United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
JUSTIN E. WEBSTER, Petitioner,
JAY CASSADY, Respondent.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
CATHERINE D. PERRY, District Judge.
Petitioner Justin E. Webster is currently incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 2011, Webster was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment following his conviction on one count of first degree assault. The Missouri Court of Appeals afirmed Webster's conviction on direct appeal (Resp. Exh. E). The Circuit Court denied Webster's motion for postconviction relief, and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the denial. (Resp. Exh. I). Webster now seeks habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on one ground: ineffective assistance of counsel. Webster's claim does not entitle him to habeas corpus relief because the state court's determination that trial counsel exercised reasonable strategy in choosing not to request a lesser included offense instruction is entirely reasonable. Accordingly, I will deny his petition.
The events underlying the conviction took place in September of 2009. Webster arrived at a location near the victim's residence to pick up a friend whom he had dropped off earlier that evening in the same location. The victim appeared on the scene where Webster had parked his car to await his friend, and the two men engaged in an altercation. During the course of the fight, Webster claimed the victim pinned him to the ground face-down, and Webster "defended himself by flailing his arms backward" while holding a knife that he regularly carried in his pocket for his job as a roofer. After Webster left the scene, he called 911, and police later arrested him for the assault.
Webster was charged with first degree assault and armed criminal action. Webster's case at trial rested on a self-defense argument. Ultimately, a jury convicted Webster on both counts: first degree assault and armed criminal action. Because of an error in the armed criminal action jury instruction, the trial court immediately set aside the conviction on that count at trial counsel's request. Webster received twenty years in prison for first degree assault.
At the close of trial, the trial court judge questioned Webster as to his satisfaction with counsel's assistance, and Webster indicated he was dissatisfied because counsel did not requested a lesser included offense instruction for second degree assault. Webster had requested counsel to seek a second degree assault instruction on several occasions, and counsel declined to do so because he did not think it was Webster's best choice for trial strategy. In post-conviction proceedings, counsel testified he had repeatedly attempted to explain his decision to Webster. Counsel declined to seek such an instruction because he did not want to invite the jury to compromise between acquittal and the first degree assault charge; instead, he chose an "all-or-nothing" strategy in the hopes of obtaining the former. Counsel believed the lesser included offense instruction would offer a negligible benefit to Webster. Counsel testified that regardless of whether the jury convicted Webster of first or second degree assault, it still had the option to convict him for the armed criminal action charge, which carried a maximum sentence of life in prison. Because of Webster's prior criminal history, Counsel believed it likely that Webster would receive a lengthy prison sentence under the armed criminal action charge. At that time, counsel also mistakenly believed a conviction for armed criminal action would automatically require Webster to serve 85 percent of any sentence he received. In counsel's estimation, this further decreased any benefit Webster would receive by submitting a second degree assault instruction to the jury.
The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief and found counsel's all-or-nothing strategy did not depend on this mistaken belief about the law, but instead was reasonable trial strategy. (Resp. Exh I at p. 16). The Court of Appeals further concluded that Webster could not demonstrate any prejudice from counsel's decision because the jury's finding of guilt on the greater charge demonstrated that there was no reasonable probability that the jury would have rendered a verdict on the lesser offense.
Petitioner now seeks relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. His sole ground for relief is ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Webster alleges trial counsel erred in failing to request the lesser included offense instruction because the facts presented at trial irrefutably supported a conviction for second degree assault, but not first degree assault. Specifically, Webster believes the evidence showed he acted with recklessness and not intent.
Standard of Review
A petitioner is entitled to habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) only if the state court's adjudication resulted in a decision,
(1) "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States"; or
(2) "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)(1)-(2). A state court decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if it either arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law or if the state court arrives at a result opposite to one reached by the Supreme Court on materially indistinguishable facts." Miller v. Dormire, 310 F.2d 600, 603 (8th Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted). Factual findings of the state court are entitled to a presumption of correctness, ...