United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Delta Division
MICHAEL P. MILLS, District Judge.
Gregory Frazier was convicted of aggravated assault in the Circuit Court of Bolivar County, Mississippi, and sentenced to twenty years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. After exhausting his state court remedies, he seeks a petition for habeas corpus relief in this court alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth below, the instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus will be denied.
Limitations on Review
Consideration of a federal petition for habeas corpus is a two-tiered process. Before considering the merits of any claim, the court must first determine if all procedural steps necessary to preserve each issue raised for federal review have been taken. The petition must be timely filed. Each claim in the petition must have been exhausted. The claim must have been presented to the highest court in the state, the Mississippi Supreme Court in this case, either on direct appeal through post-conviction proceedings. If the claim is exhausted, the court generally proceeds to the merits. If the claim is not exhausted and state post-conviction relief is no longer available, the claim will be finally dismissed.
Petitioners must also meet state procedural requirements. If the state court, through its regularly enforced rules and procedures, refuses to consider an issue on the merits because of a procedural violation, the federal courts will generally not consider the procedurally defaulted claim. To overcome this bar of procedural default, the petitioner must show "cause and prejudice" for his default, or that a "fundamental miscarriage of justice" would result from its application.
If an issue has been exhausted - and all state procedures followed-federal courts may reach the second tier of the process: addressing the issues on the merits. Merits-based consideration is, however, limited to addressing those issues affecting substantial federal constitutional rights. Federal courts do not function as appellate courts over the states, hold no supervisory authority over those courts, and may not correct errors of state law unless they also violate the constitutional rights of an accused.
Even in matters affecting fundamental constitutional rights, federal courts have a limited scope of review. Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) provides:
(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 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 federal court may not disturb the legal holdings of a state court even if convinced they are erroneous, unless the decision is contrary to established federal law - or the application of federal law is objectively unreasonable. A decision is "contrary to" clearly established Federal law "if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that arrived at by [the Supreme Court] on the question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." The case represents an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law "if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from this Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Under this statute, the court must presume that each state court factual finding is correct. These findings can be disturbed only if the petitioner rebuts the presumption with clear and convincing evidence. Frazier's claims have been reviewed in light of these limitations.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, Frazier must show that, "(1) his counsel's performance was deficient and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced his defense." Federal courts "must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy." The court is not to analyze counsel's actions in hindsight, but rather to judge his or her decisions in a "highly deferential" manner. If counsel's performance was deficient, "then [the court] must determine whether there exists a reasonable probability that but for the complained-of error the outcome of the trial or appeal would have been different, " or that counsel's performance renders the result of the proceeding fundamentally unfair or unreliable. The petitioner must not just allege prejudice, but must affirmatively prove it.
Frazier did not persuade the Mississippi Supreme Court that his claims have merit; as such, his burden in this court is greater still. He must show not only that he suffered ineffective assistance of counsel, but that the Mississippi Supreme Court's decision to the contrary was not merely erroneous, but ...