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Williams v. Gentry

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 15, 2018

JO GENTRY, et al., Respondents.



         This counseled habeas matter under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 comes before the court on respondents' motion to dismiss certain claims in petitioner Jessica Williams' amended petition (ECF No. 113). Williams opposed (ECF No. 114), and respondents replied (ECF No. 115).

         I. Procedural History and Background

         On February 16, 2001, a jury convicted Williams of six counts of driving with a prohibited substance in the blood or urine resulting in death; one count of use of a controlled substance; and one count of possession of a controlled substance (exhibit 3).[1] The convictions arose from the deaths of six teenagers assigned to a roadside cleanup crew who were struck and killed on March 19, 2000, when the vehicle that Williams was driving veered off the road into the median. As this court has recounted previously, according to the factual summary by the Supreme Court of Nevada, Williams had stayed up all night the prior evening. Williams admitted that she had smoked marijuana approximately two hours before veering off the road and that she had used the designer drug “ecstasy” the prior evening. Williams had a pipe with marijuana residue and a plastic bag with marijuana. Blood tests returned positive results for the presence of the active ingredient of marijuana and a metabolite thereof. Williams maintained that she had fallen asleep at the wheel. See Williams v. State, 118 Nev. 536, 50 P.3d 1116, 1126-27 (2002)(Williams I).

         The state district court sentenced Williams to what amounted to six consecutive terms of 36 to 96 months. Exh. 3. Judgment of conviction was filed on April 6, 2001. Id. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed her convictions in a published opinion on August 2, 2002. Exh. 9; Williams I, 50 P.3d 1116.

         The state district court granted Williams' state postconviction habeas petition on March 4, 2003, reasoning that the plain language of NRS 484.379 did not include marijuana metabolite as a prohibited substance. Exh. 14. The Nevada Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the claim was procedurally barred and that Williams failed to demonstrate good cause and actual prejudice to excuse the default. Exh. 19.

         Ultimately, for the purposes of the current federal habeas petition, Williams, through counsel, filed a petition to commence this action (ECF No. 1), the Federal Public Defender was appointed and original counsel withdrew, and this court granted a stay and abeyance in order to exhaust unexhausted claims (ECF No. 91). Williams filed a second state postconviction petition in state court (ECF No. 100-1, pp. 98-103; ECF No. 100-2, pp. 1-22). The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the petition, concluding that the claims were procedurally barred (ECF No. 98-4).

         This court subsequently granted Williams' motion to lift stay (ECF No. 97, 111) and granted her motion to file an amended petition (ECF No. 111). Williams filed the amended petition (ECF No. 110), and respondents now move to dismiss grounds 8A, 8B and 9 as procedurally defaulted, grounds 1B, 3 and 6 for failure to state a claim, and ground 9 as time barred (ECF No. 113).

         II. Legal Standards & Analysis a. Relation Back

         Respondents argue that ground 9 does not relate back to a timely-filed petition and should thus be dismissed as untimely (ECF No. 113, pp. 17-18). A new claim in an amended petition that is filed after the expiration of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) one-year limitation period will be timely only if the new claim relates back to a claim in a timely-filed pleading under Rule 15(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on the basis that the claim arises out of “the same conduct, transaction or occurrence” as a claim in the timely pleading. Mayle v. Felix, 545 U.S. 644 (2005). In Mayle, the United States Supreme Court held that habeas claims in an amended petition do not arise out of “the same conduct, transaction or occurrence” as claims in the original petition merely because the claims all challenge the same trial, conviction or sentence. 545 U.S. at 655-64. Rather, under the construction of the rule approved in Mayle, Rule 15(c) permits relation back of habeas claims asserted in an amended petition “only when the claims added by amendment arise from the same core facts as the timely filed claims, and not when the new claims depend upon events separate in ‘both time and type' from the originally raised episodes.” 545 U.S. at 657. In this regard, the reviewing court looks to “the existence of a common ‘core of operative facts' uniting the original and newly asserted claims.” A claim that merely adds “a new legal theory tied to the same operative facts as those initially alleged” will relate back and be timely. 545 U.S. at 659 and n.5; Ha Van Nguyen v. Curry, 736 F.3d 1287, 1297 (9th Cir. 2013).

         Here, the parties do not dispute that ground 9 must relate back to a timely filed petition in order to be deemed timely (ECF Nos. 113, 114). In ground 9, Williams argues that her trial and appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance (IAC) in violation of her Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they failed to raise available constitutional challenges to the application of the driving under the influence statutes to her case (ECF No. 110, pp. 51-53).

         In Nguyen, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that the petitioner's claims of double jeopardy, cruel and unusual punishment, and IAC, while they were different in the “time and type” as claims, were supported by a common core of facts, because the failure to raise the substantive claim of double jeopardy was the basis for the IAC claim. Nguyen, 736 F.3d at 1297. Here, ground 9 asserts an IAC claim that is based on counsel's failure to raise the constitutional attacks on the Nevada prohibited substance statutes that were raised in ground 8 of the initial petition (ECF No. 1, pp. 39-42). Accordingly, ground 9 relates back to the original timely petition filed in 2004.

         b. Procedural Default 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), provides that this court may grant habeas relief if the relevant state court decision was either: (1) contrary to clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court; or (2) involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court.

         “Procedural default” refers to the situation where a petitioner in fact presented a claim to the state courts but the state courts disposed of the claim on procedural grounds, instead of on the merits. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 730-31 (1991). A federal court will not review a claim for habeas corpus relief if the decision of the state court regarding that claim rested on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment. Id.

         The Coleman Court explained the effect of a procedural default:

In all cases in which a state prisoner has defaulted his federal claims in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule, federal habeas review of the claims is barred unless the prisoner can demonstrate cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or demonstrate that ...

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