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Bell v. Fisher

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

April 24, 2019

COMMISSONER MARSHALL L. FISHER, Mississippi Department of Corrections RESPONDENT




         Timothy Lavon Bell, a Mississippi state prisoner, filed this action seeking federal habeas relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The undersigned recommends that Bell's petition be denied.

         In 2010, Bell sold controlled substances on two occasions as part of controlled undercover purchases. He was indicted and tried in the Circuit Court of Scott County for two counts of sale of methamphetamines. At trial, the primary witnesses for the prosecution were a law enforcement officer and the two confidential informants who participated in the undercover operations. The defense put on no evidence. The jury convicted Bell on both counts, and the court sentenced him as both a non-violent habitual offender and as a subsequent drug offender to two consecutive 40-year terms.

         Bell appealed, raising two issues: (1) That his trial was unfair because he wore a red prison jumpsuit during the trial, and (2) that the trial judge erred in denying the prosecution's motion to nolle pros count one. The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed. Bell v. State, 168 So.3d 1151 (Miss. Ct. App. 2014). Bell subsequently filed in the state supreme court an application to proceed in the trial court with a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) asserting that his trial counsel had been ineffective for failing to object to his appearance in prison garb. [7-5] at 17. By order entered December 14, 2015, the supreme court denied the application, determining that the claim was without merit. [7-5] at 2.

         Bell then filed for relief in this court, asserting two grounds for relief:

1. That he was deprived of the presumption of innocence when he was tried in prison garb before a jury; and
2. That his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in failing to object to Bell's appearance in prison garb at trial.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Because Bell's claims were adjudicated on the merits by the state courts, this court's review is subject to the highly deferential standard set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), which allows habeas relief in this case only if the state courts' rejection of the claims involved ''an unreasonable application of . . . clearly established Federal law . . . as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States'' or ''an unreasonable determination of the facts'' in light of the evidence presented to the state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that A an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.'' Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000)). ''[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly.'' Williams, 529 U.S. at 411. Rather, the application must be not only incorrect but also ''objectively unreasonable.'' Id. at 409. Under this deferential standard, federal relief is precluded 'so long as 'fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision.'' Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)).

         Analysis of ineffective assistance claims begins with the well-known test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which requires that a petitioner show that his counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficiency resulted in prejudice to the defense. But when' 2254(d) applies, the ultimate question is not whether counsel was ineffective under Strickland. Rather, the reviewing court must ask “whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 105.

         In ground one, Bell contends that his right to a fair trial was violated by his appearance in prison garb. The “clearly established federal law” on this issue, “as determined by the Supreme Court, ” is found in Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501 (1976). In Estelle, the defendant had appeared at his assault trial in prison-issued clothing. He sought habeas relief, alleging that this fact had denied him a fair trial. The Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment proscribes compelling a criminal defendant, against his will, to stand trial in prison garb. Id. at 503-504, 512. The Court found, however, that there was no evidence in the record that the petitioner had been compelled to wear his prison clothing. Id. at 512. Thus, the Court concluded that there had been no constitutional violation:

[A]lthough the State cannot, consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment, compel an accused to stand trial before a jury while dressed in identifiable prison clothes, the failure to make an objection to the court as to being tried in such clothes, for whatever reason, is sufficient to negate the ...

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