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Landers v. Warden

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 23, 2015

CHRISTOPHER TAFT LANDERS, Petitioner - Appellant,

Page 1289

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. D.C. Docket No. 5:10-cv-00755-SLB.


For Christopher Taft Landers, Petitioner - Appellant: Elmer Jacob Watson, Watson Graffeo, PC, Huntsville, AL.

Christopher Taft Landers, Petitioner - Appellant, Pro se, Harvest, AL.

For Warden, Attorney General, State of Alabama, Respondent - Appellees: Kristi Oggs Wilkerson, Andrew Lynn Brasher, Luther J. Strange III, Alabama Attorney General's Office, Montgomery, AL.

Before HULL, MARCUS and DUBINA, Circuit Judges.


Page 1290

MARCUS, Circuit Judge.

Petitioner Christopher Taft Landers, an Alabama inmate, appeals from a district court order denying his habeas petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. Landers challenges the adequacy of the state court's fact-finding procedure on collateral review: he claims that the Alabama court's finding that he did not receive ineffective assistance of counsel -- a finding the court made on the basis of dueling affidavits, without an evidentiary hearing, pursuant to Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure -- was " an unreasonable determination of the facts" under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) (2014). He also says that the federal district court was wrong to deny his petition and his request for an evidentiary hearing to further develop the factual basis of his claims. We disagree. Petitioner cannot show that, when measured through the deferential lens of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (" AEDPA" ), the state court's fact-finding methods in this case were so deficient as to render its factual determinations unreasonable. Having determined that the state court did not run afoul of § 2254(d)(2), the district court properly denied petitioner's request for an evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, we affirm.



On June 25, 2007, Christopher Landers pleaded guilty in Alabama's Morgan County Circuit Court to two counts of first-degree sodomy, one count of first-degree sexual abuse, and one count of enticing a child to enter a vehicle or house for immoral purposes. The trial court sentenced Landers to concurrent terms of eighteen years for the sodomy convictions and ten years each for the sexual abuse and child enticement convictions.

Landers timely filed a petition pro se seeking post-conviction relief pursuant to Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure, alleging that his trial counsel, John Mays, misrepresented to him that Alabama's " 85% rule" [1] would not apply to his sentence and he would, therefore, be eligible for parole within six years if he took the plea deal the government had offered. (In fact, Landers would not be considered for parole until at least the year 2021, after he had served fifteen years of his eighteen-year sentence.) Landers claimed that counsel's misstatement (1) rendered his guilty plea involuntary, and (2) constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. He asked the trial court to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea, release him on bond, or hold an evidentiary hearing.

Landers included two brief affidavits with his petition: one from his mother, Mary G. Long, and one from his step-father, Hillard Long, who each stated that they were present at two meetings when Mays represented that Landers would be eligible for parole in six years if he took the plea deal. They also said that at these meetings, Landers told Mays that he would accept the plea only if Mays was sure that he would be eligible for parole in six years. The State filed a response refuting Landers's claims and attached an affidavit from counsel Mays in which he stated, among other things, that he told

Page 1291

Landers a minimum of twenty times that a first-degree sodomy conviction was subject to the 85% rule. Mays's affidavit was appreciably longer and more detailed than either of the affidavits submitted by Landers.

The state habeas court denied Landers's Rule 32 petition without holding an evidentiary hearing. Based on the pleadings and affidavits, the court found " as a matter of fact that [Mays] correctly advised [Landers] regarding the minimum amount of time [he] would have to serve," and, therefore, that Mays's conduct did not constitute ineffective assistance. The court observed that it could resolve the disputed factual issues based upon the affidavits the parties had submitted where (1) petitioner's claims " are fully set out in a sworn petition and are supported by a sworn affidavit," and (2) the State's response is supported by a sworn affidavit. In doing so, the court cited Rule 32.9(a) of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure, which reads, in part:

Unless the court dismisses the [Rule 32] petition, the petitioner shall be entitled to an evidentiary hearing to determine disputed issues of material fact, with the right to subpoena material witnesses on his behalf. The court in its discretion may take evidence by affidavits, written interrogatories, or depositions, in lieu of an evidentiary hearing, in which event the presence of the petitioner is not required, or the court may take some evidence by such means and other evidence in an evidentiary hearing.

Ala. R. Crim. P. 32.9(a) (2014).

Landers, still pro se, filed a Motion to Reconsider and Retract the habeas court's order and again requested an evidentiary hearing. In his motion, Landers indicated that he " had no idea" the court would rule solely on the basis of the affidavits, and that if he had known, he would have submitted an affidavit from a second attorney, Christy Miller, to support his claims with circumstantial evidence. Attached to his motion, Landers submitted an affidavit in which he stated that Miller had visited him in June and July 2007 and had informed him that Mays had told her that Landers would be eligible for parole after only five years. Landers stated that, if he had been granted an evidentiary hearing, he would have subpoenaed Miller to testify about her conversation with Mays, and that he had not sought an affidavit from her initially because he did not think the court would rule on the affidavits alone.

In response to Landers's motion, on June 6, 2008, the state habeas court vacated its prior order and granted Landers thirty days to file an affidavit from Miller. The court deferred ruling on Landers's request for an evidentiary hearing until the court received the affidavit. Twenty-six days later, Landers filed a response again requesting an evidentiary hearing so he could subpoena Miller to testify and subpoena jail records showing the dates of Miller's and Mays's visits. He also recounted his efforts to have Miller submit an affidavit, explained that she had not ...

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