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Clarence Roberson v. Tim Virga

August 2, 2012


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


Clarence Roberson, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Roberson is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the California State Prison, Sacramento. Respondent has answered, and Roberson has replied.


Following a jury trial, in November 2008 Roberson was convicted in the Sacramento County Superior Court of assault by force likely to produce great bodily injury (Cal. Penal Code § 4501), with two prior strike convictions (Cal. Penal Code § 667(b)-(i)). The trial court sentenced Roberson to an indeterminate prison term of twenty-five years to life. The California Court of Appeal affirmed Roberson's conviction and sentence in an unpublished decision,*fn1 and the California Supreme Court denied review on October 27, 2010. Roberson timely filed his Petition dated November 16, 2010, in this Court on February 11, 2011.

The factual underpinning of Roberson's conviction as recited by the California Court of Appeal: About 1:30 p.m. on January 7, 2006, California State Prison Correctional Officer Juan Cantu saw, from 30 yards away, two inmates, David Sarente and defendant, push another inmate, Michael Rhinehart, to the ground and kick him. The kicks were to the upper torso and head. Rhinehart appeared to be unconscious. Officer Cantu ordered Sarente and defendant to stop and to move away from Rhinehart.

Correctional Officer Michael Key also witnessed the assault. Officer Key's attention was drawn to the area when, 10 to 15 yards away, several inmates quickly dispersed. Officer Key saw Rhinehart's motionless body on the ground. Defendant and Sarente were kicking Rhinehart above the waist. All inmates were ordered to get down on the ground.

Correctional Officer Alice Link-Lopez responded to the area and saw a group of inmates on the ground. Rhinehart was bleeding from his mouth and was unresponsive, appearing to be unconscious. Rhinehart was transported on a gurney to the medical clinic, where he regained consciousness. He was slightly confused and disoriented. He suffered lacerations on his lip and chin and received stitches to his lip. He also had abrasions on his neck and arm.

At trial, Rhinehart was called by the defense to testify. He was in prison for murder. He claimed that he and [Roberson] had been friendly. Rhinehart grew up with Sarente's father. Rhinehart claimed that on the day of the incident, he threatened to stab [Roberson]. When they approached one another, Rhinehart landed on the ground. Rhinehart denied that either [Roberson] or Sarente knocked him down. Rhinehart denied that he had been knocked out or kicked. He claimed he was on the ground with his eyes closed and was resting. He denied that [Roberson] was at fault. Rhinehart acknowledged that [Roberson] may have punched him. Rhinehart would not "testify to that in court."

Sarente testified and denied having been involved in the incident. Sarente denied seeing [Roberson] kick Rhinehart.

[Roberson] testified. He claimed that Rhinehart called him over and threw two punches. [Roberson] blocked the second punch and then punched Rhinehart in the mouth, causing Rhinehart to fall backwards to the ground. [Roberson] denied that he or Sarente kicked Rhinehart.

Defense investigator Andrew Saucedo was called to testify in rebuttal. He interviewed Rhinehart on June 13, 2008. Rhinehart claimed that he had been hit from behind and did not know who had knocked him out. Rhinehart also claimed he had been kicked but did not know who had kicked him.

A district attorney investigator also interviewed Rhinehart. Rhinehart stated that inmates will not testify against each other after a fight.*fn2


In his Amended Petition, Roberson raises four grounds: (1) the trial court failed to exercise its independent judgment; (2) there is insufficient evidence to support the conviction; (3) the trial court improperly denied a motion for a new trial in refusing to re-weigh the evidence; and (4) the trial court failed to investigate Roberson's competence. Respondent does not assert any affirmative defenses.*fn3


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

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.*fn13

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the "last reasoned decision" by the state court.*fn14 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.*fn15 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.*fn16


Ground 1: Failure to Exercise Independent Judgment; Ground 2: Insufficient Evidence; Ground 3: Denial of Motion for a New Trial Although stated as separate grounds, all three grounds are based upon a common set of facts and arguments: insufficiency of the evidence. Roberson presented these grounds in slightly different form to the California Court of Appeal. The California Court of Appeal rejected Roberson's arguments presented to it, holding:



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