United States District Court, D. Nevada
ROBERT C. JONES, District Judge.
Petitioner Carlos Ruiz, a prisoner in the custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections pursuant to convictions in the Second Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada, has petitioned this Court for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons given herein, the Court denies the Petition.
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On January 17, 2007, Petitioner Carlos Ruiz was convicted in Nevada state court of first degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon, burglary with the use of a deadly weapon, battery with a deadly weapon causing substantial bodily harm, and battery with a deadly weapon. The trial court sentenced Petitioner to two consecutive 20-50 year terms of imprisonment on the first conviction, two consecutive terms of 35-156 months imprisonment on the second conviction, a term of 35-156 months imprisonment on the third conviction, and a term of 24-96 months imprisonment on the fourth conviction. The sentences are to run concurrently as to each conviction. The total sentence is therefore 40-100 years imprisonment. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the convictions but vacated the sentence on the third conviction because the trial court had improperly enhanced the sentence. The trial court entered a corrected judgment on December 10, 2008.
On August 21, 2008, Petitioner filed a state habeas corpus petition. The trial court appointed counsel, and counsel filed a supplemental petition. The trial court denied the petition, as supplemented, on October 19, 2010. Petitioner appealed, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed on September 14, 2011.
Petitioner timely filed a Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in this Court, alleging eight grounds for relief: (1)-(2) ineffective assistance of trial counsel - multiple claims; (3) ineffective assistance of appellate counsel - multiple claims; (4)-(5) due process and equal protection violations - multiple claims; (6) eighth amendment violation - disproportionate sentence; (7) sixth amendment violation - denial of right to confront witnesses; and (8) due process violation - cumulative error. Respondents moved to dismiss Ground 5 and part of Ground 1 for failure to exhaust. The Court granted the motion as to Ground 5 but denied it as to Ground 1. Respondents have answered, and Petitioner has replied. The Court now adjudicates the Petition.
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
Section 2254(d) of Title 28, a provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), provides the legal standards for a federal court's consideration of a petition for habeas corpus by a prisoner in state custody:
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). These standards of review "reflect the... general requirement that federal courts not disturb state court determinations unless the state court has failed to follow the law as explicated by the Supreme Court." Davis v. Kramer, 167 F.3d 494, 500 (9th Cir. 1999). This Court's ability to grant a writ is limited to cases where "there is no possibility fair-minded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [Supreme Court] precedents." Harrington v. Richter, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011). "[A] state court decision is contrary to our clearly established precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in our cases' or if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of this Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from our precedent.'" Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 73 (2003) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)). A state court decision is an unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent "if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from our decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. at 74 (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 413). The "unreasonable application" standard requires the state court decision to be more than incorrect or erroneous; the state court's application of clearly established law must be objectively unreasonable. Id. (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 409).
In determining whether a state court decision is contrary to federal law, a federal court looks to the last reasoned decision in the state courts. See Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803-04 (1991); Shackleford v. Hubbard, 234 F.3d 1072, 1079 n.2 (9th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 944 (2001). Furthermore, "a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct, " and a petitioner "shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
A. Ground 1
1. Ground 1(a)
Petitioner argues that trial counsel was ineffective because the trial court refused to remove counsel based on a conflict of interest, i.e., that Petitioner had opted in to a class action lawsuit against the public defender's office in which trial counsel worked, and also based on a breakdown of the attorney-client relationship. The claim is not cognizable as an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, because Petitioner admits that trial counsel attempted to withdraw, but that the trial court ordered counsel to continue representation.
The Court could potentially address the claim as trial court error, but the trial court correctly ruled in the state habeas corpus action that this claim of trial error could have been, but was not, brought on direct appeal. In other words, the claim is procedurally defaulted. Nor did the Nevada Supreme Court err when it found that Petitioner had failed to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel (as to the failure of appellate counsel to appeal the denial of the motion to withdraw) in the habeas corpus action in the state trial court.
In summary, there is no ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim based on trial counsel's failure to withdraw. Trial counsel made every effort to withdraw. Any error here must therefore be characterized as trial court error. That alleged error could have been challenged on direct appeal in Nevada because it was not a claim of attorney error but of trial court error. That claim is therefore procedurally defaulted. There remains a potential claim for ineffective assistance of appellate counsel based on appellate counsel's failure to appeal the trial court's denial of the motion to withdraw. But, as the Court noted in its previous order, a claim of that nature is indeed unexhausted. The Court previously declined to dismiss the present claim for failure to exhaust because it perceived it as a claim of trial court error in denying the motion to withdraw, and Petitioner had exhausted such a claim. However, as the Court has explained herein, the trial court in the state habeas corpus action correctly noted that such a claim is procedurally defaulted. To the extent the Court's previous order is inconsistent with the reasoning herein, the Court reconsiders. The Court previously noted that Petitioner had raised the present claim of trial court error at all levels via his state ...