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Compton v. Sexton

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

October 31, 2019

DAVID SEXTON, Warden, Respondent.



         Petitioner Brandon A. Compton, a Tennessee inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his Tennessee convictions for second-degree murder and resulting 50-year sentence. Having considered the submissions of the parties, the State-court record, and the law applicable to Compton's claims, the Court finds that the petition should be denied.


         On June 13, 2003, Kellan Shown arranged to purchase marijuana from Brandon Compton at the home of Timothy Williams, who was living in the residence with two couples, the Lindseys and Talbots, and their families. State v. Compton, No. E2005-01419-CCA-R3-CD, 2006 WL 2924992, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Oct. 13, 2006) (“Compton I”), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Feb. 26, 2007). On the night of the drug sale, many of these individuals, including young children, were present at the home. Id.

         Shown, along with Clayton Hall, arrived at the home and purchased marijuana from Compton for $1, 000. Id. Compton quickly discovered the funds were counterfeit and demanded return of the drugs, but Shown and Hall proceeded to the door of the home with the marijuana. Id. Compton followed the pair down the hall, trailed by Williams and Mr. Lindsey, who saw Compton fire his gun at Shown and Hall. Id. At least four shots were heard, and Mr. Lindsey heard Compton say, “That's what you get for stealing my weed.” Id. Compton picked up the marijuana and fled the home. Id. The victims' bodies were dragged outside, and the police were called. Id.

         Upon arrival, police officers discovered four shell casings in the area where the shooting occurred, along with a bullet in the living room that had gone through a wall. Id. at *2. A fifth shell casing was later found in a plant. Id. No. weapons were recovered at the scene. Id. Two bullets were recovered from each victim during an autopsy. Id.

         Compton was indicted by a Knox County Grand Jury for two counts of first-degree premeditated murder for the deaths of Kellan Shown and Clayton Hall [Doc. 22-1 p. 6-7]. Petitioner testified on his own behalf, claiming that he fired his gun in self-defense after Hall first fired at him. Compton I, 2006 WL 2924992, at *2. Following a jury trial, Compton was convicted as charged, and the trial court imposed two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment [Doc. 22-7 p. 102; Doc. 22-8 p. 24-26; Doc. 22-2 p. 78-79].

         On direct appeal, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”) vacated the judgments of conviction for first-degree murder, entered convictions for second-degree murder, and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. Compton I, 2006 WL 2924992, at *2-8. The Tennessee Supreme Court declined discretionary review [Doc. 22-17].

         On remand, the trial court found that, pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-114, the following enhancement factors were applicable: Compton had a previous history of criminal convictions or criminal behavior in addition to those necessary to establish the appropriate range; he had no hesitation about committing a crime when the risk to human life was high; he was released on probation at the time the offense was committed; and he failed to comply with the conditions of a sentence involving release into the community [Doc. 22-19 p. 40-43].[1] The trial court imposed a 25-year sentence for each conviction and aligned the sentences consecutively, for an effective sentence of 50 years [Id. at 44; see also Doc. No. 22-18 p. 23-24].

         On appeal, the TCCA affirmed the sentences. State v. Compton, No. E2007-01790-CCA-R3-CD, 2008 WL 4071825, at *4-8 (Tenn. Crim. App. Sept. 2, 2008) (“Compton II”), perm. app. denied (Tenn. Feb. 17, 2009). The Tennessee Supreme Court declined discretionary review [Doc. 22-26].

         Thereafter, Compton timely filed a pro se petition for post-conviction review [Doc. 22-7 p. 5');">27 p. 5-15]. The post-conviction court appointed counsel, who filed an amended petition [Id. at 27-28, 30-33]. Compton then filed a motion to remove counsel, which the post-conviction court granted [Id. at 37-40, 41]. The post-conviction court subsequently appointed new counsel [Id. at 42].

         An evidentiary hearing was held where Compton and his trial counsel, Robert Kurtz, testified [Doc. 22-28 p. 5-104; Doc. 22-29 p. 3-61]. When questioned about the investigative efforts made by Kurtz, Compton recalled meeting with a man, perhaps named “Michael Cohan, ” and an unidentified woman who asked him questions about the case, but neither person testified at trial. [Doc. 22-28 p. 16]. Compton stated that trial counsel did not discuss with him any reports that these persons created [Id. at 17].

         Trial counsel Kurtz stated that he used Michael Cohan, a former Knox County police officer, as an investigator for Compton's case [Id. at 98]. Kurtz stated that he and Cohan interviewed the witnesses listed on the indictment and any witnesses discovered through other sources [Id.]. If trial counsel did not personally attend an interview, he received and reviewed a memo summarizing the interview [Id. at 98-99]. Trial counsel agreed that he did not interview several police officers listed on the indictment [Doc. 23-29 p. 15-24]. Trial counsel explained that he was not able to contact Mr. Lindsey but stated that he reviewed Mr. Lindsey's testimony from the preliminary hearing [Id.]. He stated that he also did not interview several other witnesses, but rather, relied on their prior statements [Id.].

         Compton testified that trial counsel failed to adequately investigate the possibility of calling Chris Galloway as a witness [Doc. 22-28 p. 12-13]. However, trial counsel testified that he contacted Galloway, who briefly spoke with trial counsel and told counsel he would not speak to him further without the State's attorney being present [Id. at 104; Doc. 22-29 p. 3]. Galloway also told trial counsel he believed his testimony would be harmful to the defense [Id.].

         Compton testified that trial counsel should have called a witness to testify that, during a drug transaction, the buyer was likely to be armed [Doc. 22-8 p. 22');">28 p. 22]. Compton admitted that he never spoke to trial counsel about such a witness, but he stated that he believed that such a witness was necessary [Id.]. He also faulted counsel for failing to put on proof that Compton had a lawful source of income in addition to selling drugs [Id. at 24]. Trial counsel testified that he never considered introducing Compton's tax returns to bolster Compton's testimony that he was gainfully employed, and he testified that he made a choice to introduce evidence of Compton's drug-dealing on direct examination to avoid having the jury hear it for the first time on cross-examination [Doc. 22-29 p. 13]. Trial counsel denied ever characterizing Compton's involvement with drug sales as his “criminal livelihood” [Id.].

         Compton testified that trial counsel should have tested the victims for gunshot residue and faulted counsel for failing to raise the issue at trial or request testing [Doc. 22-28 p. 23]. Trial counsel stated he did not recall discussing testing the victims for gunshot residue [Doc. 22-29 p. 4]. Trial counsel claimed he considered obtaining the testing but knew that the medical examiner would testify that any gunshot residue found on the victims' clothing would have been consistent with the gunfire that killed them [Id.]. Therefore, trial counsel did not believe the results of the testing would have changed the outcome of the trial [Id.].

         Compton said that he and trial counsel never discussed trial strategy [Doc. 22-28 p. 29]. He stated that trial counsel never attempted to prove that he acted in self-defense, and he agreed that he never told the police that one of the victims shot at him first [Id. at 29-30, 41]. Compton could not explain why the bullet he claimed was fired at him was found 30 inches above the floor in the wall where the victims fell when they were shot [Id. at 74-75].

         Compton could not recall if he and trial counsel discussed available funds for expert witnesses [Doc. 22-28 p. 15-16]. Trial counsel said that he did not think a “gunshot expert” or crime scene expert was necessary in this case because Compton testified about his position and the victims' position at the time of the shooting [Id. at 102]. Trial counsel noted that there were five bullets found at the scene, four of which were associated with the victims [Id. at 102-03]. Trial counsel stated that he argued that the fifth bullet corroborated Compton's testimony that one of the victims fired first [Id.].

         Following this evidentiary hearing, the post-conviction court denied relief [Doc. 22-7 p. 5');">27 p. 55-58]. On appeal, the TCCA affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief. Compton v. State, No. E2013-00373-CCA-R3-PC, 2013 WL 6001935, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Nov. 12, 2013) (“Compton III”).

         On or about November 15, 2013, Compton filed the instant habeas petition, as later amended, raising the following grounds for relief, as paraphrased by the Court:

Ground1: Counsel rendered ineffective assistance by:
a. Failing to seek an associate and experienced attorney to help in the case;
b. Failing to properly investigate the case, properly assert self-defense as an affirmative defense, and investigate alibi or corroborating witnesses;
c. Failing to investigate the crime scene to determine possible defenses;
d. Failing to retain an expert to reconstruct the crime scene, independently investigate the crime scene, locate other possible witnesses to the crime, or to interview any of the witnesses listed in the indictment;
e. Failing to vigorously cross-examine the State forensic experts or employ his own experts to determine if there was gunshot residence on the victims' hands or clothing;
f. Failing to properly advise Compton of the facts of the case or the State's evidence against him;
g. Never attempting to plea bargain for a reduced charge;
h. Failing to object to the prosecutor's continued reference to the victims as ...

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