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Chavez v. LaGrand

United States District Court, D. Nevada

February 22, 2017

JAMES CHAVEZ, Petitioner,
v.
LeGRAND, WARDEN, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          MIRANDA M. DU UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court for a decision on the merits is petitioner Chavez's amended petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 22).

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         In November 2006, a jury in the Second Judicial District Court for Nevada found Chavez guilty of four counts of sexual assault on a child. The victim of the assaults was Chavez's daughter. The state district court sentenced Chavez to four consecutive terms of life in prison with minimum parole eligibility after twenty years on each count. Chavez appealed.

         On direct appeal, Chavez raised claims asserting violations of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, violations of Nevada's rules of evidence, a claim of juror misconduct, and a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed Chavez's conviction and sentence.

         Chavez subsequently filed a proper person petition for writ of habeas corpus. After appointment of counsel, Chavez filed a supplemental petition. The state court held an evidentiary hearing, and then entered an order denying the state petition. Chavez appealed.

         On appeal, Chavez raised various claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, and asserted a claim of cumulative error. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the state district court's order denying the state petition.

         On October 2, 2013, this Court received a federal habeas petition from Chavez initiating this proceeding. On December 23, 2013, Chavez filed, with the assistance of appointed counsel, an amended petition. Pursuant to a motion to dismiss filed by respondents, the Court issued an order for Chavez to show cause why Ground Two of his amended petition should not be dismissed as procedurally defaulted. After this Court found Chavez could not make such a showing and dismissed the claim, respondents filed an answer to Grounds One and Three. Chavez subsequently filed his reply. Grounds One and Three are now before the Court for a decision on the merits.

         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:

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, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (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, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (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).

         “[A] federal court may not second-guess a state court's fact-finding process unless, after review of the state-court record, it determines that the state court was not merely wrong, but actually unreasonable.” Taylor v. Maddox, 366 F.3d 992, 999 (9th Cir. 2004); see also Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 340 (“[A] decision adjudicated on the merits in a state court and based on a factual determination will not be overturned on factual grounds unless objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding, § 2254(d)(2).”). Because de novo review is more favorable to the petitioner, federal courts can deny writs of habeas corpus under § 2254 by engaging in de novo review rather than applying the deferential AEDPA standard. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370, 390 (2010).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Ground One

         In Ground One, Chavez alleges that the state trial court violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment by admitting statements by the deceased victim, which included her preliminary hearing testimony, her video-taped statements to the police, and other statements to law enforcement.

         Under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, testimonial statements of witnesses not present a trial are admissible “only where the declarant is unavailable, and only where the defendant has had a prior opportunity to cross-examine.” Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 59 (2004). “To be sure, the Clause's ultimate goal is to ensure reliability of evidence, but it is a procedural rather than a substantive guarantee.” Id. at 61. The Confrontation Clause guarantees only “an opportunity for effective cross-examination, not cross-examination that is effective whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish.” Delaware v. Fensterer, 474 U.S. 15, 20 (1985).

         The victim in this case, Chavez's daughter, testified at the preliminary hearing but died prior to trial. Chavez filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss premised on an argument that her preliminary hearing testimony and her statements to law enforcement, family members, and various health care providers were all inadmissible at trial because the presentation of such evidence would violate either the Confrontation Clause or rules of evidence prohibiting the introduction of hearsay. (ECF No. 16-7.) The trial court ruled that statements the victim made to “the forensic nurse and to her siblings would not be admitted, but that the preliminary hearing testimony and statements the victim made to law enforcement was admissible because Chavez had an opportunity to cross-examine her on those statements at the preliminary hearing. (ECF No. 16-14, p. 25-26.)[2] With respect to statements the victim made to her mother, the court suggested that those statements would most likely be admissible at trial. Id. at 26-27.

         At trial, the victim's preliminary hearing testimony was read to the jury. (ECF No. 17-1 at 146-48.) In addition, a police sergeant (Dreelan) testified that the victim had told him that her father had sexually assaulted her the day before he interviewed her. (ECF No. 17 at 104.) The prosecution was also permitted to play a videotape of a police detective (Armitage) interviewing the victim about the sexual assaults and present the detective's testimony about what the victim told her during a second interview. (ECF No. 17-1 at 153, 157-59.) A marriage and family therapist (Evarts) who treated the victim, testified that the victim had told her “that at five years old, her dad had ripped open her vagina.” (ECF No. 16-16 at 35-36.)

         On direct appeal, Chavez argued that it was constitutional error for the trial court to admit into evidence (1) the preliminary hearing testimony, (2) the videotape of the interview and the victim's statements to Dreelan and to Armitage, and (3) the victim's statements to Evarts.

         In denying Chavez's Confrontation Clause claim, the Nevada Supreme Court first discussed the rule announced in Crawford, then surveyed its own Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. Chavez v. State, 213 P.3d 476, 483 (Nev. 2009). With respect to the trial court's admission of the preliminary hearing testimony and the victim's statements to law enforcement, the court determined that the statements were testimonial and that the declarant was unavailable at the time of trial. Id. at 484, 486.

         As for the defendant's opportunity to cross-examine the witness, the Nevada Supreme Court stated as follows:

Chavez argues that the limited nature of a preliminary hearing does not provide a defendant an adequate opportunity to cross-examine a witness appearing against him. He urges this court to adopt the standards set forth in People v. Fry, 92 P.3d 970 (Colo.2004), and State v. ...

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