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Benton v. Koenig

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 2, 2019

KAREEM BENTON, Petitioner,
GRAIG KOENIG, Respondent.



         Kareem Benton, a state prisoner acting pro se, has brought a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The petition alleges that the prosecution overlooked evidence that points to petitioner's innocence. Specifically, petitioner argues that the victim wrote a letter stating that petitioner was not the assailant. Respondent has filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the sole claim in the petition fails to state a federal claim, and a possible related claim is procedurally barred.


         Petitioner was found guilty by a jury of multiple counts, including burglary, robbery, battery, assault, domestic violence and other crimes, arising out of three separate incidents with his former girlfriend. The incidents occurred on February 24, 2013, May 17, 2014, and May 26, 2014. Motion to Dismiss (“MTD”) Ex. 1 at 1-3, 6-7. At trial, petitioner's counsel introduced a written statement from the victim dated March 28, 2013, in which she recanted her prior version of the February 24, 2013, incident, and stated that she had been assaulted by someone else. Id. at 3. Nevertheless, the jury found petitioner guilty, and he was sentenced to a total of seven years in state prison. Id. at 1.

         In February 2017, the California Court of Appeal reversed the judgment for three counts related to the May 17, 2014, incident. Id. at 1. The judgment was affirmed in all other respects. Id. at 16. The decision did not affect the sentence. The superior court dismissed the three counts and issued an amended abstract with a seven-year sentence. MTD Ex. 2.

         Petitioner filed a habeas petition in the superior court, which was denied in October 2017 because petitioner provided no evidence or arguments in support of his claim for relief. MTD Ex. 3 at AGO014-15. In April 2018, petitioner filed a supplemental brief, which the superior court construed as a new petition. Id. at AGO011. The superior court denied the petition in September 2018. Id. at AGO024-26. Petitioner filed a petition with the California Court of Appeal, which was denied in October 2018 “for the reasons set forth in the superior court's September 18, 2018, order.” Id. at AGO034. Petitioner filed a petition with the California Supreme Court, which was denied in February 2019 with citations to In re Dixon, 41 Cal. 2d 756, 759 (1953) and In re Lindley, 29 Cal. 2d 709, 723 (1947). MTD Ex. 3; Petition at 11.


         This Court may entertain a petition for writ of habeas corpus “in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Rose v. Hodges, 423 U.S. 19, 21 (1975).

         “Claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the underlying state criminal proceeding.” Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 400 (1993). “This rule is grounded in the principle that federal habeas courts sit to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution -- not to correct errors of fact.” Id.

         In Herrera, the Supreme Court assumed without deciding that “in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of 'actual innocence' made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional, and warrant federal habeas relief if there were no state avenue open to process such a claim.” Herrera, 506 U.S. at 417. Since then, the Supreme Court has not developed Herrera or held that freestanding actual innocence claims (i.e., claims in which the petitioner argues that the evidence sufficiently establishes his innocence, irrespective of any constitutional error at trial or sentencing) are cognizable in habeas proceedings. See House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518, 554-55 (2006).

         After Herrera, the Ninth Circuit initially found that there could be no habeas relief based solely on a petitioner's actual innocence of the crime in a noncapital case. See Coley v. Gonzales, 55 F.3d 1385, 1387 (9th Cir. 1995). But it has held since that it is “still an open question” whether federal habeas relief is available based on a freestanding claim of actual innocence. Taylor v. Beard, 811 F.3d 326, 334 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc) (citing McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383, 384 (2013)).

         In the petition's only claim, petitioner says that the letter from the victim stating he was not the assailant is new evidence and that he is actually innocent. These points are not well taken. To start, the letter is not new, and in fact was presented to the jury at petitioner's trial. The jury apparently did not credit the letter because it found petitioner guilty of assaulting the author -- his former girlfriend -- on multiple occasions. This is enough to sink the petition, but it is also worth noting that actual innocence is not an established grounds for habeas relief. Respondent challenged petitioner on that point, and he did not address it in his opposition to the motion to dismiss. While the Court appreciates that petitioner is proceeding pro se and is not well situated to brief the nuances of open legal issues, it is clear from the Court's independent review of the case law that a freestanding claim of actual innocence is, today at least, unresolved in petitioner's favor. Consequently, the petition must be dismissed.


         While that resolves the only claim expressly stated in the petition, the Court will, in the spirit of reading pro se petitions liberally, construe the petition as asserting that the letter showed insufficient evidence to support the convictions related to the February 24, 2013, incident. This is a generous assessment of the petition because it makes no reference to this issue, and petitioner did not directly ...

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