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White v. Warden, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Terre Haute Division

May 13, 2019

BRUCE A. WHITE, Petitioner,
WARDEN, Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, Respondent.



         Petitioner Bruce A. White seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his murder conviction in Indiana state court case number 20C01-1003-MR-00001. Respondent has filed his return and Mr. White has replied. For the reasons explained below, Mr. White's petition must be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Bruce White was charged on March 1, 2009, in Elkhart County, Indiana, with murder and felony murder. A jury trial was held December 13-14, 2010, where Mr. White was convicted of both counts. The trial court dismissed the felony murder conviction due to double jeopardy concerns. On January 19, 2011, Mr. White was sentenced to sixty-five years imprisonment in the Indiana Department of Correction.

         On direct appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals, Mr. White raised two issues challenging the sufficiency of the evidence used to rebut his claim of self-defense and the length of his sentence. The appeals court affirmed the conviction and sentence in an unpublished decision on October 13, 2011. White v. State, No. 20A03-1101-CR-28 (Ind.Ct.App. Oct. 13, 2011); dkt. 13-6. The Indiana Supreme Court denied a petition to transfer on December 13, 2011. Dkt. 13-9.

         Mr. White filed a petition for state post-conviction relief on September 18, 2012. He withdrew the petition on May 9, 2013, and refiled a petition on July 24, 2013. Dkt. 13-10. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on Mr. White's claims on April 7, 2016. The trial court denied the petition on September 27, 2016. On post-conviction appeal, Mr. White asserted an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim arguing four acts of deficient performance. Dkt. 13-13. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's denial of post-conviction relief in an unpublished decision on July 27, 2017. White v. State, No. 20A04-1610-PC-2490 (Ind.Ct.App. July 27, 2017); dkt. 13-14. The Indiana Supreme Court denied a petition to transfer on December 19, 2017.

         Mr. White filed this habeas corpus action on January 4, 2018.

         II. Habeas Corpus Legal Standard

         A federal court may grant habeas relief only if the petitioner demonstrates that he is in custody “in violation of the Constitution or laws . . . of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) directs how the Court must consider petitions for habeas relief under § 2254. “In considering habeas corpus petitions challenging state court convictions, [the Court's] review is governed (and greatly limited) by AEDPA.” Dassey v. Dittmann, 877 F.3d 297, 301 (7th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (citation and quotation marks omitted). “The standards in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) were designed to prevent federal habeas retrials and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.” Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         A federal habeas court cannot grant relief unless the state court's adjudication of a federal claim on the merits:

(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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         “The decision federal courts look to is the last reasoned state-court decision to decide the merits of the case, even if the state's supreme court then denied discretionary review.” Dassey, 877 F.3d at 302. “Deciding whether a state court's decision ‘involved' an unreasonable application of federal law or ‘was based on' an unreasonable determination of fact requires the federal habeas court to train its attention on the particular reasons - both legal and factual - why state courts rejected a state prisoner's federal claims, and to give appropriate deference to that decision[.]” Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1191-92 (2018) (citation and quotation marks omitted). “This is a straightforward inquiry when the last state court to decide a prisoner's federal claim explains its decision on the merits in a reasoned opinion.” Id. “In that case, a federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable.” Id.

         “For purposes of § 2254(d)(1), an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011). “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Id. “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Id. at 102. “The issue is not whether federal judges agree with the state court decision or even whether the state court decision was correct. The issue is whether the decision was unreasonably wrong under an objective standard.” Dassey, 877 F.3d at 302. “Put another way, [the Court] ask[s] whether the state court decision ‘was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'” Id. (quoting Richter, 562 U.S. at 103). “The bounds of a reasonable application depend on the nature of the relevant rule. The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” Schmidt v. Foster, 911 F.3d 469, 477 (7th Cir. 2018) (en banc) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         III. Facts of the Case

         The Indiana Court of Appeals summarized the facts of the case in its decision in Mr. White's direct appeal and repeated the same summary in its post-conviction appeal decision:

On the evening of July 25, 2009, White, Charles Farrell (“Farrell”), and an unidentified third man drove to Elkhart[, Indiana, ] to purchase two kilo[gram]s of cocaine from [James] for a price of $64, 000. The men met Daron Tuggle (“Tuggle”) at a convenience store, and then followed Tuggle's vehicle to the Old Farm Apartments. Upon their arrival at the apartment complex, the group found James and Noble Dennie (“Dennie”) waiting for them. Tuggle, White, and Farrell got out of their vehicles and joined James and Dennie, and all five men entered an apartment.
Once inside the apartment, James grabbed two packages of cocaine from a table. Farrell asked to look inside the packages, and Tuggle turned toward the kitchen to retrieve something to use to open them. At that time, Tuggle heard White tell James “give it up, Cuz.” Tuggle turned back around and saw that White was holding a gun to James's head. Tuggle took a step forward, and Farrell pulled out a gun and pointed it at Tuggle, telling him not to move. James struggled with White, unsuccessfully attempting to disarm him. James then backed away as White continued to point the gun at him. Tuggle then heard a gunshot and James fell to the ground.
Multiple other shots were fired, and Dennie knocked Tuggle to the ground. When the gunfire stopped, Tuggle looked up and saw that only he and James remained in the apartment. Tuggle then got up and went over to check on James, who had been shot in the abdomen, but was still breathing. Tuggle called an ambulance, but James later died from the gunshot wound. A single .45 caliber bullet was recovered during James's autopsy. The police recovered seven .45 caliber shell casings, all of which were fired from one weapon, as well as six 9 [millimeter] shell casings, all of which were fired from one [other] weapon. No. gun was seen or found on or near James.
White suffered three gunshot wounds during the shooting, and he later sought treatment at a hospital in South Bend. White told the treating nurse that he was walking near a local restaurant and “minding his own business” when “these guys just came up and shot him.” The next morning, after reading about James's death in the newspaper, White fled to Indianapolis, where he stayed at a friend's house . . . . White [later] learned that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, and he fled to Atlanta, Georgia. While in Atlanta, . . . White was arrested, and before being fingerprinted, he admitted to the Atlanta police that he had shot someone and there was a warrant for his arrest in Indiana. Thereafter, White was extradited to Indiana and brought to the Elkhart County Jail.
On March 1, 2010, the State charged White with murder and felony murder. A three-day jury trial commenced on December 13, 2010, at which Tuggle testified for the State. At the conclusion of the evidence, White was found guilty of murder. The trial court held a sentencing hearing on January 6, 2011, and White was sentenced to an executed term of sixty-five years in the Department of Correction.

Dkt. 13-6, pp. 2-4.

         IV. Ground for Habeas Corpus Relief

         A. Introduction

         Mr. White's habeas petition presents one issue - whether his trial counsel was ineffective. Dkt. 2, p. 7. The claim is divided into five subparts, each contending that a specific event or action was ineffective assistance. These subparts are not separate claims, but individual instances of performance to be considered together in evaluating the single claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Peoples v. United States, 403 F.3d 844, 848 (7th Cir. 2005) (holding that “ineffective assistance of counsel is a single ground for relief no matter how many failings the lawyer may have displayed. Counsel's work must be assessed as a whole; it is the overall deficient performance, rather than a specific failing, that constitutes the ground of relief.”).

         A criminal defendant has a right under the Sixth Amendment to effective assistance of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). For a habeas corpus petitioner to establish that “counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal, ” he must make two showings: (1) that counsel rendered deficient performance that (2) prejudiced him. Id. With respect to the performance requirement, “[t]he proper measure of attorney performance remains simply reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.” Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 521 (2003) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688). “[T]o establish prejudice, a ‘defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'” Id. at 534 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694).

         When the deferential AEDPA standard is applied to a Strickland claim, the following calculus emerges:

Establishing that a state court's application of Strickland was unreasonable under § 2254(d) is . . . difficult. The standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both “highly deferential, ” [Strickland] at 689, 104 S.Ct. 2052; Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333, n.7 (1997), and when the two apply in tandem, review is “doubly” so, Knowles, 556 U.S. at 123. The Strickland standard is a general one, so the range of reasonable applications is substantial. 556 U.S. at 123. Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under § 2254(d). When § 2254(d) applies, the ...

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