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Brown v. Hooks

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

October 1, 2019

MARSHALL LEE BROWN, JR., Petitioner,
v.
ERIK A. HOOKS, Respondent.

          ORDER

          Frank D. Whitney, Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Respondent's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 4) seeking denial of Petitioner Marshall Lee Brown, Jr.'s pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. Nos. 1).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner is a prisoner of the State of North Carolina, who, on September 8, 1977, in the Superior Court of Alexander County, pled guilty to second-degree murder pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-17, in case 77 CRS 1627, with prayer for judgment continued until after Petitioner testified for the State in another murder case. On November 16, 1977, Petitioner was sentenced to life in prison. He did not appeal.

         While serving his life sentence, Petitioner escaped from prison and committed another murder. He pled no contest to second-degree murder on March 25, 2002 and was given a concurrent 240-297 month sentence. State v. Brown, 616 S.E.2d 30, 2005 WL 1804816, 2005 N.C.App. LEXIS 1486 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2005) (unpublished table decision).

         On or about July 25, 2017, Petitioner filed a pro se application for writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Alexander County, which was denied on August 16, 2017. On January 22, 2018, Petitioner filed a pro se certiorari petition in the North Carolina Court of Appeals (“NCCOA”); certiorari was denied on January 25, 2018. Petitioner filed a pro se certiorari petition in the North Carolina Supreme Court (“NCSC”) on March 13, 2018, which was denied on March 19, 2018.

         On June 4, 2018, Petitioner filed the instant habeas petition raising four claims that challenge the execution of his 1977 sentence. (Doc. No. 1.) Respondent has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 4), and Petitioner has responded (Doc. No. 7.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The habeas statute at 28 U.S.C. § 2254 states that a district court “shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).[1] “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). Absent violation of a Federal constitutional right, a habeas petitioner fails to state a cognizable claim for relief. Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. 1, 14 (2011) (“Federal courts may not issue writs of habeas corpus to state prisoners whose confinement does not violate federal law.”).

         The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), limits the federal court's power to grant habeas relief:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim - (1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

§ 2254(d). The “contrary to” and “unreasonable application” clauses contained in § 2254(d)(1) are to be given independent meaning-in other words, a petitioner may be entitled to habeas corpus relief if the state court adjudication was either contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

         AEDPA's standard is intentionally “difficult to meet.” White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 419 (2014) (internal quote and citation omitted). “ ‘[C]learly established Federal law' for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only ‘the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of th[e Supreme] Court's decisions.' ” Id. (quoting Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499, 505 (2012)) (internal quote and citation omitted) (first alteration in the original).

         A state court decision can be “contrary to” clearly established federal law in two ways: (1) “if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law, ” or (2) “if the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [the Supreme Court].” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000) (plurality opinion). “And an ‘unreasonable application of' [clearly established Federal law] must be ‘objectively unreasonable,' not merely wrong; even ‘clear error' will not suffice.” Woodall, 572 U.S. at 419 (quoting Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-764 (2003)) (alteration added). “Rather, ‘[a]s a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'” Woodall, 572 U.S. at 419-420 (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)).

         III. DISCUSSION[2]

         A. Due Process & Ex Post Facto Claims

         In Ground One, Petitioner claims that he has a constitutionally-protected liberty interest in his good time credits[3] and that the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (“DPS”), formerly the North Carolina Department of Correction (“DOC”), “arbitrarily and retroactively” altered his good time credits without due process of law. (§ 2254 Pet. 5, Doc. No. 1.) In Ground Two, he claims the DPS violated the Ex Post Facto Clause by retroactively altering the sentencing provisions it had created. (§ 2254 Pet. 7.) According to Petitioner, the State's sentencing provisions in effect at the time of his offense mandated that good time credits be applied against the total length of an inmate's sentence for “all purposes, ” including calculation of an unconditional release date. He asserts that on or about July 16, 2017, he had accumulated enough credits to fully satisfy his sentence, but when he sought unconditional release, DPS refused to apply his credits to his unconditional release date and release him.[4] (§ 2254 Pet. 5.)

         Petitioner raised his due process and ex post facto claims in his September 22, 2018 “Motion for Summary Judgment Response to Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus et seq., Response in Opposition to Affirmation in Opposition to Deny Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus.”[5] (Resp't's Ex. 4, Doc. No. 5-5.) The state court denied the claims on the merits. (Jan. 22, 2018 Order Deny. Mot. for Summ. J., Resp't's Ex. 5 at 46, Doc. No. 5-6.)

         Petitioner is one of a limited group of prisoners, referred to herein as the Bowden-class inmates, who committed offenses between April 8, 1974, and June 30, 1978, and received sentences of life in prison, pursuant to North Carolina General Statute § 14-2. See, e.g., Lovette v. N.C. Dep't of Corr., 737 S.E.2d 737 ( N.C. 2013) (per curiam). The version of § 14-2 in effect during that time stated that “[a] sentence of life imprisonment shall be considered as a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 80 years in the State's prison.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-2 (Supp. 1974). For decades, however, North Carolina prison officials “interpreted a life sentence imposed under that statute to be an indeterminate sentence. . . .[, ]” Jones v. Keller, 698 S.E.2d 49, 53 ( N.C. 2010), and the 80-year figure to apply only to the assessment of parole eligibility, see State v. Bowden, 668 S.E.2d 107 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2008). In Bowden, the NCCOA held that ยง 14-2's 80-year rule requires ...


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