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Hall v. Zook

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

December 27, 2017

Freddie Lee Hall, Petitioner,
David Zook, Respondent.


          Leonie M. Brinkema, United States District Judge.

         Freddie Lee Hall, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the constitutionality of his conviction of first-degree murder entered by the Circuit Court for the City of Portsmouth. Before the Court is respondent's Motion to Dismiss the petition [Dkt. No. 12], to which petitioner has filed a reply. [Dkt. No. 24].

         I. Background

         Following a jury trial, Hall was convicted on August 5, 2013 and received a sentence of life imprisonment. Case No. CR12-591-01; Resp. Ex. A. The Court of Appeals of Virginia granted Hall's petition for appeal on the assignment of error that the trial court wrongfully overruled his hearsay objection to a receipt from a gun shop; it denied the petition as to seven additional assignments of error. Hall v. Commonwealth, R. No. 1626-13-1 (Va. Ct. App. Mar. 5, 2014); Resp. Ex. C. In a memorandum opinion issued on November 18, 2014, the Court of Appeals affirmed Hall's conviction on the holding that the contested receipt for ammunition was of "minimal evidential value" and that any error in its admission was non-constitutional and harmless in light of the "massive evidence of [Hall's] guilt otherwise adduced." Hall v. Commonwealth, R. No. 1626-13-1 (Va. Ct. App. Nov. 18, 2014), slip op. at 6. The remainder of the petition for appeal was denied. Id. at 2. The Court of Appeals summarized the evidence as follows:[1]

[T]he evidence proved that James Britt was last seen on April 11, 2011. Several days later, the police reported to Britt's residence after his family and friends were unable to contact him. The police discovered Britt's house had been damaged and smelled of paint and bleach. Large pieces of carpeting had been cut out of the carpets in the bedroom and living room. The remaining carpet had white marks that appeared to be bleach stains and portions of the walls appeared to have been recently painted. Stains that appeared to be blood spatter were also on the walls and ceiling. Later testing confirmed that blood spatter on some of the walls and doors were beneath the fresh paint. Furniture inside the house had been moved. A trash bag in the garage contained pieces of Britt's teeth, a .9 millimeter FC Luger cartridge casing, Britt's blood-stained clothing, bottles of cleaning supplies, Britt's driver's license which had been cut in pieces, Britt's wallet, and a small slip of paper linked to a Florida company with which [Hall] was associated. A paint can bearing [Hall's] fingerprint was in the garage along with a piece of carpet padding with Britt's blood on it. Paint from the can was consistent with the fresh paint in the walls inside Britt's house. Britt's blood and [Hall's] fingerprints were also located inside the residence. A bullet matching the casing from the trash bag was embedded in Britt's bedroom wall and had been covered with putty. The police also found [Hall's] locked vehicle in Britt's driveway. Three of Britt's cars were missing from the property.
Britt operated a car business and had worked with [Hall]. In the weeks prior to his disappearance, Britt had told his employees and friends that he no longer planned to work with [Hall] because [Hall] had done poor work and owed him money. Britt told the witnesses that he had informed [Hall] that he no longer wished to work with him. One witness testified he observed [Hall] and Britt engage in a heated argument soon before Britt's disappearance Days before Britt's disappearance, he told two witnesses . . . that [Hall] had arrived at his residence carrying a crowbar....
The police found a crowbar in a vehicle owned by [Hall]. The vehicle was located in Florida, where [Hall] lived, and one of Britt's neighbors had seen it at Britt's residence shortly before Britt's disappearance. The police also recovered from [Hall] numerous titles to cars owned by Britt. [Hall] claimed Britt had sold or given him the car titles. Names other than Britt's appeared as the seller on some of the titles. A handwriting expert testified [Hall] could not be eliminated as the author of the seller signatures on the titles. Two of Britt's cars were found at [Hall's] girlfriends' houses. At one of the residences, the police also found a piece of carpet on [Hall's] lawnmower. The carpet was damp and smelled of bleach. The fibers matched the carpet in Britt's residence.
Inside [Hall's] vehicle, which had been locked and parked on Britt's property, the police found a receipt for .9 millimeter FC Luger cartridges from a gun shop. ... Although [Hall] denied ever owning a gun, his car contained ammunition and gun cleaning supplies.
[Hall] exhibited an injury to his forehead at an April 21, 2011 interview with the police. During the interview, [Hall] admitted having twice entered Britt's residence during the week of April 11, 2011. At first, he claimed several times that he had only gone through the garage to the kitchen to retrieve car keys. Later, however, after one of the detectives told [Hall] his DNA had been located in the living room, [Hall] told a different version of events which included his going into the living room to check for mail.
Pastor K. Irby testified [Hall] was enrolled in ministerial classes at his church in Florida during April 2011. Irby explained that on the weekend of April 8, 2011, [Hall] informed him that he would miss the following week's classes because 'he had been called up on military maneuvers.' Later, when he returned to class, [Hall] told Irby he had been in the Middle East. In fact, [Hall] had not gone to the Middle East and specifically misrepresented his whereabouts to his pastor.

Id., slip op. at 2-4, footnote omitted. Hall's attempt to appeal the foregoing decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia was refused without opinion on June 23, 2015. Hall v. Commonwealth, R. No. 141889 (Va. June 23, 2015); Resp. Ex. H.

         On April 18, 2016, Hall timely filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of Virginia, raising the following claims:

I. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to: (A) read Halls' discovery page and present police property vouchers at trial; (B) present cell phone records; (C) perform police background checks; (D) present cell phone records and investigate the victim's location; (E) call a DMV expert as a witness; (F) present exculpatory evidence, the cumulative effect of which deprived Hall of effective assistance of counsel; (G) secure DNA and fingerprint analyses; and (H) investigate Hall's school schedule.
II. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to convey the court's instructions regarding Hall's right to represent himself.
III. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to object to and refute due process errors: (A) testimony that a crowbar was found in Hall's vehicle and he "changed his story, " and inaccurate claims by the Commonwealth that certain automobiles belonged to the victim; (B) improper testimony as to DNA analysis of items found in the victim's home; (C) non-responsive answers by the victim's brother; and (D) testimony of a handwriting expert about Hall's samples.
IV. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to: (A) call a DMV expert and object to or refute the Commonwealth's inaccurate claim that certain cars belonged to the victim and not Hall; and (B) request a Bill of Particulars specifying the date on which Hall killed the victim.
V. Newly-discovered evidence in the form of Hall's realization that the vehicle found at the crime scene was not his entitles him to relief.
VI. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to prepare for sentencing by developing mitigating evidence regarding Hall's life prior to the murder.

         Resp. Ex. I, Parts I - III.[2] The Supreme Court of Virginia dismissed the petition on March 1, 2017. Hall v. Warden, Sussex I State Prison, R. No. 160599 (Va. Mar. 1, 2017); Resp. Ex. J.

         Hall then turned to the federal forum and timely filed this application for relief pursuant to § 2254 by placing it into his institution's mailing system on May 8, 2017. [Dkt. No. 1 at 15]. In the initial petition and a subsequent amendment [Dkt. No. 7 - 8], he claims:

1. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to develop and present to the jury exculpatory evidence in the form of police property vouchers, cell phone records, a "Certificate of Attendance" to show why he left Virginia, police interview transcripts, automobile titles, and a certificate of analysis showing the results of scientific testing performed on a crowbar.
2. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to develop and present exculpatory alibi evidence in the form of background checks on prosecution witnesses, records of the victim's cell phone and information from his contacts, Hall's school attendance records, DNA analysis to show there were multiple contributors to a sample, and police transcripts showing Hall did not lie.
3. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to solicit, consult with, and present relevant expert and technical witnesses, namely a forensic expert, a DNA analyst, a handwriting expert, a DMV expert, and an expert in the field of cell tower location technology.
4. (A) He was deprived of the right to represent himself; and (B) trial counsel were ineffective for failing to follow the court's instructions to inform him of that right.
5. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to object to false testimony that a crowbar was found in his vehicle, that he never provided the police with certain car titles, and that he changed his story while talking to the police.
6. (A) Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to object to and challenge the chain of custody of a crowbar allegedly found in his vehicle; and (B) he was prejudiced by the cumulative effect of this and other instances of ineffective assistance.
7. Trial counsel were ineffective for failing to object to and challenge the gathering, testing and admission of DNA comparison sample evidence on the ground that both the source and the handwriting expert's evidence were unreliable.
8. The Commonwealth violated his right to due process by convicting him of a crime he did not commit on the basis of ...

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