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Contreras v. Davis

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

January 26, 2017

JASON MICHAEL CONTRERAS, Petitioner,
v.
KEITH W. DAVIS, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES C. CACHERIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         Petitioner Jason Michael Contreras (“Petitioner” or “Contreras”) originally filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 with this Court on June 25, 2013. [Dkt. 1.] In the petition, Contreras alleges that he is being held in state custody in violation of his federal constitutional rights, based on Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012). Pet. at 3-4.

         Petitioner's state custody arises from a 1997 judgment of conviction entered in Norfolk Circuit Court, following Petitioner's guilty plea, on charges of first degree murder, robbery, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and attempted robbery. Pet. at 4. This Court previously denied Petitioner's request for a writ, based primarily on its untimeliness. [Dkt. 8.] The petition is now back before the Court on remand, with instructions to reconsider this Court's prior ruling in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). For the reasons that follow, the petition will be granted.

         I. Background

         Petitioner's state charges stem from his involvement in a botched carjacking that resulted in the death of David Semko (“Semko”). Pet. at 13-14. Prior to the night in question, Petitioner's childhood had been filled with traumatic events, including a pattern of abuse and neglect, his mother's drug addiction, an absentee father, several stints in foster care, and consistently unstable housing. Id. at 6-13. In fact, several weeks before the offense occurred, Contreras's mother had moved him into a crack house and then abandoned him, asking her drug dealers to supervise him. Id. at 12. The drug dealers interpreted this request as giving them permission to use Petitioner to help them commit crimes. Id.

         On the night of October 26, 1996, one of the drug dealers made Contreras and another minor flip a coin to decide who would have to commit a robbery. Pet. at 13. Petitioner lost, so the drug dealer handed him a gun. Id. At that moment, Semko happened to be walking to his car. Id. Petitioner approached Semko, who ran. Id. In order to prove to the drug dealer that Contreras had tried to rob Semko, Petitioner fired a single shot “in[to] the pitch blackness” in Semko's direction. Declaration of Jason Contreras (“Contreras Decl.”) [Dkt. 1-1 at 27] ¶ 25. The shot hit Semko in the back, who died the next day. Pet. at 5. At the time, Petitioner was only fifteen years old. Id. at 14.

         On or about October 30, 1996, Petitioner was arrested and charged with capital murder, robbery, and several related offenses. Pet. at 13-14. Even though he was a minor, Petitioner was certified and charged as an adult. Id. at 14. At that time, capital murder still carried a mandatory life sentence in Virginia. See Yarbrough v. Commonwealth, 258 Va. 347, 366-69 (1999).

         On March 27, 1997, Petitioner pled guilty to first degree murder along with the aforementioned charges. Pet. at 4. Prior to the plea, Contreras's trial attorneys requested that the court appoint a mental health expert to evaluate him. Id. at 15. One attorney in particular worried that Petitioner was “quite immature” and “was really incapable of making an intelligent decision” because “[he] had no clue what was going on in his case . . . and could not even begin to absorb what was happening to him.” Declaration of Attorney Kim M. Crump (“Crump Decl.”) [Dkt. 1-1 at 19] ¶ 10. His attorneys also noted that they had “a hard time getting information [they] needed from him.” Id. ¶ 11. The trial court denied their request, however. Pet. at 15. According to Petitioner, the only reason he ultimately agreed to plead guilty was to avoid the life sentence associated with a capital murder conviction. Id.

         On May 20, 1997, following Petitioner's guilty plea, the court sentenced Petitioner to seventy-seven years in prison. Pet. at 4. Because Petitioner is ineligible for parole pursuant to Va. Code § 53.1-165.1, which abolished parole for individuals convicted of a felony committed after January 1, 1995, he will not be eligible for release until 2040. See Va. Code § 53.1-40.01 (permitting “Geriatric Release”). Petitioner did not file a direct appeal of his sentence. Pet. at 4. On June 10, 1999, Petitioner filed a pro se motion for habeas relief in the Norfolk Circuit Court. Id. Following a hearing, the court dismissed his motion. Id.

         On June 23, 2013, Petitioner filed the instant petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus. [Dkt. 1.] Petitioner argues that his guilty plea is invalid because it was induced by the prosecutor's threat of a now unconstitutional sentence: mandatory life without parole. Petitioner's argument rests upon the recent Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), which held that mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit homicide offenses are unconstitutional. Pet. at 3. Applying Miller retroactively, petitioner asks the Court to “discharge[] [him] from his unconstitutional confinement and restraint and/or relieve[] [him] from his unconstitutional sentence.” Id. at 32.

         Previously, Respondent moved to dismiss this petition on the grounds that it is time-barred, the claims are unexhausted, and the arguments are without merit. Resp't Br. at 3, 5, 17. This Court granted Respondent's motion and dismissed the petition, finding that Miller was not retroactive and, therefore, the petition was untimely. [Dkt. 8.] Petitioner appealed the Court's ruling to the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed. [Dkt. 15.] Petitioner then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016).

         On December 9, 2016, Petitioner submitted a supplemental pleading in support of his original petition for a writ of habeas corpus. [Dkt. 22.] Respondent filed its response on December 19, 2016. [Dkt. 23.] Petitioner failed to file a reply. This petition is now ripe for disposition.

         II. ...


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