Cook v. Cook
MEMORANDUM OPINION OF THE COURT. Signed by Chief Judge Kevin H. Sharp on 1/3/2017. (xc:Pro se party by regular and certified mail.)(DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(eh)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
DARREN SETTLES, Acting Warden,
Case No. 3:16-cv-1850
Judge Kevin H. Sharp
This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
The petitioner is serving a term of 70 years imprisonment imposed by the Sumner County
Criminal Court on August 8, 2013, pursuant to a plea agreement. The respondent has filed an
answer to the petition (ECF No. 17) stating that the petition should be denied because the claims
raised therein are procedurally defaulted, do not comply with pleading requirements, are not
cognizable in federal habeas proceedings and are without merit.
The matter is ripe for review and the court has jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. § 2241(d). The
respondent does not dispute that the petition is timely. (ECF No. 17 at Page ID# 54.) The
respondent states that the petition at issue here appears to be the petitioner’s first application for
federal habeas relief. (Id.)
Because a federal court must presume the correctness of a state court’s factual findings
unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption with ‘clear and convincing evidence,” 28 U.S.C. §
2254(e)(1), and because the issues presented can be resolved with reference to the state-court
record, the court finds that an evidentiary hearing is not necessary. See Schriro v. Landrigan,
550 U.S. 464, 474 (2007) (holding that if the record refutes a petitioner’s factual allegations or
otherwise precludes habeas relief, the district court is not required to hold an evidentiary hearing
(citing Totten v. Merkle, 137 F.3d 1172, 1176 (9th Cir. 1998))). Upon review and applying the
AEDPA standards, the court finds that the petitioner is not entitled to relief on the grounds
asserted. Accordingly, the petition will be denied and this matter dismissed.
The state prosecution arose from the petitioner’s sexual abuse of his two children, aged 3
and 5 years old, in August and September, 2012. On December 6, 2012, the petitioner was
indicted by the Sumner County Grand Jury and charged with 50 counts of especially aggravated
sexual exploitation of a minor; 11 counts of rape of a child; 17 counts of aggravated rape of a
child and 5 counts of aggravated sexual battery. (ECF No. 18-2 at Page ID## 113-196.) On
August 8, 2013, pursuant to a plea agreement entered into between the parties, the petitioner
pleaded guilty to 50 counts of especially aggravated exploitation of a minor, 10 counts of rape of
a child, and 17 counts of aggravated rape of a child in exchange for an effective sentence of 70
years. (Id. at Page ID## 197-260, ECF No. 18-3 at Page ID## 263-75.) That same day, the trial
court imposed sentence pursuant to the plea agreement. (Id.)
On November 20, 2013, the petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief, alleging
that his plea had not been voluntary and knowing, and that he was denied the effective assistance
of counsel. (ECF No. 18-3 at Page ID## 276-87.) The post-conviction court appointed counsel,
but no amended petition was filed. (Id. at Page ID## 289-90; 291-92.) The court conducted an
evidentiary hearing on March 7, 2014, and thereafter, denied relief. (Id. at Page ID# 297; ECF
No. 18-4.) The petitioner appealed to the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals (“TCCA”),
which affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief. (ECF No. 18-9; see also Cook v. State, No.
M2014-00616-CCA-R3-PC; 2015 WL 2445868, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. May 22, 2015) (“Cook
I”).) The petitioner filed an application for permission to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme
Court, which was denied on August 12, 2015.
On August 24, 2015, the petitioner filed a petition for the writ of habeas corpus in the
Sumner County Criminal Court, (ECF No. 18-12 at Page ID## 513-16), which was denied on
August 20, 2015 (ECF No. 18-12 at Page ID## 519-20). The petitioner appealed to the TCCA,
which denied relief on March 8, 2016. (ECF No. 18-15; see also Cook v. Cook, No. M201501886-CCA-R3-HC, 2016 WL 877852, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 8, 2016) (“Cook II”).) The
petitioner filed an application for permission to the appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court,
which was denied on June 23, 2016. (Id.)
STATEMENT OF FACTS
At the plea hearing, the State set forth the factual basis for the petitioner’s plea,
describing the evidence as follows:
On September 6th, 2012, the Hendersonville Police Department received a
report of a burglary at the co[-]defendant’s residence, Ashley Wright’s
residence, in Hendersonville. They reported to that burglary - - it became
clear relatively quickly that it was not a burglary. There were some items
missing including a camera, a computer, and some other electronic items.
However, there was no sign of a forced entry. As this became clear, Ms.
Wright pulled Detective Harris aside and told him that she had something
that she needed to tell him.
She then proceeded to disclose to Detective Harris that the defendant had
been having extensive sexual contact with his three- and five-year-old
children, his three-year-old daughter and his five-year-old son, that she had
personally observed this, that he had taken pictures of that behavior and that
he had posted that sexual activity - - that she believed he had posted some
of that, those pictures, online on a Russian child pornography website.
Some of the items that were missing were the camera that he used to take
those pictures as well as the computer, the laptop computer that he had used
to allegedly upload those images to the internet.
Pretty much right away the Hendersonville Police Department made
arrangements to have the children interviewed, and that was done the next
day. Both the three-year-old and the five-year-old disclosed numerous - due to their ages, they couldn’t pinpoint how many occasions, but it became
clear from the interview, their forensic interviews, that this behavior, the
sexual activity with their father had been going on for quite some time and
involved sexual penetration, digital penetration, oral sex and slight penilevaginal penetration and penile-anal penetration. In addition, they were
encouraged to engage in sexual activity with each other, including penilevaginal intercourse and oral sex with each other.
Upon interviewing the defendant, the defendant did not make any real
admissions during his interview after the forensic interviews were done.
However, he was arrested at that point. A few days later when his car was
impounded or taken - - repossessed by the company that had sold it to Mr.
Cook, Ms. Wright was called to come get her personal items out of there,
and there was an SD card that fit in the camera that was found in the car. In
addition, the camera that we believe was used to take the photographs that
are part of this offense was found and had been pawned by Mr. Cook
shortly before he was arrested.
A forensic examination of that SD card was done and hundreds - - well,
probably about 60 to 70 sexually explicit images were found. We have
charged 50 counts because some of them were close. They were taken over,
I think, two or three separate dates. Most of the counts in this case came
from specific incidents that we tied to the images on the card.
These images involved fondling by the children of the defendant’s genitals.
It involved pictures of the defendant engaging again in penile-vaginal or
penile-anal penetration with both of the children. It involved sexual activity
between the children, and quite frankly, Your Honor, I don’t think I will
ever not - - ever be able to forget the things that I saw in those images, and
I’m sure Detective Harris can tell you the same thing. I think that basically
sums up what the proof was.
* * *
Ms. Wright did give a detailed statement in which she laid out the number
of occasions and the dates that she saw the defendant engage in sexual
activity with his children. The children were, as I stated, three and five at
the time of the offenses. That is the basis for the aggravated rape of a child
and rape of a child.
(ECF No. 18-1 at Page ID## 86-89.)
ISSUES PRESENTED FOR REVIEW
In his pro se petition, the petitioner raises the following grounds for relief:
A. Whether the petitioner’s guilty plea was knowing and voluntary
B. Whether trial counsel was ineffective
C. Whether the petitioner’s Due Process rights were violated
(ECF No. 1 at Page ID ## 5-8.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
This matter is governed by the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death
Penalty Act, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (“AEDPA”). See Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S.
782, 792 (2001). AEDPA “dictates a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court
rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Bell v.
Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 455 (2005) (citations omitted); see Hardy v. Cross, 132 S. Ct. 490, 491
(2011); Felkner v. Jackson, 562 U.S. 594, 597 (2011). “AEDPA requires heightened respect for
state court factual and legal determinations.” Lundgren v. Mitchell, 440 F.3d 754, 762 (6th Cir.
2006). “State-court factual findings . . . are presumed correct; the petitioner has the burden of
rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.” Davis v. Ayala, 135 S. Ct. 2187,
2199-2200 (2015) (citations and internal quotations omitted).
If a state court adjudicated the claim, deferential AEDPA standards must be applied. 28
U.S.C. § 2254(d); see Premo v. Moore, 562 U.S. 115, 121 (2011); Waddington v. Sarausad, 555
U.S. 179, 190 (2009). AEDPA prevents federal habeas “retrials” and “ensure[s] that state-court
convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693
(2002). It prohibits “using federal habeas corpus review as a vehicle to second-guess the
reasonable decisions of state courts.” Parker v. Matthews, 132 S. Ct. 2148, 2149 (2012).
The AEDPA limits the source of law to cases decided by the United States Supreme
Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This Court may consider only the “clearly established” holdings,
and not the dicta, of the Supreme Court. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Bailey v.
Mitchell, 271 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir. 2001). In determining whether federal law is clearly
established, this court may not rely on the decisions of lower federal courts. Lopez v, Smith, 135
S. Ct.1, 4 (2014); Harris v. Stovall, 212 F.3d 940, 943-44 (6th Cir. 2000). Moreover, “clearly
established Federal law” does not include decisions of the Supreme Court announced after the
last adjudication of the merits in state court. Greene v. Fisher, 132 S. Ct. 38, 44 (2011). Thus,
the inquiry is limited to an examination of the legal landscape as it would have appeared to the
Tennessee state courts in light of Supreme Court precedent at the time of the state-court
adjudication on the merits. Miller v. Stovall, 742 F.3d 642, 644-45 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing
Greene, 132 S. Ct. at 44).
The AEDPA standard is difficult to meet “because it was meant to be.” Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011); see Burt v. Titlow, 134 S. Ct. 10, 16 (2013); Metrish v.
Lancaster, 133 S. Ct. 1781, 1786 (2013); Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011).
Indeed. “habeas corpus is a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice
systems, not a substitute for ordinary error corrections through appeal.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at
102-03 (citation and internal quotation omitted); see Woods v. Donald, 135 S. Ct. 1372, 1376
Under AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d):
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—
(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
Davis v. Ayala, 135 S. Ct. at 2198; see also White v. Wheeler, 136 S. Ct. 456, 460 (2015)
(explaining that the Supreme Court, “time and again, has instructed that AEDPA, by setting forth
necessary predicates before state-court judgments may be set aside, ‘erects a formidable barrier
to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court.’)
(internal citation omitted).
A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the “contrary to” clause if the state court
applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in United States Supreme Court cases, or
if it decides a case differently than the United States Supreme Court has done on a set of
materially indistinguishable facts. Bell, 535 U.S. at 694 (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06).
The court may grant relief under the “unreasonable application” clause “if the state court
correctly identifies the governing legal principle from United States Supreme Court decisions but
unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular case. Id. A federal habeas court may not
find a state adjudication to be “unreasonable” “simply because that court concludes in its
independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal
law erroneously or incorrectly.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 411; accord Bell, 535 U.S. at 699.
Rather, the issue is whether the state court’s application of clearly established federal law is
Williams, 529 U.S. at 409.
“[R]elief is available under
§ 2254(d)(1)’s unreasonable-application clause if, and only if, it is so obvious that a clearly
established rule applies to a given set of facts that there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement’
on the question.” White v. Woodall, 134 S. Ct. 1697, 1706-07 (2014) (quoting Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)).
A. Involuntary Guilty Plea
The petitioner asserts that his guilty plea was not voluntary and intelligent based, at least
in part, on his claim that he needed medication and was told by his attorney that the only way to
get the medication was to plead guilty. Additionally, the petitioner asserts that the prosecutor
and trial counsel fabricated the evidence against him to obtain a guilty plea. The respondent
argues that the petitioner’s claim regarding fabricated evidence is procedurally defaulted because
it was not raised as an independent claim in state court, but only as part of an ineffectiveassistance-of-counsel claim, and that this claim fails to satisfy the pleading requirements set forth
in Habeas Rule 2(c) because the petitioner fails to discuss with specificity the evidence that was
allegedly fabricated. With respect to the petitioner’s claim that his plea was not voluntary or
intelligent, the respondent argues that this claim is meritless.
To the extent that the respondent argues that part of this claim is procedurally defaulted,
the court concludes that the procedural default issue raises more questions than the claim on the
merits, and thus, considers this claim on the merits. See Hudson v. Jones, 351 F.3d 212, 216 (6th
Cir. 2003) (citing Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997) (“Judicial economy might
counsel giving the [other] question priority, for example, if it were easily resolvable against the
habeas petitioner, whereas the procedural-bar issue involved complicated issues of state law.”),
See also 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2) (“An application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied on
the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the
courts of the State.”).
The test for determining a guilty plea’s validity is “‘whether the plea represents a
voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.’”
Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56 (1985) (quoting North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 31
(1970)). Courts assessing whether a defendant’s plea is valid look to “all of the relevant
circumstances surrounding it.” Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 749 (1970).
The defendant pleading guilty must be competent, see id. at 756, and must have notice of
the nature of the charges against him, see Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637, 645 n.13 (1976);
Smith v. O'Grady, 312 U.S. 329, 334 (1941). The plea must be entered “voluntarily,” i.e., not be
the product of “actual or threatened physical harm, or...mental coercion overbearing the will of
the defendant” or of state-induced emotions so intense that the defendant was rendered unable to
weigh rationally his options with the help of counsel. Brady, 397 U.S. at 750; Machibroda v.
United States, 368 U.S. 487, 493 (1962) (“A guilty plea, if induced by promises or threats which
deprive it of the character of a voluntary act, is void.”). The defendant must also understand the
consequences of his plea, including the nature of the constitutional protection he is waiving.
Henderson, 426 U.S. at 645 n.13; Brady, 397 U.S. at 755; Machibroda, 368 U.S. at 493 (“Out of
just consideration for persons accused of crime, courts are careful that a plea of guilty shall not
be accepted unless made voluntarily after proper advice and with full understanding of the
consequences.”) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Finally, the defendant must have
available the advice of competent counsel. Tollett, 411 U.S. at 267-68; Brady, 397 U.S. at 756;
McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 & n.14 (1970).
The petitioner raised this claim in his petition for post-conviction relief. After holding an
evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied relief.
On review, the TCCA summarized the
testimony presented at the petitioner’s post-conviction evidentiary hearing as follows:
At the post-conviction hearing, the petitioner testified that prior to the entry
of his guilty pleas, he was examined by the staff at Middle Tennessee
Mental Health Institute (MTMHI). When asked if he understood that the
examination was to determine his competency to stand trial, the petitioner
said, “I thought it was the same thing as when they were trying to see what
my diagnosis was.” The petitioner said that within one hour of his arrival at
the facility, he was beaten by six staff members and that when he informed
a doctor about the beating, the doctor told the petitioner that he deserved it.
The petitioner asserted that by the time he arrived at MTMHI, the doctors
had already formed an opinion of him based upon the evidence against him.
The petitioner said that during the forensic examination, the doctor
informed him that he was being tested for pedophilia.
The petitioner said that previously he had been diagnosed with
schizophrenia “in a therapeutic group home . . . and in a mental hospital.”
He informed employees of the Sumner County Jail that he needed
medication for schizophrenia and was told that he could not get the
medication until he was in prison. The petitioner also told his trial counsel
that he needed medication, and trial counsel said that it was not his
responsibility to insure the petitioner got medication and was able to assist
in his defense.
The petitioner acknowledged that at the guilty plea hearing, the trial court
asked if he was taking any medication that would affect him mentally and
that he advised the court he was taking Benadryl and Vistaril, an anxiety
medicine that did not affect his ability to understand the proceedings. He
complained, however, that the trial court did not ask if he needed any
additional medication. The petitioner said that without his medication for
schizophrenia, he was unable to comprehend what transpired at the guilty
plea hearing. The petitioner contended that he accepted the effective
seventy-year sentence in order to get his medication. The petitioner said
that he could not recall everything that happened at the hearing, explaining
that he occasionally experienced blackouts and that he thought he
experienced such a blackout during the hearing.
On cross-examination, the petitioner acknowledged that someone with
schizophrenia potentially could be competent to stand trial. He did not
recall being evaluated by Dr. Keith Caruso.
Upon questioning by the post-conviction court, the petitioner said that he
did not recall telling the trial court that he had some college education. The
petitioner said he was unsure at what point he blacked out during the plea
process. He maintained that he blacked out multiple times a day and that he
had suffered blackouts since he was a child.
The petitioner said that trial counsel visited him only two or three times.
Trial counsel did not show him evidence but told the petitioner that the
State had DNA evidence and incriminating photographs. The petitioner did
not recall trial counsel conveying the State’s offer of settlement or
discu[s]sing the potential sentences the petitioner faced. The petitioner also
did not remember abusing his children or taking explicit photographs of
them. He acknowledged that his signature was on the plea agreement but
stated that he did not recall signing the document.
Trial counsel testified that he visited the petitioner at least three times. He
never noticed the petitioner experiencing a blackout or seeming to be
unaware of his surroundings. The petitioner always seemed to understand
trial counsel’s questions and responded appropriately.
Trial counsel said that he gave the petitioner a copy of the discovery
materials and discussed the significant evidence the State had against him.
In particular, they discussed the photographs, the children’s forensic
interviews, and Wright’s statement.
Trial counsel said that the petitioner had been evaluated at MTMHI to
determine his competency to stand trial. Thereafter, trial counsel filed a
motion for a “separate, independent evaluation,” which was granted. Dr.
Keith Caruso performed the second evaluation but did not prepare a written
report of the results. Nevertheless, Dr. Caruso’s conclusions mirrored those
of MTMHI: the appellant had mental problems, he was competent to stand
trial, and he was malingering. The petitioner never indicated that he did not
recall either evaluation.
Trial counsel asserted that the petitioner never mentioned that he was
unable to function, that he was having mental issues, or that he could not
assist with his defense. The petitioner also did not inform counsel of his
need for medication. Trial counsel denied that the State had any DNA
evidence against the petitioner and asserted that he did not tell the petitioner
that such evidence existed.
Trial counsel informed the petitioner of the charges he was facing and the
potential sentences he faced if he went to trial and was convicted. Trial
counsel advised the petitioner that considering the evidence against him and
the lengthier sentence he faced if convicted at trial, trial counsel considered
the seventy-year sentence to be “reasonable.” The petitioner agreed to
plead guilty and accept a seventy-year sentence because he knew he would
spend the rest of his life in jail.
Trial counsel said that before the guilty plea hearing, he told the petitioner
to be respectful to the trial court and to tell the truth. Trial counsel also told
the petitioner to inform the court if he did not think counsel had represented
him properly. Trial counsel watched the petitioner as he responded to
questions during the guilty plea hearing but did not notice him “check out or
black out.” When asked if he pressured the petitioner to plead guilty, trial
counsel responded, “If I did, I was unaware of it.” Trial counsel said that he
had a good relationship with the petitioner.
On cross-examination, trial counsel said that he told the petitioner that the
State had overwhelming evidence against him. The petitioner never told
trial counsel that petitioner was having blackouts or that he needed
medication. The petitioner seemed to remember the events that led to his
charges and never claimed to have problems with his memory.
Nevertheless, trial counsel had concerns about the petitioner’s mental health
because “[t]he behavior he engaged in is not normal.” Trial counsel said
that when he read the petitioner’s post-conviction petition, he became “quite
angry because none of it seemed to be true or was true.”
Trial counsel said that he informed the petitioner of his right to trial but
advised against it. Nevertheless, he was surprised when the petitioner
accepted the plea agreement. Trial counsel said that on the day of the guilty
pleas, he spoke with the petitioner before and after the pleas. The petitioner
never gave an indication that he was not lucid or that he was having mental
health issues that day. Trial counsel fully discussed the plea agreement with
the petitioner prior to the entry of the guilty pleas.
Upon questioning by the post-conviction court, trial counsel said that he
was licensed to practice law in 1991 and that he was appointed to represent
the petitioner. Trial counsel said that he had never seen the petitioner “act
in the way that he did today on the witness stand in recalling events and
Trial counsel said that he advised the petitioner that if he were convicted at
trial, “the consequences would have been in the thousands of years.”
During trial counsel’s first meeting with the State, the prosecutor expressed
his intention to have the petitioner incarcerated for the rest of his life.
Nonetheless, trial counsel tried to negotiate a “palatable offer,” and they
eventually agreed upon an effective sentence of seventy years. When trial
counsel conveyed the offer to the petitioner, he accepted it the same day.
The petitioner actively participated in the discussion about the plea
agreement and asked whether the trial court could recommend that he be
housed in a special needs facility. Trial counsel said that he would ask for
the recommendation, which the trial court ultimately agreed to make.
Post-conviction counsel recalled the petitioner, and he accused trial counsel
of lying during his testimony. Petitioner again asserted that trial counsel
claimed the State had DNA evidence against him. He also complained that
the doctors at MTMHI were prejudiced because of the charges against him
and that they wanted “vengeance.”
The petitioner said that he wanted the post-conviction court to set aside his
guilty pleas. He said he wanted to testify at trial so that a jury could hear
the truth. When asked if he wanted a trial even if it would harm his
children, the petitioner said, “It would . . . do more harm to everyone if my
side is not heard. . . . Because I’m not heard and because—I didn’t do any
of this stuff . . . and it’s hurting my kids for me not being there anymore.
That’s psychologically damaging. I grew up without both my parents.”
On cross-examination, the petitioner again asserted that he did not abuse his
children. He stated that he had never seen the photographs the State had
and that he did not believe they existed.
When the post-conviction court asked the petitioner if he had informed trial
counsel of his innocence, the petitioner responded that he could not
At the end of the hearing, the post-conviction court denied relief, holding
that the petitioner’s trial counsel was not ineffective and that the petitioner’s
guilty pleas were knowingly and voluntarily entered.
(ECF No. 18-9 at Page ID## 485-88; Cook I, 2015 WL 2445868, at *1-4.)
Having thoroughly summarized what had transpired at the post-conviction evidentiary
hearing, the TCCA then considered petitioner’s claim that his plea was not voluntary and
intelligent, as follows:
Initially, we note that at the guilty plea hearing, the petitioner asserted that
he was not pressured or threatened into pleading guilty, that he understood
his pleas, and that he nevertheless wanted to plead guilty.
* * *
Further, at the end of the post-conviction hearing, the court said to the
[T]his is one of the most fantastic act displays I’ve ever seen in a
court of law, and I don’t believe you one bit, sir. You testified
today, put your hand on the Bible and [were] sworn to tell the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and there’s not
much that you said, sir, that I believe.
The post-conviction court stated that counsel’s representation was
‘admirable.’ The post-conviction court specifically accredited the testimony
of trial counsel, who asserted that he discussed the State’s evidence with the
petitioner, informed him of the charges he was facing, told him of the
potential sentences he faced if he were convicted at trial, and reviewed the
State’s plea offer with him.
The post-conviction [court] also found that
[the petitioner] never asked [trial counsel] about meds or
taking care of that. [Trial counsel] never mentioned the fact that
they had DNA. Every time he met with the [petitioner, they] got
along well. They never had a falling out. When taking 70 years in
this particular plea, . . . [the petitioner] knew he would spend the
rest of his life in jail. And [trial counsel] talked about the
negotiations and how the negotiations ended up at 70 years.
The [petitioner] never told [trial counsel] that he could not
recollect events. He went over all the overwhelming evidence with
the [petitioner]. There was never any indication of him blacking
out. There was never any indication of his not remembering
anything. He always gave answers. He always remembered
timeframes. And he never asked about helping to get any kind of
The court further found that the petitioner ‘did what [he] believed to be best
for [him] in this particular case.’ Based upon the foregoing, the postconviction court held that trial counsel was not ineffective and that the
petitioner’s guilty pleas were knowing and voluntary. The record does not
preponderate against the post-conviction court’s findings.
Cook I, 2015 WL 2445868, at *4-6.) Thus, the TCCA concluded that “the post-conviction court
did not err by denying the petition.”
The state court’s determination that the petitioner’s guilty plea was voluntary and
intelligent was patently reasonable. There is nothing in the record to support the petitioner’s
assertion that he pleaded guilty because his counsel told him it was the only way for him to
obtain medication nor is there any support for petitioner’s claim that the prosecutor and his
counsel fabricated evidence to obtain his guilty plea. To the contrary, the record before the state
court establishes that despite his protestations otherwise, the petitioner was competent, was fully
aware of the evidence against him, was fully aware of the nature and consequences of his plea,
and significantly, was given ample opportunity to inform the trial court of any questions,
concerns or confusion he might otherwise have about the proceedings, his counsel or the
consequences of his guilty plea.
The petitioner signed a written plea agreement, which he concede that he reviewed with
his counsel and understood. (ECF No. 18-1 at Page ID# 92.) At the plea hearing, the prosecutor
also read the agreement into the record. (Id. at Page ID## 84-86.) When asked by the trial court
at the plea hearing, the petitioner admitted that he was entering the guilty pleas of his “own free
will,” that nobody was forcing him to enter a guilty plea, and that he had not been made any
promises, other than those made part of the plea agreement, in order to obtain his guilty plea.
(Id. at Page ID# 92-93.) When asked by the trial court, the petitioner explained that he was on
Benadryl and Vistaril for his nerve, but that these medications had no effect on his understanding
or decision-making ability.
(Id. at Page ID# 93.)
Petitioner admitted that he knew the
consequences of his plea, that he understood that he would serve 70 years and that if he lived, he
would not be released until he was 97 or 98 years old, and that if he were released he would be
subject to supervision for the rest of his life. (Id. at Page ID## 95-96; see also Page ID# 101
(counsel stating, for the record, that he advised the petitioner that his “red date will be September
6, 2082, [and that he] did go over with [the petitioner] the lifetime supervision in the event that
he is released on parole,” and that counsel explained to the petitioner that he would be subject to
the “sexual directives.”) Petitioner had no questions about his sentence. (Id. at Page ID# 96.)
The petitioner affirmed that he was satisfied with his counsel’s performance and that his
counsel had gone over the elements, the punishment and the evidence of each crime to which he
was pleading guilty. (Id. at Page ID## 96-97.) The petitioner affirmed that he had all the
information that he needed to make the decision to plead guilty, that he was satisfied with the
services of his counsel, who he agreed had given him “good advice and good representation,”
and that “there [was not] anything that [the petitioner] wanted [his counsel] to do that he did not
do that was within his control as [the petitioner’s] attorney.” (Id.)
Additionally, the trial court noted for the record, “that I’ve observed Mr. Cook, that I
have spoken with Mr. Cook. He is responsive. He’s alert, well-oriented, level-headed. He
understands my questions and understands his agreement.” (Id. at Page ID # 93.) In response to
the trial courts inquiry, the petitioner’s attorney made clear that he believed that the petitioner
understood “what he is doing today and the ramification of what he’s doing.” (Id.)
The trial court went over the rights that the petitioner was giving up, including the right
to a jury trial, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right against selfincrimination, the right to representation at trial, and the right to appeal. (Id. at Page ID## 9798.) Additionally, the trial court cautioned the petitioner that, “[w]hen you leave here today,
there will be no appeal. Your sentence will be 70 years at 100 percent, and that will be
permanent.” (Id. at Page ID# 98.) The petitioner confirmed that he understood and that he had
no questions. (Id.)
Finally, the petitioner confirmed that he had heard the evidentiary basis for his guilty
pleas, as made part of the record by the prosecutor, and acknowledged his guilt with respect to
the fifty counts of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, the ten counts of rape of a child and
the seventeen counts of aggravated rape of a child. (Id. at Page ID# 99.)
In sum, considering “all relevant circumstances surrounding [the petitioner’s guilty
plea],” Brady, 397 U.S. at 749, the petitioner’s decision to plead guilty was voluntary and
intelligent, and was not the product of coercion or subterfuge. The state court, therefore, acted
reasonably in concluding that the petitioner knowingly and voluntarily pleaded guilty.
B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
The petitioner argues that his trial counsel was ineffective because he fabricated evidence
to induce the petitioner to plead guilty. The respondent argues that this claim is procedurally
defaulted. Because the procedural default issue raises more questions than the claim on the
merits, the Court, considers this claim on the merits. See Lambrix, 520 U.S. at 525.
The standard for analyzing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel is well known and
requires little explication under the circumstances present here.
To establish a claim of
ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must prove: (1) that counsel’s performance fell
below an objective standard of reasonableness; and (2) that counsel’s deficient performance
prejudiced the defendant resulting in an unreliable or fundamentally unfair outcome. Strickland
v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984).
The two-part Strickland test applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective
assistance of counsel. Hill, 474 U.S. at 58. The court applies the same standard articulated in
Strickland for determining whether counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of
However, in analyzing the prejudice prong, the focus is on whether
counsel’s constitutionally deficient performance affected the outcome of the plea process. “[I]n
order to satisfy the ‘prejudice’ requirement, the defendant must show that there is a reasonable
probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have
insisted on going to trial.” Id. at 59.
Because there is no support in the record for the petitioner’s claim that his trial counsel,
or anyone else, fabricated evidence, counsel could not have been ineffective.1 Consequently, the
state court decision denying relief was not objectively unreasonable and the petitioner’s second
ground for federal habeas relief must be denied.
C. Due Process Rights
In his final ground for habeas relief, the petitioner argues that his due process rights were
violated because the trial court failed to question him about the facts underlying his guilty plea.
The respondent argues that this claim is not cognizable on federal habeas. To the extent this
claim was raised before the state court it was rejected by the TCCA because it could not form the
basis of relief on state habeas. (ECF No. 18-, see also Cook II, 2016 WL 877852, at *2.)
The requirement that the court establish a factual basis for a guilty plea is a creature of
rule, not the federal Constitution. While states are free to adopt procedural rules requiring a
factual basis as Tennessee has done, see Tenn. R. Crim P. 11(b)(3), the federal Constitution does
not mandate that they do so. See Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 37-38 (1970); Roddy v. Black, 516 F.2d
1380, 1385 (6th Cir. 1975).
Indeed this claim is completely incredible given that petitioner did not even raise the
fabrication of photographs as an issue until nearly the end of the post-conviction evidentiary
hearing, after: (1) the petitioner and his trial counsel had been questioned by the petitioner’s
post-conviction counsel, the prosecutor and the court, (ECF No. 18-4, Page ID## 317-76); (2) the
petitioner had recounted his history of psychiatric problem, his incredulous history of frequent
daily black-outs and his inability to remember almost anything about his plea hearing, (Id. at
Page ID# 319-47); (3) the petitioner had explained repeatedly that he pleaded guilty and accepted
a 70 year sentence in order to get his psychiatric medication, (Id. at Page ID## 327, 335, 340341); (4) his post-conviction counsel asked him at least three times if he had anything else to tell
the court, (Id. at Page ID## 327, 330-331, 332); (5) the court asked him about the evidence that
he reviewed with his trial counsel, and specifically queried him about the photographs of his
children, (Id. at Page ID# 339, 342, 343); and (6) the court asked him if he had any complaint
about his trial counsel other than that trial counsel did not get him medication for his psychiatric
condition so that he could have better understood what was happening, (Id. at Page ID# 344).
Moreover, to the extent that the petitioner intends to suggest that his guilty plea was
obtained in violation of state law, his claim is not cognizable in this proceeding. “[A] federal
court may issue the writ to a state prisoner ‘only on the ground that he is in custody in violation
of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.’” Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. 1, 5
(2010) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a)). A habeas petition must “state facts that point to a ‘real
possibility of constitutional error.’ ” Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 75 n.7 (1977) (quoting
Advisory Committee Notes on Rule 4, Rules Governing Habeas Corpus Cases). The federal
courts have no power to intervene on the basis of a perceived error of state law. Wilson, 562
U.S. at 5; Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S. 74, 76 (2005); Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 67-68
(1991); Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 41 (1984).
Accordingly, Petitioner is not entitled to relief on this claim.
For the foregoing reasons, the habeas corpus petition will be denied and this matter
dismissed with prejudice.
The Court must issue or deny a certificate of appealability (“COA”) when it enters a final
order adverse to a § 2254 petitioner. Rule 11, Rules Gov’g § 2254 Cases. The petitioner may
not take an appeal unless a district court judge issues a COA. 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1); Fed. R.
App. P. 22(b)(1). A COA may issue only if the petitioner “has made a substantial showing of the
denial of a constitutional right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). A “substantial showing” is made when
the petitioner demonstrates that “’reasonable jurist could debate whether (or, for that matter,
agree that) the petition should have been resolved in a different matter or that the issues
presented were “adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further.’” Miller-El v. Cockrell,
537 U.S. 322, 336 (2003) (quoting Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484 (2000).)
In this case, the issues raised in the petition do not merit further review. Thus, the Court
will deny a COA. The petitioner may, however, seek a COA directly from the Sixth Circuit
Court of Appeals. Rule 11(a), Rules Gov’g § 2254 Cases.
An appropriate order is filed herewith.
KEVIN H. SHARP
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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