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Cook v. Sisto

May 14, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert H. Whaley United States District Judge


Before the Court is Petitioner's Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, 28 U.S.C. Section 2254 (Ct. Rec. 7). Petitioner is a state prisoner currently confined at the California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville, California, and is proceeding pro se.

Petitioner plead guilty to first degree murder (Cal. Penal Code § 187) and was sentenced to an indeterminate term of twenty-five years to life imprisonment.

Petitioner filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus with Sacramento County Superior Court, asserting that the state of California had violated the plea agreement when it failed to provide Petitioner with a timely parole hearing. This petition was denied. He then filed a Petition with the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. These petitions were summarily denied.

On February 26, 2007, Petitioner filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Eastern District of California and asserted four grounds for relief: (1) the state failed to comply with state law in violation of Petitioner's due process rights; (2) Petitioner has a constitutional right to have the state comply with their part of the plea agreement; (3) Petitioner must be permitted to withdraw his plea; and (4) plea agreements are contracts requiring the state to live up to their part of the contract. Petitioner asserted that the state of California failed to provide him with a timely parole consideration hearing; he has a right to have a panel made up of a cross-section of society; and his sentence has been illegally increased beyond that allowed by law. Petitioner asserted that had he known that the state would violate the terms of the plea agreement, he would have never waived his constitutional rights and plead guilty.

On April 11, 2007, Magistrate Judge Gregory Hollows dismissed the petition with leave to amend (Ct. Rec. 6). Judge Hollows noted that Petitioner did not allege that an actual term of his plea agreement was that the parole suitability panels would be composed of members of the public who were not ex-law enforcement officers and victims rights advocates, and that Petitioner did not identify any particular parole suitability hearing panel of his own that included biased members or cite to an example of bias shown by a panel member at one of his hearings. Finally, Judge Hollows noted that Petitioner did not allege that a specific term of his plea agreement provided that he receive timely parole hearings, or describe any of the untimely parole hearings he allegedly received.

On May 5, 2007, Petitioner filed an Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Ct. Rec. 7). In his amended petition, Petitioner argued that his plea agreement was violated because he did not receive timely parole hearings and because the members of the parole hearing panels were biased. He also asserted that his due process rights were violated based on an untimely parole suitability hearing. He stated that on August 11, 2004, he was denied parole for one year, but did not receive his next suitability hearing until February 16, 2006--six months late.

Judge Hollows issued a Report and Recommendations recommending that the action be dismissed (Ct. Rec. 8). Judge Lawrence Karlton declined to adopt the Report and Recommendation (Ct. Rec. 9). Judge Karlton liberally construed Petitioner's Amended Petition and concluded that Petitioner stated a cognizable claim that the state violated his due process rights by failing to comply with state law in the timing of his suitability hearings. Specifically, Judge Karlton found that an individual's federal due process rights may be implicated when a state erroneously applies state law, and this failure can be a basis for habeas relief under AEDPA. Judge Karlton, relying on In re Jackson, found that an inmate has a procedural due process interest in the state's compliance with the parole statutes.

Under California Penal Code section 3041.5(b)(2), if an inmate is found unsuitable for parole, "[t]he board shall hear [the] case annually thereafter," unless an exception applies. An exception applies if the board determines that it is not reasonable to expect that parole would be granted the following year and states its basis for this determination. Cal. Penal Code § 3041.5(b)(2)(A)-(B). In that case, the board may hold the next suitability hearing two years later or up to five years later for an inmate who has been convicted of murder. Id.

In a subsequent Order, the state was ordered to address whether it violated Petitioner's due process rights by not providing a written basis for its determination that Petitioner's suitability hearings should be held less frequently than annually (Ct. Rec. 10).


In order to succeed with his § 2254 petition, Petitioner must establish that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Petitioner must also establish that his claims were adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings and that the adjudication of the claim "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 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." § 2254(d). A determination of a factual issue made by the State court shall be presumed to be correct. § 2254(e). Petitioner has the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence. Id.

A state court's decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law only where "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 Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-24 (2000). There is an "unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law when a state court "correctly identifies the governing legal rule but applies it unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner's case." Id. at 407-08. A state court decision can also involve an unreasonable application of clearly established precedent "if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from [the Supreme Court's] precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to ...

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