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Letica v. Russell

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

September 29, 2017

INES LETICA, Petitioner,
TERRY RUSSELL, Respondent.



         This matter is before me on Petitioner Ines Letica's petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. I referred this matter to United States Magistrate Judge David D. Noce for a report and recommendation on all dispositive matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). Judge Noce filed his recommendation that Letica's habeas petition should be denied. Letica filed objections to Judge Noce's report. I have conducted a de novo review of Letica's claims and have carefully reviewed the record in this case. Based on that review, I agree with Judge Noce that Letica's petition should be denied.


         Letica was convicted of felony assault in the first degree and armed criminal action. He was sentenced to two concurrent terms of fifteen years imprisonment. Letica's conviction was based on a fight he participated in on December 7, 2007, outside a bar. On direct appeal the Supreme Court of Missouri reciting the facts[1] of the case noted that Letica approached victim in the bathroom of the bar and stated that he wanted to talk to victim outside. (Resp. Ex. I, p. 2) The victim told Lecita's cousin that he wanted to be left alone and did not want to fight Lecita. The victim and Lecita went out the back door and after a short verbal exchange Lecita cut the victim's throat and neck with a knife. The victim sustained more knife cuts to his chin, chest, knee, and abdomen for a total of fifteen cuts. The victim went back inside the bar and collapsed. (Id.) No one witnessed the fight.

         Letica's first two trials resulted in mistrials. The first mistrial was based on a lack of prospective jurors in the jury pool. The second mistrial was based on a deadlocked jury with one juror “holding out” and refusing to find Letica guilty based on the lack of a third-party witness to the fight.

         Legal Standard

         Letica's grounds for relief in his habeas petition are all based on ineffective assistance of counsel claims. To prevail on a claim alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must satisfy the two-part test of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). For a convicted defendant to prove that his counsel was ineffective, the defendant must first show that the counsel's performance was deficient. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. This requires the defendant to show "that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Id. A defendant can demonstrate that counsel's performance was deficient where counsel's performance "'fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.'" Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 522 (2003) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688). But "[s]trategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable." United States v. Rice, 449 F.3d 887, 897 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). And "[t]here is a 'strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.'" Id. (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). If the defendant fails to show that his counsel was deficient, the court need not address the second prong of the Strickland test. Brown v. United States, 311 F.3d 875, 878 (8th Cir. 2002).

         Second, a defendant must demonstrate that the deficient performance was "so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. "The defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694.

         The Eighth Circuit has described the Strickland test as follows: the questions a court must ask are "[w]hether counsel's performance was in fact deficient and, if so, whether the defendant was prejudiced by the inadequate representation. If we can answer 'no' to either question, then we need not address the other part of the test." Fields v. United States, 201 F.3d 1025, 1027 (8th Cir. 2000). When evaluating counsel's performance, the court "must indulge in a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689. Considered objectively, counsel's performance is gauged by "whether it was reasonable 'under prevailing professional norms' and 'considering all the circumstances.'" Fields, 201 F.3d at 1027 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688). "[W]e avoid making judgments based on hindsight." Id. A reviewing court's "scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689.

         A federal district court's power to review state court criminal decisions in a federal habeas corpus proceeding is limited. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 92 (2011)(“Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), the availability of federal habeas relief is limited with respect to claims previously “adjudicated on the merits” in state-court proceedings.”). “As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102.


         Letica asserts three grounds for relief.

         In his first ground for relief Letica claims that his counsel was constitutionally ineffective for not calling two of Letica acquaintances as witnesses in the third trial.[2] They both testified briefly at the second trial. The first witness testified that he had witnessed a physical confrontation between Letica and the victim outside the same bar around March 2007, nine months before the assault at issue, which started as a shoving match. The second witness, a “close friend” of Lecita's, testified that he saw Letica and the victim get into an altercation at a different bar at an unknown date or year.[3] A scuffle broke out between Letica and the victim and the victim and his friends were escorted out of the bar.

         Letica's trial counsel at the third trial did not call these witnesses. Neither of these witnesses saw the incident at issue in this case. Letica presented a theory of self-defense at trial. He testified about the two altercations he had with the victim described by his witnesses at the second trial. The victim also admitted that he and Letica had altercations in the past. Letica asserts that his counsel was ineffective for failing to call Letica's ...

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