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Wickliffe v. Sisto

August 30, 2010

ERIC WICKLIFFE, PETITIONER,
v.
D.K. SISTO, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Barbara Jacobs Rothstein U.S. District Court Judge

ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

I. INTRODUCTION

Petitioner is a California state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is serving a sentence of fifteen-years-to-life imprisonment in the California Department of Corrections imposed following his 1990 conviction for second-degree murder. Petitioner challenges the Board of Parole Hearing's (the "Board") February 1, 2008 decision finding him unsuitable for parole.

II. FACTURAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On October 22, 1990, Petitioner pled guilty to murdering Karen Marie Harnage. At the time of the murder, Ms. Harnage was Petitioner's estranged girlfriend and the mother of his son. Petitioner and Ms. Harnage had recently separated and Ms. Harnage had a restraining order against Petitioner. Despite the restraining order, on the day of the murder, Ms. Harnage drove to Petitioner's parent's home in order to discuss the status of her relationship with him. An argument ensued and Ms. Harnage left the house and got into her car. Petitioner followed her to her vehicle, and the argument continued in the driveway until Petitioner shot her with his 38-caliber handgun, killing her. Petitioner's version of the shooting has varied significantly throughout this case, but the autopsy report shows that Ms. Harnage was shot three times. One shot was in the palm of her hand, the second shot was in her leg at an angle that indicates that she was sitting when the bullet entered her leg, and the final and fatal shot was in her back.*fn1 (Dkt. No. 1, Ex. A at 59.) Petitioner fled the scene of the shooting and drove to his uncle's house. His uncle transported him back to the crime scene and Petitioner surrendered to the local authorities.

After being sentenced, it was determined that Petitioner's Minimum Eligible Release Date was February 17, 2000. He was denied parole for the first time in 2004. On February 1, 2008, Petitioner appeared before the Board for his second suitability hearing and was denied parole for one year. Petitioner filed a habeas petition in Los Angeles Superior Court, which was denied on February 4, 2009. The California Court of Appeal, Second District, denied the petition on March 26, 2009 and, thereafter, the California Supreme Court denied the petition. Petitioner filed the present habeas petition in the Eastern District of California on June 16, 2009. The matter was transferred to this court on March 2, 2010. The matter is now ripe for review.

III. DECISION

A. Standard of Review

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") governs this petition because it was filed after the enactment of AEDPA. See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 326-27 (1997). Because Petitioner is in custody of the California Department of Corrections pursuant to a state court judgment, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 provides the exclusive vehicle for his habeas petition. See White v. Lambert, 370 F.3d 1002, 1009-10 (9th Cir. 2004) Under AEDPA, a habeas petition may not be granted with respect to any claim adjudicated on the merits in state court unless petitioner demonstrates that the highest state court decision rejecting his petition was either "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States," or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2).

As a threshold matter, this court must ascertain whether relevant federal law was "clearly established" at the time of the state court's decision. To make this determination, the court may only consider the holdings, as opposed to dicta, of the United States Supreme Court. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). In this context, Ninth Circuit precedent remains persuasive but not binding authority. See id. at 412-13; Clark v. Murphy, 331 F.3d 1062, 1069 (9th Cir. 2003).

The court must then determine whether the state court's decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71 (2003). "Under the 'contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if 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] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams, 529 U.S. at 412-13. "Under the 'unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. at 413. At all times, a federal habeas court must keep in mind that it "may not issue the writ simply because [it] 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 [objectively] unreasonable." Id. at 411. It is the petitioner's burden to establish that the state court decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254; Baylor v. Estelle, 94 F.3d 1321, 1325 (9th Cir. 1996).

AEDPA also requires federal courts to give considerable deference to state court decisions, and state courts' factual findings are presumed correct. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). Federal courts are bound by a state's interpretation of its own laws. See Murtishaw v. Woodford, 255 F.3d 926, 964 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Powell v. Ducharme, 998 F.2d 710, 713 (9th Cir. 1993)). This deference, however, is accorded only to "reasoned decisions" by the state courts. To determine whether the petitioner has met this burden, a federal habeas court looks to the last reasoned state court decision because subsequent unexplained orders upholding that judgment are presumed to rest upon the same ground. See Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803-04 (1991); Medley v. Runnels, 506 F.3d 857, 862 (9th Cir. 2007).

B. Due Process Right under California's Parole Scheme

Under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the federal and state governments are prohibited from depriving an inmate of life, liberty or property without the due process of law. U.S. Const. amends. V, XIV. A prisoner's due process claim must be analyzed in two steps: the first asks whether the state has interfered with a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest of the prisoner, and the second asks whether the procedures ...


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