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Mason v. State

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 5, 2019



          Sharion Aycock U.S. District Judge

         This matter comes before the court on the pro se petition of Sanford Mason for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The State has moved [13] to dismiss the petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The petitioner has not responded, and the deadline to do so has expired. The mater is ripe for resolution. For the reasons set forth below, the instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus must be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and as procedurally defaulted.

         Habeas Corpus Relief Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254

         The writ of habeas corpus, a challenge to the legal authority under which a person may be detained, is ancient. Duker, The English Origins of the Writ of Habeas Corpus: A Peculiar Path to Fame, 53 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 983 (1978); Glass, Historical Aspects of Habeas Corpus, 9 St. John's L.Rev. 55 (1934). It is “perhaps the most important writ known to the constitutional law of England, ” Secretary of State for Home Affairs v. O'Brien, A.C. 603, 609 (1923), and it is equally significant in the United States. Article I, § 9, of the Constitution ensures that the right of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, except when, in the case of rebellion or invasion, public safety may require it. Habeas Corpus, 20 Fed. Prac. & Proc. Deskbook § 56. Its use by the federal courts was authorized in Section14 of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Habeas corpus principles developed over time in both English and American common law have since been codified:

The statutory provisions on habeas corpus appear as sections 2241 to 2255 of the 1948 Judicial Code. The recodification of that year set out important procedural limitations and additional procedural changes were added in 1966. The scope of the writ, insofar as the statutory language is concerned, remained essentially the same, however, until 1996, when Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, placing severe restrictions on the issuance of the writ for state prisoners and setting out special, new habeas corpus procedures for capital cases. The changes made by the 1996 legislation are the end product of decades of debate about habeas corpus.

Id. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a federal court may issue the writ when a person is held in violation of the federal Constitution or laws, permitting a federal court to order the discharge of any person held by a state in violation of the supreme law of the land. Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309, 311, 35 S.Ct. 582, 588, 59 L.Ed. 969 (1915).

         Facts and Procedural Posture

         In 1982, petitioner Sanford Mason was convicted of rape in the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court and sentenced to serve a term of life in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (“MDOC”), without parole as a habitual offender. See Exhibit A (Sentencing Order in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court Cause Number 10-373). On direct appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Mason's conviction and life sentence. Mason v. State, 440 So.2d 318 (Miss. 1983) (Cause No. 2003-KA-01203).

         On February 8, 2013, Mason filed an Application for Leave to Proceed in the Trial Court with a motion for DNA testing, which was docketed in Mississippi Supreme Court Cause Number 2013-M-00253. See Exhibit C.[1] In his motion, brought pursuant to the Mississippi Uniform Post-Conviction Relief Act, Miss. Code Ann. § 99-39-5(1)(f), Mason sought DNA testing of certain biological evidence, which he believed was available. See Exhibit C. Specifically, he requested that DNA testing be performed on a rape kit collected during the investigation of his case. See id.

         On June 7, 2013, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Mason's Application for Leave to Proceed in the Trial Court with his petition for post-conviction relief seeking DNA testing. See Exhibit D. Mason filed a copy of his petition in the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court, and the Circuit Court appointed counsel to represent him in his post-conviction proceeding. See State Court Record (“SCR”), Cause No. 2017-CP-00415-COA, Vol. 1, p. 25. Mason's appointed counsel advised the circuit court that she had searched diligently for a rape kit and other physical evidence related to Mason's case to allow for DNA testing, but was unsuccessful. See id. at 64-105. On February 6, 2015, the circuit court held a hearing with Mason present, at which the Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk, an investigator for District Attorney's Office, a witness from the City of Starkville Police Department, and a former Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk all testified that they, along with Mason's attorney, conducted a full and complete investigation for physical evidence related to Mason's case; however, despite their efforts, they were unable to locate any such evidence. See id. Specifically, the former Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk testified that, sometime after 1989, probably closer to 2000, significant flooding occurred in the county courthouse - raw sewage spilled from a bathroom in the tax assessor's office, over into an exhibit storage room located below. See id. at 81-87. This significant flooding of raw sewage destroyed or ruined approximately twenty-five percent of the items stored in the exhibit room, to the point that such was unsalvageable. See id. The former clerk testified that, based on her contemporaneous handwritten notes, she believed that the physical evidence from Mason's case was destroyed as a result of the flooding of raw sewage. See id. During the hearing, both Mason and his counsel acknowledged that there was no proof that any of the evidence had been intentionally destroyed. See id. at 92, 95-96. Mason's counsel further acknowledged that there was no evidence of negligence of the parties, the Circuit Clerk, or anyone else. See id. at 92. Mason agreed that his appointed counsel had exhausted her efforts in searching for the evidence. See id. at 99. Mason's counsel advised the court that she could not file a petition for post-conviction relief under Mississippi Code Annotation section 99-39-5(1)(f) “because the evidence does not exist.” Id. at 92. The court determined that, based on the information provided at the hearing, there was no evidence to be examined, no showing that the State purposefully destroyed evidence, nor a showing that the Circuit Clerk's Office was negligent in its handling of the destroyed evidence. Id. at 93.

         On February 10, 2017, the circuit court entered an Order closing the case. See Exhibit E. In its Order, the circuit court found that: (1) no physical evidence remained in this case to be tested because of its apparent physical destruction; (2) the destruction was not an intentional act of any party, but due to the flooding of raw sewage into the storage area where such evidence would be normally be secured, making any attempt at preservation impossible; and (3) there was no physical evidence to be subjected to testing, so Mason's post-conviction petition was moot, as there was no relief to be sought or which could be granted. See Exhibit E.

         Mason appealed the circuit court's Order, contending that the destruction of the rape kit and other evidence collected during the investigation of his case violated his right to due process.[2] See SCR, Cause No. 2017-CP-00415-COA, Briefs of the Parties, Appellant's Brief. On May 22, 2018, the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling that Mason was not entitled to post- conviction relief in a published opinion. See Exhibit F. Mason v. State, 247 So.3d 362 (Miss. Ct. App. 2018) (Cause No. 2017-CP-00415-COA). The Mississippi Court of Appeals held that there was no evidence to establish that the State's destruction of the physical evidence in Mason's rape case was in bad faith, as required.[3] Id. at 364 (citing Chapman v. State, 47 So.3d 203, 209 ¶ 22 (Miss. Ct. App. 2010), cert. denied, 63 So.3d 1229 (Miss. 2011), and Ariz. v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51, 58 (1988) (“[U]nless a criminal defendant can show bad faith on the part of the police, failure to preserve potentially useful evidence does not constitute a denial of due process of law.”)).[4] The record reflects that Mason failed to seek rehearing and, in turn, certiorari review in the State's highest court.

         On July 3, 2018, Mason filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus and memorandum in support, raising the sole claim of “spoliation, ” alleging the “destruction of biological evidence.” ECF Doc. 1 at 5. Mason alleges that, “if the evidence from the rape kit had not been destroyed it could have been tested through D.N.A. procedure[, ] and [the] results of testing could have exonerated Petitioner.” Id. In support of his spoliation claim, Mason asserts “[t]he negligent act of the security personnell [sic]” charged with “keeping rape kit samples secured cause[d] Petitioner Mason to still be incarcerated in the State Penitentiary.” Id. In his prayer for relief, Mason requests “[t]hat evidence be produced for D.N.A. testing or, ” alternatively, that he be retried, and for any other relief that this Court deems proper. Id. at 14.

         Failure to State a ...

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