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Smith v. Hartley

September 26, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge


Petitioner Darrel Maurice Smith, Sr., a state prisoner proceeding pro se, filed a petition for habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Smith is presently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the Avenal State Prison.


In September 1984 Smith, following a "slow plea" submission,*fn2 was convicted in the Sacramento County Superior Court of second degree murder with a firearm enhancement. Smith was sentenced to an aggregate term of 17 years to life.

On December 18, 2002, Smith made his fourth appearance before a panel of the Board of Prison Terms ("Board"), which denied him parole, finding that he was not suitable for parole and would not be found suitable for a period of three years. Smith administratively appealed the decision of the panel, which affirmed the panel decision July 8, 2003. On October 23, 2003, Smith filed a habeas petition in the Sacramento County Superior Court that was denied in a reasoned written decision on November 12, 2003. On December 15, 2003, Smith filed a habeas petition in the California Court of Appeal, which was summarily denied without opinion or citation on December 30, 2003. On January 14, 2004, Smith petitioned the California Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was summarily denied without opinion or citation to authority on December 1, 2004. Smith timely filed his petition for habeas relief in this Court on June 22, 2005 (file stamped June 27, 2005).


In his petition, Smith has raised 10 Grounds: (1) the California Superior Court erred in denying his habeas petition; (2) Petitioner's "slow plea" is tantamount to a guilty plea; (3) he did not waive his right to a jury trial; (4) he was not informed of the consequences of his "slow plea"; (5) he has a constitutional right to compel the state to comply with his plea agreement; (6) he must be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea; (7) plea agreements are contracts the state must honor; (8) he was entitled to parole release at his 2002 hearing; (9) the Board failed to follow controlling legal principles so disproportionately that it violated his constitutional rights; and (10) lack of evidence to support a finding of suitability.

The Court previously dismissed, without prejudice, the petition to the extent that it challenged his conviction.*fn3 Respondent was ordered to respond to the remaining grounds challenging the Board's December 18, 2002, decision denying him parole. Respondent concedes that Smith has exhausted his state court remedies as to the remaining grounds and that the petition is not subject to any other procedural bar.


Because Petitioner filed his petition after April 24, 1996, it is governed by the standard of review set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Consequently, this Court cannot grant relief unless the decision of the California Court of Appeal was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" at the time the state court renders its decision or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn4 The Supreme Court has explained that "clearly established Federal law" in § 2254(d)(1) "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court] as of the time of the relevant state-court decision."*fn5

Thus, where holdings of the Supreme Court regarding the issue presented on habeas review are lacking, "it cannot be said that the state court 'unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.'"*fn6 When a claim falls under the "unreasonable application" prong, a state court's application of the Supreme Court precedent must be "objectively unreasonable, "not just incorrect."*fn7 The Supreme Court has made clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing the state court determination was incorrect.*fn8

Finally, in a federal habeas proceeding, the standard under which this Court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial is whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.*fn9

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court,*fn10 which in this case was that of the Sacramento County Superior Court. In addition, the state court's findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption by clear and convincing evidence.*fn11

To the extent that Petitioner raises issues of the proper application of State law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding. It is a fundamental precept of dual federalism that the States possess primary authority for defining and enforcing the criminal law.*fn12 A federal court must accept that state courts correctly applied state laws.*fn13 A petitioner may not transform a state law issue into a federal one by simply asserting a violation of due process.*fn14 Nor may a federal court issue a habeas writ based upon a ...

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