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Cole v. Steele

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 26, 2014

A.J. COLE, Petitioner,
TROY STEELE, Respondent.


TERRY I. ADELMAN, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the Petition of A.J. Cole for a Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).


On March 9, 2009, Petitioner pled guilty to the class B felony of first-degree assualt, the class B felony of second-degree robbery, and the class B felony of kidnapping. (Resp't Ex. 2 pp. 14-23, 34-36) The Circuit Court of Crawford County, Missouri sentenced him to 12 years' incarceration on each count, with the second-degree robbery and kidnapping to run concurrently, and the first-degree assult to run consecutively. (Resp't Ex. 2 pp. 29-30, 34-35)

On July 7, 2009, Petitioner filed a pro se Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct the Judgment or Sentence under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 24.035 and an amended motion through counsel on August 5, 2009. (Resp't's Ex. 2 pp. 37-45) On December 3, 2009, the trial court denied Petitioner's post-conviction motion after an evidentiary hearing. (Resp't's Ex. 2 pp. 46-48) The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's denial of post-conviction relief on December 7, 2010. (Resp't's Ex. 6) On June 3, 2011, Petitioner filed the present petition for habeas relief in federal court. Petitioner is currently serving out his sentence at the Potosi Correctional Center located in Mineral Point, Missouri.

Petitioner's Claim

In his Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, Petitioner raises one claim for federal habeas relief. He alleges that there was an insufficient factual basis for Petitioner's guilty plea to first degree assault and that he did not make the plea knowingly and/or voluntarily. Specifically, Petitioner contends that the prosecution did not establish "serious physical injury" as defined by Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.061.28 resulting in a violation of his constitutional rights.

Legal Standards

Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), federal courts review state court decisions under a deferential standard. Owens v. Dormire , 198 F.3d 679, 681 (8th Cir. 1999). "[A] district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus... only on the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Further, a federal court may not grant habeas relief unless the claim adjudicated on the merits in state court "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.'" Owens , 198 F.3d at 681 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)). Findings of fact made by a state court are presumed to be correct, and the petitioner has the burden of rebutting this presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). See also Gee v. Groose , 110 F.3d 1346, 1351 (8th Cir. 1997) (state court factual findings presumed to be correct where fairly supported by the record).

"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 Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor , 529 U.S. 362, 412-413 (2000). With regard to the "unreasonable application" clause, "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." Id. at 413; see also Bucklew v. Luebbers 436 F.3d 1010 , 1016 (8th Cir. 2006); Rousan v. Roper , 436 F.3d 951, 956 (8th Cir. 2006). In other words, "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." Williams , 529 U.S. at 411.

IV. Discussion

The undersigned finds that the determination of the state court was not contrary to, nor did it involve an unreasonable application of, federal law. Because a guilty plea waives numerous constitutional rights, the plea must be knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. Ivy v. Caspari , 173 F.3d 1136, 1141 (8th Cir. 1999). A guilty plea is not voluntary where the defendant "does not understand the nature of the constitutional protections that he is waiving or because he has such an incomplete understanding of the charge that his plea cannot stand as an intelligent admission of guilt." Id. at 1141-42. In addition, Missouri Supreme Court Rule 24.02(e) provides that "[t]he court shall not enter a judgment on a plea of guilty unless it determines that there is a factual basis for the plea." However, "[t]here is no federal constitutional requirement that a state defendant's guilty plea have a factual basis, unless the defendant pleading guilty claims he is innocent of the relevant charge." Mosby v. Russell, No. 4:08CV1478 TCM, 2011 WL 4501042, at *11 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 28, 2011) (citing Wabasha v. Solem , 694 F.2d 155, 157 (8th Cir. 1982)).

Here, Petitioner does not claim that he is innocent of the charge; he merely asserts that the victim did not sustain serious physical injury as required to find a factual basis for a first degree assault plea of guilty. Missouri Revised Statute 565.050 provides, "[a] person commits the crime of assault in the first degree if he attempts to kill or knowingly causes or attempts to cause serious physical injury to another person. Assault in the first degree is a class B felony unless in the course there of the actor inflicts serious physical injury on the victim in which case it is a class A felony." Petitioner acknowledges that he kicked and beat the victim. However, Petitioner argues that the cut to the victims head requiring three staples, as well as the swollen mouth and throat rendering the victim unable to swallow pain medication, were not injuries creating a substantial risk of death, causing serious disfigurement, or causing a protracted loss or impairment of a function of any part of his body. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 556.061.28.

The Court finds that Petitioner's claim fails. Whether a factual basis existed for the first degree assault charge "does not present an issue regarding any clearly established Supreme Court precedent but is purely a state law issue under the circumstances of this case." Mosby, 2011 WL 4501042, at *12. "Determinations of state law made by a state court are binding on a federal court in habeas proceedings." Lupien v. Clarke , 403 F.3d 615, 619 (8th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). "As the Supreme Court has emphasized, it is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. In conducting habeas review, a federal court is ...

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