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Lagasse v. Bouffard

United States District Court, District of Maine

June 30, 2014

RODNEY BOUFFARD, Warden, Maine State Prison, Respondent


Respondent RODNEY BOUFFARD Warden


John H. Rich III, United States Magistrate Judge

Jeffrey Lagasse has filed a habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He was convicted of murder, pursuant to 17-A M.R.S.A. § 201(1)(A), in the Maine Superior Court, following a plea of guilty, and he did not appeal.[1] The Superior Court denied post-conviction relief following an evidentiary hearing, and the Law Court subsequently denied discretionary review of that decision. Petitioner’s federal habeas petition claims error in the plea proceedings. He argues that the plea was involuntary because he had to decide within 24 hours whether to accept it or not. He also argues that counsel provided ineffective assistance by misadvising him about an Alford plea[2] and by failing to negotiate for an agreement to plead to felony murder rather than murder. The State argues that petitioner has not met his burden of demonstrating that the state court adjudication was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, ” pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); or that it was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding, ” pursuant to section 2254(d)(2), and subject to the presumption of correctness set forth in section 2254(e)(1). I recommend that the court deny relief and dismiss Lagasse’s petition because the record supports the state court’s factual findings, and, therefore, petitioner has not met his burden pursuant to sections 2254(d)(2), (e)(1).

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

Petitioner was indicted in September 2009 for intentional or knowing murder or depraved indifference murder, which was alleged to have occurred on June 7, 2007. State Court Record, Vol. I (“R. Vol. I”) (ECF No. 5-1), attached to Respondent’s Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (“Answer”) (ECF No. 5), at [2], [11]; State Court Record, Vol. II (“R. Vol. II”) (ECF No. 5-2), attached to Answer, at [11]; M.R. Crim. P. 11 (“Rule 11”). Petitioner pled guilty pursuant to a plea agreement, and the court accepted the plea following a Rule 11 hearing held in May 2010. R. Vol. I at [7], [21].

At the plea hearing, petitioner was represented by two attorneys. Id. at [10].[3] The State represented that, if the case had gone to trial, it would have been able to present sufficient evidence for a jury to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, the following facts: The victim operated a mill business in New Portland, Maine, and she lived and worked at the same property. Id. at [13]. When the mill was operating, she and a business partner employed several people, including petitioner. Id. He worked at the mill in 2006 and in the spring of 2007. Id. The victim, her business partner, and several others had decided to close the business, and in June 2007, the victim was in the process of winding it down. Id.

Petitioner was laid off approximately three weeks before the murder. Id. He was 29 years old and unemployed except for some hourly work. Id. Petitioner had borrowed money from the victim on at least two occasions. Id. He lived with his girlfriend and her children in her leased apartment less than one mile from the victim’s home and business. Id.

Petitioner killed the victim by striking her with a piece of hardwood flooring, fracturing her skull. Id. at [14]. The murder occurred at approximately 10:00 p.m. at the victim’s home and business. Id. Petitioner gave four different stories to the police about his activities around the time of the murder. In his initial story, he told them that he went to see the victim on the afternoon of June 7 to ask her if he could have some pieces of wood to finish an entertainment center he was building. Id. at [13-14]. He said that the victim gave permission, but he could not take the wood then because it was too long to fit into his girlfriend’s Grand Prix automobile. Id. at [14]. He said that he was at his girlfriend’s apartment that night, and the next morning he called the victim by phone and got no answer. Id. at [14], [17]. He told police that he left a message saying that he would be over to pick up the wood and asking if he could borrow her truck. Id. at [14]. He said that he went over, looked in the window of the door, saw a mess, suspected something was wrong, went back to the apartment, and called a woman who had also worked for the victim. Id. He told her he wanted her to join him back at the victim’s house. Id. They conferred about calling the police, and he placed a call to 911. Id. at [14-15]. Petitioner and the woman were at the victim’s house when the police arrived. Id. at [15].

The police found a drag mark on the ground outside, followed it, and found the victim’s body on the property, underneath some metal roofing material. Id. The medical examiner concluded that the victim had sustained a horrific beating. Id. The State represented that the evidence would lead a reasonable jury to conclude that the victim and perpetrator knew each other, there was no forced entry, and that the perpetrator was familiar with the property. Id. at [15-16]. There was evidence of a violent encounter inside the office area and again outside in the driveway. Id. at [16]. Tire impressions that matched those of petitioner’s girlfriend’s Jeep Cherokee overlay drag marks on the ground, indicating that the vehicle left after the incident. Id. Two credit cards belonging to the victim were used that night at about 11:22 p.m., at a bank ATM in Kingfield. Id. The user successfully withdrew $300 in the first attempt on one of the cards; another attempt on that card, and an attempt made using the second credit card, were unsuccessful. Id. at [16-17]. Video surveillance and still shots of the ATM taken at the time did not show a face, but showed a left hand and thumb, with a “remarkable similarity” to petitioner’s thumb, holding a credit card. Id. at [17].[4]

Petitioner’s second story was that he drove his girlfriend’s Jeep Cherokee to a cemetery where he extracted $500 from a buried lockbox. Id. at [18]. This story came out after his girlfriend acknowledged in an interview that she had been lying to police in telling them that he had been home the whole night; rather, she said, petitioner had told her that he was leaving to retrieve money that had been obtained from a burglary nine or ten years earlier and buried in a cemetery in the Bangor/Brewer area. Id. In an interview with law enforcement, petitioner described in detail the trip to the cemetery and the retrieval of the money. Id.

Petitioner’s third story was that he was at a party with a woman he identified by name, saying he had met her in prison. Id. at [18]. However, petitioner’s girlfriend could not find the woman despite her efforts, and law enforcement was not able to turn up prison records for any such woman. Id. at [18-19]. Eventually petitioner’s girlfriend told law enforcement that when petitioner came home that night to the apartment, he was dressed only in his boxer shorts and carried a stack of money in his hands. Id. at [19].

Petitioner’s fourth story was given to a fellow inmate to whom petitioner confessed that he had been present at the crime. Id. Petitioner claimed to the inmate that it was meant to be a robbery, it was committed with other persons, and they did not expect the victim to be there. Id. Petitioner told his fellow inmate that he had hit the victim with a piece of hardwood flooring, but that someone else hit the victim more. Id. Petitioner identified the other persons by first name only and said he did not know where the other perpetrators were. Id.

At the conclusion of the State’s presentation, it noted that the evidence was circumstantial. Id. at [20]. The State told the court that although the evidence did not suggest that petitioner went to the victim’s home and business with a plan to kill her, he used wood flooring that was at the scene as a weapon to strike and kill the victim. Id.

After the State reviewed these facts, the Court asked petitioner:

THE COURT: . . . Mr. Lagasse, do you – you have just heard the State review the facts. Do you agree that that is among the evidence that you have reviewed that would be presented at trial?
A. Yes.
THE COURT: Do you agree that that evidence would support a guilty finding by a fact finder in this case?
A. Yes.
THE COURT: Do you have any questions at all about the evidence or any issues about the evidence as the ...

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