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Cottrell v. Clarke

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

September 29, 2016

CHRISTOPHER EARL COTTRELL, Petitioner,
v.
HAROLD W. CLARKE, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (GRANTING RESPONDENT'S MOTION TO DISMISS)

          HENRY E.HUDSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Christopher Earl Cottrell, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis, filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 ("§ 2254 Petition, " ECF No. 1) challenging his convictions of two counts of assault and battery on a corrections officer. In his § 2254 Petition, Cottrell argues entitlement to relief upon the following grounds:[1]

Claim One: "Lack of subject matter jurisdiction; conspiring to obtain illegal convictions. Knowingly and willfully." (Id. at 6.)
Claim Two: "Conspiracy to deny jury instruction; omitting failure to prove 'beyond a reasonable doubt' the sworn oaths of plaintiffs." (Id. at 8.)
Claim Three: "Ineffective assistance of counsel-denying fair and separate trials as justice required." (Id. at 9.)
Claim Four: "Ineffective assistance in failing to object to a known lack of subject matter jurisdiction by the court." (Id. at 11.)
Claim Five: "Ineffective assistance in failing to object to deliberate[ly] omitted jury instruction." (Id. at 19.)
Claim Six: "Ineffective assistance in failing to object to prosecutor's duty to prove all elements of offense." (Id. at 20.)
Claim Seven: "Ineffective assistance in failing to object to insufficiency of evidence to convict." (Id.)
Claim Eight: "Ineffective assistance being denied of fair and meaningful appellate rights." (Mat 21.)

         Respondent moves to dismiss the § 2254 Petition. Cottrell has responded. The matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant Respondent's Motion to Dismiss and will deny Cottrell's § 2254 Petition.

         L PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A jury in the Circuit Court for the County of Sussex, Virginia ("Circuit Court") convicted Cottrell of two counts of assault and battery of a correctional officer, and fixed his sentence at a term of five years of incarceration. (ECF No. 19-1, at 3.) On May 6, 2013, the Circuit Court entered final judgment and sentenced Cottrell to five years. (Id.)

         Counsel filed a petition for appeal raising three claims of trial court error. (ECF No. 19-2, at 2.) The Court of Appeals of Virginia awarded Cottrell an appeal on two claims, and denied his petition for appeal with respect to the third claim. (ECF No. 19-3, at 1-2.) Subsequently, the Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed Cottrell's convictions. (ECF No. 19-4, at 9.) The Supreme Court of Virginia dismissed in part, and refused in part, the petition for appeal. (ECF No. 19-5, at 1.)

         Cottrell filed his first petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of Virginia, but ultimately moved to withdraw the action after Respondent filed a motion to dismiss, (ECF No. 19-6, at I; see Br. Supp. Mot. Dismiss ¶ 5, ECF No. 19.) On the same day, August 17, 2015, Cottrell filed a second petition for a writ of habeas corpus. (See ECF No. 19-6, at 1.) On August 20, 2015, the Supreme Court of Virginia acknowledged that Cottrell filed the second petition for a writ of habeas corpus and granted the motion to withdraw the first petition for writ of habeas corpus. (Id.) In his second petition for a writ of habeas corpus, Cottrell raised the following vague claims:

1. Ineffective assistance of counsel.
2. Prosecutorial Misconduct.
3. Judicial Misconduct.
4. Lack of subject matter jurisdiction to convict.
5. Denied of jury instruction charging proof beyond a reasonable doubt of sworn oaths of correctional officers.

(ECF No. 19-7, at 4-5 (as paginated by CM/ECF).) None of the attachments to Cottrell's habeas petition provided any further argument in support of his claims. See Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Cottrell v. Barksdale, No. 151263 (Va. filed Aug. 17, 2015).

         On December 8, 2015, the Supreme Court of Virginia dismissed Cottrell's habeas petition finding that "petitioner's claims assert conclusions or opinions without providing factual support and, therefore, do not support the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus. Perm v. Smyth, 188 Va. 367, 370-71, 49 S.E.2d 600, 601 (1948)." (ECF No. 19-8, at 1.) Oik February 29, 2016, the Supreme Court of Virginia denied Cottrell's petition for rehearing. (ECF No. 19-9, at 1.)

         On April 5, 2016, the Court received Cottrell's § 2254 Petition that raises the greatly expanded claims for relief as set forth above.

         II. EXHAUSTION AND PREOCEDURAL DEFAULT

         Respondent argues that:

To the extent Cottrell's current claims were presented to the Supreme Court of Virginia in his bare-bones habeas petition, the claims are exhausted for purposes of federal habeas review.
To the extent Cottrell has expanded on the bare-bones claims he raised in his state habeas petition in the Supreme Court of Virginia, his claims are not exhausted for the purposes of federal habeas review, as the legal theories and factual allegations Cottrell now presents differ from those he advance[d] in the Supreme Court of Virginia. His claims should be deemed simultaneously procedurally defaulted and exhausted because Cottrell failed to present these claims to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

(Br. Supp. Mot. Dismiss ¶¶ 13-14.) The Court declines to find Cottrell's claims barred from review here on the basis of procedural default. While Claims Three through Eight are defaulted because Cottrell failed to raise them before the Supreme Court of Virginia, in light of Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309 (2012), the Court addresses the merits of these claims. See Id. at 1321 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (observing that as "a consequence of today's decision the States will always be forced to litigate in federal habeas, for all defaulted ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims (and who knows what other claims)... the validity of the defaulted claim (where collateral-review counsel was not appointed)"). The Court also believes that Claims One and Two are defaulted, however, these claims are readily dismissed because they lack merit.

         III. THE APPLICABLE CONSTRAINTS UPON HABEAS REVIEW FOR CLAIMS ONE AND TWO

         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 circumscribed this Court's authority to grant relief by way of a writ of habeas corpus. Specifically, "[s]tate 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) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)). Additionally, under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus based on any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudicated claim:

(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 Supreme Court emphasizes that the question "is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold." Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000)).

         Cottrell raised Claims One and Two on direct appeal. Thus, the Court's review of those claims is constrained by the above.

         IV. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE CLAIMS

         A federal habeas petition warrants relief on a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence only if "no rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 324 (1979). The relevant question in conducting such a review is whether, "after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 319 (citing Johnson v. Louisiana, 406 U.S. 356, 362 (1972)). The critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction is "whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 318.

         The majority of Cottrell's repetitive claims, although brought under the guise of lack of jurisdiction or conspiracy or ineffective assistance of counsel, stem from Cottrell's insistence that the warden and the officer that he assaulted and battered failed to qualify as correctional officers or protected persons for the enhanced felony penalty. He contends that insufficient evidence existed that the warden and officer were correctional officers, and thus, he should have only been convicted of a misdemeanor. To understand the frivolity of Cottrell's claims, the Court first provides a summary of the evidence and underlying procedural history. The Court of Appeals of Virginia aptly summarized the trial proceedings and the evidence of Cottrell's overwhelming guilt as follows:

On July 1, 2012, Correctional Officer Jones was working, in uniform, at Sussex I State Prison. She was working in the control booth of Housing Unit 2 where she could both control the cell doors and monitor two of the housing unit's pods, "Charlie" and 'Delta." Each pod consists of two floors. The control booth is elevated so that it is between the two floors. The control booth has barred windows that can be opened. Officer Jones was alone in the booth. Correctional Officer Marvin Harvell was working as the floor officer for "Charlie" pod. Appellant was an inmate housed in "Charlie" pod. Both Officers Jones and Harvell knew appellant.
Around noon that day, the officers were preparing to send the inmates to be locked into their cells. At Officer Harvell's direction, Officer Jones opened the cell doors from her position in the control booth. Officer Harvell directed the inmates to go to their cells. When Officer Jones heard an inmate call her name, she felt and smelled feces hit her in the control booth. She pushed her chair back from the desk at which she was seated. As a result, she was not hit by a second cup of feces thrown at her.
Officer Jones looked in the direction from which the feces had come and saw appellant, near the control booth, walking away from her. Officer Jones told Officer Harvell what happened and went to clean up. Officer Harvell saw Officer Jones covered in feces. He then looked toward the pod stairs and saw appellant coming down the stairs. Officer Harvell saw no other inmates on the second floor of the pod. After officers ...

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