Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

McKnight v. Ladner

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Western Division

April 2, 2019

JAMES DOUGLAS McKNIGHT PETITIONER
v.
WARDEN BRIAN LADNER RESPONDENT

          ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          DAVID BRAMLETTE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This cause is before the Court on the Petitioner James Douglas McKnight (“McKnight”)'s Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (docket entry 1), filed September 5, 2017. McKnight also filed an Amended Petition on October 10, 2017 (docket entry 5). The Petition and Amended Petition challenge McKnight's 2013 conviction for murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

         The Respondent, Warden Brian Ladner, filed an Answer to the Amended Petition on March 9, 2018 (docket entry 10). In a text order of April 5, 2018, McKnight was granted an extension of time to file a Reply to Warden Ladner's Answer. On June 27, 2018, McKnight moved for an additional extension of time (docket entry 13), and the Court granted the motion in a text order of June 28, 2018, extending the time for filing the Reply to July 30, 2018.

         On August 7, 2018, McKnight filed motions for further additional time (docket entry 15), to amend his Petition (docket entry 16), and to invoke discovery (docket entry 17). The motion for additional time was granted and the motion to amend petition was denied; however, the petitioner was granted leave to file exhibits with his reply (text order of August 8, 2018). Warden Ladner filed his response to McKnight's motion to invoke discovery on August 21, 2018 (docket entry 19).

         On September 6, 2018, McKnight filed a motion for extension of time to file a response/reply to the Respondent's Answer to McKnight's Amended Complaint. The motion was granted in part and denied in part (text order of September 7, 2018). On October 10, 2018, McKnight filed a motion to amend his Petition (docket entry 21). Warden Ladner filed a Response, submitting that McKnight's motion to amend had previously been granted to the extent that the Court allowed McKnight to supplement his petition with the exhibits attached to his motion to amend. In addition, the Respondent submitted that McKnight's remaining arguments raised in the motion to amend should be liberally construed as his traverse or reply to the Respondent's answer, and, as such, any motion to amend on those arguments should be denied given that the Court had allowed petitioner time to file his traverse.

         Magistrate Judge John C. Gargiulo entered a text order on October 29, 2018, denying McKnight's Motion to Amend Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, but construing McKnight's exhibits 21-1 and 21-2 as his Reply to the Response to his Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus for the Court's consideration. On February 11, 2019, the Magistrate Judge denied McKnight's motion to invoke discovery (docket entry 23).

         Magistrate Judge Gargiulo issued a Report and Recommendation (docket entry 24) recommending that the Petitioner's request for relief under § 2254 be denied on grounds that McKnight has not demonstrated that he is entitled to federal habeas relief.

         Following the entry of the Report and Recommendation, McKnight filed a Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment (docket entry 26) and a Motion Objecting to Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (docket entry 27). On March 15, 2019, Warden Ladner filed a Response in Opposition to Petitioner's Motion to Alter and Amend (docket entry 28) and a Response to Petitioner's Objections to the Report and Recommendation (docket entry 29). Petitioner McKnight filed a “Reply to Respondents' Response to Petitioner's Objections to Report and Recommendation on March 27, 2019 (docket entry 30).

         McKnight is a post-conviction inmate in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. After a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Pike County, Mississippi, he was convicted of murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon on June 13, 2013. He was sentenced as a habitual offender to life in prison without the possibility of parole on each conviction, with sentences to run consecutively. After his motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial were denied, McKnight appealed, and the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction.

         In his direct appeal to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, McKnight, who was represented by an attorney, raised seventeen issues. The State Court of Appeals found each of these to be without merit and affirmed McKnight's conviction. After his motion for rehearing was denied, McKnight, proceeding pro se, filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari before the Mississippi Supreme Court raising three grounds for relief. The Mississippi Supreme Court denied McKnight's Petition on March 31, 2016. McKnight then filed a Motion for Post-Conviction Collateral Relief before the Mississippi Supreme Court on April 26, 2017, raising thirty-seven grounds for relief. The Mississippi Supreme Court found McKnight's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel to be without merit, and found that the other claims were procedurally barred.

         On September 5, 2017, McKnight filed his 28 U.S.C. § 2254 Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, then filed an Amended Petition on October 10, 2017, in which he raises thirty-eight grounds for relief.

         Respondent Warden Ladner filed his Answer on March 9, 2018, alleging that McKnight did not exhaust ground 19, that grounds 3, 4, 9, 10, 28 and 32 rest on adequate state law grounds, that the remaining grounds for relief were decided on the merits in state court, and that the state court's decision was not an unreasonable application of federal law.

         McKnight's Amended Petition of October 10, 2017, was denied by the Court, but the Court also construed McKnight's attached exhibits (docket entries 21-1 and 21-2) as his Reply. McKnight makes additional arguments concerning Grounds 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 23, 35, and 39; however, he also states that the “Court may strike” Grounds 19 and 22; therefore, the Court will not consider those two Grounds.

         Before considering the merits of a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for writ of habeas corpus, the Court must first determine if all procedural steps necessary to preserve each issue raised for federal review have been taken. First, the petition must be timely filed with the Court in compliance with 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). In this case, there is no challenge to the timeliness of the petition. Second, a writ of habeas corpus may not be granted unless it appears that a petitioner has exhausted all available state court remedies. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1). To exhaust a federal constitutional claim, a petitioner must “fairly present” in state court both the operative facts and federal legal theory of his or her claim in a procedurally proper manner. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 848 (1999).

         As a matter of comity and federalism, federal courts generally may not review a state court's denial of a federal constitutional claim if the state court's decision rests on a state procedural ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729-30 (1991). “To qualify as an ‘adequate' procedural ground, a state rule must be ‘firmly established and regularly followed.'” Walker v. Martin, 562 U.S. 307, 316 (2011)(quoting Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53, 60-61 (2009)). A federal court may also find claims procedurally defaulted if the petitioner failed to present them in state court and “the court to which the petitioner would be required to present his claims in order to meet the exhaustion requirement would now find the claims procedurally barred.” Sones v. Hargett, 61 F.3d 410, 416 (5th Cir. 1995)(quoting Coleman, 501 U.S. at 735 n.1). Federal courts retain the power to consider the merits of a procedurally defaulted claim if the petitioner demonstrates legitimate cause for the failure to properly exhaust the claim in state court and prejudice from the alleged constitutional violation, or shows that a fundamental miscarriage of justice would result if the claim is not heard on the merits in federal court. See Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 324-27 (1995).

         Substantively, the issue in a federal habeas proceeding is not whether there was an error in applying state law but whether there has been a denial of rights protected by the United States Constitution. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.” Id. The federal courts do not function as super appellate courts over the states to review errors under state law and may not correct errors of state law unless they also violate the constitutional rights of an accused. See Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 221 (1982); Mendiola v. Estelle, 635 F.2d 487, 491 (5th Cir. 1981).

         Even in matters affecting constitutional rights, federal courts have a very limited scope of review. The Court's authority to grant relief to a person held in custody pursuant to a state judgment is narrowly circumscribed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which provides that a writ of habeas corpus shall not be granted unless the state court 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 proceeding.

         As recently summarized by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals:

Because “§ 2254(d)(1)'s ‘contrary to' and ‘unreasonable application' clauses have independent meaning, ” there are three ways a federal court can grant habeas relief: (1) if the state court decision was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court law; (2) if the state court decision involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court law; or (3) if the state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. “AEDPA's standard is intentionally difficult to meet.”

Poree v. Collins, 866 F.3d 235, 245 (5th Cir. 2017)(quoting Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002); Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015)). The state court's factual findings are presumed to be correct. The petitioner may rebut “the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         Magistrate Judge Gargiulo begins by finding that Grounds 3, 4, 9, 10, 28, and 32 are procedurally barred, because when McKnight raised them in his Motion for Post-Conviction Collateral Relief in State Court, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that they were procedurally barred from review under Miss. Code Ann. § 99-39-21(1). That statute provides that a failure to raise claims at trial and/or on direct appeal constitutes a waiver of those claims and a procedural bar, unless the individual shows cause and actual prejudice.

         “Where a state prisoner has defaulted his federal claims in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule, this court may not review the prisoner's habeas petition.” Stokes v. Anderson, 123 F.3d 858, 859 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Coleman, 501 U.S. at 729). However, an exception exists if the prisoner can “demonstrate cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or demonstrate that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Id.

         Any such state procedural bar must be “firmly established and regularly followed.” Beard, 558 U.S. at 60-61 (internal quotations omitted). The Fifth Circuit has previously held that Miss. Code Ann. § 99-39-21(1) is “an independent and adequate state procedural rule.” Stokes, 123 F.3d at 861; see also Nixon v. Epps, 405 F.3d 318, 323 (5th Cir. 2005). McKnight “bears the burden of showing that the state did not strictly or regularly follow a procedural bar around the time of his direct appeal” and “must demonstrate that the state has failed to apply the procedural bar rule to claims identical or similar to those raised by the petitioner himself.” Stokes, 123 F.3d at 860. McKnight does not address this issue; he merely argues that ineffective assistance of counsel satisfies the cause and prejudice requirements of the exception or, alternatively, failure to consider these claims would result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice (ECF No. 21-2 at 67-70).

         Although McKnight repeatedly argues that he should be excused from his failure to raise these claims because he received ineffective assistance of counsel, McKnight does not address the fact that he filed his state certiorari petition while proceeding pro se and only raised three issues. Therefore, McKnight has not demonstrated sufficient cause to overcome the adequate state procedural bar, especially because the Mississippi Courts found his ineffective assistance of counsel claims to be without merit. See Edwards v. Carpenter, 529 U.S. 446, 450-54 (2000). Further, McKnight has not demonstrated that the failure to consider these claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice, as he must “show that he has a colorable claim of factual innocence.” Shore v. Davis, 845 F.3d 627, 633, n.4 (5th Cir. 2017)(citing Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333, 339 (1992)). McKnight has not done so; therefore, Grounds 3, 4, 9, 10, 28, and 32 are procedurally barred.

         As for McKnight's remaining grounds, the Respondent submits that these were decided on the merits in state court, and the state court's determinations were not an unreasonable application of the law. Grounds 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, and 40 concern ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Grounds 13, 31, 33, 37, 39, and 41 concern ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Closely related to McKnight's ineffective assistance of counsel claims are Ground 15, recusal of the original trial judge, and Ground 34, McKnight's right to a speedy trial. Finally, Ground 35 concerns the Mississippi Court of Appeal's harmless error analysis with respect to hearsay testimony.

         The Sixth Amendment provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” This right to counsel “is the right to the effective assistance of counsel.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984)(quoting McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 (1970)). To show ineffective assistance of counsel, McKnight “must show that counsel's performance was deficient, ” which “requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Further, he must show that the performance prejudiced his defense, which “requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. However, “[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential, ” and “a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.