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Courtney v. Harrington

March 6, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John W. Sedwick United States District Judge


Petitioner Derrick Kinte Courtney, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a petition for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Courtney is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison. Respondent has answered the petition, and Courtney has filed a traverse.


Following a jury finding that Courtney was competent to stand trial, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder (Cal. Penal Code, §§ 187(a); 189) with a finding that a principal was armed with a firearm in the commission of the offense (Cal. Penal Code § 12022.2(a)(1)). Then in a trial by court, the court found true a special circumstance allegation that Petitioner had a prior conviction for first-degree murder (Cal. Penal Code § 190.2(a)(2)). Courtney was sentenced to state prison for life without the possibility of parole plus an additional year for the armed finding, this term to run consecutively to a sentence he was then serving for the other first-degree murder.

Courtney appealed the finding of competency to the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, which affirmed the finding in an unpublished reasoned decision.*fn2 The California Supreme Court summarily denied review without opinion or citation to authority on March 19, 2008. Courtney timely filed his petition for relief in this Court on April 17, 2008.


In his petition Courtney challenges his conviction on the grounds that he was incompetent to stand trial. Respondent has not pled any affirmative defenses.*fn3


Courtney's petition 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 or erroneous."*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 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 Under AEDPA, 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 Courtney raises issues of the proper application of State law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding. A federal court must accept that state courts correctly applied state laws.*fn12


Courtney contended on appeal that reversal of his conviction was required because the trial court prejudicially erred when it failed to appoint, sua sponte, the Director of the Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled (hereafter the DRC) to evaluate his competency to stand trial. The California Court of Appeal, after determining that the trial court erred in not appointing the Director, held that the error was nevertheless harmless.

Since the defendant had been evaluated by experts in the field which, in turn, enabled the trier of fact to make an informed determination of defendant's competency to stand trial, defendant's right not to be tried while incompetent had been protected, and ...

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