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Robert Fuentes v. Greg Lewis

September 4, 2012



Petitioner, a state prisoner, proceeds pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. At issue are his 2007 convictions in the Sacramento County Superior Court, case number 02F10894, arising out of an assault on another inmate.


The California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, summarized the facts underlying the convictions at issue in this case. Petitioner is the defendant referred to herein:

On July 28, 2002, Officer Chris Green, on duty as the yard gunner for the administrative segregation unit at CSP-Sacramento, saw inmate Patrick Contreras approach defendant in the yard. Officer Green then saw defendant clench his fist and twice jab at Contrera's chest.

After the other inmates were ordered out of the yard, Contreras was found bleeding in the chest from stab wounds. Defendant had blood on his shirt and hands, and a knife was found in the yard.

Defendant's former cellmate, Raymond Vara, serving a life sentence for murder, testified that he, not defendant, stabbed Contreras.

The parties stipulated that defendant was serving a life sentence at the time of the offense.

People v. Fuentes, No. C057878, (Cal. Ct. App. 3rd Dist. May 29, 2009); Lodged Document ("LD") 3 at 2-3.

A jury convicted petitioner of attempted premeditated murder with great bodily injury, assault by an inmate with great bodily injury, and possession of a weapon by an inmate. In a bifurcated proceeding, the trial court found for sentence enhancement purposes that petitioner had previously been convicted of a prior serious felony. At the sanity phase of trial, the jury found petitioner to be sane. Clerk's Transcript ("CT") at 312. The court imposed a life sentence with a minimum 18 year term plus an additional consecutive five year term. Reporter's Transcript ("RT") at 1172-73.

In an unpublished opinion on direct review, the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, affirmed the convictions and sentence. LD 3. The California Supreme Court denied a petition for review. LD 4. Petitioner sought habeas corpus relief in state court where relief was denied at all levels. LD 6, 11-14. Following a stay and abeyance for exhaustion purposes, which was lifted on November 16, 2011, the parties agree that petitioner has exhausted state court remedies on the grounds presented.


I. Standards for a Writ of Habeas Corpus

Federal habeas corpus relief is not available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings unless the state court's adjudication of the claim:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

Under section 2254(d)(1), a state court decision is "contrary to" clearly established United States Supreme Court precedents if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in Supreme Court cases, or if it confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of the Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at different result. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 7 (2002) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-406 (2000)).

Under the "unreasonable application" clause of section 2254(d)(1), a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions, but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case. Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. A federal habeas court "may not issue the writ simply because that court 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 unreasonable." Id. at 412; see also Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003) (it is "not enough that a federal habeas court, in its independent review of the legal question, is left with a 'firm conviction' that the state court was 'erroneous.'")

The court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Avila v. Galaza, 297 F.3d 911, 918 (9th Cir. 2002). Under AEDPA, a state court's findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner rebuts this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Ybarra v. McDaniel, 656 F.3d 984, 989 (9th Cir. 2011). Where the state court reaches a decision on the merits but provides no reasoning to support its conclusion, a federal habeas court independently reviews the record to determine whether habeas corpus relief is available under section 2254(d). Delgado v. Lewis, 223 F.3d 976, 982 (9th Cir. 2000).

II. Analysis of Petitioner's Claims

A. Procedural Bar

Respondent contends petitioner's grounds one through twelve are procedurally barred. The last reasoned state court decision applicable to petitioner's grounds one through twelve is that of the Sacramento County Superior Court on state habeas corpus. LD 13 at 1-9. Presented with these grounds, the state court held they were procedurally defaulted for petitioner's failure to comply with state procedural rules requiring a habeas corpus petitioner to "state with particularity the facts upon which the petitioner is relying to justify relief" and to support the petition with "reasonably available documentary evidence or affidavits," and further, that some were additionally barred to any extent he could have, but did not, raise the issues in his direct appeal. LD 13 at 1-9 (citing In re Swain, 34 Cal.2d 300 (1949), In re Harris, 5 Cal.4th 813, 827 fn. 5 (1993), and In re Dixon, 41 Cal.2d 756 (1953)).*fn1

As a general rule, a federal habeas court "will not review a question of federal law decided by a state court if the decision of that court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment." Calderon v. United States District Court (Bean), 96 F.3d 1126, 1129 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991)); see also Walker v. Martin, 131 S.Ct. 1120, 1127 (2011). An exception to the general bar exists if the petitioner demonstrates either (1) cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or (2) that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 749-50.

Here, it is recommended that this court reach the merits of each of petitioner's grounds for relief without regard to the asserted procedural bar since each ground clearly lacks merit. See Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997) (holding that a reviewing court need not invariably resolve the question of procedural default prior to ruling on the merits of a claim); Franklin v. Johnson, 290 F.3d 1223, 1232 (9th Cir. 2002) ("[A]ppeals courts are empowered to, and in some cases should, reach the merits of habeas petitions if they are, on their face and without regard to any facts that could be developed below, clearly not meritorious despite an asserted procedural bar.").

B. Grounds One and Seven: Shackling

In ground one, petitioner claims the trial court's use of full restraints on him during court proceedings was an abuse of discretion and a violation of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in regard to the issue. In ground seven, petitioner claims the trial court also abused its discretion by requiring witness Vara to testify while fully shackled and dressed in prison clothes, and that both trial and appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance in regard to the issue.

In the last reasoned state court decision applicable to grounds one and seven, the Sacramento County Superior Court held:

[P]petitioner fails to show sufficient prejudice to warrant reversal of the judgment with regard to the shackling of either petitioner or defense witness Vara. Petitioner was being prosecuted for having committed the crimes while an inmate within a prison institution. According to the Third District Court of Appeal opinion affirming the judgment, the evidence showed that the stabbing occurred in the security housing unit. The jury was already aware that both petitioner and Vara were inmates and therefore convicted felons, and presumably that the[y] were housed in the security housing unit, and any further influence on the jury from seeing the shackling of either would not have been sufficient to have made any reasonable difference in the verdict. According to both petitioner and the Third District opinion, Vara testified that Vara and not petitioner committed the stabbing, thus the jurors were presented with a choice of whether Vara or petitioner had committed the stabbing. As both petitioner and Vara were shackled and both of their shackles may have been seen by the jurors, and the jurors knew that both were prison inmates who had committed a felony and who were both housed in the security housing unit, seeing the shackles on both would not likely have had any appreciable effect on their choice of which of the two committed the stabbing based on the evidence. Also, the jurors received a special instruction at the guilt phase, to disregard the fact that petitioner was shackled during trial. And, as noted in the preliminary hearing transcript and in the Third District opinion's view of the evidence presented at trial, Officer Green actually saw petitioner commit the stabbing, and the preliminary hearing transcript shows that a videotape presented showed petitioner committing the stabbing. Assuming that the DVD shown at trial, discussed further, below, was this same footage, prejudice to the jurors from the shackling of either petitioner or Vara is not shown. Nor does petitioner make a showing as to prejudice with regard to the sanity phase. Any prejudice from jurors viewing the shackles likely would have been about whether petitioner was currently dangerous, and not have a bearing on whether petitioner had been insane at the time of the crime. As the jurors already knew that both petitioner and Vara were prisoners housed in the security unit, viewing the shackles would not have had any appreciable effect on their determination of the sanity question. And the jurors received a special instruction at the sanity phase, to disregard the fact that petitioner was shackled during trial.

For these reasons, these claims are denied.

LD 13 at 3-4.

"[T]he Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the use of physical restraints visible to the jury absent a trial court determination, in the exercise of its discretion, that restraints are justified by a state interest specific to a particular trial." Deck v. Missouri, 544 U.S. 622, 629 (2005). When reviewing a constitutional challenge to security measures taken in a state-court criminal trial, "[a]ll a federal court may do in such a situation is look at the scene presented to jurors and determine whether what they saw was so inherently prejudicial as to pose an unacceptable threat to defendant's right to a fair trial; if the challenged practice is not found inherently prejudicial and if the defendant fails to show actual prejudice, the inquiry is over." Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560, 572 (1986).

Prejudice is also an essential element of an ineffective assistance claim. In order to state a cognizable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), petitioner must show both that counsel performed deficiently, and that prejudice resulted from counsel's deficient performance. Id. at 688. To establish prejudice under Strickland, a petitioner must "demonstrate that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's claimed unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. at 694-95. A court "need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies." Id. at 697.

Here, the state court reasonably determined, in accordance with the above clearly established Supreme Court precedent, that petitioner could not show prejudice from the shackling or from Vara's prison clothes as required to state cognizable claims of unconstitutional trial court error or ineffective assistance. First, due to the nature of the charged offenses, the jury was necessarily aware of both individuals' status as inmates housed in the security housing unit. Second, the court instructed the jury to disregard the fact that petitioner was shackled during trial: "The fact that physical restraints have been placed on the defendant is not evidence. Do not speculate about the reason. You must completely disregard this circumstance in deciding the issues in the case. Do not consider it for any purpose or discuss it during your deliberations." RT at 592-93. Petitioner's jury was also instructed to disregard the fact that Vara was shackled. CT at 281. It is presumed that the jurors followed these instructions. See Rhoades v. Henry, 598 F.3d 495, 510 (9th Cir. 2010); Weeks v. Angelone, 528 U.S. 225, 234 (2000) ("A jury is presumed to follow its instructions.") (citing Richardson v. Marsh, 481 U.S. 200, 211 (1987)).

In light of the mitigating instructions and the fact that the jury was already aware from the trial evidence that both petitioner and Vara were inmates housed in the security unit, the state court's rejection of the underlying shackling claims and the ineffective assistance claims for lack of prejudice was consistent with, and a reasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent. See Holbrook , 475 U.S. at 572; Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694-95.

Petitioner's allegation that his shackling violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment also fails to state a cognizable claim on habeas corpus. The Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause places three distinct limits on the state's criminal law powers: "First, it limits the kinds of punishment that can be imposed on those convicted of crimes; second, it proscribes punishment grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime; and third, it imposes substantive limits on what can be made criminal and punished as such." Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 667 (1977).

The trial court's order that petitioner be shackled at his trial for the challenged convictions was a function of his prior convictions and resulting imprisonment. To the extent he challenges the shackling on cruel and unusual punishment grounds, he fails to challenge to the fact or duration of his confinement for the convictions at issue, as required to state a cognizable claim on federal habeas corpus. See Badea v. Cox, 931 F.2d 573, 574 (9th Cir. 1991) (holding that a habeas corpus action pertains solely to challenging "the fact or duration" of confinement); see also Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971); Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637, 643 (2004) ("[C]onstitutional claims that... challenge the conditions of a prisoner's confinement, whether the inmate seeks monetary or injunctive relief, fall outside of the [habeas] core and may be brought pursuant to a [42 U.S.C.] § 1983 [action] in the first instance."). This particular allegation also fails for lack of applicable clearly established Supreme Court precedent, as the Supreme Court has not addressed a criminal defendant's right to be free from shackling during trial under the Eighth Amendment in the manner asserted by petitioner. See, e.g., Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009) (holding that under the AEDPA, the Supreme Court must have "squarely" established a specific legal rule in order for it to be binding on the states); Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 77 (2006) (holding that a state court's decision cannot be contrary to, or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal if there is a "lack of holdings from" the Supreme Court).

Finally, to any extent petitioner claims the trial court's shackling orders were was merely an abuse of discretion under state law, he fails to state a federal claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a) ("Federal habeas corpus relief is available to a state prisoner only to correct violations of the United State Constitution, federal laws, or treaties of the United States"); see also Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 41 (1984) ("A federal court may not issue a writ on the basis of a perceived error of state law."). For all these reasons, petitioner's ground one should be denied.

C. Ground Two: Destruction of Evidence

In ground two, petitioner claims the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss based on the alleged destruction of exculpatory evidence consisting of the clothes he was wearing at the time of the stabbing. He further claims both trial counsel and appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance in regard to this matter.

In the last reasoned state court decision applicable to petitioner's ground two, the Sacramento County Superior Court held:

The court's underlying file for Case No. 02F10894 does contain a minute order for the trial on October 10, 2007, that indicates that: "The court heard argument from counsel outside the presence of the jury re: the defendant's Motion to Dismiss the charges in view of the destruction by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) of the defendant's clothing worn at the time of the commission of the above offenses. The Court found negligence exists on the part of the CDCR, but no bad faith intent, and therefore denied the Motion to Dismiss."

Petitioner fails to show that this ruling was error (see Arizona v. Youngblood) (1988) 488 U.S. 51).

LD 13 at 4.

Due process standards require that criminal defendants be afforded a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense, including "what might loosely be called the area of constitutionally guaranteed access to evidence." United States v. Valenzuela-Bernal, 458 U.S. 858, 867 (1982). In California v. Trombetta, the United States Supreme Court held that the government violates a defendant's right to due process if it destroys evidence that possessed "exculpatory value that was apparent before the evidence was destroyed [that is] of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other reasonably available means." Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 489 (1984).

In order to show a constitutional violation, a criminal defendant must demonstrate that the police acted in bad faith in failing to preserve the potentially useful evidence. Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51, 58 (1988). "The presence or absence of bad faith turns on the government's knowledge of the apparent exculpatory value of the evidence at the time it was lost or destroyed." United States v. Cooper, 983 F.2d 928, 931 (9th Cir. 1993) (citing Youngblood, 488 U.S. at 56-57). The fact that evidence was "potentially exculpatory" is not a sufficient showing of prejudice. Grisby v. Blodgett, 130 F.3d 365, 371 (9th Cir. 1997) (citing Youngblood, 488 U.S. at 57). "Potentially exculpatory" evidence is evidence "of which no more can be said than that it could have been subjected to tests, the results of which might have exonerated the defendant." Youngblood, 488 U.S. at 57.

Here, petitioner's clothing was, at best, potentially exculpatory, in that it could have been subjected to observation or tests to detect the presence of the victim's blood. The results of the tests were potentially beneficial to the defense, but would not have exonerated petitioner since a lack of blood on his clothes would not conclusively establish that he could not have stabbed the victim. Under these circumstances, the superior court's ruling that bad faith was not shown on the part of prison officials, law enforcement, or the prosecution was a reasonable determination of the facts and consistent with the applicable clearly established United State Supreme Court precedent. See Illinois v. Fisher, 540 U.S. 544, 548 (2004) (holding that the bad faith requirement applies to potentially ...

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