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Coffman v. Runnels

March 26, 2009

WILLIAM JAMES COFFMAN, PETITIONER,
v.
DAVID RUNNELS, WARDEN, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gregory G. Hollows United States Magistrate Judge

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

I. Introduction

Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges his Butte County Superior Court conviction on two counts of robbery, one count of possession of a firearm by a felon, and one count of prowling, for which he was sentenced, on July 8, 2003, to a term of 21 years and four months.*fn1 Second Amended Petition (SAP) at 2. Petitioner raised the following grounds for relief: 1) failure of the trial court to sua sponte give a limiting instruction and 2) ineffective assistance of trial counsel. SAP at 3.

For the reasons set forth herein, the court recommends that the petition be denied.

II. Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)

The AEDPA "worked substantial changes to the law of habeas corpus," establishing more deferential standards of review to be used by a federal habeas court in assessing a state court's adjudication of a criminal defendant's claims of constitutional error. Moore v. Calderon, 108 F.3d 261, 263 (9th Cir. 1997).

In Williams (Terry) v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 120 S.Ct. 1495 (2000), the Supreme Court defined the operative review standard set forth in § 2254(d). Justice O'Connor's opinion for Section II of the opinion constitutes the majority opinion of the court. There is a dichotomy between "contrary to" clearly established law as enunciated by the Supreme Court, and an "unreasonable application of" that law. Id. at 495, 117 S.Ct. at 1519. "Contrary to" clearly established law applies to two situations: (1) where the state court legal conclusion is opposite that of the Supreme Court on a point of law, or (2) if the state court case is materially indistinguishable from a Supreme Court case, i.e., on point factually, yet the legal result is opposite.

"Unreasonable application" of established law, on the other hand, applies to mixed questions of law and fact, that is, the application of law to fact where there are no factually on point Supreme Court cases which mandate the result for the precise factual scenario at issue. Williams (Terry), 529 U.S. at 407-08, 120 S.Ct. at 1520-1521 (2000). It is this prong of the AEDPA standard of review which directs deference to be paid to state court decisions. While the deference is not blindly automatic, "the most important point is that an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of law....[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." Williams (Terry), 529 U.S. at 410-11, 120 S.Ct. at 1522 (emphasis in original). The habeas corpus petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating the objectively unreasonable nature of the state court decision in light of controlling Supreme Court authority. Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 123 S.Ct. 357 (2002).

The state courts need not have cited to federal authority, or even have indicated awareness of federal authority in arriving at their decision. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 123 S.Ct. 362 (2002). Nevertheless, the state decision cannot be rejected unless the decision itself is contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, established Supreme Court authority. Id. An unreasonable error is one in excess of even a reviewing court's perception that "clear error" has occurred. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76, 123 S.Ct. 1166, 1175 (2003). Moreover, the established Supreme Court authority reviewed must be a pronouncement on constitutional principles, or other controlling federal law, as opposed to a pronouncement of statutes or rules binding only on federal courts. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. at 9, 123 S.Ct. at 366.

However, where the state courts have not addressed the constitutional issue in dispute in any reasoned opinion, the federal court will independently review the record in adjudication of that issue. "Independent review of the record is not de novo review of the constitutional issue, but rather, the only method by which we can determine whether a silent state court decision is objectively unreasonable." Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003).

III. Background

The opinion of the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, contains a factual summary. After independently reviewing the record, the court finds this summary to be accurate and adopts it below.

The first robbery occurred at a gas station in Chico on the evening of April 7, 2000, between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. A man wearing a ski mask (which circumstantial evidence proved to be [co-defendant] Henry Leroy Harmon) entered the station, pointed a "really old-fashioned gun" at the cashier, and demanded all of her money. The cashier responded, "Yeah right." In response the assailant put the gun on the counter, "like a foot away from my stomach and fired it." The gun was apparently unloaded or misfired because the cashier was uninjured, but there was a loud noise and the store filled with smoke. The cashier relented and gave the assailant the money from the cash register. The assailant took the money, ran out the front door, and disappeared behind the building. The cashier subsequently identified a cap and ball gun belonging to Harmon as the one used in the robbery.

Around the time of the robbery, a pedestrian saw a "little reddish car" with a stripe down the middle and two male occupants speed out of either the parking lot of the gas station or the parking lot immediately adjacent to it. The pedestrian was later shown photographs of [petitioner's] car, which she immediately identified as the one she saw leave the parking lot. The car in the photograph had a ...


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