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Lane v. Landry

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 12, 2017

JOHN AMOS LANE, Petitioner,
SCOTT LANDRY, Respondent


          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         In this action, Petitioner John Amos Lane seeks relief, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, from his 1985 Maine state court conviction for murder.[1] (Petition, ECF No. 1.)[2]Respondent seeks dismissal of the petition. (Response, ECF No. 15.)

         Petitioner asserts that he is entitled to relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel. In particular, Petitioner contends that trial and sentencing counsel (1) failed to move for a finding that Petitioner was incompetent to stand trial; (2) failed adequately to investigate and develop facts regarding Petitioner's experience with exorcism and rage; (3) failed to obtain and use Petitioner's mental health records and records of a traumatic brain injury; (4) failed to impeach the testimony of a state psychiatrist who opined that Petitioner was not psychotic when he committed the crime, but who, after trial, treated Petitioner and prescribed antipsychotic drugs; (5) failed to move for the preparation of a presentence investigation report; and (6) failed to object to the sentence. Petitioner also contends that his appellate counsel failed to file a petition for post-conviction review or failed to advise him about the availability of post-conviction review.

         Petitioner failed to pursue timely a state court post-conviction review, and in response to the State's motion to dismiss the section 2254 petition as a late filing, Petitioner alleged that his failure was due to mental illness. Upon review of the motion to dismiss, the Court concluded that Petitioner had established a prima facie case for equitable tolling of the limitation period, and the Court ordered the State to address the merits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2), which permits a habeas petition to be “denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the courts of the State, ” this recommended decision addresses the merits of Petitioner's various allegations under the standard, set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), for claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

         After a review of the petition and the State's request for dismissal on the merits, I recommend the Court grant the State's request, and dismiss the petition.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         Petitioner was convicted of murder following a two-week bench trial in 1985.[3](State Court Record (“Record”), ECF No. 5-1 at 33-38.) In its opinion affirming the judgment of conviction, the Maine Law Court summarized the relevant facts of the crime. Lane, 532 A.2d at 145.

         On November 22, 1985, the state court sentenced Petitioner to life in prison. (Id. at 39.) By docket entry dated December 17, 1985, the court entered both counsel's motion to withdraw and the court's grant of the motion. (Id. at 40.) The order provided that new counsel was appointed “to represent [Petitioner] with regard to his appeal and any other post-trial matters which may arise.” (Id.)

         Petitioner appealed from the conviction and the sentence. (Id. at 41, 51.) The appeal from the sentence was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. (Id. at 44.) According to the Law Court docket sheet, Petitioner had three successive attorneys over the course of the appeal from the conviction. (Id. at 52.) The Law Court affirmed the conviction. Lane, 532 A.2d at 144. (Record at 48.) Addressing Petitioner's contention that the evidence supported his argument that he lacked criminal responsibility, the Law Court, citing the version of the statute applicable when Petitioner committed the crime, noted that “[t]he burden is on defendant to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he lacked criminal responsibility.” Lane, 532 A.2d at 145 (citing 17-A M.R.S. § 39(1) (1983)).[4] The Court explained the statutory requirements of the affirmative defense:

The statutory test for lack of criminal responsibility requires a finding of a mental disease or defect, as defined in 17-A M.R.S.A. § 39(2), and a finding that, as a result of the mental disease or defect at the time of the conduct, defendant either lacked substantial capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law or lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct. 17-A M.R.S.A. § 39(1). The Superior Court found that defendant established the existence of mental disease and defect but failed to establish the remaining requirement by a preponderance of the evidence.

Id. The Law Court observed that the trial court

framed its findings of the defendant's state of mind at the time of the offense in terms of the following three alternative hypotheses offered by expert testimony: one, defendant played out a role as an exorcist or one of similar identity, but he retained capacity to appreciate social standards and expectations; two, defendant acted on the basis of escalating rage and desire to punish, but he retained capacity to appreciate social standards and expectations; and three, defendant was psychotic at the time of the offense and acted on delusional beliefs that he and his family group faced imminent destruction, and he lacked capacity to appreciate social standards and expectations. The Superior Court found that the evidence was consistent with either of the first two hypotheses. Although the court explicitly found that the same evidence was not inconsistent with the third hypothesis, the court concluded that it was at least as likely that defendant played out the role of an exorcist or acted on the basis of escalating rage and a desire to punish and retained the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.

Id. The Law Court, noting that the issues were factual, concluded: “Although defendant's expert witnesses testified that defendant was psychotic at the time of the offense, the experts offered by the prosecution testified that it was more probable that defendant was playing out the role of an exorcist or acting in rage, retaining the ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct.” Id. at 145.

         The Law Court issued its decision on October 13, 1987. Id. at 144. Petitioner did not seek a writ of certiorari, nor did he file an application for state court post-conviction review. According to the docket sheet, Petitioner did not request any relief from the Court until 1989 when he filed a motion to obtain exhibits. (Record at 49.) The docket sheet reflects that Petitioner filed the motion, and trial counsel, who had previously withdrawn as counsel, acknowledged receipt of certain exhibits. (Id. at 50.)

         The docket sheet reflects no further activity until the trial court issued an order in August 2009 after Petitioner asserted that “he would like to pursue a second appeal.” (Id.) The court noted that Petitioner's request “may not be frivolous, ” and it ordered the appointment of counsel for the limited purpose of advising Petitioner “as to whether he has any available legal recourse regarding this case and if so what it is.” (Id.) The court permitted counsel or Petitioner to request an expansion of the representation if counsel concluded that Petitioner had a valid claim. (Id.) Counsel was appointed, but there was no further court action on Petitioner's request. (Id.)

         In August 2014, Petitioner, through a motion filed in state court, requested the case file. (Id.) The court denied the request. (Id.) In September 2014, Petitioner filed an application to the Law Court for leave to appeal the sentence. (Id.) The same month, the Sentence Review Panel dismissed the appeal as untimely. (Id.)

         Petitioner alleges that he placed the form section 2254 petition into the prison mailing system on January 19, 2015. (Petition, ECF No. 1 at 16.) The petition was filed with the Court on January 23, 2015. (Id. at 1.)

         In response to the petition, Respondent moved to dismiss on grounds that the petition was not timely filed. (Response, ECF No. 5.) Petitioner argued that due to mental illness, he was entitled to equitable tolling of the limitation period. (Reply, ECF No. 6.) The Court concluded that Petitioner had established a prima facie case for equitable tolling; the Court thus denied Respondent's motion to dismiss. (Recommended Decision, ECF No. 8; Order Affirming, ECF No. 10.) The Court noted that if Petitioner was not entitled to relief on the merits, the timeliness issue would be moot. (Recommended Decision at 11 n.9.) Respondent contends that Petitioner is not entitled to relief on the merits.[5] (Response, ECF No. 15 at 4-8.)[6]

         II. Discussion

         A. Legal Standards

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court may apply to a federal district court for a writ of habeas corpus “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”

         Petitioner concedes that he failed to exhaust his state court remedies, which failure he attributes to mental illness. (Petition at 5.) Section 2254 provides that a court may deny habeas relief to a petitioner who has failed to exhaust, on a timely basis, the available state court remedies. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c).[7] Alternatively, however, a court may deny a petition on the merits, notwithstanding the petitioner's failure to exhaust state court remedies. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2). See Ware v. Dickhaut, 439 F. App'x 14, 14 (1st Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (unpublished) (“We bypass the question of whether the petitioner . . . exhausted his federal due process claim in the state courts, and we affirm the denial of his claim on the merits.”) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2)). Because Petitioner has presented a prima facie case to support failure to exhaust state court remedies, judicial economy militates in favor of a review of the merits of the case before proceeding further on the equitable tolling issue.

         In Strickland, the Supreme Court set forth the federal constitutional standard by which claims of ineffective assistance are evaluated; Strickland requires a petitioner to demonstrate that “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, ” and that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688, 694. A court need not “address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one . . . .” Id. at 697.

         The Court presumes “that counsel has ‘rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.'” Companonio v. O'Brien, 672 F.3d 101, 110 (1st Cir. 2012) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). State court determinations of fact “shall be presumed to be correct, ” and “[t]he applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). A court considers “the totality of the evidence, ” and “a verdict or conclusion only weakly supported by the record is more likely to have been affected by errors than one with overwhelming record support.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695-96. “[T]he ultimate focus of inquiry must be on the fundamental fairness of the proceeding.” Id. at 696.

         As to claims that were resolved in state court with a decision on the merits, the federal court applies a deferential standard of review, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). See Dugas v. Coplan, 428 F.3d 317, 343 (1st Cir. 2005). However, when, as here, there is no state court post-conviction decision to review, a federal court that does not dismiss on procedural grounds, such as failure to exhaust, reviews the merits of the Strickland claims de novo. See Id. (holding that because the state court did not reach the issue of Strickland prejudice, the Court would review the claims de novo).

         B. Grounds Asserted and Analysis

         1. Failure to move for a finding that Petitioner was incompetent to stand trial

         Petitioner alleges that trial counsel's performance was deficient based on the failure to move the court to find Petitioner incompetent to stand trial; Petitioner asserts that such a motion was warranted based on a psychiatrist's report that Petitioner exhibited signs of “persistent psychosis” before trial. (Petition at 10.) Petitioner also contends that counsel should have moved to delay the trial until Petitioner was psychiatrically stabilized; he asserts that if counsel had done so, Petitioner would have sought to obtain mental health records and records of his traumatic brain injury. (Id.)

         Respondent concedes and the record reflects that counsel did not move to find Petitioner incompetent to stand trial. Respondent, however, argues that Petitioner has presented no evidence to support the claim of either deficient performance by counsel, or prejudice. (Response at 6.)

         In early November 1984, i.e., shortly after Petitioner was charged with the crime, the state court ordered the evaluation of Petitioner for competence to stand trial and criminal responsibility, pursuant to 15 M.R.S. § 101.[8] (Response at 6; Appendix to Appellant's Brief on Appeal.) The record includes a psychiatric report co-signed by a clinical psychologist with the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI) Forensic Service and the clinical director of the AMHI Forensic Service; the clinical psychologist and the medical director evidently conducted the evaluation. (Id.)[9]

         According to the report, Petitioner was examined during private interviews on five occasions from October 1984 to June 1985. (Id.) The report contains the following summary of the results of a competency examination conducted in February 1985:

         Results of Competency Examination:

The defendant was examined for competency to stand trial on February 1, 1985 by means of an interview schedule called the Competency Assessment Instrument. His responses indicate that he is aware that he is charged with first degree murder and he was under the impression that he could receive a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if found guilty of this charge. He feels his chances of being found not guilty are “50-50”, although he acknowledged that if the results are based on people's emotions, he would be definitely convicted. He acknowledged that there is a strong case against him in terms of the physical evidence. He indicated an understanding of the type of deportment which is required in a court of law. He indicated a clear understanding of the roles of the major participants in a criminal trial. His understanding included a clear appreciation of the adversarial nature of the criminal trial process. He identified his attorney by name and expressed confidence in him. He indicated that he trusted his attorney “as much as anybody else in the world, ” adding, however, that he had little trust in anyone. He indicated an understanding of the pleading alternatives available to him and appeared to understand the essential significance of the insanity defense and of the plea bargaining strategy. He indicated motivation to be exonerated of the charges or to be found innocent by reason of insanity with the consequence of hospitalization at [the Augusta Mental Health Institute] as opposed to incarceration at the state prison, which he fears greatly.
It may be inferred from the foregoing that the defendant appreciates his jeopardy due to charges against him, [possesses] an adequate understanding of procedures involved in a criminal trial, and is capable of assisting his attorney in terms of making choices among pleas and possible defense strategies. ...

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