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Nichols v. Baca

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 7, 2017

COLBERT NICHOLS, Petitioner,
v.
ISIDRO BACA, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          MIRANDA M. DU UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. SUMMARY AND BACKGROUND

         Before the Court are the second amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 14), respondents' answer (ECF No. 35), and petitioner's reply (ECF No. 38). The Court finds that relief is not warranted, and the Court denied the second amended petition.

         After a jury trial, petitioner was convicted of second-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon. (Exh. 1 (ECF No. 22-1).) Petitioner appealed, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed. (Exh. 9 (ECF No. 22-9).)

         Petitioner then filed a post-conviction habeas corpus petition in the state district court. (Exh. 12 (ECF No. 22-12).) The state district court appointed counsel, who filed a supplemental petition. (Exh. 14 (ECF No. 22-14).) The state district court denied the petition. (Exh. 16 (ECF No. 22-16).) Petitioner appealed, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed. (Exh. 21 (ECF No. 22-21).)

         Petitioner then commenced this action. The second amended petition originally contained fifteen numbered grounds for relief. The Court dismissed ground 15 because it was a claim of error in the state post-conviction proceedings, which is not addressable in federal habeas corpus. (ECF No. 16.) Respondents filed a motion to dismiss, and the Court found that petitioner had not exhausted his available state-court remedies for ground 3. (ECF No. 31.) Petitioner elected to dismiss ground 3. (ECF No. 32.) Reasonable jurists would not find the Court's conclusions on these two grounds to be debatable or wrong, and the Court will not issue a certificate of appealability for these two grounds.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Congress has limited the circumstances in which a federal court can grant relief to a petitioner who is in custody pursuant to a judgment of conviction of a state court.

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). “By its terms § 2254(d) bars relitigation of any claim ‘adjudicated on the merits' in state court, subject only to the exceptions in §§ 2254(d)(1) and (d)(2).” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98 (2011).

Federal habeas relief may not be granted for claims subject to § 2254(d) unless it is shown that the earlier state court's decision “was contrary to” federal law then clearly established in the holdings of this Court, § 2254(d)(1); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); or that it “involved an unreasonable application of” such law, § 2254(d)(1); or that it “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts” in light of the record before the state court, § 2254(d)(2).

Richter, 562 U.S. at 100. “For purposes of § 2254(d)(1), ‘an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.'” Id. (citation omitted). “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.” Id. (citation omitted).

[E]valuating whether a rule application was unreasonable requires considering the rule's specificity. The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.

Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004).

Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or, as here, could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of this Court.

Richter, 562 U.S. at 102.

As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.

         Id. at 103.

         Some of petitioner's grounds repeat claims in other grounds. Ground 5 is a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel that sits between claims of trial-court error. For ease of analysis, the Court will address petitioner's grounds out of the order that he presents them.

         A. Grounds 1 and 6

         Ground 1 is a claim that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of petitioner's uncharged criminal acts without first holding a hearing. On this issue, the Nevada Supreme Court held:

Nichols argues that the district court erred in admitting testimony about uncharged acts without conducting a hearing pursuant to Petrocelli v. State, 101 Nev. 46, 692 P.2d 503 (1985), superceded by statute as stated in Thomas v. State, 120 Nev. 37, 44-45, 83 P.3d 818, 823-24 (2004). He asserts that the district court erred in admitting testimony from Charles Guadagnoli that, while in custody with Nichols, Nichols asked him to get one of the State's witnesses drunk and take him on vacation so that he could not testify at Nichols' trial.
We review the district court's decision for an abuse of discretion. . . . There was no abuse of discretion because evidence that a defendant threatened a witness is directly relevant to the question of that defendant's guilt and does not constitute evidence of collateral acts that require a hearing prior to its admission, . . . and evidence of attempts to bribe witnesses or procure false testimony is admissible to show a consciousness of guilt . . . .

(Exh. 9 at 1-2 (ECF No. 22-9 at 2-3) (some citations omitted).) The Nevada Supreme Court's decision cannot be contrary to, or an unreasonable application of clearly-established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States because no such clearly-established federal law exists on this issue. Alberni v. McDaniel, 458 F.3d 860, 867 (9th Cir. 2006). See also Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 77 (2006). Ground 1 is without merit.

         Ground 6 repeats ground 1. It, too, is without merit.

         Reasonable jurists would not find the Court's conclusions on grounds 1 and 6 to be debatable or wrong, and the Court will not issue a certificate of appealability for these grounds.

         B. Grounds 2 and 7

         Ground 2 is a claim that the trial court erred in refusing petitioner's proposed instructions. On this issue, the Nevada Supreme Court held:

Nichols argues that the district court erred in refusing to give his proposed heat-of-passion instruction and a modified self-defense instruction. Although Nichols' proposes instructions were correct statements of law, we conclude that the principles of law described in Nichols' proposed instructions were “fully, accurately, and expressly stated in the other instructions.” . . . Therefore, we concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the requested instructions.

(Exh. 9 at 4-5 (ECF No. 22-9 at 5-6).)

         The Court doubts whether the Supreme Court of the United States has clearly established that the Constitution gives petitioner the right to request a jury instruction on his theory of defense. Mathews v. United States, 485 U.S. 58 (1988), which petitioner cited in his brief on direct appeal (Exh. 2 at 14 (ECF No. 22-2 at 20)), came to the Supreme Court through direct appeal from a judgment of conviction in a federal district court. The Court held that “a defendant is entitled to an instruction as to any recognized defense for which there exists evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to find in his favor, ” but the ...


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