
writing, as he had when accepting plea deals in prior cases. ld. 11:1-16. When, according to
Morrison, he received no answers to his questions or a written copy of the plea agreement, he
assumed that the trial judge had rejected the plea agreement and that he had no choice but to
proceed to trial. ld. 11:14-12: 1. By contrast, Pizzo testified that she presented Morrison with a
written plea offer of a fifteen-year sentence with all but nine years suspended and also
communicated an oral commitment from the prosecuting attorney that the State would be
amenable to a flat ten-year sentence. ld. at 56:17-57:2,60:8-61:17;
see also Post-Conviction
Mem. Op. 17 n.5 (noting that the written plea offer was admitted into evidence at the postconviction hearing).
Pizzo further testified that Morrison was "fairly noncommunicative"
when she discussed the plea offers with him and "didn't give [her] feedback," which led her to
file a notice of possible incompetency with the trial court. Post-Conviction Hr'g Tr. 62:4-16.
Morrison was found competent.ld.
at 62: 17-22; Competency Hr'g Tr. 4:21-5:5.
testified that between the competency evaluation and the trial she met repeatedly with Morrison
and urged him to accept the plea in view of what she deemed to be a strong case against him.
ld. at 54:1-55:4,
But she recalled no
instance in which Morrisson definitively expressed a desire to accept a plea or to obtain the
State's ten-year offer in writing. ld. at 71:20-72:10,75:4-12.
Rather, her recollection was that
Morrison, though "ambivalent" about whether to accept a plea or proceed to trial, "finally just
said he wanted a trial." ld. 69:11-19.
Because Morrison and Rizzo offered divergent accounts of their plea offers discussions,
Morrison's ineffective assistance of counsel claim largely turns on a credibility assessment of
these two witnesses. The state post-conviction court squarely rejected Morrison's claim that trial
counsel was ineffective for her communication with Morrison regarding plea negotiations.
court deemed the trial counsel's testimony "credible" and found that she had
"fully discussed the State's plea offers [with] the Petitioner at least three times prior to the
motions hearing and prior to the jury trial."
Mem. Op. 10-11.
further found that Morrison "knowingly refused to accept the State's plea offer" and that "it
was not incompetent legal advice, but [Morrison's] own independent decision, that lead [sic] to
State's offer and the sentence later imposed by the Court." ld. Because the
court "conducted an evidentiary hearing and explained its reasoning with
some care," Morrison has failed to meet his burden under 28 ~ 2254(e)(1) of establishing "clear
and convincing evidence" that the post-conviction court's factual determinations were incorrect.
See Sharpe, 593 F.3d at 378.
Accepting as true state trial court's factual determinations, this case does not run afoul of
the standards enunciated in Lafler or Frye. Trial counsel testified that she notified Morrison of
the terms of the State's plea offer and counseled Morrison on his options with respect to
electing a plea or to stand trial. Post-Conviction
Mem. Op. 9. And the post-conviction court
concluded that Morrison made a knowing and voluntary decision to reject the State's plea offer.
ld. at 10. The court's determination that Morrison did not receive ineffective assistance of
counsel was therefore a reasonable application of Strickland and its progeny. Thus, Morrison has
provided no basis for relief under 28 U.S.C.
The instant petition for habeas corpus relief will be denied and this case dismissed by a
separate order. When a district court dismisses a habeas petition, a certificate of appealability
may issue "only if the applicant has made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional
A petitioner satisfies this standard by demonstrating
reasonable jurists would find the district court's assessment of the constitutional claims debatable
Tennard v. Dretke, 542 U.S. 274, 282 (2004) (quoting Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S.
473, 484 (2000)), or that "the issues presented were 'adequate to deserve encouragement to
proceed further,' " Miller-el v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 335-36 (2003) (quoting Barefoot v.
Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 893 nA (1983)). Morrison does not satisfy this standard, and I decline to
issue a certificate of appealability.
A separate order follows.
Paul . Grimm
United States District Judge
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