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Williams v. Martel

May 18, 2010


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


Petitioner Melvin E. Williams, a state prisoner appearing pro se, has filed a petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Williams is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. Respondent has filed an answer, and Williams has filed a traverse.


The following statement of facts is taken from the reasoned, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeal:

In August 2003, Lorena Maxim befriended defendant and began to spend most of her time with him. Maxim, a prostitute who pleaded guilty in exchange for her testimony, admitted that she and defendant turned to crime in October 2003 to supplement their income.

Although defendant was charged with a total of 13 criminal counts, the jury either deadlocked on or acquitted him of charges arising from robberies that took place on October 9, October 18 and early on October 28, 2003. We do not recite the evidence with respect to the charges that did not result in convictions.

Factual Summary

In June 2003, defendant came to the door of Clara Paz at her home on Branch Street in Sacramento and asked to purchase some heroin. Paz told him to leave his name and number and she would get back to him. Defendant walked over to a box next to her bed stand and remarked, "from my understanding you keep it in a box like this." He then grabbed the box, which contained approximately two ounces of heroin. He also took some cash from her purse. When Paz got up, defendant pulled out a gun, pointed it at her head and threatened to "pop" her.

At around 11:30 p.m. on October 28, 2003, Paz was in her bedroom using her silver laptop computer. She looked up and noticed defendant in her doorway. Defendant, who had a small silver gun in his hand, said "remember me?" Remembering defendant from the June incident, Paz replied "get the fuck out of my house."

Defendant cocked the gun and was pointing it down as he stood about four feet from Paz. He told her "this is for what happened before," and reached over to seize the laptop. Paz grabbed the computer and struggled with defendant for control, as she screamed for her son-in-law to help.

Defendant turned and pointed the gun at Paz's forehead, saying "I'll pop you." Paz then let go of the computer.

As defendant departed with the laptop, Paz went into the living room as her soninlaw Octavio Barron entered from the kitchen. Paz told Barron what happened and he began chasing defendant. Defendant pointed the gun at Barron's temple and threatened to shoot him in the head if he took a step closer. Barron replied that he "didn't care." Defendant quickly walked out of the house and got into a large white car that was waiting for him at the corner of Eleanor and Branch.

Two Sacramento police officers who were stationed only a few blocks away observed a white Mercury with an expired plate registration and stopped the car. They found defendant in the driver's seat and Maxim was in the passenger seat, with a silver laptop computer near her feet. Because defendant had no identification, one of the officers returned to his patrol car to run a check. As he did so, a police broadcast alerted the officers to the robbery at the Paz house, and the two suspects were promptly taken into custody.

Based on the evidence recited above, defendant was convicted of robbery as to Paz and assault with a firearm against Barron, with true findings as to two firearm enhancements.*fn1


A jury found Williams guilty of first degree robbery (Cal. Penal Code, § 211) and assault with a firearm (Cal. Penal Code, § 245(a)(2). The jury also found firearm enhancements to be true with respect to each count (Cal. Penal Code, §§ 12022.5(a)(1), 12022.53(b)). The trial court then found that Williams had sustained a prior "strike" felony conviction under California Penal Code § 667(a). Williams was sentenced to an aggregate prison term of 30 years, 4 months.

Williams timely appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal for the State of California, Third District, who affirmed the judgment and sentence in a reasoned, unpublished opinion.*fn2

Williams then filed a petition for review of the Court of Appeal's decision in the California Supreme Court who denied Williams' petition on January 3, 2008.*fn3

Williams timely filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court on September 19, 2008. In his petition to this Court, Williams raises five grounds for relief. Respondent acknowledges the grounds asserted in the instant petition are properly exhausted. Respondent asserts no affirmative defenses.


Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), this Court cannot grant relief unless the decision of the state court 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 The holding must also be intended to be binding upon the states; that is, the decision must be based upon constitutional grounds, not on the supervisory power of the Supreme Court over federal courts.*fn6 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.'"*fn7 When a claim falls under the "unreasonable application" prong, a state court's application of Supreme Court precedent must be objectively unreasonable, not just incorrect or erroneous.*fn8 The Supreme Court has made clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing that the state court determination was incorrect.*fn9 "[A]bsent a specific constitutional violation, federal habeas corpus review of trial error is limited to whether the error 'so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.'"*fn10 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 outcome.*fn11 Because state court judgments of conviction and sentence carry a presumption of finality and legality, the petitioner has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she merits habeas relief.*fn12

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court,*fn13 which in this case was that of the California Court of Appeal. 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.*fn14 This presumption applies to state trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn15

When there is no reasoned state court decision denying an issue presented to the state court and raised in a federal habeas petition, this Court must assume that the state court decided all the issues presented to it and perform an independent review of the record to ascertain whether the state court decision was objectively unreasonable.*fn16 The scope of this review is for clear error of the state court ruling on the petition:

[A]lthough we cannot undertake our review by analyzing the basis for the state court's decision, we can view it through the "objectively reasonable" lens ground by Williams.... Federal habeas review is not de novo when the state court does not supply reasoning for its decision, but an independent review of the record is required to determine whether the state court clearly erred in its application of controlling federal law. ...

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