The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge
Freddie Carl Sprinkle, a state prisoner appearing through counsel, filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Sprinkle is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the California State Prison, Solano. Respondent has answered, and Sprinkle has replied.
I. BACKGROUND/PRIOR PROCEEDINGS
In August 1987 Sprinkle was convicted
upon a negotiated plea in the Lassen County Superior Court of Murder
in the Second Degree under California Penal Code § 187.*fn1
The trial court sentenced Sprinkle to an indeterminate prison
term of 15 years to life in accordance with the plea agreement.
Sprinkle does not challenge his conviction or sentence in his Petition
to this Court.
In April 2002 Sprinkle appeared for a parole suitability hearing before the Board of Prison Terms ("Board"), which found Sprinkle suitable for parole. In September 2002 the Governor reversed the decision of the Board. In May 2003 Sprinkle again appeared before the Board for a parole suitability hearing. The Board denied Sprinkle parole for a period of one year. In June 2003 Sprinkle filed a petition for habeas relief in the San Joaquin County Superior Court, challenging both the September 2002 reversal by the Governor and the May 2003 decision of the Board denying him parole. The San Joaquin County Superior Court denied the petition in an unreported, reasoned decision. The California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, summarily denied Sprinkle's petition for habeas relief without opinion or citation to authority. Sprinkle then filed a petition for habeas relief in the California Supreme Court in February 2004. While Sprinkle's habeas petition was pending before the California Supreme Court, Sprinkle reappeared before the Board in June 2004, which again denied Sprinkle parole for a period of one year. In October 2004 Sprinkle filed a petition for habeas relief in the California Supreme Court challenging the Board's June 2004 action, requesting that it be consolidated with the petition filed in February 2004. The California Supreme Court summarily denied both petitions without opinion or citation to authority on July 20, 2005. Sprinkle timely filed his Petition for relief in this Court on September 7, 2005.
Sprinkle moved for summary judgment on his Petition in this Court, and the Magistrate Judge issued Findings and Recommendations recommending that the Petition be granted. On December 5, 2008, while the objection and response to the Magistrate Judge's Findings and Recommendations were pending, this Court stayed this proceeding pending the en banc decision by the Ninth Circuit in Hayward v. Marshall.*fn2 On September 17, 2010, after the Ninth Circuit issued its en banc decision in Hayward, this Court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefing addressing "any relevant factors pertaining to Petitioner's ongoing incarceration since 2007."*fn3 The parties responded to that Order, and this Court, rejecting the Findings and Recommendations of the Magistrate Judge, denied Sprinkle's motion for summary judgment.
II. GROUNDS PRESENTED/DEFENSES
In his Petition, Sprinkle raises three grounds: (1) the Governor's 2002 reversal of the Board's decision violated the Ex Post Facto Clause; (2) the refusal to grant Sprinkle parole violates due process and constitutes a denial of equal protection in that (a) the Governor's action violated the plea agreement, (b) the Governor's action violated California statutes and regulations, and (c) the Governor's 2002 reversal and the Board's 2003 decision to deny parole for one year were biased and unsupported by substantial evidence; and (3) the State's refusal to grant Sprinkle parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Respondent does not assert any affirmative defense.*fn4
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."*fn5 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."*fn6 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.*fn7 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.'"*fn8 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."*fn9 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.*fn10 "[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.'"*fn11 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.*fn12 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.*fn13
The Supreme Court recently underscored the magnitude of the deference required: As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. Cf. Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 664, 116 S.Ct. 2333, 135 L.Ed.2d 827 (1996) (discussing AEDPA's "modified res judicata rule" under § 2244). It preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with this Court's precedents. It goes no farther. Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a "guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems," not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n.5, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment). As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.*fn14
In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn15 State appellate court decisions that summarily affirm a lower court's opinion without explanation are presumed to have adopted the reasoning of the lower court.*fn16 This Court gives the presumed decision of the state court the same AEDPA deference that it would give a reasoned decision of the state court.*fn17
Under California's unique habeas procedure, a prisoner 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.*fn18
This is considered as the functional equivalent of the appeal process.*fn19 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.*fn20 This presumption applies to state-trial courts and appellate courts alike.*fn21
To the extent that Sprinkle raises issues of the proper application of state law, they are beyond the purview of this Court in a federal habeas proceeding.*fn22 A petitioner "may not, however, transform a state-law issue into a federal one merely by asserting a violation of due process.*fn23 "[The Supreme Court has] long recognized that a mere error of state law is not a denial of due process."*fn24 "[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.'"*fn25 Furthermore, "Federal courts hold no supervisory authority over state judicial proceedings and may intervene only to correct wrongs of constitutional dimension."*fn26
A state court is not required to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to be "adjudicated on the merits."*fn27 When there is no reasoned state-court decision denying an issue presented to the state, "it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the ...