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July 29, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vaughn R. Walker, United States District Judge


On May 19, 2000, petitioner was convicted by a jury in the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Santa Clara of assaulting James Butner by personally using a hammer and inflicting great bodily injury. The trial court sentenced petitioner to seven years in prison, and ordered him to pay a restitution fine of $1,200 and restitution to the victim of $5,980.49 for medical expenses and $14,771.70 for home security measures and replacement costs.

On January 29, 2002, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of conviction and, on April 17, 2002, the Supreme Court of California denied review. Petitioner then filed the instant federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Per order filed on October 9, 2002, the court found that the petition, when liberally construed, appeared to contain colorable claims under § 2254 and ordered respondent to show cause why a writ of habeas corpus should not be granted. Respondent has filed an answer to the order to show cause and petitioner has filed a traverse.


The California Court of Appeal summarized the facts of the case as follows:

On Wednesday, November 24, 1999, defendant's father Benjamin O'Neal came home to find windows broken in his San Jose residence. Benjamin believed that defendant had broken them. Defendant had left home years earlier at the age of 15 or 16. A month or two before November 24, 1999, defendant was agitated when Benjamin told him that he no longer wanted to administer defendant's social security disability benefits. At the time of the vandalism defendant lived about five miles away.
On Tuesday, November 30, 1999, James and Darlene Butner came home to find all the windows broken in their San Jose home, including the glass in their front double door. James could not imagine who had vandalized his house. They had the glass replaced with Plexiglass to prevent future breakage.
On Thursday, December 2, 1999, the Butners came home around 6:00 p.m. to find the Plexiglass broken. The glazier was surprised to hear this. He said it had to be a strong person swinging a heavy sharp object. James put up transparent drop cloths outside to cover the broken windows and keep the heat in the house. He left the porch light on overnight.
Around 5:00 a.m. on December 3, 1999, Darlene awakened her husband James and told him to answer the doorbell. He put on his robe and went to the front door. James saw defendant, nicknamed Rambo, about two to four feet away from him. He assumed defendant was trying to locate one of his two sons, who were adult and lived elsewhere.
Defendant had been a high school friend of their sons 15 years earlier. At the same time defendant was also a friend of children who lived next door. Defendant socialized with their sons outside the Butners' house. Defendant was an occasional dinner guest. James had last seen defendant about a year and a half earlier when they chatted for a few minutes at a neighborhood gas station. They never had any disagreement.
Recognizing defendant, James opened the door. Defendant immediately struck him in the face with a standard carpenter's hammer. The blow knocked James down. He propped himself up against the wall. Defendant stepped into the house brandishing the hammer and said, "If you don't quit doing this to me, I'm going to fuck you up." James turned around to look at him and said, "What have I ever done to you?" Defendant hesitated for a moment, lowered the hammer, and left.
The blow ripped James' face near his left eye. He had a two-inch deep half-inch wide cut above his left eye, a slight rip down the left side of the eye, and a smaller sash at the corner of the eyebrow near his nose. Photographs of his injuries were in evidence.
James had his wife call 911 while he grabbed towels to stanch the bleeding. He told her that it was a black friend of their boys. James was dazed and unable at first to remember defendant's name. Darlene asked if it was Nicky. James said Nicky was too dark. The man was light-skinned. She asked if it was Rambo and James said it was.
Police and paramedics arrive within ten minutes. James described his assailant to the police and gave them his name. He said he remembered Rambo as having a moustache.
James was hospitalized that day and received 22 stitches to close up three wounds. At the hospital around 10:30 a.m., Police Detective Donald Guess showed James a photographic lineup. James hesitated on the fourth picture and said the moustache was similar. When he saw defendant's picture, number six, he identified defendant as his assailant. Darlene agreed the photo showed Rambo.
The same morning, December 3, 1999, sometime between 5:45 and 6:45 a.m., defendant collected his paycheck from his employer, Raymond Talbott, as defendant had prearranged by phone call the prior evening. Talbott lived in San Jose. Defendant had worked for Talbott as an apprentice drywall installer. Defendant last worked for Talbott on November 24, 199[9]. When he left work that day, he took his hammer, leaving his other tools on Talbott's truck.
Detective Guess arrested defendant at his San Jose residence around 11:15 a.m. on December 3, 1999. He did not find the red and green sweatshirt that James had seen defendant wearing that morning. Defendant did not have a moustache.
A crime investigator for the Santa Clara County District Attorney determined that it took about 14 minutes to drive from defendant's residence to the Butners' residence and about 17 minutes from the Butners' to Talbott's residence.
Defendant's roommate, Israel Leal, testified that he saw defendant's car parked outside their house when he left for work around 6:15 a.m. on December 3, 1999. He did not see defendant that day.
The Butners' residence was not vandalized again after defendant was arrested on December 3, 1999. James obtained a restraining order against defendant. James did not lose his eyesight, but his eye was swollen for a week and a halt and he took pain medication for two or three weeks.
People v. O'Neal, No H021675, slip op at 2-4 (Cal Ct App. Jan 29, 2002) (Ex E).


A. Standard of Review

A federal writ of habeas corpus may not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court's 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." 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (d).

"Under the "contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000). "Under the "unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id at 413.

"[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. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable." Id at 411. A federal habeas court making the "unreasonable application" inquiry should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was "objectively unreasonable." Id at 409.

The only definitive source of clearly established federal law under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (d) is in the holdings (as opposed to the dicta) of the Supreme Court as of the time of the state court decision. Id at 412; Clark v. Murphy, 317 F.3d 1038, 1044 (9th Cir 2003). While circuit law may be "persuasive authority" for purposes of determining whether a state court decision is an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent, only the Supreme Court's holdings are binding on the state courts and only those holdings need be "reasonably" applied. Id.

B. Claims

Petitioner raises two colorable claims for relief under ยง 2254: (1) the admission of evidence that petitioner had committed the prior acts of vandalism rendered the trial fundamentally unfair; and (2) the imposition of a $14,771.70 ...

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