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Carter v. Slatery

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 24, 2018

JOHN E. CARTER, # 97766, Plaintiff,


          Aleta A. Trauger United States District Judge

         John E. Carter, an inmate of the SPR-Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tennessee, filed this pro se action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Herbert Slatery, III in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Tennessee, seeking only a declaratory judgment that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires Tennessee state courts to reevaluate Carter's convictions for Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-2402 under a post-State v. Brown, 836 S.W.2d 530 (Tenn. 1992), interpretation of the elements of premeditation and deliberation. (Docket No. 1).

         The plaintiff's complaint is before the court for an initial review pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.

         I. PLRA Screening Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, even if the prisoner paid the civil filing fee (such as in this action), a district court must review any “complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity” and shall dismiss any claims that are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state claims upon which relief may be granted. Id.

         The court must construe a pro se complaint liberally, United States v. Smotherman, 838 F.3d 736, 739 (6th Cir. 2016)(citing Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)), and accept the plaintiff's factual allegations as true unless they are entirely without credibility. See Thomas v. Eby, 481 F.3d 434, 437 (6th Cir. 2007)(citing Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 33 (1992)). Although pro se pleadings are to be held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972); Jourdan v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 108, 110 (6th Cir. 1991), the courts' “duty to be ‘less stringent' with pro se complaints does not require us to conjure up [unpleaded] allegations.” McDonald v. Hall, 610 F.2d 16, 19 (1st Cir. 1979) (citation omitted).

         II. Section 1983 Standard

         The plaintiff brings his complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a cause of action against any person who, acting under color of state law, abridges “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . . .” To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege and show two elements: (1) that he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and (2) that the deprivation was caused by a person acting under color of state law. Dominguez v. Corr. Med. Servs., 555 F.3d 543, 549 (6th Cir. 2009)(quoting Sigley v. City of Panama Heights, 437 F.3d 527, 533 (6th Cir. 2006)); 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         III. Background

         In 1982, Carter was convicted of the first-degree murder of his grandparents under Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-2402, Tennessee's first-degree murder statute in effect at the time of the murders.[1] Carter admits that he took the lives of his grandparents, but he maintains that he did not act with premeditation or deliberation to warrant a conviction for first-degree murder. Carter was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment in 1983. Carter's convictions and sentence were upheld on direct appeal. See State v. Carter, 1985 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 3028 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 20, 1985), perm. app. denied (Tenn. July 2, 1990).

         He filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which was denied after an evidentiary hearing, and dismissal was affirmed on appeal. See Carter v. State, No. 89-27-III, 1990 WL 9892 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 9, 1990), perm. app. denied (Tenn. July 2, 1990).

         In 1992, in State v. Brown, 836 S.W.2d 530, 543 (Tenn.1992), the Tennessee Supreme Court examined the first-degree murder statute and clarified the concepts of premeditation and deliberation. Thereafter, Carter instituted numerous proceedings in which he argued that he was entitled to relief based on Brown. See Carter v. Carlton, No. E2000-00406-CCA-R3-PC, 2001 WL 170878, at *3 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 22, 2001) (affirming dismissal of his petition for habeas corpus relief, “we do not conclude that an individual convicted of first-degree murder pre-Brown is laboring under a void conviction”), perm. app. denied (Tenn. July 2, 2001), reh'g denied (Tenn. Sept. 17, 2001) cert. denied (U.S. Nov. 13, 2001); Carter v. State, No. M2003-00750-CCA-R28-CO (Tenn. Crim. App. Jun. 9, 2003) (affirming dismissal of his fourth motion to reopen his petition for post-conviction relief, in which he claimed innocence based on Brown because the claim was not the type that could be raised in a motion to reopen), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Oct. 27, 2003); Carter v. State, No. E2005-01296-CCA-R3-HC, 2005 WL 2487977 (Tenn. Crim. App. Oct. 7, 2005) (construing his untitled pleading as one for habeas corpus relief and concluding that his claim of improper interpretation of law did not present a cognizable claim for habeas corpus relief), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Jan. 30, 2006), cert. denied (U.S. June 26, 2006); Carter v. State, No. M2004-03073-CCA-R3-CO, 2006 WL 119673 (Tenn. Crim. App. Jan. 17, 2006) (affirming summary dismissal of his three petitions for writ of error coram nobis as untimely and because the Brown issue was previously addressed in his post-conviction proceeding), perm. app. denied (Tenn. May 30, 2006), cert. denied (U.S. Oct. 2, 2006); Carter v. Taylor, No. E2014-01065-CCA-R3-HC, 2015 WL 2448029 (Tenn. Crim. App. May 22, 2015) (affirming dismissal of his petition for writ of habeas corpus for procedural deficiencies and because it failed to state a cognizable claim for habeas corpus relief), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Oct. 15, 2015). Indeed, as of 2005, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals noted that Carter had “unsuccessfully challenged his convictions in ‘at least eleven (11) separate proceedings' through the filings of petitions for habeas corpus, coram nobis, and/or post-conviction relief, including multiple motions to reopen his post-conviction petition, all raising variations of the claims he raises here.” Carter, 2005 WL 2487977, at *1.

         Carter also sought federal habeas corpus relief, contending that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, his confession to the murders was admitted into evidence in violation of his constitutional rights, and insufficient evidence existed that he was sane. Carter v. Rone, No. 93-5499, 1993 WL 498200 (6th Cir. Dec. 2, 1993). The district court denied relief, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Id. In 2005, Carter filed a motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2244 in the Sixth Circuit, seeking authorization for the district court to consider a second petition for habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. See In re John E. Carter, No. 05-5315 (6th Cir. Oct. 26, 2005). In his motion, Carter asserted that his convictions were based on prior erroneous interpretations of state law by the Tennessee Supreme Court. He asserted that, in light of Brown, his convictions now violate the Due Process Clause. Id. at *1. The Sixth Circuit denied Carter's motion, holding that “Carter's request fails to satisfy the requirements of the statute.” Id. at *2.

         Prior to bringing the instant action, the plaintiff has filed two previous actions in this court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In the first action, John E. Carter v. Leon C. Burns, Jr., et al., 3:07-cv-00597 (M.D. Tenn.), the plaintiff alleged that had been denied access to the courts because “Tennessee law closes all opportunity to judicial review and redress, ” his “continued incarceration as a factually innocent prisoner is not consistent with the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, ” and his convictions violate the Due Process Clause “because [his] conduct did not violate an element of § 39-2402 as properly interpreted.” (00597, Docket No. 1). Carter argued that “the face of the record require[d] reversal of [his] convictions” in light of Brown because there is no evidence of the “deliberation” required to support his first-degree murder convictions. (Id.)

         Carter challenged the constitutionality of Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 21-21-107, 40-26-105, 40-30-107, and 40-30-117, which govern collateral review of criminal convictions, and alleged that such statutes denied him “all opportunity for judicial review and redress of his later arising fully cognizable Brown based federal constitutional claims.” (Id.) Carter sought only declaratory relief in the form of “a declaratory order that the State of Tennessee is constitutionally mandated to provide [him] an adequate corrective process for the hearing and the determination of” his constitutional claim based upon the Brown decision. (Id.)

         The court dismissed Carter's complaint upon initial screening for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b) and subsequently denied reconsideration. (00597, Docket No. 3). On March 18, 2008, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's order in part, vacated the order in part, and remanded the case for further proceedings. (00597, Docket No. 12). Upon remand, a magistrate judge filed a report recommending the dismissal of Carter's complaint pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A(b)(1) “for lack of standing/want of jurisdiction, and as both malicious and frivolous.” (00597, Docket No. ...

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