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Mejia v. Davis

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 11, 2018

DAVID MEJIA, Petitioner-Appellee
v.
LORIE DAVIS, DIRECTOR, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS DIVISION, Respondent-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before DAVIS, HAYNES, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

          STUART KYLE DUNCAN, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The State of Texas appeals a grant of habeas corpus ordering petitioner David Mejia to be retried for killing Marcos Torres. During a bar fight in 1998, Mejia stabbed Torres in the heart with a steak knife Mejia was carrying in his back pocket. Mejia's experienced attorney, Alex Luna, deployed a self-defense strategy based on Mejia's claim that Torres was threatening him with a gun. Nonetheless, a jury found Mejia guilty of murder and a state court later concluded that Luna had provided Mejia constitutionally effective assistance.

         Years later, however, a federal district court ruled that Luna had been ineffective by failing to request certain jury instructions-specifically, a lesser- included-offense instruction for manslaughter at the guilt phase and a "sudden passion" instruction at the penalty phase. The court reasoned Luna had no strategic reason for failing to request these instructions, either of which could have resulted in the jury giving Mejia a sentence much lower than the life sentence he received. The court also ruled that the state habeas court was objectively unreasonable in ruling otherwise.

         We conclude that the federal court failed to defer to the state court's reasonable application of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), and therefore erred in granting Mejia habeas corpus relief. Specifically, we conclude that (1) given Luna's all-or-nothing strategy, he reasonably declined a "double-edged" manslaughter instruction that could have lowered Mejia's chances of an acquittal; (2) even assuming Luna should have sought a sudden passion instruction, it is unlikely that the instruction would have changed Mejia's sentence; and (3) crucially, neither conclusion would have been an objectively unreasonable application of Strickland by the state habeas court.

         We therefore VACATE the district court's judgment and RENDER judgment for the State.

         I.

         A.

         Early in the morning of April 17, 1998, outside a small bar called Alicia's Place in Victoria, Texas, David Mejia killed Marcos Torres by stabbing him once in the heart with a steak knife. Mejia had come to Alicia's Place with his friend, Johnny Arce, and three others, planning to confront Torres for a past grievance. Mejia put the steak knife in his back pocket when he arrived, although he claimed he had used the knife in the car to eat a lemon and put the knife in his pocket "by accident" because he "wasn't thinking."

         Arce entered the bar and challenged Torres, who followed him outside. Fighting promptly commenced. Witnesses described Torres being surrounded and chased by men from Arce's car. During the fracas, Mejia stabbed and killed Torres and then fled with the others in Arce's car. They went to an apartment where Mejia told someone he had "stabbed some dude," showing how he had pulled the knife from his back pocket and stabbed Torres in the heart. Mejia was heard to say, "I got the motherfucker. I stabbed him."

         Four days later Mejia turned himself in. He admitted stabbing Torres but claimed he did so only because Torres had threatened him during the melee by pulling up his shirt to reveal a gun.

         B.

         Mejia was tried for murder in February 1999. See Tex. Penal Code § 19.02(b). His experienced defense attorney, Alex Luna, based his strategy on self-defense. For example, Luna: (1) extensively questioned prospective jurors about self-defense during voir dire; (2) elicited Mejia's testimony claiming Torres had a gun and threatened him; (3) argued that after the stabbing Mejia acted like someone with a clear conscience (i.e., he turned himself in and did not try to hide the knife); and (4) elicited testimony from a police officer about Torres's history of assault and weapons-related misconduct. During closing, Luna explained why Mejia could have reasonably believed he needed to defend himself with deadly force, and concluded by stating, "[I]f you think that person is going to threaten you or kill you, then you've got the right to defend yourself."

         The prosecution painted a different picture. For example, it emphasized that: (1) Mejia and the others went to the bar looking to confront Torres; (2) on the way to the bar Mejia armed himself with a knife; and (3) Mejia failed to mention that Torres had a gun until he turned himself in four days after the killing, and virtually no witness other than Mejia reported that Torres had a gun.[1] During closing arguments, the prosecution told the jury, "[C]ommon sense tells you that [Mejia] did it intentionally and knowingly. Common sense tells you that he went to that parking lot at Alicia's for a purpose."

         Following closing arguments, the trial judge asked Luna about jury instructions:

COURT: Do you have any further requested instructions?
LUNA: No further requested instructions.
COURT: This does not include submission of any lesser-anything on any lesser included offense to the jury, based upon the testimony and the position-and the self-defense instruction. This is the Charge of the ...

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