Bruton v. Director, TDCJ-CID
ORDER OF DISMISSAL ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE, for 13 Report and Recommendation. ORDERED that Bruton's Objections (Dkt. 14) are OVERRULED. It is further ORDERED that the Petition for a Writ o f Habeas Relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1) is DISMISSED with prejudice. A certificate of appealability is DENIED. All motions by either party not previously ruled on are hereby DENIED. Signed by Judge Amos L. Mazzant, III on 4/13/2017. (kls, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
PETER CAIN BRUTON
CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:15CV473
ORDER OF DISMISSAL
The above-entitled and numbered civil action was referred to United States Magistrate
Judge Christine A. Nowak. The Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge (“the
Report”) (Dkt. 13), which contains proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the
disposition of such action, has been presented for consideration. The Report recommends that the
Court deny Bruton’s Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1),
dismiss the case with prejudice, and deny a certificate of appealability. Bruton has filed written
Objections (Dkt. 14). Having made a de novo review of the Objections, the Court concludes that
the findings and conclusions of the Magistrate Judge are correct and adopts the same as the findings
and conclusions of the Court.
Bruton was indicted and subsequently convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and
indecency with a child by sexual contact, pursuant to Texas law. Prior to trial, his lawyer made a
motion in limine intended to restrict the discussion of unindicted wrongful conduct in the jury’s
presence. The defense motion in limine requested, inter alia, that the trial court:
[ ]hold a hearing outside the presence of the jury and instruct the Attorney
for the State not to mention or allude to the following without said hearing:
Any extraneous offenses, crimes, wrongs or acts that the Defendant is
alleged to have engaged in either as a principal or a party, including but not
limited to those identified by the State in any response pursuant to Texas
Rule of Evidence 404(b) or Tex. Code of Crim. Proc. Art. 37.07[.]
Any prior convictions, if any, of the Defendant if the State intends to
introduce them either at the punishment phase [or for] impeachment
Any additional unindicted offenses involving the Defendant, if any, in this
Dkt. 10-1 at 121-22. As the Magistrate Judge observed in her Report:
[T]he trial court considered the parties’ arguments on the motion [in limine]. The
prosecutor indicated that “there [would] be a good number of extraneous offenses
involving the victim.” Dkt. 10-22 at 8. He further informed the court that “[t]here’s
other victims that we have evidence of, but we would certainly approach before we
mentioned that in any way, so I have no objection to a motion in limine as to other
victims. But we do intend on getting other instances of sexual abuse with this victim
that is not mentioned in the indictment.” Id. (emphasis added). Defense counsel
argued that the State should be required to obtain an admissibility ruling outside
the jury’s presence before introducing unindicted instances of sexual abuse with
either the victim in the case or with any other alleged victim. Id. The trial court
denied the defense motion in limine as to unindicted instances of sexual abuse with
the victim in the case. See id. However, the court granted the motion as to conduct
with “any other person other than the victim in this case.” Id.
Dkt. 13 at 7-8.
The case proceeded to trial and, during the State’s closing argument in the guilt phase, the
following exchange occurred:
[The prosecutor]: And it's crucial that you hold him accountable for his actions,
because if you don't, you're putting other children at risk. You simply are. I know
you don't want to hear that, but you are because of the way this man's mind works.
If you let him get away with it, it's going to progress. He has proven that. When he
got away with it before, it continued because no one stopped him. And if he's not
held accountable, it's going to continue. He's going to feel bullet proof. He's going
to know no one is going to believe these kids. I can do what I want. I can continue
this, and I can continue to get away with it. And this is not a habit that he can just
turn on and off. The way his mind is wired is different than yours—
[Defense counsel]: Objection, Your Honor. There's no evidence to support that
[The Court]: Sustained.
[Defense counsel]: Move to strike. Move to instruct the jury to disregard, Your
[The Court]: Ladies and gentlemen, you will disregard the last comment of counsel.
[Defense counsel]: And, Your Honor, I also move for a mistrial.
[The Court]: Denied.
Dkt. 10-25 at 16. In Bruton’s § 2254 Petition, he complains that this portion of the State’s closing
argument violated the defense motion in limine. See Dkt. 1 at 7; 1-1 at 5. Bruton further complains
that, though his defense counsel objected to the State’s closing argument, moved to strike, and
requested a mistrial based on lack of evidence to support the closing argument (See Dkt. 1 at 7; 11 at 5), counsel’s failure to lodge an objection or request a mistrial specifically based on the
purported violation of the motion in limine constituted ineffective assistance under Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S. Ct. 2052 (1984). 1 See Dkt. 1 at 7; 1-1 at 5-7.
Bruton asserted an identical claim in a state application for the writ of habeas corpus. See
Dkt. 10-31 at 9-10, 43-50. During the state habeas proceedings, the trial court entered the following
findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding Bruton’s ineffective assistance claim:
1. Applicant's trial counsel was not deficient in his performance by not objecting to
the complained of testimony for a violation of the motion in limine because it was
an objection that would not have been granted.
Strickland announced the well-settled two (2) prong standard for evaluating ineffective assistance of
counsel claims. Under this standard, reversal of a conviction is warranted only if a defendant shows: (1) counsel’s
performance was deficient; and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense so as to deprive the defendant
of a fair trial. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.
2. The objection made by Applicant's trial counsel could have presumably been trial
strategy and Applicant's trial counsel was therefore not deficient.
3. This Court would not have erred if it were to have denied Applicant's motion for
mistrial after granting an objection for a violation of the motion in limine if this
Court instructed the jury to disregard the objectionable portion of the State's closing
4. The remedy for a violation of the motion in limine lies with the trial court, and
the remedy of a curative instruction would have been sufficient.
5. The portion of the closing argument at controversy was not extremely prejudicial
and was not an incurable error.
6. Considering the circumstances in this case, there was not any harm that a curative
instruction did not cure.
7. The jury was instructed to disregard the State's objectionable statement and there
were no aggravating circumstances, therefore this case did not justify a mistrial.
8. Applicant has not shown that his counsel's performance prejudiced his defense.
The result of this proceeding would not have been different if Applicant's counsel
objected on the grounds that the State violated the motion in limine, as this Court
would not have been required to grant a mistrial and would have given the same
instruction to disregard that was actually given to the jury.
Id. at 143-44 (citations omitted). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”) adopted these
findings and conclusions and denied Bruton’s state habeas application without written order. See
In her Report, the Magistrate Judge expressly considered the CCA’s findings and
conclusions regarding defense counsel’s purportedly deficient performance and resulting
prejudice, concluding, “[t]he CCA’s findings are not unreasonable and are, thus, entitled to
deference under [the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”)].” Dkt.
13 at 10. Bruton objects to the Magistrate Judge’s deference to the CCA’s findings. See Dkt. 14 at
2-3. Bruton also objects to the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation that he be denied a certificate
of appealability. See id. at 3.
In his Objections, Bruton first takes issue with the Magistrate Judge’s determination that
“[t]he CCA was justified in concluding that defense counsel made a strategic decision not to advance
a meritless objection based on the motion in limine and, accordingly, did not render deficient
performance.” Dkt. 13 at 9; see also Dkt. 14 at 2. It is evident from the Report that, in consideration
of the CCA’s conclusion, the Magistrate Judge closely examined the State’s closing argument,
including portions of the argument leading up to and following the offending language. See Dkt.
13 at 8-9. Ultimately, the Magistrate Judge independently determined that, “[t]he State’s closing
argument does not purport to introduce evidence of actual offenses against other victims; thus, it
is not in violation of the ruling on the defense motion in limine.” Id. at 9.
Bruton challenges this reasoning, accusing the Magistrate Judge of “cherry-picking the
State’s closing argument” in order to “minimize the State’s reference to other victims.” Dkt. 14 at
2. However, it is Bruton who hangs on insular words and phrases in the State’s closing argument,
without regard to context or the argument as a whole. In his Objections, Bruton focuses on the
State’s isolated use of the phrase “these kids” in closing arguments; similarly, in his Petition, he
honed in on a mere five (5) lines of the State’s nine (9) page closing argument. See Dkt. 1-1 at 5;
Dkt. 14 at 2.
In contrast, the Magistrate Judge considered the State’s closing argument as a whole and
reasoned that, “[t]aken in isolation, the State’s reference to ‘these kids’ during its closing argument
could be argued (as Petitioner has) to run afoul of the trial court’s order requiring an admissibility
ruling before introduction of instances of misconduct involving other victims. However, this
position unravels when viewed or taken in the context of the entire closing argument.” See Dkt. 13
at 9. Bruton’s bare accusations do not undermine this reasoning. And, on de novo review of the
record, the Court finds no basis to reject the Magistrate Judge’s findings.
Next, Bruton objects to the Magistrate Judge’s determination that “fairminded jurists could
not dispute the CCA’s finding that the trial court would not have granted a mistrial even if counsel
had objected based on the motion in limine.” Dkt. 13 at 3, 10; see also Dkt. 14 at 2. Bruton argues
this conclusion is erroneous because: (1) his trial lawyer failed to articulate any legal basis for a
mistrial; and (2) the trial court lacked authority to grant a mistrial without “a reason proffered by
Petitioner’s trial counsel.” Dkt. 14 at 2.
However, as Bruton acknowledges in his Brief in Support of Petition for a Writ of Habeas
Corpus, his trial counsel did move for a mistrial during the State’s closing argument and cited a
legal basis for the request: that the State’s argument was not supported by evidence in the record.
See Dkt. 1-1 at 5; 10-25 at 16. Any contention to the contrary is unsupported and unsupportable
by the record.
Furthermore, after ruling out less drastic alternatives, Texas courts have discretion to sua
sponte order a mistrial on the ground of manifest necessity “when the circumstances render it
impossible to arrive at a fair verdict, when it is impossible to continue with trial, or when the
verdict would be automatically reversed on appeal because of trial error.” Hill v. State, 90 S.W.3d
308, 313 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002); see also Brown v. State, 907 S.W.2d 835, 839 (Tex. Crim. App.
1995). Trial courts may sua sponte order a mistrial without a finding of manifest necessity when,
as here, the defendant consents to a mistrial. See, e.g., Ex parte Lewis, 219 S.W.3d 335, 353 (Tex.
Crim. App. 2007). Accordingly, Bruton’s argument that the trial court lacked authority to grant a
mistrial solely because his counsel failed to advance a proper request lacks merit.
Finally, Bruton objects to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion that “[t]here is no likelihood
that reasonable jurists could debate the denial of Petitioner’s § 2254 motion on substantive or
procedural grounds, nor find that the issues presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to
proceed. Accordingly, Petitioner is not entitled to a certificate of appealability as to his claims.”
Dkt. 13 at 10-11 (citations omitted); see also Dkt. 14 at 3.
As the Magistrate Judge correctly noted, a certificate of appealability may issue only if a
movant has made a “substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” 28 U.S.C. §
2253(c)(2); Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484, 120 S. Ct. 1595 (2000). “In order to make a
substantial showing, a petitioner must demonstrate that ‘reasonable jurists would find the district
court’s assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or wrong.’” Henry v. Cockrell, 327 F.3d
429, 431 (5th Cir. 2003) (quoting Slack, 529 U.S. at 484).
Bruton argues he has made a showing sufficient to warrant issuance of a certificate of
appealability. Specifically, Bruton contends, “the trial court obviously felt that the State had
crossed the line when it made the offending statement [during closing arguments] because the trial
court sustained [Bruton’s] objection.” Dkt. 14 at 3. While this assertion may have merit, it is of no
consequence to the only determination relevant to issuance of a certificate of appealability:
whether this Court’s resolution of Bruton’s constitutional claims is incorrect or debatable.
Bruton further contends reasonable jurists could debate the merits of his claim that he was
entitled to a mistrial based on the State’s purported violation of the motion in limine. He argues:
[T]he Court of Appeals for the [Eighth] District of Texas pointed this exact issue
out in its memorandum opinion. However, the court stated that they would not
address the issue because counsel did not state in his request for mistrial that the
statements violated the motion in limine. Simply put, trial counsel did not preserve
In sum, reasonable jurists—a three judge panel from the [Eighth] Court of
Appeals—could debate the denial of Petitioner’s § 2254 motion. Therefore, a
certificate of appealability should be issued.
Id. Bruton seemingly avers the Eighth Court of Appeals recognized some possibility of reasonable
debate regarding the merits of his claim that he was entitled to a mistrial. However, the Eighth
Court of Appeals expressly declined to consider this claim, finding that Bruton had “waived this
argument because he failed to make it in the trial court.” Dkt. 10-10 at 11. Thus, the opinion of the
Eighth Court of Appeals has no bearing on this Court’s resolution of Bruton’s claim.
On de novo review of the record, the Court is of the opinion that Bruton fails to carry his
burden of proof under Strickland v. Washington, and therefore, fails to make out a violation of a
constitutional right. Accordingly, he is not entitled to relief under § 2254 or a certificate of
appealability. It is therefore
ORDERED that Bruton’s Objections (Dkt. 14) are OVERRULED. It is further
ORDERED that the Petition for a Writ of Habeas Relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1) is
DISMISSED with prejudice. A certificate of appealability is DENIED. All motions by either
party not previously ruled on are hereby DENIED.
SIGNED this 13th day of April, 2017.
AMOS L. MAZZANT
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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