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Prentice v. Baker

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 9, 2014

ANTHONY PRENTICE, Petitioner,
v.
RENEE BAKER, et al., Respondents.

ORDER

ROBERT C. JONES, District Judge.

Before the court for a decision on the merits is an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Anthony Prentice, a Nevada prisoner. ECF No. 32.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises from the brutal killing of Daniel Miller in his Las Vegas apartment in late August or early September of 2002. The Nevada Supreme Court recounted the facts and circumstances of the crime as follows:

In September 2002, Officer John Campor of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (Las Vegas Metro) found Daniel Miller dead in his apartment while performing a welfare check at the request of Miller's sister. According to the Clark County Coroner's Office, Miller had been stabbed 128 times, suffered blunt force trauma to the head, and had a large swastika carved into his back. The Coroner's Office determined that Miller bled to death from his multiple stab wounds.
While documenting the crime scene, investigators located a hammer on the bedroom floor of the apartment at the foot of the bed where Miller's body was discovered. Investigators found items belonging to Anthony Prentice in the living room of the apartment including: a backpack, an appointment book, and scholarship application papers. Investigators also found fingerprints in the apartment matching those of both Prentice and James Harrison.
Prentice befriended Miller after his release from county jail, and began living with Miller about six months after they met.
Prentice, Harrison, and Ashley Ratelle each gave different accounts of the events occurring on the day of the murder.
Ashley Ratelle testified that on the day of the murder she overheard Prentice ask Harrison if Harrison would like to "kill Dan Miller." Ratelle testified that she overheard Harrison and Prentice discuss various methods of killing Miller, including a suggestion by Prentice that they hit the victim "over the head with the hammer [at] about the right temple and stab him [in the throat] and drag the knife." Prentice had a pocket knife, which he claimed he did not like carrying any longer, so he sold it to Harrison a couple of days prior to the murder. Several people testified as to the distinct appearance of this knife, and it is believed to be the murder weapon. Prentice also told officers that Harrison always carried a hammer in his backpack.
Ratelle testified the group loitered around the steps outside of Miller's apartment while Prentice entered and exited the apartment for approximately two to three hours to see if Miller was asleep. Prentice then came out and indicated that Miller was asleep, at which point Prentice handed over the knife and hammer to Harrison. Ratelle testified that Prentice then asked Harrison, "if he was ready to kill Dan." Ratelle testified that Prentice described the layout of the apartment to Harrison, and told Harrison that he needed to close his eyes for a few seconds when he first entered so that his eyes would adjust to the dark. Ratelle also testified that Prentice said, "[i]f there's any screaming, I'll go in and help you finish off Dan." Ratelle and Prentice walked around the apartment complex for about fifteen minutes to allow Harrison some time in the apartment with Miller. Prentice then re-entered the apartment in order to see if Harrison had killed Miller. Ratelle next saw Prentice running from the apartment repeatedly shouting to her, "Dan has [Harrison]." Ratelle testified that the two then ran in the direction of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, avoiding major streets because Prentice told her the cops would be looking for them.
Prentice's version of that night's events varied from Ratelle's. According to Prentice, Miller was openly homosexual, and Prentice had informed Miller that Harrison was bisexual. Prentice testified that the reason the three went to Miller's apartment that night was so Miller and Harrison could become more intimately acquainted. Prentice testified that after introducing Harrison and Miller, he left the apartment and went outside to meet Ratelle. Prentice testified that it was an unspoken rule between Miller and himself that when another man was over, Prentice was to wait outside for "like, twenty minutes to thirty minutes." At some point Prentice re-entered the apartment and heard noises emanating from the bedroom, which he interpreted as an argument. Prentice testified that he was disturbed by the noises coming from the bedroom and took off running from the apartment.
The State filed a motion to admit evidence of other bad acts, which included a third account of the events of that evening. According to the State, Harrison told detectives that he and Prentice walked to Miller's apartment to smoke a little marijuana. Miller came out of the bedroom complaining that the light and the noise awoke him. Prentice and Miller then got into an argument and a physical confrontation ensued. Harrison told detectives that Prentice then grabbed a knife and started stabbing Miller. Harrison entered the altercation by grabbing Miller and hitting him about the head and ribs. Harrison claims that during the altercation, Prentice accidentally sliced Harrison's arm.
The parties' stories reunite to indicate that after fleeing Miller's apartment, Prentice and Ratelle took off running eastbound toward the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Prentice and Ratelle caught a bus to Henderson, where Prentice's friend, Diana Gumucio, resided. Once at Gumucio's residence, Ratelle dyed Prentice's hair black. While at Gumucio's, Ratelle heard Prentice ask another man if he could borrow a gun "[t]o go finish Dan off."
After several days, the Las Vegas Metro and Henderson Police apprehended Prentice in Henderson at Gumucio's apartment. The police asked if they could question Prentice, and he readily agreed to go to the station for questioning. Initially, Detective Long did not indicate to Prentice that they wanted to question him about the suspicious death of Miller. Detective Long testified that while in the car, it became apparent to Prentice that the police were homicide detectives at which point an unprovoked Prentice blurted out, "he was like my dad."
Upon arrival at the station, the officers indicated to Prentice they were investigating Miller's murder, and Prentice immediately stated, "I can tell you who did it. I'll tell you right now who killed him." Prentice told the officers that Harrison had killed Miller. When the station house interview concluded, Prentice accompanied Detective Long in his car on a search for Harrison. During this car ride, prior to learning any details of the murder from the police, Prentice told Detective Long, "if Dan Miller has a swastika carved in his forehead or in his back, then the National Socialist Regime (NSR) would be the ones responsible for this murder, " indicating the NSR was setting Prentice up. Further investigation revealed Prentice was a member of the "Hammerskins, " a skinhead organization; an ordained minister in the World Church of the Creator; [FN1. Subsequently renamed the Creativity Movement] and an initiator of an Aryan army in Las Vegas.
While in jail awaiting trial, Prentice wrote a letter to Harrison indicating that he had found a way for both men to beat the charges against them. Prentice testified he wrote to Harrison in order to get his trial severed from Harrison's trial. Prentice's prior motion for severance was denied, and he testified that he wanted Harrison to think they were still friends, so he could get close enough to attack him and the trials would have to be bifurcated. In May 2003, Prentice was involved in an altercation with a fellow inmate. Prentice beat the inmate about the head and body with his fists after the inmate indicated he did not approve of Prentice's racist ideologies. After this altercation, racist paraphernalia was found in Prentice's cell, and the State moved to introduce this paraphernalia. The court admitted the evidence despite defense counsel's objection.

ECF No. 38-3, p. 2-6.[1]

In April of 2004, Prentice was convicted, pursuant to jury verdicts, in Nevada's Eighth Judicial District Court of conspiracy to commit murder and first degree murder with use of a deadly weapon. On the latter charge he was sentenced to consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. In a decision rendered on June 15, 2005, the Nevada Supreme Court rejected Prentice's direct appeal.

On March 17, 2006, Prentice filed a state post-conviction petition. The state district court entered an order denying relief on March 10, 2008. On July 22, 2010, that denial was affirmed by the Nevada Supreme Court.

On November 29, 2010, this court received a pro se habeas petition from Prentice that initiated this action. The court appointed counsel for Prentice on June 14, 2011. The amended petition now before the court for decision was filed on July 23, 2013.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

This action is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) sets forth the standard of review under AEDPA:

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) sets forth the standard of review under AEDPA:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim -
(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).

A decision of a state court is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite 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, 405-06 (2000). An "unreasonable application" occurs when "a state-court decision unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the facts of a prisoner's case." Id. at 409. "[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." Id. at 411.

The Supreme Court has explained that "[a] federal court's collateral review of a state-court decision must be consistent with the respect due state courts in our federal system." Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). The "AEDPA thus imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, ' and demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'" Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (quoting Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333, n. 7 (1997); Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam)). "A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision." Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). The Supreme Court has emphasized "that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." Id. (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)); see also Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct.1388, 1398 (2011) (describing the AEDPA standard as "a difficult to meet and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt") (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

"[R]eview under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits." Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. at 1398. In Pinholster, the Court reasoned that the "backward-looking language" present in § 2254(d)(1) "requires an examination of the state-court decision at the time it was made, " and, therefore, the record under review must be "limited to the record in existence at that same time, i.e., the record before the state court." Id.

Lastly, the Court in Lockyer rejected a Ninth Circuit mandate for habeas courts to review habeas claims by conducting a de novo review prior to applying the "contrary to or unreasonable application of" limitations of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 71. In doing so, however, the Court did not preclude such an approach. "AEDPA does not require a federal habeas court to adopt any one methodology in deciding the only question that matters under § 2254(d)(1) - whether a state court decision is contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law." Id.

III. ANALYSIS OF CLAIMS

Prentice's amended petition presents five separate clams premised on the legal theory that he was deprived of his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are governed by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)). Under Strickland, a petitioner must satisfy two prongs to obtain habeas relief: deficient performance and prejudice. 466 U.S. at 687. With respect to the performance prong, a petitioner must carry the burden of demonstrating that his counsel's performance was so deficient that it fell below an "objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 688. A reviewing court "must indulge a strong presumption' that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance because it is all too easy to conclude that a particular act or omission of counsel was unreasonable in the harsh light of hindsight." Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 702 (2002) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689).

With respect to the prejudice prong, the court must ask if the defendant has met the burden of showing that the decision reached would reasonably likely have been different absent [counsel's] errors. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 696. Put another way, a habeas petitioner "must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694.

The Court in Strickland emphasized that the ultimate focus of an ineffective assistance of counsel inquiry must be on the fundamental fairness of the proceeding whose result is being challenged. Id. If the defendant makes an insufficient showing as to either one of the two Strickland components, the reviewing court need not address the other component. Id. at 697.

... In particular, a court need not determine whether counsel's performance was deficient before examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of the alleged deficiencies. The object of an ineffectiveness claim is not to grade counsel's performance. If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of ...

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