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Kenneth Tyrone Williams v. J. Tim Ochoa

March 15, 2011


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


Kenneth Tyrone Williams, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Williams is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. Respondent has answered, and Williams has replied. In his Petition, Williams challenges the July 29, 2005, decision of the Board of Parole Hearings ("Board") denying him parole for a period of two years.


Williams was convicted in the Los Angeles County Superior Court of one count each of Murder in the First Degree (Cal. Penal Code § 187), Robbery in the First Degree (Cal. Penal Code § 211) and Attempted Robbery in the First Degree (Cal. Penal Code §§ 211, 664), with various firearm enhancements (Cal. Penal Code §§ 1203.06(a)(1); 12022(a), (b); 12022.5; 12022.7). The trial court sentenced Williams to an indeterminate prison term of seven years to life. Williams does not challenge his conviction or sentence in his Petition to this Court.

In June 2005 Williams made his ninth parole-suitability appearance before the Board. After finding that Williams would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison at that time, the Board denied him parole for a period of two years. Williams timely filed a petition for habeas corpus relief in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The Los Angeles Superior Court granted Williams's petition. Respondent appealed, and the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, reversing the Los Angeles Superior Court in an unpublished, reasoned decision, held that "some evidence" supported the Board's denial.*fn1 The California Supreme Court denied review on February 13, 2008. Williams timely filed his Petition for relief in this Court on March 22, 2008.

At Docket No. 19, this Court ordered the parties to advise the Court of (a) the date of Williams's last parole-suitability hearing before the Board, (b) the decision of the Board at that hearing, and (c) the current status of any proceedings in the California state courts related to the Board's decision. This Court further ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefing addressing the issue of whether the Petition should be dismissed as moot. The parties have complied with that Order.


In his Petition, Williams raises but a single ground: that the decision of the Board was unsupported by "some evidence." Respondent asserts no 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 [state-court] error is limited to whether the error 'so infected the [proceeding] with unfairness as to make the [result] 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 proceeding is whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the outcome.*fn10 Because state court judgments in criminal proceedings 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 State appellate court decisions that affirm a lower court's opinion without explanation are presumed to have adopted the reasoning of the lower court.*fn13 Under California's unique habeas procedure, a defendant who is denied habeas relief in the superior court files a new original petition for relief in the court of appeal. If denied relief by the court of appeal, the defendant has the option of either filing a new original petition for habeas relief or a petition for review of the court of appeal's denial in the California Supreme Court.*fn14 This is considered as the functional equivalent of the appeal process.*fn15 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.*fn16 This presumption applies to state trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn17


Although this Court directed the parties to advise the Court of any subsequent parole-suitability hearing before the Board and brief the question of mootness, the question of mootness has itself become moot. Williams's arguments have been conclusively foreclosed on their merits by the decision of the Supreme Court in Swarthout v. Cooke.*fn18 This Court must decide the case on the law as it exists at the time it renders its decision, and if controlling law changes while the case is pending, this Court applies the law as changed.*fn19 Thus, Cooke forecloses Price's arguments vis-a-vis California's "some evidence" rule.

Generally, when a higher court issues new controlling authority after briefing is complete, this Court requests further briefing from the parties addressing the new authority. The Supreme Court decision in Cooke as applied to this case is so clear that further briefing would unduly prolong this old case without any possibility of changing the result. The Supreme Court has limited review to the procedures followed by the board and the governor, and defined with care what it meant by the applicable procedures. No longer may this Court consider ...

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