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Guzman v. Denney

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, St. Joseph Division

March 22, 2018

PEDRO GUZMAN, Petitioner,
LARRY DENNEY, Respondent.



         Before the Court is Petitioner Pedro Guzman's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1.) As discussed below, this case is here on remand following the Eighth Circuit's opinion vacating this Court's earlier judgment denying Guzman's petition. Upon consideration of the full record, including evidence presented at the January 5, 2018 evidentiary hearing, the parties' post-hearing briefs (docs. 61, 62), and underlying state court record, Guzman's petition is DENIED. The Court also DENIES a certificate of appealability.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         In May 2008, in Platte County, Missouri, Guzman punched the grandmother of an acquaintance in the face, breaking her jaw and chipping several teeth. In June 2008, the State of Missouri originally charged Guzman with second-degree assault, which is a Class C felony. At the preliminary hearing on October 9, 2008, the State offered Guzman a plea agreement in which Guzman could plead guilty to second-degree assault and in exchange, the prosecutor would recommend that he serve five years in prison. Guzman rejected the plea offer. In response, on that same day, the State announced its intention to amend the charge against Guzman to first-degree assault, which is a Class A felony. Thereafter, the State amended the charge and on November 19, 2008, the court held a preliminary hearing on the upgraded charge. On March 8, 2010, the morning of trial, Guzman pled guilty to first-degree assault. The court accepted Guzman's plea of guilty and later sentenced him to imprisonment for a total of twenty-five years.

         Guzman filed a pro se post-conviction motion under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 24.035 (“Rule 24.035”), which was later amended by counsel. In his amended Rule 24.035 motion, Guzman asserted, among other things, that plea counsel was ineffective for incorrectly advising him regarding the State's five-year plea offer on the lesser charge. Following an evidentiary hearing, the court denied the Rule 24.035 motion, concluding that Guzman failed to prove his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel by a preponderance of the evidence.

         Guzman filed a direct appeal of the denial of his Rule 24.035 motion. In his sole point on appeal, Guzman contended that his plea was not voluntarily and knowingly made because plea counsel failed to adequately and properly advise him concerning the State's five-year plea offer. Specifically, Guzman asserted that plea counsel did not fully explain the terms of the plea offer, the consequences of the plea offer, or the consequences of rejecting the plea offer. The Missouri Court of Appeals found that the claim asserted on appeal was not the same claim Guzman asserted in his amended Rule 24.035 motion. The court of appeals found that the only portion of Guzman's claim regarding plea counsel's ineffective handling of the plea offer properly preserved for its review was Guzman's allegation that his plea counsel erroneously advised him he would have to serve eighty-five percent of the proposed five-year sentence for second degree-assault. The court of appeals ultimately affirmed the denial of Guzman's Rule 24.035 motion. In that decision, the court of appeals addressed the merits of the preserved portion of Guzman's claim, but denied to address the remaining portion. The Missouri Supreme Court denied Guzman's application for transfer. This federal habeas action followed.

         In his federal habeas petition, Guzman challenges his Missouri conviction of first-degree assault based on Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156');">566 U.S. 156 (2012). Lafler extended the right to effective assistance of counsel to the plea-bargaining process and held that where that right is denied, prejudice arises if loss of a plea opportunity resulted in a conviction on more serious charges or the imposition of a more severe sentence. 566 U.S. at 168. Guzman argues that one of the primary reasons he did not accept the five-year plea offer was plea counsel's erroneous advice that the State would be unable to prove the serious physical injury element of the second-degree assault charge. The State opposes the petition, arguing that federal habeas review of Guzman's claim is barred because Guzman procedurally defaulted his claim by omitting it from his Rule 24.035 motion and because Guzman cannot show cause and prejudice to excuse the default. The State also argues that if the Court were to reach the merits of Guzman's claim, Guzman fails to demonstrate that his trial counsel's performance was constitutionally deficient under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

         This Court previously denied the federal habeas petition, finding that Guzman had procedurally defaulted his claim because his post-conviction counsel omitted it from his Rule 24.035 motion. Guzman appealed the Court's order. The Eighth Circuit then concluded “that the default is excused, because post-conviction counsel erroneously omitted a claim with ‘some merit'[]” under Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1 (2012).[1] After so finding, the Eighth Circuit vacated this Court's judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings “to determine whether Guzman can show he was prejudiced by [plea] counsel's erroneous advice[.]” The Eighth Circuit has therefore directed this Court to consider the merits of Guzman's Lafler claim, asserted for the first time in his federal habeas petition. See Martinez, 566 U.S. at 17 (“A finding of cause and prejudice does not entitle the prisoner to habeas relief. It merely allows a federal court to consider the merits of a claim that otherwise would have been procedurally defaulted.”).

         Accordingly, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on January 5, 2018. At the hearing, the Court took judicial notice of the state court record, and heard evidence on Guzman's habeas petition, including testimony from Guzman and Guzman's plea counsel Daniel Zarate.

         A. Testimony of Guzman

         Guzman testified that he rejected the five-year plea offer because Zarate advised him that the State wouldn't be able to prove the element of serious physical injury and that he could get him a better deal than five years. Guzman stated that he rejected the plea offer primarily because Zarate told him to reject it based on this advice.

         As to the victim's injuries, Guzman testified that Zarate told him the victim's jaw was only bruised, not broken, and that at the time he rejected the plea offer (October 9, 2008), Guzman did not know the victim had suffered a broken jaw. Guzman initially testified that he first learned the victim suffered a broken jaw once the State upgraded his charge (November 19, 2008). Then later in the evidentiary hearing, he testified that he first learned the victim's jaw was broken through communications with his post-conviction counsel. The later testimony was given to explain why his pro se motion omitted the mistaken “serious physical injury” advice as the reason for rejecting the five-year plea offer. This testimony conflicts with the record. At the plea hearing (March 8, 2010), the prosecutor stated that if the case were to go to trial, the State's evidence would include that the victim suffered a broken jaw, and three chipped teeth. (Doc. 8-1, Guilty Plea Transcript (“GP Tr.”) at 7:3-8:7.) The plea court then specifically questioned Guzman whether he understood that the victim “got a broken jaw, ” to which Guzman responded, “yes.” (Id. at 10:4-9.)

         The Court does not find Guzman's testimony credible that the “serious physical injury” advice was the primary reason for his rejection of the plea offer. During cross examination, Guzman admitted that at the time of the plea offer (October 9, 2008), he believed his actions were in self-defense. He admitted that for one punch, he did not think it was fair to be charged with a Class C felony, that Jackson County would not have charged him with a Class C felony, and that he would have gotten a better offer if the case were charged in Jackson County. While Guzman did testify at the Rule 24.035 motion hearing that Zarate told him he did not think the victim had a serious physical injury, (doc. 8-3, Post-Conviction Hearing Transcript (“PCR Tr.”) at 142:5-11), it is not clear if Guzman considered it in rejecting the plea offer.

         B. ...

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