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Woods v. Clarke

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

September 25, 2019

LAMONT A. WOODS, Petitioner,
v.
HAROLD W. CLARKE, Respondent.

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad, Senior United States District Judge.

         Petitioner Lamont A. Woods, through counsel, filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the validity of his confinement under a 2015 Virginia court judgment convicting him of second-degree murder. The matter is presently before the court on the respondent's motion to dismiss and Woods' response thereto. For the reasons set forth below, the court concludes that the respondent's motion to dismiss must be granted.

         I. Background

         The Court of Appeals of Virginia found the following facts from the evidence presented at Woods' jury trial:[1]

Toward the end of April 2012, [Woods]' relationship with his girlfriend, Takea Turner (Turner), seriously deteriorated. [Woods] testified that he assumed that Turner and Lamar Ward (the victim) were romantically involved. Turner and [Woods] had been living together in Henry County until a few days before the killing. On April 27, 2012, Turner and her infant son (Baby Woods) stayed with her friend, Manesha Ward ([Manesha]), at the home of [Manesha] and her boyfriend, Dacha Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald). The victim, who is [Manesha]'s brother, also stayed at [Manesha]'s house that night. [Woods] testified that on that same night, the victim and Turner repeatedly called and threatened [Woods] while he was "hanging out" with several people, including Kelly Trull (Trull), who corroborated this account. [Woods] also testified that Fitzgerald and the victim came to [Woods]'s house to threaten him the night before the shooting occurred - and that [Woods] then ran away from them into the woods.

         Details Surrounding the Murder

On the morning of April 28, 2012 (the day of the murder), Turner texted [Woods] some messages that he characterized as threatening. [Manesha], Fitzgerald, the victim, Turner, and Baby Woods then drove to and arrived at [Woods]' trailer in [Manesha]'s vehicle. [Manesha] drove, Turner sat in the front passenger seat, the victim sat in the left rear passenger seat, Fitzgerald sat in the right rear passenger seat, and Baby Woods was seated on Turner's lap. [Woods] testified that he was then wearing his gun holstered because he thought he would be leaving before Turner arrived. Turner exited the car and began arguing with [Woods]. The victim then began speaking from the backseat, saying things like "Fuck him" and "If he got a problem, then he can do something." [Woods] testified that it was at this point that he realized the victim was actually in the car - and that they began arguing.
[Woods] then provided his account of what happened next, stating, "So as we are arguing, I am walking towards the car. So when I walked towards the car, yea, I was telling him to get out the car. ... If he had a problem with me, then I was willing to fight it out and get it over with." [Woods] said that his intention was only to engage in a fistfight. "So as I'm getting closer to the car, that's when he pulls his gun out." [Woods] said of the victim, "He basically just flashed [his gun] out of the window. He was still in the car at the time." [Woods] testified that after the victim flashed the gun with his right hand, "So that's when I kind of slid behind the tree and I kind of asked him to leave" [Woods] further testified that he heard car doors opening and shutting, and he heard the victim say something threatening and tell [Woods] to come out from behind the tree. "So as I come behind the tree: at this time, I had pulled my gun out of my holster, so as I come behind the tree, he had his gun kind of like, it was up by his side. He was standing outside of the car, but he was still in the doorway, kind'a." Counsel asked [Woods], "So he was in between the door and where it was open?" [Woods] responded, "Right. So as I come behind the tree, ... he raises his gun, and that's when I just started shooting, running towards the woods."
When asked whether he shot at the victim ten times, [Woods] responded, "Maybe. I'm not sure. I feared for my life, so I just wasn't counting. I wasn't really aiming. I just directed the gun in his direction and I won't [sic] really trying to purposefully kill him or nothing like that. I was just trying to get out of there." [Woods] admitted that no one else fired a shot, and did not dispute that every shot he fired hit the victim. [Woods] testified that he was afraid of the victim "because of his reputation and the threats that he made over the phone." He knew that the victim took a gun with him everywhere he went. [Woods] did not dispute that he shot through the car's back windshield. Fitzgerald testified that he saw [Woods] shooting the victim through the rear window of the car. Fitzgerald also testified that he exited the car and ran to the woods when [Woods] began shooting the victim.
Soon after the shooting, [Manesha] called 9-1-1, informing them that her brother had been shot and was not breathing. The phone call then suddenly terminated on the caller's end. Alfred Lemons, an eyewitness to the subsequent car accident, testified that he observed a car (later determined to be [Manesha]'s vehicle) drive by him, skid off the road, and hit a tree. [Manesha], Turner, Baby Woods, and the victim's body were thrown from the vehicle, killing all of the living passengers.
Uncontroverted Physical Evidence
Assistant Chief Medical Examiner Gayle Suzuki testified that the victim's cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds. The victim received ten gunshot wounds - three of which were lethal. All three lethal gunshot wounds were consistent with being shot in the back. In fact, [Woods] himself acknowledged that over half of the shots fired were fired from behind the victim. Dr. Suzuki testified that the superficial injuries the victim received in the car crash were sustained post-mortem.
Wendy Gibson - a forensic scientist with the Department of Forensic Science and an expert in identification of firearms and tool marks - testified, "During the course of this analysis, I was able to identify that all ten of these cartridge cases [found at the scene] had been fired in one firearm." All ten cartridge cases were the same brand and caliber. Further, each of the five bullets recovered from the victim's body was consistent in design with the brand and caliber of the ten cartridge cases and was fired from one firearm.

Woods v. Commonwealth. 782 S.E.2d 613, 615-16 (Va. Ct. App. 2016).[2]

         On May 21, 2012, a grand jury in the Circuit Court of Henry County returned indictments charging Lamont Anthony Woods with first-degree murder, grand larceny of a firearm, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, maliciously shooting into an occupied vehicle, and endangering the life of a child. Woods pleaded not guilty to the first four charges and proceeded to a jury trial. The court granted Woods' request for a jury instruction for the lesser included offense of second-degree murder and for self-defense. The court found that the evidence did not support an instruction for the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter, however.

         The jury found Woods guilty of second-degree murder, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and maliciously shooting into an occupied vehicle, but acquitted him of grand larceny. The jury set Woods' punishment at twelve years in prison for the murder conviction, three years and five years on other convictions, for a total of twenty years. By order dated January 14, 2015, the circuit court imposed the sentences fixed by the jury. The circuit court also sentenced Woods that day for the child endangerment charge, to which Woods had pleaded no contest.

         Woods appealed his second-degree murder conviction, [3] arguing that the trial court erred in denying a jury instruction for voluntary manslaughter. In a published opinion, the Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed Woods' conviction. Woods v. Commonwealth, 782 S.E.2d 613, 615 (Va. Ct. App. 2016). The Supreme Court of Virginia refused his subsequent petition for appeal in that court in a summary order.

         Woods then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Court construed the petition as raising these two claims: (1) trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to investigate and obtain witnesses and cell phone evidence to bolster Woods' trial testimony that he shot the victim out of fear for his life rather than out of malice, and (2) the Commonwealth withheld exculpatory evidence likely contained on one or more cell phones likely recovered from the scene of the fatal car crash that occurred after the shooting. The Supreme Court of Virginia denied relief on both claims. Mem. Supp. Mot. Dism. Ex. 16, ECF No. 7-16.

         Woods' federal habeas corpus petition itself raises these overlapping claims for relief, as paraphrased by the court:

(A) Woods' guilty plea was not voluntary and intelligent, because his trial counsel provided incompetent advice and conducted an inadequate pretrial investigation to support Woods' testimony;
(B) Trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to prepare and "properly establish Woods' state of mind at the time of the shooting as being in fear of his own life";
(C) Trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing "to properly impeach the Commonwealth's main witness, Dacha Fitzgerald; and
(D) The Commonwealth withheld exculpatory evidence by not disclosing the information about the victim's cell phone text messages in violation of Brady ...

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