United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division
JOHN A. GIBNEY, Jr., District Judge.
The petitioner challenges his 2012 conviction and sentence for the sexual assault of his minor stepdaughter in the Circuit Court of Chesterfield County, alleging that his trial attorney's mental infirmity and his state habeas attorney's subsequent incompetence acted to deprive him of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel. The petitioner advances five claims in total; Claims Three, Four, and Five are each procedurally defaulted, leaving only Claims One and Two available for review on the merits. Because the petitioner cannot show that his trial counsel's alleged mental deterioration resulted in actual prejudice to his case, or that his state habeas attorney's performance was deficient, the Court GRANTS the motion to dismiss.
I. Material Facts
The petitioner, Charles Wood, was indicted on a single count of object sexual penetration of his 16-year-old stepdaughter on May 16, 2011, by a Chesterfield County grand jury. Wood initially retained attorney John Rockecharlie for his defense. (Pet'r's Mem. In Supp., at 1.) Rockecharlie negotiated a plea deal with the Commonwealth, and the parties set the matter for a plea hearing on June 30, 2011. ( Id. ) A week before the hearing, however, Wood decided to switch attorneys; attorney Michael Morchower filed a substitution of counsel form on June 23, noting his appearance on behalf of Wood. ( Id. ) The Chesterfield County Circuit Court approved Morchower's substitution on June 29, the day before the scheduled plea hearing. ( Id. ) On the day of the hearing, Morchower requested a continuance. ( Id. ) The Circuit Court denied the motion, and the plea proceeded as scheduled. ( Id. )
At that hearing, Wood entered a plea of guilty, signing a plea agreement that noted that the Commonwealth would "not seek indictments for the rape and forcible sodomy charges occurring during the same incident." (Plea Agreement, at ¶¶ 2-3.) The plea agreement also laid out the sentencing procedures that would apply: the Court would sentence Wood after receipt and review of a psycho-sexual evaluation of Wood, and after hearing argument from the parties as to mitigating and aggravating factors. ( Id. at ¶ 5.) The plea agreement was silent on the potential length of Wood's sentence, and made no mention of any agreement as to sentence recommendations: "This plea agreement is the total agreement between the parties... there have been no other inducements, promises, threats, or coercion of any kind imposed upon the Defendant or suggested to the Defendant by the Attorney for the Commonwealth..." ( Id. at 6.) The plea agreement finally noted that Wood surrendered his right to appeal the Circuit Court's sentence. ( Id. at ¶ 7.)
During the guilty plea colloquy, Wood admitted his guilt and the voluntary nature of his plea, and confirmed that he had had "ample time to discuss any possible defenses" with his attorney, Morchower. (Transcript of Plea Hearing, pp. 4-5.) The Commonwealth proffered, in light of the "sensitive nature" of the case, "the barest of the facts" supporting the defendant's guilt: namely, that Wood gave his minor stepdaughter an alcoholic beverage spiked with Ambien. ( Id. at 5-6.) The girl fell asleep shortly thereafter, but was rudely awakened later that night to find Wood on top of her. ( Id. at 6.) The Circuit Court accepted Wood's plea.
After the plea hearing, at the request of a family friend of Wood's, Morchower returned to the courthouse and told the prosecutor, David Rigler, that he thought there had been an agreement between Rigler and Wood's previous attorney, Rockecharlie, to limit the possible sentence Wood could receive to 15 years, the maximum amount recommended by the sentencing guidelines. ( Id. at 2-3.) Rigler told Morchower that while the guideline range was between 7 and 15 years, there was no agreement about the length of Wood's sentence in the terms of the plea. ( Id. at 3.) Wood did not appeal his conviction. (Resp't's Mem. Supp., ¶ 2.)
At the sentencing hearing on November 14, 2011, the Circuit Court, having reviewed Dr. Evan Nelson's court-ordered psycho-sexual evaluation of Wood, heard sentencing arguments from Morchower and the Commonwealth. (Pet'r's Mem. In Supp., 5-8.) In the midst of his attorney's sentencing argument, Wood suddenly interrupted the proceedings-despite the Court's assurances that he would be able to speak later-and expressed remorse for his actions, countering Morchower's request that the Court sentence Wood to a prison term of only "single digits" with his own demand for a harsher sentence more reflective of his culpability: "I don't want single digits, give me double." (Sentencing Hearing Transcript, pp. 27-28.) The Court eventually obliged, sentencing Wood to 40 years of imprisonment, with 21 years suspended.
On November 22, 2011, Morchower filed a Motion to Recuse and Set Aside the 19 Year Sentence and Order a New Trial with a Newly Appointed Judge and Commonwealth Attorney. (Pet'r's Mem. In Supp., at 8-9.) Morchower's motion was based on his earlier-stated belief that he had an agreement with Rigler that the state would request a 15-year sentence. ( Id. at 9.) Before the Circuit Court could rule on the motion, however, it was withdrawn by David Epperly, an attorney apparently hired by Morchower or assigned by some other entity to wrap up Morchower's affairs upon Morchower's diagnosis-after the hearing-of dementia. ( Id. at 9.)
On August 7, 2012, Wood's next attorney, Joseph Grove, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court of Chesterfield County, Virginia. (Resp't's Mem. Supp. ¶ 3.) The petition alleged three claims-the first three claims that Wood now alleges in his federal habeas petition. ( Id. at ¶ 6.) On February 5, 2013, the Circuit Court denied Wood's petition, holding that Wood had not shown Morchower was ineffective. (Pet'r's Mem. Supp. Pet., 10.) Wood filed a petition for appeal in the Virginia Supreme Court on May 28, 2013. (Resp't's Mem. Supp., at 4.) The Supreme Court dismissed the petition on October 23, 2013. ( Id. )
III. Standard of Review
A. Exhaustion & Procedural Default
A federal court reviewing a habeas petition filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 must initially determine whether the petitioner has properly exhausted his claims-that is, whether the state courts have gotten a first crack at the specific issues the petitioner raises. A petitioner's failure to properly exhaust claims constitutes a jurisdictional bar on the Court's ability to hear the petitioner's claims. Accordingly, this Court may not grant a petitioner relief unless he can demonstrate that he "has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State" of which he is in custody. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A); see also Slavek v. Hinkle, 359 F.Supp.2d 473, 479 (E.D. Va. 2005) (citing Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 491-92 & n.10 (1973)). Exhaustion requires not only that all possible remedies be utilized before seeking relief in federal court, but also that any given claim first be "fairly present[ed]" to the state's highest court for disposition. Matthews v. Evatt, 105 F.3d 907, 910-11 (4th Cir. 1997).
B. Applicable Constraints on Federal Habeas Corpus Review
In order to obtain federal habeas relief, at a minimum, a petitioner must demonstrate that he is "in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") of 1996 further circumscribes this Court's authority to grant relief by way of a writ of habeas corpus. 28 U.S.C. § 2254 et seq. "State court factual determinations are presumed to be correct and may be rebutted only by clear and convincing evidence." Gray v. Branker, 529 F.3d 220, 228 (4th Cir. 2008).
The district court's review of the state court's factual findings is purposefully narrow. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1399 (2011) (holding that the district court's review under § 2254(d) is limited to the evidentiary record before the state court because "[i]t would be contrary to [AEDPA's] purpose to allow a petitioner to overcome an adverse state-court decision with new evidence ...