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Harris v. Baker

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 6, 2017

RENEE BAKER, et al., Respondents.



         This habeas matter under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 comes before the court on respondents' motion to dismiss petitioner Conor James Harris' counseled first-amended petition as untimely (ECF No. 21). Harris opposed (ECF No. 25), and respondents replied (ECF No. 35). As discussed below, this petition must be dismissed as untimely.

         I. Background

         On April 1, 1997, Harris, then a seventeen year-old high school student, was charged in connection with the murder of his former girlfriend, also seventeen (exhibit 2).[1] On August 14, 1997, Harris pleaded guilty pursuant to a written plea agreement to first-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon. Exh. 9. The state district court sentenced Harris to life in prison without the possibility of parole and a consecutive life in prison without the possibility of parole for the deadly weapon enhancement. Exh. 16. Judgment of conviction was entered on September 23, 1997. Id.

         Harris did not file a direct appeal. Almost fourteen years later, on August 3, 2011, Harris filed a pro per motion to withdraw guilty plea on the basis that it was not knowing and voluntary. Exh. 27. The state district court denied the motion. Exh. 31. Harris appealed, and the Nevada Supreme Court appointed counsel. Exh. 37. The Nevada Supreme Court issued an order of limited remand, remanding the matter to district court “to hold a hearing and determine whether the equitable doctrine of laches precludes consideration of the motion.” Exh. 43.

         The state district court held a hearing, and filed its order denying the motion to withdraw the guilty plea on April 8, 2013. Exh. 45. On April 30, 2013, the Nevada Supreme Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs limited to issues related to the district court order entered on remand. Exh. 48. On October 16, 2013, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the state district court's denial of the motion and its determination that laches precluded consideration of Harris' motion. Exh. 55. Remittitur issued on November 13, 2013. Exh. 56.

         Harris dispatched his federal habeas petition for filing about October 2, 2014 (ECF No. 6). This court appointed counsel, and counsel filed a first-amended petition on October 19, 2015 (ECF No. 14). Respondents have moved to dismiss the petition as time-barred (ECF No. 21, pp. 4-5). They also argue that two of the three grounds in the petition are unexhausted. Id. at 5-7.

         II. Legal Standards & Analysis

         a. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) statute of limitations

         AEDPA went into effect on April 24, 1996 and imposes a one-year statute of limitations on the filing of federal habeas corpus petitions. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d). The one-year time limitation can run from the date on which a petitioner's judgment became final by conclusion of direct review, or the expiration of the time for seeking direct review. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). Further, a properly filed petition for state postconviction relief can toll the period of limitations. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2).

         Here, the parties do not dispute that the AEDPA one-year statute of limitations expired on October 23, 1998 (ECF No. 21, p.8; ECF No. 25, p. 15). Harris did not file anything in state court before that date to challenge his conviction or sentence, and he did not file his federal petition until October 2, 2014. This federal petition is, therefore, time-barred, unless Harris is entitled to equitable tolling of the statute of limitations. In his counseled response to the motion to dismiss the petition as time-barred, Harris argues that he is actually innocent of first-degree murder, and he also argues in the alternative that he is entitled to statutory and equitable tolling (ECF No. 25).

         b. Actual innocence

         In his first-amended petition, Harris raises three grounds for relief. In ground 1 he argues that his guilty plea was not entered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily in violation of his Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, equal protection and to a reliable sentence (ECF No. 14, pp. 7-14). Specifically, he contends that he is actually innocent of first-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon because he was incapable of forming the requisite intent to commit first-degree murder.

         A convincing showing of actual innocence may enable habeas petitioners to overcome a procedural bar to consideration of the merits of their constitutional claims. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995); House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518 (2006). In McQuiggin v. Perkins, the United States Supreme Court held that “actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar, as it was in Schlup and House, or, as in this case, expiration of the statute of limitations.” 133 S.Ct. 1924, 1928 (2013). The Court emphasized that “tenable actual-innocence gateway pleas are rare: ‘[A] petitioner does not meet the threshold requirement unless he persuades the district court that, in light of the new evidence, no juror, acting reasonably, would have voted to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.'” Id.; quoting Schlup, 513 U.S., at 329; see House, 547 U.S. at 538 (emphasizing that the Schlup standard is “demanding” and seldom met). ...

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