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Maldonado v. Garza

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 3, 2018

JOHN GARZA, [1] Respondent.


         Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner was convicted after a jury trial in the Kern County Superior Court of battery resulting in serious bodily injury. The trial court found to be true the allegation that Petitioner served five prior prison terms, and Petitioner was sentenced to an imprisonment term of six years. People v. Maldonado, No. F070557, 2017 WL 945109, at *1 (Cal.Ct.App. Mar. 10, 2017). On March 10, 2017, the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District affirmed the judgment. Id. at *5. The California Supreme Court denied Petitioner's petition for review on June 21, 2017. (LDs[2] 7, 8).

         On September 15, 2017, Petitioner filed the instant federal petition for writ of habeas corpus. (ECF No. 1). Therein, Petitioner raises the following claims for relief: (1) erroneous admission of witness dissuasion evidence, in violation of due process; and (2) ineffective assistance of counsel. Respondent has filed an answer. (ECF No. 9).


         On July 12, 2014, Ignacio and Constance Tapia[4] hosted a party at their home in Bakersfield. Defendant, Ignacio's nephew, arrived at around 5:00 p.m. Constance “didn't care for him to be there” and both she and Ignacio asked him to leave. Defendant left the premises after he greeted his siblings but came back sometime before 6:00 p.m. Again, Ignacio and Constance asked him to leave. Defendant departed 15 to 20 minutes later but returned by 8:00 p.m. Constance notified Ignacio and Ignacio asked defendant to leave for a third time. In response, defendant sat inside Ignacio's Ford Expedition, which was parked on the driveway. Ignacio implored, “Please leave, Santos. You are not welcome here at this time.” Defendant inquired, “Why does everybody have to party and I can't?” Ignacio replied, “Because of your history.” Defendant exited the vehicle and sat in a swing in the yard. Ignacio asked him once more to leave the party. Defendant left but came back at around 9:30 p.m. By then, an estimated 20 to 25 guests were in attendance, most of whom congregated outside. Defendant “grabbed a beer from a female's hand and started drinking it.” Constance shouted, “I told you not to come over no more[!]” Ignacio and other guests tried to convince defendant to leave, but to no avail.

         At around 10:30 p.m., defendant's cousin Christopher Acosta arrived. He and defendant talked while standing on opposite sides of the property's chain-link fence: Acosta faced the house and defendant faced the street. Acosta said, “Santos, what's wrong? We are family. I love you. ... [¶] ... [¶] ... We are family. Primo, [5]we are family.” He then tried to hug defendant over the fence. After the second or third attempt, defendant punched Acosta in the face and retrieved a black ceramic coffee mug from a dining table in the yard. The guests were upset with defendant for striking Acosta and told defendant to leave. In addition, Acosta entered the yard and remarked, “Santos, we are family. We are cousins. Why are you doing this? Why did you hit me for?” The guests, including Acosta, did not hold any objects, let alone weapons. Ignacio instructed the crowd, “Give him room to leave. Move away from him. Give him a path to the ... front gate. [¶] ... [¶] ... Give him room. Let ... Santos leave.” Although the guests complied, defendant “back-pedal[ed]” and entered a shed at the rear of the property. Acosta followed him. Before he could “tell [defendant] again that [they] are family, ” Acosta was struck with either a “glass, ” “bottle, ” or “cup.” He ended up “pulling out big-old pieces of glass out of [his] face.” Ignacio saw defendant next to the fence and urged him to flee. Defendant “jumped over the fence and ran.” Sheriff's deputies arrived at the residence after midnight. They interviewed Ignacio as well as Acosta. Acosta appeared “kind of dazed” and his face was “covered in blood.” The deputies observed black ceramic shards and fresh bloodstains near the shed.

         Meanwhile, Anita Rubio, a neighbor, was hosting her own party. She went outside and spotted defendant, who “looked like he was hiding.” Rubio asked him what he was doing. Defendant “put a finger up in front [of] his mouth” and muttered, “Shhh.” Rubio saw the deputies nearby and shouted, “He is right here [!]” Defendant tried to escape but was apprehended. At the time of his arrest, he was holding a bandana in one hand, which was bleeding profusely.

         Acosta was subsequently transported to San Joaquin Community Hospital, where he was examined by Dr. Jason Manuell, an emergency department physician. Acosta sustained lacerations on the bridge of the nose and around the left eye, which were sutured by Manuell. Acosta's eye remained bruised and swollen for about four weeks. At trial, Manuell opined Acosta's injuries were “consistent with being struck with an object.”

Maldonado, 2017 WL 945109, at *1-2 (footnotes in original).


         Relief by way of a petition for writ of habeas corpus extends to a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court if the custody is in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); 28 U.S.C. § 2241(c)(3); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 375 (2000). Petitioner asserts that he suffered violations of his rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The challenged conviction arises out of the Kern County Superior Court, which is located within the Eastern District of California. 28 U.S.C. § 2241(d).

         On April 24, 1996, Congress enacted the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), which applies to all petitions for writ of habeas corpus filed after its enactment. Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320 (1997); Jeffries v. Wood, 114 F.3d 1484, 1499 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc). The instant petition was filed after the enactment of AEDPA and is therefore governed by its provisions.

         Under AEDPA, relitigation of any claim adjudicated on the merits in state court is barred unless a petitioner can show that the state court's adjudication of his 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); Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 97-98 (2011); Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 70-71 (2003); Williams, 529 U.S. at 413.

         As a threshold matter, this Court must “first decide what constitutes ‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.'” Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 71 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)). In ascertaining what is “clearly established Federal law, ” this Court must look to the “holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court's] decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 412. “In other words, ‘clearly established Federal law' under § 2254(d)(1) is the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision.” Id. In addition, the Supreme Court decision must “‘squarely address [] the issue in th[e] case' or establish a legal principle that ‘clearly extend[s]' to a new context to the extent required by the Supreme Court in . . . recent decisions”; otherwise, there is no clearly established Federal law for purposes of review under AEDPA. Moses v. Payne, 555 F.3d 742, 754 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Wright v. Van Patten, 552 U.S. 120, 125 (2008)); Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007); Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70 (2006). If no clearly established Federal law exists, the inquiry is at an end and the Court must defer to the state court's decision. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70; Wright, 552 U.S. at 126; Moses, 555 F.3d at 760.

         If the Court determines there is governing clearly established Federal law, the Court must then consider whether the state court's decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, [the] clearly established Federal law.” Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 72 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)). “Under the ‘contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 412-13; see also Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 72. “The word ‘contrary' is commonly understood to mean ‘diametrically different, ' ‘opposite in character or nature, ' or ‘mutually opposed.'” Williams, 529 U.S. at 405 (quoting Webster's Third New International Dictionary 495 (1976)). “A state-court decision will certainly be contrary to [Supreme Court] clearly established precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases.” Id. If the state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established Supreme Court precedent, the state decision is reviewed under the pre-AEDPA de novo standard. Frantz v. Hazey, 533 F.3d 724, 735 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc).

         “Under the ‘reasonable application clause, ' a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. “[A] federal court may not issue the writ simply because the 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 411; see also Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 75-76. The writ may issue only “where there is no possibility fair minded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [the Supreme Court's] precedents.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. In other words, so long as fair minded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision, the decision cannot be considered unreasonable. Id. If the Court determines that the state court decision is objectively unreasonable, and the error is not structural, habeas relief is nonetheless unavailable unless the error had a substantial and injurious effect on the verdict. Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993).

         The court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Stanley v. Cullen, 633 F.3d 852, 859 (9th Cir. 2011); Robinson v. Ignacio, 360 F.3d 1044, 1055 (9th Cir. 2004). If the last reasoned state court decision adopts or substantially incorporates the reasoning from a previous state court decision, this court may consider both decisions to ascertain the reasoning of the last decision. Edwards v. Lamarque, 475 F.3d 1121, 1126 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc). “When a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 99. This presumption may be overcome by a showing “there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court's decision is more likely.” Id. at 99-100 (citing Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991)).

         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 § 2254(d). Stanley, 633 F.3d at 860; Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003). “Independent review of the record is not de novo review of the constitutional issue, but rather, the only method by which we can determine whether a silent state court decision is objectively unreasonable.” Himes, 336 F.3d at 853. While the federal court cannot analyze just what the state court did when it issued a summary denial, the federal court must review the state court record to determine whether there was any “reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 98. This court “must determine what arguments or theories ... could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of [the Supreme] Court.” Id. at 102.


         A. Admission of Witness Dissuasion Evidence

         In his first claim for relief, Petitioner asserts that the trial court violated his due process rights when it admitted Ignacio Tapia's testimony regarding Petitioner's mother's attempt to dissuade Ignacio from testifying. (ECF No. 1 at 16-22).[6] Respondent argues that the state court's rejection of this claim was not an unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent. (ECF No. 9 at 15-18).

         Petitioner raised this claim on direct appeal to the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, which denied the claim in a reasoned decision. The California Supreme Court summarily denied Petitioner's petition for review. As federal courts review the last reasoned state court opinion, the Court will “look through” the California Supreme Court's summary denial and examine the decision of the California Court of Appeal. See Brumfield v. Cain, 135 S.Ct. 2269, 2276 (2015); Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 297 n.1 (2013); Ylst, 501 U.S. at 806.

         In denying relief with respect to Petitioner's challenge to the admission of Ignacio Tapia's testimony regarding dissuasion, the California Court of Appeal stated:

I. The trial court's admission of evidence that defendant's mother attempted to dissuade Ignacio from testifying did not constitute prejudicial error.
a. Background.
On October 15, 2014, Ignacio was sworn as a prosecution witness outside the jury's presence. The trial court remarked, “Mr. Tapia, it's been represented to me through the prosecutor that ... you are going to plead the Fifth, something to that effect.” When asked whether he would do so, Ignacio answered, “No.” The prosecutor then conducted a voir dire examination:
“Q Mr. Tapia, do you recall speaking with me this morning via telephone?
“A Yes.
“Q Do you recall telling me that, quote, unquote, they are telling you ...

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