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Fowler v. Holloway

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

September 25, 2017

REGINALD FOWLER, Petitioner,
v.
JAMES M. HOLLOWAY, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          HARRY S. MATTICE, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 filed by Petitioner Reginald Fowler [Doc. 1] challenging his 2008 Tennessee state court conviction for aggravated arson. Respondent James M. Holloway has filed an answer in opposition [Doc. 4], as well as a copy of the state court record [Doc. 5]. Petitioner has filed two replies [Docs. 9 and 13], along with a letter styled as a motion for new trial [Doc. 12], which essentially reiterates the arguments presented in his § 2254 petition. For the following reasons, Petitioner's § 2254 petition and motion for new trial will be DENIED and this action will be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On February 19, 2008, Petitioner was indicted by a grand jury in Knox County, Tennessee, on a charge of aggravated arson in violation of Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-14-302 [Doc. 5 Attachment 1 pp. 1-3]. He was accused of knowingly setting fire to his room at the Hamilton Inn, a residence hotel in Knoxville. After waiving his right to trial by jury [Doc. 5 Attachment 2 pp. 15-23], Petitioner proceeded to a bench trial before Judge Richard R. Baumgartner in the Knox County Criminal Court. On November 13, 2008, Petitioner was found guilty of aggravated arson [Doc. 5 Attachment 5 p. 229]. On January 22, 2009, Petitioner was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 20 years [Id. p. 247].

         Petitioner appealed his conviction and sentence to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”) raising three issues: (1) the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction; (2) the trial court erred in failing to enforce the Rule of Sequestration in violation of Rule of Evidence 615; and (3) the trial court erred in permitting the State to call a rebuttal witness [Doc. 5 Attachment 8]. The TCCA affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence and Petitioner's application for permission to appeal was denied by the Tennessee Supreme Court. State v. Fowler, No. E2009-00293-CCA-R3-CD, 2010 WL 3774413 (Tenn. Crim. App. Sept. 29, 2010) perm. app. denied (Tenn. Mar. 9, 2011)

         Petitioner timely filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the Knox County Criminal Court raising three grounds for relief: (1) he was denied his right to a fair trial due to the impairment of the trial judge; (2) he was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel rendering his waiver of a jury trial involuntary; and (3) he was denied the effective assistance of counsel when his counsel failed to obtain and present expert testimony on the effects of crack cocaine addiction [Doc. 5 Attachment 12]. Following an evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court denied relief [Doc. 5 Attachment 14 pp. 329-338]. The judgment of the post-conviction court subsequently was affirmed by the TCCA. Fowler v. State, No. E2013-01554-CCA-R3-PC, 2014 WL 3362351 (Tenn. Crim. App. July 9, 2014).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The decision of the TCCA affirming Petitioner's conviction and sentence on direct review sets forth a lengthy summary of the evidence from Petitioner's bench trial in December of 2008. Fowler, 2010 WL 3774413, at *1-16. The TCCA aptly summarized that evidence in its opinion affirming the judgment of the post-conviction court as follows:

In sum, after arguing with his live-in girlfriend about his drug use, petitioner checked in to an extended-stay hotel in Knoxville for the purpose of smoking crack cocaine without interruption. At some point, a fire began in petitioner's hotel room. Hotel employees noted that a dresser had been pushed in front of the door to block entry into the room, the smoke detector had been disabled and concealed, and the fire extinguisher had been removed and placed in the adjacent laundry room. The State's expert witness opined that the fire had been intentionally set and originally noted four points of origin. Petitioner testified that the fire was accidental and presented an expert witness to support his contention. Nonetheless, the trial court credited the State's proof, found petitioner guilty of aggravated arson, and sentenced him to twenty years in the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Fowler, 2014 WL 3362351, at *1.

         The opinion of the TCCA affirming the decision of the post-conviction court also contains a recitation of the facts from the evidentiary hearing held by the post-conviction court and summarizes the testimony heard from Petitioner, pharmacologist Dr. Glen Farr, and Petitioner's trial counsel, Attorney Robert C. Edwards. Id., at *1-4. To the extent the facts from that hearing are relevant to the claims raised by Petitioner in his § 2254 petition, they will be addressed below in the analysis of those specific claims.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A state prisoner is entitled to habeas corpus relief “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) of 1996, which amended § 2254, sets forth “an independent, high standard to be met before a federal court may issue a writ of habeas corpus to set aside state-court rulings.” Uttecht v. Brown, 551 U.S. 1, 10 (2007). By this standard, when a state court adjudicates a claim on the merits, habeas relief is available only if the adjudication of that 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 state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to 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, 413 (2000). A state court's ruling is an “unreasonable application of” clearly established federal law if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from Supreme Court precedent but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular state prisoner's case. Id. at 407. The habeas court is to determine only whether the state court's decision is objectively reasonable, not whether, in the habeas court's view, it is incorrect or wrong. Id. at 411.

         Under the AEDPA, a habeas petitioner 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.'” Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)). This standard is “difficult to meet, ” “highly deferential, ” and “demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (quoting Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102; Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002)).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Petitioner's § 2254 petition raises four grounds for relief: (1) he was denied his right to due process because the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support a conviction for aggravated arson; (2) he was denied his right to a fair trial due to the trial judge's impairment during his trial and sentencing; (3) he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel and his right to a fair trial when his counsel advised him to waive his right to a jury trial; and (4) he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel due to counsel's failure to present expert testimony from a pharmacologist [Doc. 1].

         A. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE

         Petitioner's first claim is that the evidence presented at his trial was insufficient to support a conviction for aggravated arson. Specifically, he maintains that the fire was accidental and that, other than the “incredible” testimony of the State's expert, Fire Investigator Travis Kincaid, there was “no evidence” supporting a finding that he set the fire knowingly, an essential element of the offense of aggravated arson [Doc. 1 pp. 22-25].

         Petitioner challenged the sufficiency of the evidence on direct appeal and the TCCA adjudicated the claim on the merits. Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the state, the TCCA concluded that a rational trier of fact could have found the elements of aggravated arson beyond a reasonable doubt and held that the evidence was sufficient to support Petitioner's conviction. Fowler, 2010 WL 3774413, *17. Respondent argues that the decision of the TCCA is entitled to deference under § 2254(d).

         1. APPLICABLE LAW

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects an accused against conviction “except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). When a habeas petitioner challenges his conviction based upon insufficient evidence the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 324 (1979).

         “This standard is even more exacting” under § 2254, as a review of the state court's merits determination must be made “through AEDPA's deferential lens.” Hill v. Mitchell, 842 F.3d 910, 933 (6th Cir. 2016). Thus, in giving proper deference both to the verdict and to the state court opinion upholding that verdict, even if the Court were to “'conclude that a rational trier of fact could not have found the petitioner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, on habeas review, [the Court] must still defer to the state appellate court's sufficiency determination as long as it is not unreasonable.” Id. at 933-34 (quoting Brown v. Konteh, 567 F.3d 191, 205 (6th Cir. 2009)).

         2. DISCUSSION

         In light of this exacting standard, Petitioner's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his conviction must fail. In addressing Petitioner's claim, the TCCA identified Jackson as the standard and applied it in a reasonable manner. The TCCA made reference to the elements of the offense of aggravated arson under Tennessee law and set forth the relevant evidence supporting it. The court noted that an element of the offense of aggravated arson is that the defendant acted “knowingly, ” and that a person acts knowingly “when he is aware that his conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result.” Fowler, 2010 WL 3774413, at *17 (citing Tenn. Code. Ann. §§ 39-14-301; 39-14-302(a)(1) and 39-11-106(a)(20)).

         Summarizing the proof supporting Petitioner's conviction, the TCCA highlighted Kincaid's testimony that there was more than one place in the room which showed evidence of burning and that both Kincaid and the rebuttal expert testified that the fires were consistent with arson. Fowler, 2010 WL 3774413, at *17. In addition, two other witnesses testified they saw more than one fire burning in the room and another testified that he saw makeshift torches on the dresser and sink. Id. Significantly, the TCCA pointed out that the room's smoke detector was disabled, the fire extinguisher was removed and a dresser was moved in front of the door, blocking entry into the room. Id. Based on the foregoing evidence, the inference that Petitioner knowingly set the fire is not an unreasonable one, and the Court must presume that both the trial judge and the TCCA resolved any reasonable conflicting inferences in favor of the prosecution. See Copeland v. Tiseo, 645 F. App'x 500, 506 (6th Cir. 2016).

         Petitioner's argument to the contrary focuses almost exclusively on the alleged lack of credibility of Kincaid's testimony. Under Jackson, however, “the assessment of the credibility of witnesses is generally beyond the scope of review.” Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 330 (1995); see also Martin v. Mitchell, 280 F.3d 594, 618 (6th Cir. 2002) (attacks on witness credibility are simply challenges to the quality of the government's evidence and not to the sufficiency of the evidence). Moreover, “[t]he trier of fact . . . holds ‘the responsibility ... fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts.'” Tibbs v. Florida, 457 U.S. 31, 45 n. 21 (1982) (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319)). Here, the trial court found the testimony of Kincaid and the rebuttal expert to be more credible and consistent with the evidence as a whole than the testimony of the defense expert, and it is not for this Court to reweigh the evidence, re-evaluate the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the trier of fact. See Brown, 567 F.3d at 205.

         Under the doubly deferential standard of Jackson and the AEDPA, the Court is satisfied that the evidence presented at Petitioner's trial was sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find all of the essential elements of the crime of aggravated arson beyond a reasonable doubt and that the decision of the TCCA so finding was not unreasonable. Accordingly, because the decision of the TCCA was neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, federal law as established in Jackson, Petitioner's sufficiency-of- the-evidence claim will be denied.

         B. RIGHT TO FAIR TRIAL--IMPAIRMENT OF TRIAL JUDGE

         Petitioner's second habeas claim is that he was denied his right to a fair trial under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment due to the trial judge's impairment during his bench trial and sentencing. Specifically, Petitioner maintains that Judge Baumgartner, who resigned from the bench in March of 2011 after pleading guilty to official misconduct, was impaired by a prescription drug addiction during Petitioner's trial in December of 2008 and sentencing in January of 2009 [Doc. 1 pp. 26-28].

         Petitioner raised this issue in his state post-conviction petition. Following an evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court rejected the claim and the TCCA concluded on appeal that “Petitioner has presented no credible evidence that the trial judge was impaired during the proceedings or that his misconduct outside of the courtroom affected his ability to preside over petitioner's trial and sentencing hearing.” Fowler ...


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