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James v. Hepp

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

December 3, 2019

COURTNEY J. JAMES, Petitioner,
v.
RANDALL HEPP, Respondent.

          DECISION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION

          WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, DISTRICT JUDGE

         Petitioner Courtney J. James filed a petition for federal relief from his state conviction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on September 11, 2018. He was convicted in the Circuit Court of Milwaukee County of one count of first-degree reckless homicide and one count of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, both with use of a dangerous weapon and as a party to the crime. He was sentenced to thirteen years and six months of initial confinement and five years of extended supervision for the first-degree reckless homicide count and seven years and six months of initial confinement and five years of extended supervision on the first-degree recklessly endangering safety count, both to be served consecutively to each other and any other sentence. James is currently incarcerated at Fox Lake Correctional Institution. In his petition, James asserts that his conviction and sentence were imposed in violation of the United States Constitution. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied and the case dismissed.

         BACKGROUND

         The State of Wisconsin charged James in 2012 with first-degree recklessly endangering safety and first-degree reckless homicide, both as party to a crime and while using a dangerous weapon. These charges stemmed from two shooting incidents that occurred on February 3, 2012. Earlier that day, James' brother, Erosa James, got into a verbal altercation with a woman, S.P. Afterwards, S.P.'s brother, Artaze Williams, fought and injured Erosa. James was observed on surveillance cameras dropping Erosa off at the hospital and leaving shortly thereafter. Approximately one hour later, shots were fired into S.P.'s house.

         Later that afternoon, James was seen on surveillance cameras returning to the hospital. James and Erosa were seen leaving the hospital walking toward a burgundy Jeep. The second shooting occurred approximately an hour after James and Erosa left the hospital. Police responded to a report of the homicide, and found Williams seated in the driver's seat of his vehicle with fatal gunshot wounds. Coria Stotts was a passenger in Williams' vehicle. She reported that before he was shot, Williams told her that he had been in an altercation with a man that robbed his sister. Stotts subsequently identified Erosa as the man who shot Williams. A witness in a residence across the street saw a dark-colored sports utility vehicle which matched the general description of the burgundy Jeep James was seen driving earlier at the hospital. The witness saw a man on the outside of the vehicle who appeared to be trying to watch someone without being seen. The man said something to the driver of the Jeep and then proceeded to shoot Williams. Upon searching the Jeep several days later, police recovered an unfired 9mm cartridge that matched the spent shell casings found at the scene of Williams' murder and a receipt for a bill relating to the phone number of James' cell phone. Cell phone towers in the vicinity showed usage of James' cell phone both at the time of and in the vicinity of the two shootings.

         The case proceeded to a four-day jury trial, and the jury convicted James of both first-degree recklessly endangering safety and first-degree reckless homicide as a party to the crime. James, who was represented by counsel, appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. He argued that the circuit court erred when it concluded that the State's peremptory strikes of an African-American male juror did not violate Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). On August 25, 2015, the court of appeals rejected James' claim and affirmed his conviction. In so ruling, the appellate court upheld the trial court's finding that the prosecutor's exercise of a peremptory strike of an African American juror did not show purposeful racial discrimination. State v. James, No. 2014AP2230-CR (Wis. Ct. App. Aug. 25, 2015), Dkt. No. 13-4. The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied James' petition for review on November 4, 2015. Dkt. No. 13-7.

         On November 16, 2016, James, proceeding pro se, filed a post-conviction motion pursuant to Wis.Stat. § 974.06. In this motion, James argued that he was entitled to relief because there was insufficient evidence to sustain his conviction and because his post-conviction attorney provided ineffective assistance for failing to challenge his trial counsel's performance. James asserted that his trial counsel was ineffective in (1) failing to move for dismissal on grounds of insufficiency of the evidence; (2) failing to move for the suppression of an out-of-court identification made by a witness for the State and failing to call the police officer involved in that identification to impeach the officer's character; (3) failing to introduce an improper coercive statement allegedly made to James by police during the investigation; (4) failing to investigate and present alibi witnesses; (5) failing to challenge cell phone evidence; (6) failing to challenge ballistics evidence; and (7) failing to object to alleged juror bias. The circuit court denied James' motion without an evidentiary hearing and concluded James' claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel failed on the merits. The court of appeals affirmed. State v. James, No. 2016AP1421 (Wis. Ct. App. Dec. 5, 2017), Dkt. No. 13-10.

         On January 25, 2018, James filed a petition for review with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In his petition, James asserted that (1) the court of appeals' decision conflicted with decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court with respect to whether James' claims were clearly stronger than those raised by appellate counsel, (2) the post-conviction court and court of appeals failed to address his ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims, (3) the post-conviction court and court of appeals ignored critical factual assertions contained in his post-conviction motion, (4) the post-conviction court and court of appeals erred in denying James' post-conviction motion without an evidentiary hearing, and (5) the court of appeals' decision conflicts with controlling precedent regarding the ineffective assistance of counsel claims presented. Dkt. No. 13-12. The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied James' petition for review on April 9, 2018.

         ANALYSIS

         James' petition is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Under AEDPA, a federal court may grant habeas relief only when a state court's decision on the merits was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by” decisions from the Supreme Court, or was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); see also Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015). A state court decision is “contrary to . . . clearly established Federal law” if the court did not apply the proper legal rule, or, in applying the proper legal rule, reached the opposite result as the Supreme Court on “materially indistinguishable” facts. Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005). A state court decision is an “unreasonable application of . . . clearly established federal law” when the court applied Supreme Court precedent in “an objectively unreasonable manner.” Id.

         This is, and was meant to be, an intentionally difficult standard to meet. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011). “To satisfy this high bar, a habeas petition is required to ‘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, 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (quoting Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103).

         In addition to the merits of James' claims, the court must consider whether his claims have been procedurally defaulted. A state prisoner can procedurally default a federal claim in one of two ways. See Thomas v. Williams, 822 F.3d 378, 384 (7th Cir. 2016). First, the state may decline to address a claim because the prisoner did not meet certain state procedural requirements. A state prisoner may also procedurally default a federal claim by failing to exhaust his remedies in state court before seeking relief in federal court. See Snow v. Pfister, 880 F.3d 857, 864 (7th Cir. 2018) (citing Thomas, 822 F.3d at 384; 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A)). “State prisoners must give the state courts one full opportunity to resolve any constitutional issues by invoking one complete round of the State's established appellate review process.” O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999). To exhaust state remedies in the Wisconsin courts, the state prisoner must include his claims in a petition for leave to appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “Procedural default may be excused . . . where the petitioner demonstrates either (1) ‘cause for the default and actual prejudice' or (2) ‘that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.'” Thomas, 822 F.3d at 386 (quoting Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991)).

         James' habeas petition asserts that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction as well as a number of ineffective assistance of trial counsel and ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel claims. The court will address James' claims in turn.

         A. ...


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