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Amaro v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 26, 2019




         Applicant Christian Garcia Amaro has filed, through counsel, an Application for a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 by a Person in State Custody (Doc. # 1) (“the Application”). He challenges the validity of his criminal conviction in Pueblo County District Court No. 04CR880. Having considered the Application, Respondents' Answer (Doc. # 17) and the state court record[3], the Court denies the Application.


         A jury convicted Mr. Garcia Amaro of first degree felony murder for his alleged involvement in an attempted robbery resulting in the death of Thomas Urlacher. (Doc. # 7-1 at 2-3.) The trial court sentenced him to a mandatory prison term of life without the possibility of parole. (Id.) Mr. Garcia Amaro appealed the judgment of conviction. In People v. Garcia-Amaro, No. 05CA2506 (Colo.App. Mar. 20, 2008) (“Garcia-Amaro I”), the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence. (Doc. # 7-9.) The Colorado Supreme Court denied his petition for writ of certiorari. (Doc. # 7-1 at 2.)

         Mr. Garcia Amaro then filed pro se a motion for postconviction relief under Colo. Crim. P. Rule 35(c). (Doc. # 7-1 at 2-3.) The district court denied the motion without a hearing. (Id.) In People v. Garcia-Amaro, No. 10CA0982 (Colo.App. Mar. 22, 2012) (“Garcia-Amaro II”), the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for additional proceedings. (Doc. # 7-6.) Specifically, the Colorado Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the district court with directions to hold an evidentiary hearing on several of the ineffective assistance of counsel claims raised in the Rule 35(c) motion. (Id. at 10-14.) Following the hearing, the district court denied the motion, and Mr. Garcia Amaro appealed. (Doc. # 7-1 at 3.) In People v. Garcia-Amaro, No. 15CA1694 (Colo.App. Aug. 17, 2017) (“Garcia-Amaro III”), the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. (Doc. # 7-1.) The Colorado Supreme Court denied his petition for writ of certiorari. (Doc. # 7-2.)

         In the Application filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on August 6, 2018, Mr. Garcia Amaro asserts that (1) an unconstitutional complicity instruction was given to the jury; and (2) defense counsel was constitutionally ineffective by failing (a) to properly advise him regarding plea offers; (b) to properly investigate and cross-examine a witness's drug use and criminal history; (c) to sequester a potential witness; and (d) to request an accessory after the fact instruction. (Doc. # 1 at 5-10, 15-35.)

         Respondents conceded in the Pre-Answer Response (Doc. # 7) that the Application is timely under the one-year limitation period set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d), and that Mr. Garcia Amaro exhausted state court remedies for the asserted claims. (Id. at 4-9.)

         On September 17, 2018, the Court directed Respondents to file an Answer that fully addressed the merits of the claims asserted in the Application. (Doc. # 8.) Respondents submitted their Answer (Doc. # 17) on January 11, 2019. Mr. Garcia Amaro did not file a reply.


         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) provides that a writ of habeas corpus may not be issued with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the state court adjudication:

(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). The applicant bears the burden of proof under' 2254(d). See Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 25 (2002) (per curiam).

         A claim may be adjudicated on the merits in state court even in the absence of a statement of reasons by the state court for rejecting the claim. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98-99 (2011). In particular, “determining whether a state court's decision resulted from an unreasonable legal or factual conclusion does not require that there be an opinion from the state court explaining the state court's reasoning.” Id. at 98. Thus, A[w]hen a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.” Id. at 99. Even A[w]here a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief.” Id. at 98. In other words, this Court “owe[s] deference to the state court's result, even if its reasoning is not expressly stated.” Aycox v. Ly tle, 196 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 1999). Therefore, the Court “must uphold the state court's summary decision unless [the Court's] independent review of the record and pertinent federal law persuades [the Court] that its result contravenes or unreasonably applies clearly established federal law, or is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” Id. at 1178. “[T]his 'independent review' should be distinguished from a full de novo review of the petitioner's claims.” Id.

         The Court reviews claims of legal error and mixed questions of law and fact pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). See Cook v. McKune, 323 F.3d 825, 830 (10th Cir. 2003). The threshold question the Court must answer under' 2254(d)(1) is whether the applicant seeks to apply a rule of law that was clearly established by the Supreme Court at the time of the relevant state court decision. See Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34 (2011). Clearly established federal law Arefers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision. Id. at 412. Furthermore,

clearly established law consists of Supreme Court holdings in cases where the facts are at least closely-related or similar to the case sub judice. Although the legal rule at issue need not have had its genesis in the closely-related or similar factual context, the Supreme Court must have expressly extended the legal rule to that context.

House v. Hatch, 527 F.3d 1010, 1016 (10th Cir. 2008). If there is no clearly established federal law, that is the end of the Court's inquiry pursuant to' 2254(d)(1). See id. at 1018.

         If a clearly established rule of federal law is implicated, the Court must determine whether the state court's decision was contrary to or an unreasonable application of that clearly established rule of federal law. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-05 (2000).

A state-court decision is contrary to clearly established federal law if: (a) the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in Supreme Court cases or (b) the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of the Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [that] precedent. Maynard [v. Boone], 468 F.3d [665], 669 [(10th Cir. 2006)] (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 405). "The word 'contrary' is commonly understood to mean 'diametrically different,' 'opposite in character or nature,' or 'mutually opposed.'" Williams, 529 U.S. at 405 (citation omitted).
A state court decision involves an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law when it identifies the correct governing legal rule from Supreme Court cases, but unreasonably applies it to the facts. Id. at 407-08. Additionally, we have recognized that an unreasonable application may occur if the state court either unreasonably extends, or unreasonably refuses to extend, a legal principle from Supreme Court precedent to a new context where it should apply.

House, 527 F.3d at 1018.

         The Court's inquiry pursuant to the "unreasonable application" clause is an objective inquiry. See Williams, 529 U.S. at 409-10. "[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather that application must also be unreasonable." Id. at 411. "[A] decision is 'objectively unreasonable' when most reasonable jurists exercising their independent judgment would conclude the state court misapplied Supreme Court law." Maynard, 468 F.3d at 671. In addition,

evaluating whether a rule application was unreasonable requires considering the rule's specificity. The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations. [I]t is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by [the Supreme] Court.

Harrington, 562 U.S. at 101 (internal quotation marks omitted). In conducting this analysis, the Court “must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . could have supported[ ] the state court's decision and then ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of [the Supreme] Court.” Id.

         Under this standard, “only the most serious misapplications of Supreme Court precedent will be a basis for relief under' 2254.” Maynard, 468 F.3d at 671; see also Harrington, 562 U.S. at 88 (stating that “even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable”).

As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner 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.

Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102.

         “[R]eview under' 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011).

         The Court reviews claims asserting factual errors pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). See Romano v. Gibson, 278 F.3d 1145, 1154 n. 4 (10th Cir. 2002). Section 2254(d)(2) allows the federal court to grant a writ of habeas corpus only if the relevant state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented to the state court.

         Pursuant to' 2254(e)(1), the Court must presume that the state court's factual determinations are correct and the petitioner bears the burden of rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. “The standard is demanding but not insatiable . . . [because] '[d]eference does not by definition preclude relief.'” Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 240 (2005) (quoting Miller- El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003)).

         The federal habeas court applies a de novo standard of review to constitutional claims that were not reviewed on the merits by the state courts. See Mitchell v. Gibson, 262 F.3d 1036, 1045 (10th Cir. 2001).



         Mr. Garcia Amaro first contends that the “complicity instruction invited the jury to convict [him] of felony-murder without ever finding that he was guilty of having committed the named predicate felonies of robbery or attempted robbery.” (Doc. # 1 at 15.) He asserts that this error violated his due process rights to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for every element of the charged offense. (Id.)

         The Due Process Clause requires the prosecution to prove every element of a charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt. See In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). To demonstrate a constitutional error from a jury instruction in a state criminal trial, a habeas petitioner must show (1) an “ambiguity, inconsistency, or deficiency” in the instruction, and, (2) a “reasonable likelihood” that the jury applied the instruction in a way that relieved the State of its burden of proving every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Waddington v. Sarausad, 555 U.S. 179, 190-91 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). See also Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 6 (1994) (explaining that the constitutional inquiry is “whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood the instructions to allow conviction based on proof insufficient to meet the Winship standard.”). However, “not every ambiguity, inconsistency, or deficiency in a jury instruction rises to the level of a due process violation." Middleton v. McNeil, 541 U.S. 433, 437 (2004).

         In making this determination, the jury instruction “‘may not be judged in artificial isolation,' but must be considered in the context of the instructions as a whole and the trial record.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 72 (1991) (quoting Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 147 (1973)). A “slight possibility” that the jury misapplied the jury instruction is not enough. See Weeks v. Angelone, 528 U.S. 225, 236 (2000). "[A]s a general rule, errors in jury instructions in a state criminal trial are not reviewable in federal habeas corpus proceedings, unless they are so fundamentally unfair as to deprive a petitioner of a fair trial and . . . due process of law." Patton v. Mullin, 425 F.3d 788, 807 (10th Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted); see also Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154 (1977) (holding that in considering a habeas claim based on an improper jury instruction, the court must ask "whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process, not merely whether the instruction is undesirable [or] erroneous") (quotations omitted)). In short, the pertinent question “is ‘whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process.'” Estelle, 502 U.S. at 72 (quoting Cupp, 414 U.S. at 147). As such, "[a] § 2254 petitioner has a heavy burden in attempting to set aside a state conviction based on an erroneous jury instruction." Nguyen v. Reynolds, 131 F.3d 1340, 1357 (10th Cir. 1997).

         1. State court proceedings

         The trial court provided the jury with the following relevant instructions.

         Instruction No. 13

         The elements of the crime of Murder in the First Degree-Felony Murder are:

1. That the defendant,
2. in the State of Colorado, at or about the date and place charged
3. acting with one or more persons,
4. committed or attempted to commit robbery and
5. in the course of or in furtherance of committing or attempting to commit robbery, or in the immediate flight therefrom,
6. the death of a person, other than one of the participants, was caused by anyone.
Instruction No. 14
The elements of the crime of Robbery are:
1. That the defendant,
2. in the State of Colorado, at or about the date and place charged,
3. knowingly,
4. took anything of value,
5. from the person or presence of another,
6. by use of force, threats, or intimidation.
Instruction No. 15
The elements of the crime of Criminal Attempt to commit Robbery are:
1. That the defendant,
2. in the State of Colorado, at or about the date and place ...

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