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Kenneth Scott Rodgers v. D. K. Sisto

January 7, 2011


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


Kenneth Scott Rodgers, a state prisoner appearing pro se, has filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Rodgers is presently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the California State Prison, Solano.

Respondent ("State") has answered the petition, and Rodgers has replied.


In April 1994 Rodgers was convicted on a guilty plea in the Riverside County Superior Court of Murder in the Second Degree (Cal. Penal Code, § 187), with a firearms use enhancement (Cal. Penal Code, § 12202.5). The trial court sentenced Rodgers to an indeterminate term of 15 years to life on the murder conviction and a consecutive term of 3 years on the firearm use enhancement conviction, for an aggregate term of 18 years to life. Rodgers does not challenge his conviction or sentence in this proceeding.

In February 2007 Rodgers appeared at a parole-suitability hearing before the Board of Parole Hearings. The Board denied Rodgers parole for a period of three years. Rodgers filed a timely petition for habeas corpus relief in the Riverside County Superior Court, which denied his petition in an unpublished reasoned decision. The California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, summarily denied Rodgers's petition to that court without opinion or citation to authority. The California Supreme Court summarily denied review without opinion or citation to authority on October 24, 2007. Rodgers timely filed his petition for relief in this Court on November 4, 2007.

The facts of the underlying commitment offense as set forth in the Probation Officer's report and recited by the Board are:

"On November 29th, 1992, at approximately two a.m., investigator Humphries of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department was dispatched to 66860 Florida Street in Desert Hot Springs regarding a shooting. Deputy Trevino and Weems, W-E-E-M-S, were already at the scene. They told investigator Humphries the victim, Rochelle Rodgers, had been shot and had died en route to Desert Hospital. Investigator Humphries learned during his subsequent investigation that the victim and her husband, the inmate, had been separated for about one and a half months. The night of the shooting the victim had gotten off work at approximately ten p.m. and had gone to her home, her brother's residence, which she had been staying. Later, in the early morning hours, she went to a friend's home at 66860 Florida Street. She was followed there by the inmate who subsequently shot and killed her while she sat her in [sic] vehicle in the driveway at that residence. A witness identified the inmate as the person who had done the shooting. The inmate fled the scene in a vehicle."*fn1


Rodgers raises two grounds for relief: (1) denial of parole violated the plea agreement; and (2) denial of parole was not based upon relevant reliable evidence. The State does not raise any affirmative defense.*fn2


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."*fn3 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."*fn4 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.*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 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 that the state court determination was incorrect.*fn8 "[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.'"*fn9 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.*fn10 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.*fn11

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn12 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.*fn13 This presumption applies to state trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn14


Ground 1: Breach of Plea Agreement

Rodgers argues, citing, inter alia, Cal. Penal Code, § 3041(a) and Cal. Code of Regulations, title 15, § 2000(a)(67), that the objectively reasonable intent and understanding of the parties to the plea agreement was that he would serve a minimum term of imprisonment, less post-conviction credits for good conduct, and then be paroled. The Riverside County Superior Court rejected Rodgers's argument, holding:

[Rodgers] correctly notes that a criminal defendant has a due process right to enforce the terms of his plea agreement in accordance with state contract law. (see Buckley v. Terhune (9th Cir. 2006) 441 F.3d 688 and cases cited therein.) To that end, [Rodgers] argues that his plea agreement to second rather than first-degree murder impliedly meant that he would be released after serving the minimum term of confinement. [Rodgers] has not provided the sentencing transcript for this court's review, but instead relies upon the probation report and his trial counsel's sentencing memorandum. Unlike those cases wherein the plea agreement was ambiguous or specified a term different than that imposed, here there is no such ambiguity. Where no ambiguity exists, the court may not consider extrinsic evidence. As such, the court must look to the plain meaning of the plea agreement's language. Based upon the record provided, this court finds that the plea agreement clearly imposed a sentence of fifteen years to life with the possibility of parole. No additional promises or terms were provided in the plea agreement. The fact that [Rodgers] understood he would be eligible for parole does not translate to an implied additional agreement that the parole eligibility would be awarded after he served a minimum term of confinement nor that the Board be precluded from considering the commitment offense when determining parole eligibility.*fn15

It is well settled that a plea agreement is a contract that must be honored by the state.*fn16 In this case, however, Rodgers reads his "contract" too broadly. The proper interpretation and effect of the agreement between the State of California and Rodgers in this case is a matter governed by California contract law.*fn17 What Rodgers received in exchange for his guilty plea was a sentence of 18 years to life,*fn18 with a possibility of parole at some point after he had served his minimum term. What Rodgers overlooks is that his sentence was for life, not just 18 years.

Under California law, there is no guarantee of parole after a specified period of time, only that a prisoner will be considered for parole and granted parole only if, in the exercise of the discretion of the Board applying factors specified by regulations, he or she is found suitable for parole.*fn19

Although the plea colloquy is not included in the record before this Court,*fn20 Rodgers does not allege that there was any promise, actual or implied, of when or under what terms or conditions he might be granted parole, only his "settled expectation" that he would be. "A plea agreement violation claim depends upon the actual terms of the agreement, not the subjective understanding of the defendant . . . ."*fn21 Nor does Rodgers argue that any such agreement, if one did exist,would be enforceable under California law.

Accordingly, based upon the record before it, this Court cannot say the decision of the Riverside County Superior Court in this case that denial of parole did not breach Rodgers's plea agreement was "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 in the State court proceeding."*fn22 Rodgers is not entitled to relief under his first ground.

Ground 2: Sufficiency of the Evidence

In denying Rodgers parole, the ...

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