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Ramet v. LeGrande

United States District Court, D. Nevada

January 24, 2018

DANIEL A. RAMET, Petitioner,
v.
ROBERT LeGRANDE, et. al, Respondents.

          ORDER

          MIRANDA M. DU UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court for a decision on the merits is an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Daniel A. Ramet, a Nevada prisoner. (ECF No. 9.)

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         On June 4, 2007, a jury in the state district court for Clark County, Nevada, found Ramet guilty of first degree murder. After a sentencing hearing the following day, the jury imposed a sentence of life without possibility of parole. The court entered a judgment of conviction on August 31, 2007. Ramet appealed.

         On June 4, 2009, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the conviction in an opinion that discussed in detail only one of Ramet's claims of error, that being his claim that testimony concerning his refusal to consent to a search of his home, coupled with the prosecutor's reference to it in closing argument, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Nevada Supreme Court found any error in admission of that evidence harmless, and it summarily denied the remainder of Ramet's claims in a footnote.

         On December 11, 2009, Ramet filed a proper person state habeas petition, which the state district court ultimately denied without appointing counsel to represent Ramet. The Nevada Supreme Court reversed the district court, finding the state district court erred in failing to appoint counsel, and remanded to the district court for further proceedings. Appointed counsel filed a supplemental petition. The state district court held an evidentiary hearing and subsequently denied the petition. Ramet appealed. On July 22, 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief.

         On August 28, 2014, this Court received Ramet's federal habeas petition. With the assistance of appointed counsel, Ramet filed an amended petition on May 11, 2015. On October 2, 2015, respondents filed a motion to dismiss, which the Court granted in part and denied in part - that is, the Court concluded that Claim Ten was unexhausted and that claims for relief in Claim Four that are not premised on ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) must be dismissed as procedurally defaulted.

         In addition, the Court concluded that the IAC claims in Claims Four and Six are also procedurally defaulted, but reserved judgment as to whether Ramet could demonstrate cause and prejudice to overcome the default of those claims. Thereafter, Ramet abandoned Claim Ten and the parties briefed the remaining claims on the merits.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Nevada Supreme Court gave this summary of the facts of Ramet's case in its opinion deciding his direct appeal:

Ramet killed his 20-year-old daughter, Amy Ramet, in the home they shared. Ramet strangled Amy for a minute or two and then stopped; she moved, and he checked for a pulse, and then he strangled her for “another couple of minutes.” He continued to live in his home with Amy's body for three weeks, sending text messages from her cell phone to allay the fears of his younger daughter, Delsie, and his ex-wife, Bernadette.
After not being able to speak with Amy for three weeks, Bernadette and Delsie became so worried that they filed a missing person's report. Three days later, unsatisfied with the police's efforts, they decided to break into Ramet's home. Bernadette broke a window with a baseball bat and a foul smell came out, prompting them to call the police. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived at Ramet's home and the officers asked to perform a welfare check on Amy. Ramet refused, claiming it was a “search and seizure issue.” The police obtained a search warrant and discovered Amy's badly decomposed body in Ramet's home. Ramet was arrested and he confessed to killing his daughter.

Ramet v. State, 209 P.3d 268, 269 (Nev. 2009).

         III. 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).

         IV. ANALYSIS OF CLAIMS

         A. Claim One

         In Claim One, Ramet alleges that he was denied his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment because the prosecutor improperly elicited testimony about his invocation of his Fourth Amendment rights. In addressing this issue, the Nevada Supreme Court noted as follows:

At trial, the State presented testimony from two officers regarding Ramet's refusal to consent to a search of his home. On the stand, Officer Yant testified that Ramet's statements that he did not want the police in his house because “it would be a search and seizure issue” made the police even more suspicious. Officer Yant repeated Ramet's statement that “it would be a search and seizure issue” two more times. Officer Bertges also repeated Ramet's statement during his testimony.
In addition, evidence of Ramet's refusal to submit to a search was used by the State to incriminate Ramet. During closing argument, the prosecuting attorney commented on Ramet's refusal: “[a]nd when the police come to the house on two different occasions, he won't even let them conduct a welfare check. He's hiding something.”

Ramet, 209 P.3d at 269.

         The Nevada Supreme Court then concluded that the admission of the evidence and the State's argument violated Ramet's constitutional rights under Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609 (1965). Id. at 269-70. The court also held, however, the error was harmless under Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967), due to the “overwhelming evidence of Ramet's guilt.” Id. at 270.

         In Griffin, the Court held that the trial court's and the prosecutor's comments on the defendant's failure to testify violated the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment. 380 U.S. at 614. While Ramet's claim alleges a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment, respondents do not dispute the Nevada Supreme Court's constitutional error determination. Instead, they argue that this Court must defer to the state supreme court's determination that the error was harmless under Chapman.

         To determine whether a constitutional error is harmless under Chapman, a reviewing court “must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Chapman, 386 U.S. at 24. If a state court finds an error harmless, the federal habeas court reviews that determination under the deferential AEDPA standard, which means that relief is not available for the error “unless the state court's harmlessness determination itself was unreasonable.” Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2199 (2015) (quoting Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 119 (2007)).

         And, even if the federal court determines the state court's application of Chapman was unreasonable, the petitioner is still not entitled to relief unless he can establish that the constitutional error “resulted in ‘actual prejudice.'” Ayala, 135 S.Ct. at 2197 (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993)). Under Brecht, the federal court can grant relief only if it has “grave doubt about whether a trial error of federal law had ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.'” O'Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436 (1995). That is, “[t]here must be more than a ‘reasonable possibility' that the error was harmful.” Ayala, 135 S.Ct. at 2198 (quoting Brecht, 507 U.S. at 637).

         In finding the Fourth Amendment violation harmless, the Nevada Supreme Court noted that “Ramet confessed during trial that he strangled his daughter, stopped and checked her pulse, and then continued to strangle her.” Ramet, 209 P.3d at 270. Ramet argues that the state court's decision was unreasonable and that he can meet the Brecht standard because the error had a “deep impact” on his defense and “was particularly harmful because the evidence of first-degree murder was weak.” (ECF No. 41 at 11.[2])

         In this regard, he contends that evidence that he invoked his Fourth Amendment rights suggested that he was being cold and calculated, which undermined his defense that killing Amy was the result of a spur-of-the-moment impulse and that he immediately regretted it. Also damaging to that defense, however, was evidence that Ramet kept Amy's corpse in the house for several weeks and went to great lengths to conceal her death from his other daughter and ex-wife. And, given that Ramet now concedes that the evidence proved second degree murder (ECF No. 41 at 23-25), this contention has merit only if there was more than a reasonable probability that the jury relied upon the invocation of his Fourth Amendment rights to find that the murder was premeditated and deliberate. See NRS § 200.030. The time lag between the murder and Ramet's attempts to prevent the police from entering his home precludes such a conclusion.

         Ramet also points to the extensive amount of testimony the State elicited on the subject, the fact that a juror submitted a question to Ramet about it at the conclusion of his testimony, and the prosecutor's references to it in closing argument, all of which, according to him, demonstrate the importance of the evidence to the State's case. This is also unavailing. The State elicited the improper testimony in its case-in-chief, prior to, and without knowing, that Ramet would subsequently provide the incriminating testimony cited by the Nevada Supreme Court in its harmless error analysis. And while the prosecutor stated in closing argument that Ramet's refusal to allow the police into his house showed that he was “hiding something, ” the prosecutor did not explicitly argue that it showed premeditation or deliberation. There is no dispute that the evidence was harmful to the defense, but here again, there is not a reasonable probability that it prompted the jury to find first degree murder rather than second degree murder.

         In summary, Ramet fails to convincingly demonstrate that evidence and argument regarding the invocation of his Fourth Amendment rights had a significant ...


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