United States District Court, S.D. Georgia
LISA GODBEY WOOD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
capital prisoner James Allyson Lee petitions for habeas
corpus. The petition is due to be DENIED for
the following reasons.
Underlying Crime and Conviction
Lee and an accomplice broke into a gun store in Toombs
County[, Georgia] on May 25, 1994, and stole several guns,
including a ten millimeter Glock pistol. Lee and his
girlfriend then drove to Pierce County[, Georgia] planning to
kill Lee's father and steal his Chevrolet Silverado
pickup truck. After learning that his father was not home but
that his father's live-in girlfriend, Sharon Chancey, was
there, Lee had his girlfriend lure Chancey from the home in
the early morning hours of May 26 by claiming that Lee was
stranded nearby in his girlfriend's broken down Toyota
automobile. When Chancey pulled up to the Toyota in the
Silverado and got out, Lee shot her in the face and threw her
in the back of the Silverado. After driving the Silverado to
a secluded area in Charlton County, [Georgia, ] he dragged
Chancey into the woods, removed two rings from her fingers,
and shot her two more times when she grabbed his arm. After
replacing the Silverado's license plate with the license
plate from the Toyota, Lee and his girlfriend drove the
Silverado to Florida. While traveling in the Silverado with
two male friends at about 11:30 that night, Lee was stopped
by law enforcement for a broken taillight.
Hall v. Lee, 684 S.E.2d 868, 871-72 (Ga. 2009).
"[W]hen Lee was stopped . . ., he placed a cocked,
loaded gun that he had stolen in his companion's lap and
told the companion to get out and 'shoot the cop'
while he 'cover[ed]' the companion with another
stolen, loaded gun." Id. at 881. The companion
did not do so.
[Lee] was arrested after a check revealed that the Silverado
was stolen. The police recovered from the Silverado
Chancey's purse and identification and the Glock pistol,
which later was determined to be the murder weapon. Lee made
several incriminating statements to police, including
videotaped statements at the scenes of the shootings
describing how the crimes occurred.
Id. at 872. Lee "was on probation at the time
of the crimes for two counts of burglary and for theft by
taking for stealing a truck . . . ." Id. at
"months after the crimes while awaiting trial, Lee,
acting alone, escaped from jail, stole a vehicle, and fled to
Florida . . . ." Id. at 880-81. When he was
recaptured, Lee "made several threatening statements to
police, including that he still wanted to kill his father and
that, if he were ever given the opportunity, he swore that he
would kill the detective and the [Georgia Bureau of
Investigation] agent assigned to his case." Id.
convicted Lee of malice murder, armed robbery, and possession
of a firearm during the commission of a crime on June 4,
1997. Lee v. State, 514 S.E.2d 1, 2
(Ga. 1999); see also Dkt. No. 11-14 at 46:22-25, 53.
Lee was sentenced to death on June 6, 1997. Hall v.
Lee, 684 S.E.2d at 871; see also Dkt. No. 12-3
at 85:10, 94. Lee moved for a new trial on July 3, 1997, and
amended that motion on February 19, 1998. Lee v.
State, 514 S.E.2d at 3 n.1. The motion was denied on
April 15, 1998. Id. Lee's conviction was
unanimously upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court on direct
appeal. See generally id. The U.S. Supreme Court
denied Lee's petition for a writ of certiorari on
November 15, 1999, and denied rehearing on January 24, 2000.
Lee v. Georgia, 528 U.S. 1006 (1999), reh'q
den'd 528 U.S. 1145 (2000).
filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior
Court of Butts County on August 4, 2000. Dkt. No. 20-16 at 2.
He amended it on April 16, 2001. Id.; The Superior
Court held an evidentiary hearing on August 17, 2001.
Id. It granted Lee's petition on March 12, 2009.
See generally id. The Georgia Supreme Court
unanimously reversed on November 2, 2009. Hall v.
Lee, 684 S.E.2d 868.
filed his federal habeas petition on February 5, 2010. Dkt.
No. 1. He amended it on September 16, 2010. Dkt. No. 29. Lee
filed his merits brief on March 16, 2015. Dkt. No. 80. The
State filed its response in opposition on July 28, 2015. Dkt.
No. 87. Lee replied on October 13, 2015. Dkt. No. 90. He
filed a supplemental brief on October 22, 2015. Dkt. No. 92.
The petition is now ripe for disposition.
Lee's federal petition was filed after April 24, 1996,
this case is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"). Payne v.
Allen, 539 F.3d 1297, 1312 (11th Cir. 2008). Under
AEDPA, state courts' determination of factual issues are
"presumed to be correct" unless the petitioner
rebuts them "by clear and convincing evidence." 28
U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
legal determinations can only be rejected if they
"resulted in a decision that . . . involved an
unreasonable application of [ ] clearly established Federal
law, as. determined by the Supreme Court of the United
States" or "was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented
in the State court proceeding." Id. § 2254
(d) . The first prong is only satisfied if the state court
"unreasonably applies [the governing legal] principle to
the facts of the prisoner's case." Williams v.
Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000). "[A]n
unreasonable application of federal law is different
from an incorrect application of federal law."
Id. at 410. "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." Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quotation marks and
deference does not apply to claims that the state habeas
courts do not reach-these are reviewed de novo. Cone v.
Bell, 556 U.S. 449, 472 (2009).
petition must be denied. Lee alleges five errors: (1)
ineffective assistance of counsel; (2) improper jury
instructions; (3) a violation of Brady v. Maryland,
373 U.S. 83 (1963); (4) trial-court errors; and (5)
violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by
imposition of the death sentence in this case. Dkt. Nos. 29,
44. This Court finds no basis for granting habeas
LEE'S INEFFECTIVE-ASSISTANCE CLAIMS FAIL.
unsuccessfully raises three issues with the representation he
received at trial and on direct appeal: failure to
investigate into and adequately present mitigating evidence,
failure to object to biblical references in the State's
closing argument, and various other shortcomings.
ineffective-assistance claim cannot succeed unless the
petitioner shows both (1) that his attorney's performance
was objectively unreasonable, by a preponderance of the
evidence, and (2) a reasonable probability that the outcome
of his proceeding would have been different but for that
deficient performance. Chandler v. United States,
218 F.3d 1305, 1312-13 (11th Cir. 2000) (en banc). The
objective reasonableness of an attorney's performance is
gauged by "prevailing professional norms."
Strickland v. Washington, 4 66 U.S. 668, 688 (1984)
. This inquiry is commonsensical and holistic, as "[n]o
particular set of detailed rules for counsel's conduct
can satisfactorily take account of the variety of
circumstances faced by defense counsel or the range of
legitimate decisions regarding how best to represent a
criminal defendant." Id. at 688-89. It is also
"highly deferential, " with a "strong
presumption" of reasonableness. Id. at 689.
Performance is only unreasonable if "no competent
counsel would have taken the action" at issue.
Chandler, 218 F.3d at 1315.
prejudice, the petitioner again bears a high burden.
Sullivan v. DeLoach, 459 F.3d 1097, 1109 (11th Cir.
2006) . "It is not enough ... to show that the errors
had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the
proceeding." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 693.
Rather, the petitioner has to show "that the decision
reached would reasonably likely have been different absent
the [counsel's] errors." Id. at 696. Under
these standards and AEDPA deference, each of Lee's
Lee's Mitigating-Evidence Contention Fails.
unsuccessfully argues that his trial counsel did not
adequately research and present mitigating evidence. An
application for a writ of habeas corpus will not be granted
unless the adjudication of the claim involved an unreasonable
application of clearly established federal law or 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) (1)-(2). The Georgia Supreme Court addressed
this issue on its merits. Hall v. Lee, 684 S.E.2d
868, 876 (Ga. 2009). This Court can only reject that
Court's decision if it was so unreasonable an application
of a U.S. Supreme Court holding that no fairminded jurist
could agree with it. Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d
1335, 1347 (11th Cir. 2011); see also Bobby v.
Dixon, 565 U.S. 23, 32-33 (2011) (per curiam);
Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007).
the decision was within the wide realm of reasonability. The
Georgia Supreme Court permissibly sidestepped the question of
performance, holding that Lee had not shown prejudice.
Hall v. Lee, 684 S.E.2d at 876; see also
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697 ("If it is easier to
dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of
sufficient prejudice . . ., that course should be
followed."). It correctly identified the standard as
being whether, but for counsel's errors, there was a
reasonable probability that the" sentencer
"'would have concluded that the balance of
aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant
death.'" Lee, 684 S.E.2d at 876 (quoting
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695). It further noted its
duty to "reweigh the evidence in aggravation against the
totality of available mitigating evidence." Id.
at 876-77 (quoting Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510,
534 (2003)). It used the right framework.
apply those standards, the Court began by observing that
Lee's trial counsel presented mitigating evidence that
Lee's childhood was characterized by "instability,
poverty, violence, abandonment, and alcohol and drug
use." Hall v. Lee, 684 S.E.2d at 877. Some of
the evidence mentioned neglect and abuse. Id. at
877-78. There was also expert evidence that Lee had attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), which made
him "impulsive, " "overly active, " and
less able to "regulat[e] and control" his emotions
and behavior. Id. at 878-79. That condition
"was aggravated by [Lee's] feelings of anger,
frustration, resentment, and abandonment" toward his
father. Id. at 879. The expert testified that Lee
could thrive in a structured environment, such as a prison.
Id. at 878.
Court then assessed the aggravating evidence. The State had a
strong case against Lee, given his "incriminating
statements to his companions and to the police."
Id. at 880. The jury specifically found statutory
aggravators: "Lee committed the murder while engaged in
the commission of armed robbery and kidnapping with bodily
injury"; "he committed the murder for himself or
another for the purpose of receiving money or any other thing
of monetary value"; and "the offense of murder was
outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that
it involved an aggravated battery to the victim before
death." Id. at 880 n.7. There was also serious
non-statutory aggravating evidence. Most disturbingly, when
Lee was stopped after the murder, he gave his companion a
stolen gun and "told the companion to get out and
'shoot the cop' while [Lee] 'cover[ed]'"
him "with another stolen, loaded gun." Id.
at 881. At the time of the crime, Lee was on probation for
two burglary counts and stealing a truck. Id. at
880. Before trial, Lee "escaped from jail, stole a
vehicle, and fled to Florida, " then threatened to kill
his father and law-enforcement officials working his case.
Id. at 880-81. Once, Lee "had violated his
probation and had stolen a car and viciously beaten a man
because he 'wanted to see blood, a lot of
Georgia Supreme Court reweighed the trial evidence together
with the habeas evidence. Seeking habeas, Lee had brought
forward an affiant testifying that Lee's mother would
regularly physically assault him, evidence of four instances
where she did so, evidence of her drug-related dysfunction,
evidence that this impacted his development by causing him to
behave like a dog, and more specific evidence of his
childhood poverty. Id. at 879-80. Lee also
supplemented his mental-health evidence with a new diagnosis
of post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), based
on his childhood. Id. at 881. Still, the Court
held that there was "no reasonable probability that Lee
would have received a different sentence.''
Id. at 881; see also id. at 882.
Court cannot find that this holding was so unreasonable an
application of U.S. Supreme Court precedent that no
fairminded jurist could agree with it. The relevant U.S.
Supreme Court precedent establishes only general rules, like
the need to deny relief unless there is a reasonable
probability that the sentence would have turned out
differently and the need to reweigh all of the trial and
habeas evidence. This means state courts must use "a
substantial element of judgment." Yarborough v.
Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004). AEDPA respects this
by affording them even "more leeway" than usual.
Id.; see also Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556
U.S. 111, 123 (2009) (deeming ineffective-assistance claim
"doubly deferential"). What is more, this
Court's focus is not on the Georgia Supreme Court's
opinion-it is on "whether the decision
. . . was an unreasonable application" of U.S. Supreme
Court holdings. Bishop v. Warden, GDCP, 726 F.3d
1243, 1255 (11th Cir. 2013); see also Gissendaner v.
Seaboldt, 735 F.3d 1311, 1329 (11th Cir. 2013)
("AEDPA focuses on the result . . ., not on the
reasoning that led to that result, and nothing in the statute
requires a state court to accompany its decision with any
explanation, let alone an adequate one." (quotation
marks and citation omitted)); cf. Wright v. Sec'y for
Dep't of Corr., 278 F.3d 1245, 1255 (11th Cir. 2002)
("Requiring state courts to put forward rationales for
their decisions so that federal courts can examine their
thinking smacks of a 'grading papers' approach that
is outmoded in the post-AEDPA era." (citation omitted)).
Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit holdings favoring
petitioners do not unambiguously foreclose the decision at
which the Georgia Supreme Court arrived. Each was either
followed by that Court or is distinguishable:
The Court in fact applied Strickland's test.
Hall v. Lee, 684 S.E.2d at 872-73 & n.1, 876-77.
Sears v. Upton, 561 U.S. 945 (2010) (per curiam),
was not an AEDPA case. See Wilson v. Warden, Ga.
Diagnostic Prison, 834 F.3d 1227, 1243-44 (11th Cir.
2016) (Jordan, J., dissenting), cert, granted, 137
S.Ct. 1203 (2017). It is also distinguishable because the
trial mitigation evidence there was entirely different from,
and contradicted by, the habeas evidence. There,
"[c]ounsel's mitigation theory . . . was calculated
to portray the adverse impact of [the petitioner's]
execution on his family and loved ones." Sears,
561 U.S. at 947. In particular, counsel "presented
evidence describing [the petitioner's] childhood as
stable, loving, and essentially without incident."
Id. The jury never heard that the petitioner's
parents were physically and verbally abusive, they divorced
when he was young, a cousin sexually abused him, and his
brother-a convicted drug abuser and dealer-introduced him to
a criminal lifestyle. Id. at 948, 950. Nor was it
told about the petitioner's severe cognitive defects,
which "appear[ed] to be [caused by] significant frontal
lobe brain damage" and teenage substance abuse.
Id. at 945-4 6.
by contrast, the mitigation evidence at trial was both of the
same species as and compatible with what was uncovered in
greater detail during the state habeas proceedings: trial
counsel readily told the jury that Lee's upbringing was
unstable. See Dkt. No. 12-3 at 33:23-34:7 ("We
brought in his mother. The mother, when [Lee] was born, was a
19-year-old welfare mother. She had her own problems, she
had a lot of them. She attempted to raise [Lee] the best
way she could. I think she tried and failed when it
came to giving him a nurturing, enriching home. She failed to
give him any kind of discipline or any kind of structure at
an early age, but she tried the best she could, and I'm
not here to belittle his mama, but it wasn't the most
ideal environment . . . ." (emphases added)).
AEDPA deference did not apply to the prejudice analysis in
Johnson v. Secretary, Department of Corrections, 643
F.3d 907, 930 (11th Cir. 2011). That case is further
distinguishable for reasons like those presented by
Sears. The Eleventh Circuit found prejudice despite
more than de minimis mitigating evidence, but it did so in
light of contradictions between the trial and habeas
evidence-not just the lack of detail present here. Trial
counsel there brought forward evidence that the
petitioner's parents were "cold and uncaring,
something in. the nature of the 'American Gothic'
couple." Id. at 936. In fact, they were raging
alcoholics-so much so that the petitioner was put into an
orphanage when his father went on a three-month drinking
binge in another state, the petitioner's mother attacked
his father with a butcher's knife, and the petitioner was
singled out for particularly severe beatings. Id. at
936-37. The jury never heard anything about the
petitioner's mother's repeated suicide attempts-one
of them discovered by the petitioner when he was a child.
Id. It did not know anything about how the
petitioner later found his mother, dead of an overdose,
clutching a photograph of his dead brother, who died of an
overdose. Id. at 937. The jury also heard that the
petitioner's grandparents '"were caring and
nurturing people, " whereas habeas evidence showed them
to have inflicted horrifying physical, emotional, and
psychological abuse on the petitioner. Id. Here, by
contrast, the jury heard that Lee's mother was addicted
to drugs, and that parental domestic violence, abuse, and
neglect were present in Lee's childhood. It was only
deprived of some (undeniably disturbing) details.
Porter v. McCollum, 558 U.S. 30 (2009) (per curiam),
can be distinguished as featuring only de minimis mitigating
evidence at trial. The jury there "heard almost nothing
that would humanize [the petitioner] or allow them to
accurately gauge his moral culpability, " although he
was a war hero who struggled to readjust to life at home,
with childhood abuse and a brain abnormality. Id. at
41. Besides, Porter lacked the sort of aggravating
evidence present here, including Lee's attempt to have a
police officer shot, death threats against law enforcement,
and escape from jail.
Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374 (2005), did not
apply AEDPA to the question of prejudice. Id. at
390. It is also distinguishable because the jury there heard
only minimal mitigating evidence: "[F]ive of [the
petitioner's] family members argued in effect for
residual doubt, and beseeched the jury for mercy, saying they
believed [the petitioner] was innocent and a good man."
Id. at 378. Left unpresented was the
petitioner's extensive history of childhood physical
abuse, which included being regularly beaten and "locked
. . . in a small wire mesh dog pen that was filthy and
excrement filled." Id. at 392. There was also
no hint of the petitioner's diagnosis of organic brain
Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), did not
apply AEDPA deference to the issue of prejudice because the
state supreme court unreasonably applied the law in rejecting
what it called "undue 'emphasis on mere outcome
determination.'" Id. at 397 (emphasis
omitted); see also Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S.
170, 202 (2011) (distinguishing Williams). Besides,
Williams featured minimal mitigation: the jury heard
that the petitioner was "a 'nice boy' and not a
violent person, " and that in a robbery, "he had
removed the bullets from a gun so as not to injure
anyone." Id. at 369. But the petitioner had
been so severely abandoned as a child that his parents were
imprisoned for criminal neglect, he had been placed in an
abusive foster home, he had a borderline intellectual
disability, and he was a model prisoner. Id. at 396.
Ferrell v. Hall, 640 F.3d 1199 (11th Cir. 2011), did
not apply AEDPA to prejudice. Id. at 1226. It is
also distinguishable because the evidence the counsel
presented in mitigation was de minimis. The jury there heard
five of the petitioner's family members testify for a
total of 26 minutes that they did not believe he was guilty,
he deserved mercy, and he "had committed himself to
Christ before the murders." Id. at 1206. The
counsel there failed to discover that the petitioner suffered
from extensive mental health problems and diseases including
organic brain damage to the frontal lobe, bipolar disorder,
and temporal lobe epilepsy. Id. at 1203. They also
failed to discover that the petitioner had attempted suicide
as a child, that his conduct was not entirely volitional, or
that his father physically abused him. Id.
Neither the jury nor the sentencing judge was ever told,
because defense counsel never discovered that [the
petitioner] suffer[ed] from extensive, disabling mental
health problems and diseases including organic brain damage
to the frontal lobe, bipolar disorder, and temporal lobe
epilepsy. Nor did they learn that the defendant had attempted
suicide at age eleven, or that because of these mental health
issues, [he] exhibit[ed] increased impulsivity and decreased
sound judgment; that his conduct was not entirely volitional;
or that his judgment and mental flexibility were
significantly impaired by organic brain damage. Nor, finally
were they ever told that [his] father was physically abusive
to his children, especially to [the petitioner], waking them
in the middle of the night to beat them (sometimes after
stripping them naked) with razor strops, fan belts, and old
used belts; that the family was repeatedly evicted from their
homes and hungry, and lived in fear of those to whom the
father owed gambling debts; or that [the petitioner's]
mother suffered from clinical depression, suicidal ideations,
rage blackouts, and urges to physically injure her children.
Id. at 1203.
Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003), is
distinguishable because of de minimis trial evidence, too.
The petitioner's jury knew only that he "had no
prior convictions." Id. at 537. He had suffered
physical abuse, poverty, sexual molestation, several rapes,
and homelessness. Id. at 535. Additionally, unlike