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Watkins v. Settles

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

August 27, 2019

DARREN SETTLES, et al., Respondents.



         Cedric Watkins, an inmate of the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex in Pikeville, Tennessee, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his conviction in the Davidson County Criminal Court of first-degree premeditated murder. Petitioner is serving a term of imprisonment for life in the Tennessee Department of Correction for this offense. (Doc. No. 1).

         Presently pending before the Court is the Warden's answer to the habeas petition in which he asks the Court to dismiss the petition. (Doc. No. 11).

         The petition is ripe for review, and this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241(d). Having fully considered the record, the Court finds that an evidentiary hearing is not needed, and Petitioner is not entitled to relief. The petition therefore will be denied and this action will be dismissed.

         I. Procedural History

         Petitioner's first trial ended in a hung jury. (Doc. No. 9, Attach. 1 at PageID# 51). In 2013, after a second jury trial, Petitioner was convicted of first degree murder, and the trial court imposed a life sentence. (Doc. No. 1 at 1).

         On direct appeal, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Petitioner's judgment on January 20, 2015. State v. Watkins, No. M2013-0212-CCA-R3-CD, 2014 WL 2547710 (Tenn. Crim. App. June 4, 2014), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Aug. 18, 2016). However, due to a discrepancy regarding Petitioner's sentence, the court remanded to the trial court for it to consider whether the judgment required correction of a clerical error. Id. at *8. The Tennessee Supreme Court denied Petitioner's application to appeal on Aug. 18, 2016. Id.

         On January 20, 2015, Petitioner filed a timely pro se petition for state post-conviction relief. (Doc. No. 9, Attach. 11 at PageID# 783-806). On June 22, 2015, Petitioner filed an amended petition through counsel. (Doc. No. 9, Attach. 11 at PageID# 816-826). Following an evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court denied relief on April 4, 2016. (Doc. No. 9, Attach. 11 at PageID# 830-859). The post-conviction court simultaneously granted Petitioner permission to file a delayed Rule 11 application to the Tennessee Supreme Court due to appellate counsel's failure to file a Rule 11 application for permission to appeal. Watkins v. State, No. M2016-00681-CCA-R3-PC, 2017 WL 1048130, at *4 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 20, 2017), perm. app denied (Tenn. May 18, 2017). Petitioner's delayed Rule 11 application was denied on August 18, 2016. (Doc. Nos. 9, 10).

         Petitioner appealed the denial of his post-conviction petition, and the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed on March 20, 2017. Watkins v. State, No. M2016-00681-CCA-R3-PC, 2017 WL 1048130 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 20, 2017), perm. app denied (Tenn. May 18, 2017). The Tennessee Supreme Court denied Petitioner's application for discretionary review on May 18, 2017. Id.

         On September 25, 2017, [1] Petitioner filed the instant pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus. (Doc. No. 1 at 15). On October 12, 2017, the Court ordered Respondent to respond to the petition. (Doc. No. 5). Respondent filed its answer on December 31, 2017. (Doc. No. 11).

         In his petition, Petitioner asserts four claims for relief: his conviction is not supported by sufficient evidence because there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene and because many of the witnesses were not credible; he was denied due process of law when the trial court erred by limiting the testimony of a defense witness; he was denied ineffective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to adequately investigate the case, specifically in failing to interview Lashona Wooten, and failed to consult with Petitioner prior to trial; and he was denied effective assistance of counsel when trial counsel failed to (1) call Clifford Parrish to testify, (2) properly cross-examine Deborah Cox, (3) object to Detective Corey Wall's hearsay statements, and (4) call Lashona Wooten to testify. (Doc. No. 1 at PageID# 5-11).

         II. Summary of the Evidence

         A. Trial Proceedings

          The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals summarized the proof adduced at Petitioner's March 18-20, 2013 second jury trial as follows:

The victim's brother, Davis Turner, testified that the victim was fifty-two years old when he died. The victim had been in the Air Force and had worked for various defense industry firms. Mr. Turner testified that the victim had always had an interest in computers. Mr. Turner first learned in 1995 that the victim had a drug habit. He said that the victim had been living at InTown Suites and had owned a white Ford Probe at the time of his death.
William Ogden testified that he was working at InTown Suites on July 28, 2009. When he was cleaning the parking lot, he smelled a distinct odor and notified his manager that there was probably a dead body on the premises. He could not determine from which room the smell was coming, so he waited for his manager to arrive. Together, they searched several rooms until they found the victim's body in room 135. Mr. Ogden knew the victim as “Bill.” Mr. Ogden testified that he and the manager looked into the room but did not enter it. The manager, Kevin Moore, also testified and corroborated Mr. Ogden's testimony.
Lynette Mace, a crime scene technician with the Metro Nashville Police Department, testified that she processed the victim's room along with Sergeant John Nicholson. She described the room as an efficiency apartment. The victim was lying a few feet from the door. A chair was turned over, but there were no other signs of disarray. She saw two computers in the room. Ms. Mace found three spent nine millimeter shell casings and two projectile fragments. There was a “strike mark” on one wall, and she found a projectile lodged inside the wall at that location. Ms. Mace processed the room for fingerprints and “DNA touch evidence.” She also used vacuum filters to collect any trace evidence.
Brianna Stanton testified that in 2009, she lived in various hotels with different people and abused crack cocaine. She said that “[m]ost of the time, ” she lived with appellant, whom she knew as “Frank White.” Ms. Stanton said that she also lived with Stephanie Littlejohn and “Hannah.” Other acquaintances included William Carter (a/k/a “Will C.”), Bobby Gurley (a/k/a “B.O.”), and Chaz Ellis (a/k/a “Cuz”). Mr. Carter was a barber and had a car. She was also acquainted with the victim, whom she knew as “Bill Gates.” She recalled an occasion when the victim bought drugs and wanted to try the drugs before he left, which was unusual behavior for him. She and appellant later discussed the possibility of the victim's being a “snitch.” Ms. Stanton testified that several days before she learned of the victim's death, Mr. Carter had driven appellant somewhere. When they returned, appellant, supposing that Ms. Stanton knew what had happened, said that they “were all supposed to take it to the grave.” She said that she did not ask any questions. Ms. Stanton learned about the victim's murder on the news. When his murder was reported, appellant said, “‘[W]ell, there it is.'” Sometime later, she heard that Mr. Carter had been “running around talking about” what appellant had done. Appellant called Mr. Carter to come to their hotel room, and he “asked [Mr. Carter] why he was running his mouth and smacked him for doing it.” Ms. Stanton agreed that she had testified in a prior proceeding that appellant said something “along the lines of [ ] they had to do what they had to do to somebody who was snitching” and that “the four of us in the room would take it to the grave.” Ms. Stanton recalled that the first time she talked to detectives about the victim's murder, she denied any knowledge of what occurred. Detectives talked to her again in December 2010, while she was in jail, and she told them what she knew.
Ms. Stanton and appellant spoke by telephone at least twice while she was in jail, on November 14, 2010, and December 19, 2010. The State introduced recordings of those telephone conversations into evidence. In the November conversation, Ms. Stanton mentioned that she “hope[d] that [ ] everybody does what they said they were going to do, ” and appellant asked her whether she had heard from anyone “with a badge.” Ms. Stanton testified that they were both referring to the victim's murder. In the December 2010 conversation, appellant told Ms. Stanton to “[s]tick to the script” and said that they would “fight this s* * * to the end.” Ms. Stanton “guessed” that he was referring to the victim's murder. She agreed that she had previously testified that “sticking to the script” meant that no one would say anything.
Stephanie Littlejohn testified that in July 2009, she lived in hotel rooms and was engaging in prostitution and drug sales. She lived with appellant, whom she knew as Frank White. Ms. Stanton and “Hannah” also lived with her and appellant. Ms. Littlejohn testified that she was acquainted with Chaz Ellis, Bobby Gurley, William Carter, and the victim. She said that the victim was called “Bill Gates” because “[h]e was smart[, and] he fixed computers.” Ms. Littlejohn recalled that the victim came to her hotel room on July 23, 2009, to take her to buy marijuana. When they returned to the hotel room, she gave the victim her laptop so that he could work on it. After the victim left, the group present at the hotel discussed whether the victim had “snitch[ed]” on Mr. Gurley and Mr. Ellis because they had been arrested.
Ms. Littlejohn testified that appellant and Mr. Carter left the hotel to visit the victim. She said that she asked them to pick up her laptop while they were there. She further said that she “had a feeling” about the purpose of their visit but that “[i]t was kind of one of those things that [was] left unsaid.” Ms. Littlejohn testified that appellant and Mr. Carter returned thirty to forty-five minutes later. She recalled that appellant “was just in tears, and he said the Lord's prayer.” Appellant had her laptop but would not let her have it. Ms. Littlejohn said that she learned about the victim's murder approximately a week later when it was reported on the news. She did not remember appellant's saying anything about the murder immediately after it was on the news, but she testified that at some point appellant told her that he had shot the victim three times. Ms. Littlejohn also testified that appellant confronted Mr. Carter about Mr. Carter's telling his girlfriend what had happened the day of the victim's murder. Appellant “smack[ed]” Mr. Carter and took him into the bathroom. Ms. Littlejohn remembered Mr. Carter's asking appellant not to kill him. Ms. Littlejohn testified that she did not talk to the police about the victim's murder until September 2010. At first, she denied any knowledge but eventually told the police the information about which she testified at trial.
On cross-examination, Ms. Littlejohn clarified that appellant told her on the same day of the murder that he had shot the victim, not at a later point in time. She also stated that she did not remember telling Deborah Cox about a statement made by appellant with regard to the victim's murder.
William Carter testified that he was acquainted with appellant, Ms. Littlejohn, and Ms. Stanton. He also knew Mr. Gurley and Mr. Ellis, but he did not know the victim. He said that he had heard “the women” talk about the victim and that he knew the victim was a drug user. Mr. Carter testified that Mr. Gurley and Mr. Ellis were both arrested in 2009 and that he subsequently heard a rumor that the victim was “snitching.” He did not know whether the victim's alleged “snitching” was related to the arrests of Mr. Gurley and Mr. Ellis. Mr. Carter testified that on July 23, 2009, appellant called him to cut his hair. He went to the hotel where appellant was staying. After cutting his hair, appellant asked Mr. Carter to take him somewhere to pick up something. Mr. Carter did not consider that an unusual request. Mr. Carter drove appellant to In Town Suites at appellant's direction. When they pulled into the parking lot, appellant pointed out the car for which he had been looking. Mr. Carter identified a picture of that car, which had been previously identified as belonging to the victim. Mr. Carter said that he saw a woman he knew standing on the second or third level of the hotel. He spoke to the woman, and appellant told him to leave. He drove to the end of the building, where appellant got out of the car. Mr. Carter said that he turned his car around and then saw appellant running toward him, carrying a laptop computer. Appellant got into Mr. Carter's car, and they drove away. Mr. Carter testified that while in the car, appellant said, “‘[T]wo shots to the head[;] he ain't talking no more.'” Mr. Carter said he did not know what appellant meant and that he had heard similar phrases “in some rap lyrics.” Appellant also took off his shirt and threw it out of the window of the car. Mr. Carter did not see appellant with a gun that day.
Mr. Carter testified that when the news reported the victim's death, they showed a photograph of the InTown Suites. Mr. Carter told his girlfriend that he had driven appellant to that location, but he did not associate that incident with the victim's murder. He testified that approximately one month later, appellant called him to cut his hair. Mr. Carter went to appellant's hotel room and cut his hair. Subsequently, appellant punched him in the jaw and said, “‘[B] * * * *, you been [sic] running your mouth about taking me to the room.'” Appellant also pulled him into the bathroom and told him that “if [he] ever said anything[, ] someone would kill [Mr. Carter] and [his] family.” Mr. Carter testified that the following day, he was arrested for failing to pay his child support obligations. He was incarcerated for five months. He was arrested on September 20, 2010, for a traffic violation and served five days in jail. While he was in jail for the traffic violation, Detective Wall came to speak with him about the victim's murder. He did not admit to knowing anything at that point. In March 2011, Mr. Carter saw on the news that he was wanted for first degree murder, so he turned himself in to the police. Detective Wall interviewed him again, and he gave a full statement.
Dr. Bridget Eutenier, an associate medical examiner in Davidson County, testified that the victim was shot in the front of his head three times: on his left eyebrow, in front of his left ear, and below his right eye. Two of the bullets exited, but one was recovered “from the posterior scalp.” The victim's body was in a state of decomposition, making it difficult to determine the trajectory of the bullets. Dr. Eutenier testified that “[a]ll three wounds would have been fatal.” Dr. Eutenier estimated that the victim had died “a few days” prior to his discovery.
Metro Nashville Police Detective Corey Wall testified that he was the lead investigator in this case. He said that the victim's brother, Davis Turner, provided him with the victim's cellular telephone number. Subsequently, Detective Wall obtained the victim's telephone records. The last call that the victim made was on July 23, 2009, at 5:12 p.m. Detective Wall had the Identification Department compare fingerprints from people with whom the victim had communicated with the fingerprints lifted from his hotel room. There were no matches. In addition, no DNA was found in the victim's hotel room other than his own. The computers from the hotel room were also analyzed but contained no useful information.
Detective Wall testified that he also interviewed persons of interest identified through the victim's telephone records. In particular, he interviewed Stevie Downs, who suggested that he speak with Chaz Ellis. Detective Wall first spoke with Mr. Ellis in August 2009, but he denied any knowledge of the victim's murder. In July 2010, Mr. Ellis's attorney contacted Detective Wall and told him that Mr. Ellis wished to speak with him. When they met, Mr. Ellis suggested that Detective Wall talk to Stephanie Littlejohn and Brianna Stanton. Detective Wall and his partner, Detective Derry Baltimore, spoke with Ms. Littlejohn while she was incarcerated in September 2010. She was reluctant to divulge any information at first, but after they “leaned on” her, she told them about how she knew the victim and that the victim had been working on her laptop. She also told them about appellant's returning to their hotel room after having gone out with Mr. Carter. Ms. Littlejohn said that appellant gave her back her laptop, said a prayer for the victim, and told her that he had “shot the victim three times in the head.” From Ms. Littlejohn's information, Detective Wall attempted to interview William Carter on September 30, 2010, but he refused to speak with the police. Detective Wall and Detective Baltimore interviewed Ms. Stanton in December 2010. She gave a statement that was consistent with Ms. Littlejohn's statement. Subsequently, Mr. Carter and appellant were both charged with the victim's murder. After Mr. Carter was taken into custody, he gave a statement that was consistent with Ms. Stanton's and Ms. Littlejohn's statements. Thereafter, appellant was arrested.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Alex Brodhag testified as an expert in forensic firearms examination. He said that the police submitted the following evidence to him for analysis: a fired bullet core; three fired nine millimeter Luger cartridge cases; a fired jacketed bullet; a fired bullet core fragment; and a fired hollow point bullet jacket. Agent Brodhag determined that the three nine millimeter cartridges were fired from the same weapon. He further determined that the fired bullet core, the fired jacketed bullet, and the fired hollow point bullet jacket were consistent with nine millimeter bullets. The bullet core fragment was not useful for comparison purposes. The markings on the jacketed bullet and hollow point bullet jacket had the “same class characteristics, ” but there were not enough markings to conclude that they were fired from the same weapon. In addition, Agent Brodhag could not determine whether the fired bullets were originally paired with the three cartridge cases and, therefore, could not determine how many weapons were used. Following Agent Brodhag's testimony, the State rested its case.
On behalf of appellant, Deborah Cox testified that Stephanie Littlejohn and Brianna Stanton lived with her for a time after July 2009. Ms. Cox said that Ms. Littlejohn told her, “ ‘I killed Bill Gates[;] I shot him in the back of the head[.][T]he gun will never be found[;] it's in pieces all over this town.' “ After the close of proof and deliberations, the jury found appellant guilty as charged. Appellant's motion for new trial was unsuccessful.

Watkins, 2014 WL 2547710, at **1-5.

         B. Post-Conviction Proceedings

         The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals summarized the proof adduced at Petitioner's post-conviction evidentiary hearing as follows:

Clifford Parrish, a long-time boyfriend of the petitioner's aunt, testified that Stephanie Littlejohn told him that she had committed the murder. He said he did not impart that information to the petitioner's defense team because he thought Ms. Littlejohn would take the initiative and tell them herself. On cross-examination, he testified he later told the petitioner's aunt about Ms. Littlejohn's confession. He was unsure, however, of when he divulged the information, testifying that it could have possibly been during the first or the second trial.
Lashona Smith, previously known by the married name of Lashona Wooten, testified that she gave testimony at the petitioner's first trial about having seen William Carter driving away from the hotel with a passenger in his vehicle on the day the victim was killed, but she was unable to see who the passenger was. She stated that she was subpoenaed as a witness at the petitioner's second trial, but, although the petitioner's trial counsel spoke to her outside the courtroom, she was never called to testify.
Deborah Cox testified that she testified at both of the petitioner's trials. She said that both trial counsel and his investigator interviewed her and that she was asked at the second trial about Ms. Littlejohn's statement that she had killed the victim and disposed of the gun.
The petitioner testified that his first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. He said his family retained a different attorney for his second trial and trial counsel began representing him only twenty-one days before the second trial began. He claimed trial counsel visited him only two times before trial, in visits that lasted thirty minutes or less. According to the petitioner, trial counsel never prepared him for testifying and never even discussed before trial whether or not he would testify. He said he consequently felt unprepared to testify, which is why he opted not to take the stand in his own defense. Had he been prepared and testified, he would have told the jury that he did not kill the victim.
The petitioner also complained about trial counsel's failure to call Ms. Wooten and Mr. Parrish as witnesses and his failure to effectively impeach Ms. Cox's testimony with her testimony from the first trial. He said he wanted trial counsel to call Ms. Wooten as a witness at his second trial because she had testified at his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, and he believed her testimony would have made a difference in his second trial. He said counsel never explained to him why he failed to call her as a witness.
The petitioner testified he had no knowledge before either of his trials about the information Mr. Parrish provided at the evidentiary hearing, but also no knowledge of what kind, if any, investigation trial counsel conducted or if counsel could have discovered Mr. Parrish as a potential witness. As for Ms. Cox, he believed that counsel should have impeached her testimony at his second trial with her testimony from the first trial. He explained that in the first trial, Ms. Cox simply testified that Ms. Littlejohn told her that she had committed the crime, while in the second she testified that Ms. Littlejohn told her that she had shot the victim in the back of the head. The petitioner said he thought trial counsel should have asked Ms. Cox to read from her previous trial testimony to show the jury the discrepancies in her accounts.
The petitioner also complained that trial counsel failed to object to hearsay testimony by Detective Corey Wall about having been told by Chaz Ellis to speak to Ms. Littlejohn about the crime. Lastly, he claimed that trial counsel fell asleep during his trial, testifying that counsel was “supposed to have been taking notes, ” but his paper fell to the floor twice while he was sitting at the defense table.
On cross-examination, the petitioner denied that his family retained trial counsel shortly before his second trial because he was not getting along with his former counsel. Instead, he claimed that trial counsel “showed up alleging that he was his attorney” and when he called his family to inquire, they told him that they had hired him. The petitioner acknowledged that his first jury had voted 11 to 1 to convict him. Because his first trial ended in a hung jury, he thought trial counsel should have “follow[ed] the same platform [of the first trial] instead of subtracting from what ha[d] already been laid out as a foundation.” He said he told trial counsel that his words of “stick to the script” meant to tell the truth and that counsel told him he would find someone from the African-American community to testify to that effect. The petitioner disagreed that Ms. Wooten's testimony that someone else was in the car with Mr. Carter helped the State's case. On redirect examination, he reiterated his belief that Ms. Cox's testimony from the first trial that she was unable to see who was in the car with Mr. Carter helped his defense in the first trial.
Trial counsel, called as a witness by the State, testified that he had been licensed to practice law for approximately thirty-nine years. He said he was contacted by the petitioner's aunt and other family members who indicated that the petitioner's relationship with his former counsel was “strained” and asked him to take over the case. During his appearance notice, three weeks before the scheduled trial, the trial court addressed the fact that the trial had been set for a number of months and could not be reset. Trial counsel stated that he thought his taking on the case was what the petitioner needed and “a positive situation” due to the petitioner's strained relationship with his former counsel. Former counsel was very cooperative, furnishing him with “everything he had, ” and trial counsel devoted all of his time from the date he was retained until trial in preparing for the case.
Trial counsel testified that he met with the petitioner three different times, for a total of over three hours, in his preparation for the case. He characterized their meetings as “very productive, ” testifying that he and the petitioner communicated well and reviewed together the first trial transcript “line by line.” Among other things, he and the petitioner discussed the State's evidence against the petitioner, potential witnesses and theories of defense, and which factors in the first trial had not been favorable to the petitioner. The petitioner was very interested in having Ms. Littlejohn and Ms. Cox as witnesses, but he never mentioned Mr. Parrish. Trial counsel said he also “zeroed in” on the petitioner's “stick to the script” statement, spending “the better part” of one or two days trying through his connection with the “Nashville Inner City Ministry” to find someone to testify that in the African- American community the words could be interpreted as “tell the truth as opposed to say what we had planned to say.” He could not, however, “find anyone that would agree that they could do that in good conscience.” Trial counsel testified that he considered calling Ms. Wooten as a witness at the second trial. However, after talking with her, he “had ... chills” based on the way she expressed herself and therefore believed that she would not “be anything but a possible liability” for the petitioner if she testified. He said he spoke with Ms. Cox twice before trial, provided her with gas money to travel to the trial from her home in Kentucky, and called her as witness. He repeated that the petitioner never mentioned Mr. Parrish at all.
Trial counsel further testified that he had extensive conversations with the petitioner about the pros and cons of testifying in his own defense and that it was the petitioner's ultimate decision. In addition, the trial court conducted a “very, very thorough examination” with the petitioner about his decision not to take the stand.
On cross-examination, trial counsel testified he had never tried a first degree murder case with only three weeks of preparation. He said he met with the petitioner either the same day that the petitioner's aunt retained him, or the following day. He also informed the petitioner, upon assumption of the case, “that it was [his] understanding that the Court would not grant a continuance because [he] came into the case.” Trial counsel testified that he “would have liked a little more latitude in ... developing Ms. Cox's testimony, ” but he was limited by the trial court's rulings. Trial counsel reiterated that Ms. Wooten's demeanor and body language on the day of the trial led him to believe, based ...

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