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Eaton v. Pacheco

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

July 23, 2019

DALE W. EATON, Petitioner - Appellant,
v.
MIKE PACHECO, Warden, Wyoming Department of Corrections State Penitentiary, Respondent - Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming (D.C. No. 2:09-CV-00261-ABJ)

          Sean D. O'Brien, Kansas City, Missouri (Lindsay J. Runnels, Kansas City, Missouri, and Terry J. Harris, Harris & Harris, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming, with him on the briefs), for Petitioner-Appellant.

          Katherine A. Adams, Assistant Attorney General (Peter K. Michael, Attorney General, Christyne M. Martens, Deputy Attorney General, and Benjamin E. Fisher, Assistant Attorney General, with her on the briefs), Cheyenne, Wyoming, for Respondent-Appellee.

          Before HARTZ, MORITZ, and EID, Circuit Judges.

          MORITZ, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         More than a decade after the crimes occurred, Dale Eaton was tried for and convicted of the kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, and murder of Lisa Kimmell. A Wyoming jury sentenced him to death, and he later sought federal habeas relief from his convictions and death sentence. The federal district court agreed that Eaton was entitled to partial relief and vacated his death sentence. But the district court refused to disturb Eaton's underlying convictions. And it also refused to bar the state from conducting new death-penalty proceedings.

         On appeal, Eaton argues the district court erred in (1) denying relief on the constitutional claims that implicate his convictions; (2) refusing to modify the conditional writ to bar the state from conducting new death-penalty proceedings; and (3) subsequently concluding that the state didn't waive its right to pursue new death-penalty proceedings by failing to timely comply with the conditional writ's requirements. We reject these arguments and affirm the district court's orders.

         Background

         On March 25, 1988, Kimmell set out from Colorado and headed north towards Montana. She never reached her destination. Instead, a fisherman found her body a week later in the water near Government Bridge in Natrona County, Wyoming. An autopsy indicated that Kimmell bled to death as the result of multiple stab wounds to her chest-wounds that were inflicted shortly after she suffered what would have otherwise been a fatal blow to the head. Investigators also found semen in Kimmell's vagina and on her underwear.

         Kimmell's 1988 murder went unsolved for over a decade. But in 2002, a DNA hit from the semen implicated Eaton.[1] Investigators later found Kimmell's car buried on Eaton's property. Wyoming then charged him with various offenses, including first-degree murder.

         Although there was some question as to Eaton's mental health, Eaton's trial counsel insisted that Eaton was competent and showed "no interest" in pursuing a defense based on mental disease or defect. Eaton, 192 P.3d at 55-56. Thus, although the trial court expressed concern about Eaton's apparent "memory problems" and his potential "inability to assist [in] his defense," the matter proceeded to trial in 2004. Id. at 55.

         At trial, the government relied in part on the testimony of Joseph Dax to prove its case. Dax testified that Eaton confessed to Kimmell's murder while the two men were incarcerated together at the Natrona County Jail. Id. at 51. According to Dax, Eaton said that Kimmell agreed to give him a ride; Eaton then "made a pass at" Kimmell; Kimmell "became angry and stopped her car and ordered him to get out"; and Eaton "instead grabbed her and sexually assaulted her." Id. at 76. When the prosecutor asked Dax how he knew that Eaton indeed had sexual contact with Kimmell, Dax replied that Eaton told him Kimmell "was 'a lousy lay.'" Id.

         The jury found Eaton guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder, aggravated kidnapping, first-degree sexual assault, and aggravated robbery. At sentencing, Eaton confessed, via the testimony of his examining physician, to killing Kimmell. According to Eaton's physician, Eaton admitted that he found Kimmell's car parked on his land, pulled her from her car at gunpoint, and "ended up raping and killing her after keeping her on his property for several days so that he would not be alone at Easter." Id. at 52.

         Based on this and other evidence presented during the guilt phase and at sentencing, the jury concluded that the state proved multiple aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.[2] And after finding that no mitigating circumstances existed, it voted to impose the death penalty.

         Eaton then appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court (WSC). As relevant here, Eaton asserted on direct appeal that he received ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) during both the guilt phase and the sentencing phase of his trial. Specifically, he argued trial counsel provided IAC during the guilt phase (by allegedly failing to recognize and argue that Eaton was incompetent to stand trial) and during the sentencing phase (by allegedly failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence). To that end, Eaton requested a partial remand to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on his IAC claims under Calene v. State, 846 P.2d 679 (Wyo. 1993).[3] Finally, Eaton argued that the trial court erred when it allowed Dax to testify that Eaton said Kimmell "was 'a lousy lay.'" See Eaton, 192 P.3d at 76-77.

         The WSC granted Eaton's Calene motion, stayed the appeal, and remanded the matter to the trial court with directions to conduct a Calene hearing and to issue a ruling within 90 days. Eaton objected to the 90-day deadline and asked both the trial court and the WSC for additional time to investigate. Both courts denied these requests for more time. The trial court then conducted an evidentiary hearing, after which it concluded that trial counsel wasn't ineffective during either the guilt phase or the sentencing phase of Eaton's trial. The appeal was then argued to the WSC, which agreed with the trial court's findings on remand and rejected Eaton's IAC claims. The WSC also rejected Eaton's argument that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting Dax's statement. The WSC then affirmed Eaton's convictions and his death sentence.

         After Eaton's subsequent efforts to obtain postconviction relief in state court proved unsuccessful, he filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2254 motion in federal district court. Under amendments made to § 2254 by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, a federal court may "entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus [o]n behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a [s]tate court . . . on the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution." § 2254(a). But before a federal court may grant relief to such a petitioner "with respect to any claim" that a state court has already "adjudicated on the merits," the petitioner must demonstrate that the state court's "adjudication of the claim" either (1) "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established [f]ederal law" or (2) "resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the [s]tate[-]court proceeding." § 2254(d).

         Here, Eaton's § 2254 motion alleged that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance during the guilt phase of Eaton's trial by allowing Eaton to be tried while incompetent (the guilt-phase IAC claim); that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance during the sentencing phase of Eaton's trial by failing to adequately investigate and present mitigating evidence (the sentencing-phase IAC claim); that appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance during Eaton's direct appeal by failing to investigate and present-to either the trial court during the Calene remand or subsequently to the WSC-the mitigating evidence that trial counsel should have presented at sentencing (the appeal-phase IAC claim); and that the state committed a Brady violation[4] by failing to disclose the full extent of its relationship with Dax (the Brady claim).

         The district court first denied relief on the Brady claim. In doing so, it determined that the claim was procedurally defaulted because Eaton failed to present it in state court. And because the district court found there was no reasonable likelihood that Dax's testimony affected either the verdict or the sentence, it ruled that Eaton couldn't satisfy the cause-and-prejudice exception to the procedural-default rule.[5]

         Next, the district court addressed the guilt-phase IAC claim. The district court initially noted that in advancing this claim, Eaton relied heavily on new evidence of his incompetence to stand trial-i.e., evidence of incompetence that Eaton never presented to the WSC. And the district court further noted that the WSC "addressed the merits of" the guilt-phase IAC claim in Eaton's direct appeal. App. vol. 13, 909. Thus, the district court refused to consider Eaton's new evidence in evaluating whether Eaton could satisfy § 2254(d).[6] And in light of the evidence that Eaton did present to the WSC, the district court concluded that the WSC's decision rejecting the guilt-phase IAC claim wasn't "contrary to clearly established federal law, did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, and was not based on an unreasonable determination of the facts" then before the WSC. App. vol. 13, 911; see also § 2254(d). Thus, the district court denied Eaton relief on the guilt-phase IAC claim.

         The district court then turned to the sentencing-phase IAC claim. The district court agreed with Eaton that the WSC's rejection of the sentencing-phase IAC claim was "based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence" that was before the WSC when it adjudicated this claim, thus satisfying § 2254(d)(2). App. vol. 13, 902. More specifically, the district court concluded that Eaton's appellate counsel had insufficient time in which to prepare for the Calene remand hearing, and thus Eaton lacked "an adequate opportunity to present [the sentencing-phase IAC claim] before the state courts." Id. at 901. And it reasoned that because it was "arbitrary and unreasonable for the state courts to acknowledge the critical importance of [the] facts supporting" the sentencing-phase IAC claim "while simultaneously denying [Eaton] the necessary means of discovering" those same facts, Eaton could satisfy § 2254(d)(2). Id.

         Accordingly, the district court ruled that in determining whether Eaton was entitled to habeas relief on the sentencing-phase IAC claim, it could consider new mitigation evidence-i.e., mitigation evidence that Eaton never presented to the WSC but instead presented for the first time during the federal habeas proceedings.[7] And in light of Eaton's new mitigation evidence, the district court concluded that trial counsel was indeed ineffective at sentencing because (1) trial counsel's "preparation for the penalty phase of [Eaton's] trial" was deficient; and (2) there was a reasonable probability that, but for trial counsel's deficient performance, the jury would have spared Eaton's life. App. vol. 18, 713.

         Finally, the district court addressed the appeal-phase IAC claim and reasoned that Eaton's new mitigation evidence compelled the same conclusion.[8] That is, the district court determined that (1) appellate counsel performed deficiently during the Calene remand and on appeal by failing to discover and present in state court the mitigation evidence that trial counsel should have discovered and presented to the jury, and (2) appellate counsel's deficient performance prejudiced Eaton.

         As a result of its rulings on the sentencing-phase and appeal-phase IAC claims, the district court vacated Eaton's death sentence on November 20, 2014. But in doing so, it issued a conditional writ: it gave the state 120 days in which to pursue "a new sentencing proceeding" if it opted to do so. Id. at 963; see also Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770, 775 (1987) (noting that in addition to ordering petitioner's immediate release, "federal courts may delay the release of a successful habeas petitioner in order to provide the [s]tate an opportunity to correct the constitutional violation found by the court"). The district court also ordered the state to "promptly appoint[] experienced death[-]penalty counsel . . . to represent [Eaton] in any further [state-court] proceedings." App. vol. 18, 964. Finally, the district court ruled that if the state decided "not to grant [Eaton] a new sentencing proceeding," Eaton would automatically receive "a sentence of life without parole."[9] Id.

         Eaton then filed a motion to amend the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). In that motion, Eaton asked the district court to make its conditional writ an unconditional one. In other words, Eaton asked the district court to "modify its judgment to prohibit" the state from "attempt[ing] to resentence [him] to death." Id. at 967. In support, Eaton argued that the underlying Sixth Amendment violation- i.e., trial counsel's ineffective assistance during the sentencing phase-could not "be cured by" a new sentencing proceeding "in light of the number of mitigation witnesses who have died or otherwise become unavailable since [Eaton's] original trial." Id.

         The district court denied Eaton's Rule 59(e) motion. In doing so, it pointed out that Eaton could present any "issues associated with a resentencing," including his arguments about "the availability of mitigation witnesses," to Wyoming's state courts. Id. at 1824. More specifically, the district court reasoned that "under the notion of 'comity, '" such issues would be "best resolved by the state[-]court system if" the state indeed opted to pursue resentencing. Id. at 1825 (quoting Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44 (1971)).

         Eaton filed a notice of appeal on March 16, 2015. On April 6, 2015, the district court granted him a certificate of appealability (COA). See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(A). In relevant part, that COA granted Eaton permission to appeal the district court's orders (1) rejecting the guilt-phase IAC claim; (2) rejecting the Brady claim; and (3) denying Eaton's Rule 59(e) motion. Notably, in granting Eaton a COA to appeal its ruling on the Brady claim, the district court narrowed the scope of that COA to the question of whether the state's alleged act of "withholding information about its relationship with" Dax "was material to the question of punishment." App. vol. 18, 2125. In other words, the district court granted Eaton a COA to appeal its resolution of the Brady claim, but only to the extent that claim arises from the sentencing phase of Eaton's trial; the district court did not authorize Eaton to appeal its resolution of the Brady claim to the extent that claim arises from the guilt phase of Eaton's trial.

         We docketed Eaton's initial appeal as Appeal No. 15-8013. But before we could set a briefing schedule for that appeal, the conditional writ's 120-day deadline expired. As a result, we directed a limited remand to the district court "to determine whether the [state] ha[d] complied with the terms of [the district court's] conditional grant of habeas relief and, if not, whether the result of that noncompliance [was] the waiver of [the state's] right to hold a new death[-]penalty proceeding." Id. at 2144.

         On remand, the district court determined that the state had indeed failed to comply with the terms of the conditional writ. But the district court nevertheless ruled that the state's noncompliance didn't result in a waiver of its ability to pursue new death-penalty proceedings. Notably, in reaching that conclusion, the district court relied in part on the fact that Eaton himself had filed with the state trial court a notice in which he argued that, in light of the ongoing proceedings in federal court, it would be "premature . . . to initiate any further state[-]court proceedings." App. vol. 19, 27.

         Eaton then filed a new notice of appeal in which he challenged the district court's order on remand. We separately docketed that appeal as Appeal No. 16-8086 and then consolidated Eaton's appeals for procedural purposes.

         Analysis

         In these consolidated appeals, Eaton advances four general arguments. He asserts that (1) the district court erred in denying relief on the guilt-phase IAC claim; (2) the district court abused its discretion in denying his Rule 59(e) motion; (3) the district court abused its discretion in ruling that the state may conduct new death-penalty proceedings despite its failure to comply with the terms of the conditional writ; and (4) the district court erred in denying relief on the Brady claim. We address each of these arguments in turn.

         I. The Guilt-Phase IAC Claim

         At the heart of the guilt-phase IAC claim is Eaton's assertion that he was incompetent to stand trial. And in attempting to demonstrate as much in district court, Eaton relied on new evidence. That is, he relied on evidence of his incompetence that he never presented to the WSC.

         The district court refused to consider this new evidence as it related to this particular claim, ruling the court was instead "limited to" the state-court record. App. vol. 13, 909. According to Eaton, this was error. He asserts that nothing "prevented the district court from considering" his new evidence in evaluating the guilt-phase IAC claim.[10] Aplt. Br. 90. The state disagrees. It maintains that in determining whether Eaton is entitled to relief on the guilt-phase IAC claim, "the district court correctly limited its . . . review to" the state-court record. Aplee. Br. 81.

         Because our resolution of these arguments turns on the applicable standard of review, we begin our discussion there. To the extent the district court denied relief on the guilt-phase IAC claim, no one disputes that we review its decision de novo. That is, we afford no deference to the district court's legal analysis. See Bonney v. Wilson, 817 F.3d 703, 711 (10th Cir. 2016). But we must also determine the quantum of deference that we owe-and that the district court owed-to the WSC's analysis of this claim. For its part, the state argues that the WSC's adjudication of Eaton's claim is "subject to the highly deferential standards of" § 2254(d). Aplee. Br. 78. Eaton, on the other hand, insists that the WSC's decision is entitled to no such deference.

         The parties' disagreement on this point stems from the language of § 2254(d) itself. In relevant part, that language allows a federal habeas court to grant relief to a state prisoner "with respect to a[] claim that" a state court has already "adjudicated on the merits"-but only under the narrowest of circumstances. § 2254(d). Specifically, a federal habeas court cannot grant relief on such a claim unless the state court's decision (1) "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established [f]ederal law" or (2) "was based on an unreasonable ...


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