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Roberts v. Griffith

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

May 24, 2018

JASON A. ROBERTS, Petitioner,



         This matter is before me upon the petition of Missouri state prisoner Jason Roberts for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1). After carefully considering his petition (Doc. 1), respondent's brief (Doc. 10), and petitioner's reply (Doc. 11), I deny the petition for the reasons set forth below. An appropriate Judgment Order is issued herewith.


         Petitioner Jason Roberts pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, as a prior and persistent offender, on July 3, 2013 in the 24th Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri, St. Francois County. (Doc. 10, Ex. 1 at 3). He was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. (Id.). He moved for post-conviction review (“PCR”), alleging 1) that his plea counsel failed to fully resolve his concerns before proceeding with his guilty plea, 2) that his relationship with plea counsel's ex-wife created a disqualifying conflict of interest, and 3) that the prosecution failed to establish that he was a prior and persistent offender for sentencing purposes. (Id. at 29-30; see also Id. at 40-55). After his PCR motion was unsuccessful, he appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri on the sole ground that his plea counsel had pressured him into accepting his guilty plea. (Id., Ex. 2 at 11). The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the motion court's order on May 12, 2015. (Id., Ex. 4).

         Now, in his timely-filed habeas petition, Roberts again presents each of his three claims and requests that I grant an evidentiary hearing. (Doc. 1). Respondent argues that Roberts' first claim was correctly decided on the merits in state PCR and appellate courts. (Doc. 10 at 2). Respondent further argues that Roberts' additional claims are procedurally defaulted because they were not presented to the Missouri Court of Appeals; in the alternative, respondent argues that they are without merit. (Id.).


         1. Exhaustion and Procedural Bar

         State prisoners are required to first exhaust their state law remedies before bringing a petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. If a prisoner “has the right under the law of the State to raise, by any available procedure, the question presented[, ]” he has not exhausted his state law remedies. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(c). In Missouri, an appeal to the intermediate state appellate court sufficiently exhausts state remedies to permit federal habeas review under § 2254. See Mo. Sup. Ct. R. 83.04; Randolph v. Kemna, 276 F.3d 401, 404 (8th Cir. 2002) (“Rule 83.04... makes clear that Missouri does not consider a petitioner who bypasses its supreme court in favor of federal habeas review to have denied the State its rightful opportunity to resolve federal constitutional claims.”) (citations omitted).

         Federal habeas review “[is] guided by rules designed to ensure that state-court judgments are accorded the finality and respect necessary… within our system of federalism[, ] [including] the doctrine of procedural default[.]” Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 9 (2012). Procedural default occurs “when a prisoner violates a state procedural rule and this violation serves as an independent and adequate state-law basis to uphold the state courts' dismissal of a claim, thereby precluding consideration of federal claims on direct appeal.” Franklin v. Hawley, 879 F.3d 307, 311 (8th Cir. 2018) (internal citation omitted).

         2. Adjudication on the Merits

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), habeas relief can only be granted by a federal court on a claim that has been decided on the merits by a state court when that adjudication:

(1) 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; or
(2) resulted in a decision that was 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).

         In order for a state court decision to be “contrary to” Supreme Court precedent, it must arrive at an opposite result than the Supreme Court when confronting facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000). When analyzing claims under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2), “a determination of a factual issue made by a State Court shall be presumed to be correct.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). In order to rebut this presumption, a petitioner must present clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see Weaver v. Bowersox, 241 F.3d 1024, 1030 (8th Cir. 2001).

         3. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Prevailing on an ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) claim requires petitioner to demonstrate both (1) “that counsel's performance was deficient” and (2) “that deficient performance prejudiced the defense… [so] as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The Court's review of counsel's effectiveness is “highly deferential, ” with a “strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. “An error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment.” Id. at 691.

         The same standard applies to IAC allegations in the context of a guilty plea. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 57 (1985). When determining whether plea counsel was incompetent, the petitioner must demonstrate that “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 57 (citations omitted). In the context of a guilty plea, analysis of prejudicial effect “focuses on whether counsel's constitutionally ineffective performance affected the outcome of the plea process . . . [such that] but for counsel's error, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have instead gone to trial.” Id. at 59.


         1. Roberts' first claim was reasonably adjudicated on the merits in state court.

         Roberts alleges that he received ineffective assistance from his plea counsel when counsel “[failed] to resolve [Roberts'] equivocation about pleading guilty prior to court date, which led to [him] feeling pressured to plead guilty.” (Doc. 1 at 5). The Circuit Court and the Missouri Court of Appeals held that this claim was refuted by the plain reading of the record. (Doc. 10, Ex. 1 at 64-65, Ex. 4 at 9).

         Upon review, I agree with the state courts and conclude that the record does not support Roberts' allegation. Indeed, if anything, the record reflects that the Circuit Court[1] fully and carefully evaluated the basis ...

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