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Eggers v. State

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

December 5, 2017

MICHAEL WAYNE EGGERS, Petitioner - Appellant,
STATE OF ALABAMA, Respondent - Appellee.

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 2:13-cv-01460-LSC.

          Before HULL, MARCUS and WILSON, Circuit Judges.

          MARCUS, Circuit Judge

         At issue in this capital case is whether Michael Wayne Eggers, an Alabama death row inmate, is competent to waive his right to appeal from the denial of his § 2254 federal habeas petition, to discharge counsel and proceed with execution.

         Eggers admitted to having beaten and choked to death Bennie Francis Murray, his former employer, because she slapped him during an argument and because he felt betrayed by her refusal to help him fetch his disabled car from a remote location. On August 5, 2013, Eggers filed a pro se federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, challenging the validity of his convictions and sentence. Counsel was appointed to represent him. Throughout the § 2254 proceedings, Eggers disagreed with his counsel's litigation strategy, sought to have different counsel appointed, and asserted claims for habeas relief in his own voluminous pro se filings.

         After his counsel filed a notice of appeal from the district court's denial of his § 2254 petition, Eggers filed recurrent pro se requests to withdraw the appeal, discharge counsel and be executed. At counsel's request, the district court conducted a mental health hearing on Eggers's competency to waive his appeals, and this Court stayed the appeal in order to allow the district court to complete its inquiry. After taking extensive testimony from two psychologists and Eggers himself, in addition to examining voluminous documentary evidence bearing on Eggers's competency, the district court concluded that Eggers was mentally competent and had made a rational choice to forego further collateral review, dismiss his attorneys, and proceed to execution. Thus, it granted Eggers's application to withdraw his appeal from the denial of his § 2254 petition and discharge counsel.

         A second notice of appeal was then filed by his counsel challenging the district court's competency ruling too. In light of the petitioner's expressed choice to dismiss all appeals, discharge counsel and proceed with execution, we are obliged to address the ancillary issue of Eggers's competency before turning to the merits of this habeas appeal. To that end, we have obtained briefing from the State, Eggers himself and his counsel to resolve this threshold matter. After review of a lengthy record, we are satisfied that the district court engaged in a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the record and acted within its discretion in finding that the petitioner was competent to proceed as he saw fit and rationally chose to abandon his federal habeas appeal. We can discern no clear error in this determination and, thus, affirm the judgment of the district court and dismiss this appeal.



         In order to properly address the matter of competency, we briefly recount the essential factual and procedural history surrounding this case. The underlying facts were summarized by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals this way:

Bennie Francis Murray ("Francis") and her husband, Frank, owned and operated a concession business that traveled around the southeast with a carnival. Francis hired Eggers to work concessions; he traveled with the carnival until September 2000, when the carnival arrived in Jasper, [Alabama, ] where Eggers met a woman. When the carnival left Jasper, Eggers stayed behind and found a job, but apparently lost the job at some point and was unable to find another one. On December 26, 2000, Eggers telephoned Francis, who, along with her husband, lived in Talladega when they were not traveling with the carnival, and asked for a job. Francis explained that the carnival would not begin traveling again until mid-March and that the Murrays' "bunkhouse, " a trailer that had been converted into rooms for their employees, would not be available until mid-February. On December 28, 2000, Eggers telephoned Francis again. He told Francis that he and his 15-year-old son were at the bus station in Birmingham, and asked Francis to come pick them up. Francis picked up Eggers and his son and brought them back to Talladega, where she tried to help Eggers find a temporary job, but was unable to do so. On December 30, 2000, Eggers asked Francis to take him and his son back to Jasper; she agreed.
According to Eggers's statements to police, on their way to Jasper, Eggers asked Francis to take him to his car, which was outside Jasper; he had driven it off the road in inclement weather the week before Christmas and had gotten stuck in a ditch. Francis agreed and, after dropping off Eggers's son at Eggers's apartment in Jasper, Francis and Eggers left in search of Eggers's car. After driving for some time in a rural area of Walker County, Francis stopped her pickup truck on the side of the road and indicated that she was unwilling to go any further and was going to turn around. Eggers then asked her if she was "joining everyone else on the fuck Mike bandwagon." At that point, Eggers said, Francis "backhanded" him and he "let go . . . [and] just started hitting her." Eggers beat Francis with his fists until she was unconscious, at which point he pushed her as far against the driver's side door of the pickup truck as he could, and drove down a nearby dirt road. When Francis started to regain consciousness -- "[s]he was making noises and stuff like that" -- Eggers stopped the truck and pushed her out of the cab of the truck onto the road. Eggers got out of the truck and started cursing at Francis and kicked her several times in the head with the steel-toed boots he was wearing. Eggers then got back in the truck, drove toward the end of the road and turned around, but decided to stop where he had left Francis because he wanted to make sure she was dead and "wasn't going to stay out there suffering." When Eggers stopped, Francis was starting to regain consciousness so he kicked her again and choked her with his hands "to make sure she was dead." Eggers again said that he "didn't want to leave her out there suffering." Eggers then dragged Francis into nearby woods where she could not be seen from the road and, because he believed she was still alive at that point, he put a tree limb on her throat and stood on it in an effort to kill her. Eggers then took Francis's truck to a car wash and washed Francis's blood out of the cab of the truck. He also went through Francis's purse, which was in the truck, and found cash and a debit card. Eggers said that the killing was not premeditated, but was spontaneous.

[Eggers eventually was arrested in Florida and brought back to Alabama for criminal proceedings.]

Eggers v. State, 914 So.2d 883, 888-89 (Ala.Crim.App.2004) (citations omitted).

         Trial began in August 2002. Id. at 890. During trial, Eggers's counsel had him evaluated by a psychologist in an effort to establish that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Id. at 890, 912-13. Although Eggers pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, and although the jury was charged on the defense of insanity, Eggers did not argue, nor present evidence denying that he killed Francis or that he was insane at the time of the crime. Id. at 890. Rather, the petitioner claimed that he suffered from intermittent explosive disorder and personality disorder, that the initial attack on Francis was the result of blind rage precipitated because Francis slapped him and that the ensuing kidnapping and robbery were merely afterthoughts unrelated to the homicide. Id.

         The insanity defense failed and the jury convicted Eggers of two counts of capital murder. Id. at 888. The homicide was made capital because it was committed during the course of a kidnaping, see Ala. Code § 13A-5-40(a)(1) (1975), and because it was committed during the course of a robbery, see id. § 13A-5-40(a)(2). Eggers, 914 So.2d at 919-20. The jury recommended that the petitioner be sentenced to death by a vote of eleven to one. Id. at 920. The trial court accepted the jury's recommendation and sentenced Eggers to death. Id. at 921.

         Eggers appealed, through new appointed counsel; the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence. Eggers v. State, CR-02-0170, 2004 WL 2200853 (Ala.Crim.App.Oct. 1, 2004). After Eggers filed an application for rehearing, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals substituted its opinion with another on November 24, 2004, also affirming the conviction and sentence, and overruled a second application for rehearing. Eggers, 914 So.2d at 883. The Alabama Supreme Court initially granted Eggers's petition for a writ of certiorari, but later quashed the petition. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued its certificate of judgment on May 20, 2005. Eggers subsequently petitioned the United States Supreme Court twice for certiorari review -- a pro se petition and an attorney-authored one. Both applications were denied on January 17, 2006. Eggers v. Alabama, 546 U.S. 1140 (2006).


         On April 20, 2006, Eggers timely filed a pro se post-conviction petition pursuant to Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure in the Circuit Court of Walker County, Alabama. At the State's request, the court held a hearing to determine whether to appoint counsel to represent Eggers. Right from the outset, Eggers said that he wanted to proceed without appointed counsel; not surprisingly, the circuit court denied the State's motion to appoint a lawyer for him. Eggers amended his pro se petition five times, filing several procedural and discovery motions and writs of mandamus; in some of the filings, he claimed that his capital crime and conviction was, for one reason or another, the result of a conspiracy against him by the San Bernardino County, California, Sheriff's Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), and elements of organized crime. On October 4, 2010, the circuit court dismissed Eggers's Rule 32 petition, holding that Eggers's claims lacked merit, lacked specificity, or were procedurally defaulted.

         On appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals appointed counsel to represent Eggers. Some months later, counsel moved to withdraw, citing conflicts with Eggers. The petitioner likewise notified the state appellate court that he had "discharged" counsel, in part, because counsel would not sign his "attorney/client objective agreement" to litigate the appeal the way he wanted to proceed. When the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denied the motion to withdraw, Eggers's counsel filed a "no merits" brief, citing Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967). Eggers then filed a pleading raising 1, 581 "issues" with the circuit court decision. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Eggers's Rule 32 motion on April 20, 2012, writing that it had reviewed the entirety of Eggers's claims, along with the record, and concluded that the issues had no merit. On September 20, 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court denied his petition for writ of certiorari.


         On August 5, 2013, Eggers filed the instant pro se federal habeas petition, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, in district court and sought the appointment of counsel. The district court first requested that two known death-penalty litigation attorneys meet with Eggers about the possibility of representing him, but after the meeting, Eggers complained to the district court about their strategy and advice. A magistrate judge subsequently appointed attorneys from the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defender Program, Inc. to represent the petitioner.

         Eggers originally allowed his appointed counsel, John Palombi and Leslie Smith, to litigate his § 2254 petition. Despite many pro se filings from Eggers complaining about his counsel's litigation strategy, the district court refused to appoint new counsel, but permitted Eggers to file a pro se amended petition for habeas relief in addition to the petition submitted by counsel. Eggers's counsel asked the district court to conduct a competency hearing and declare Eggers incompetent to proceed. In support, they offered a psychological evaluation of Eggers from Dr. Ken Benedict, a psychologist who had met with the petitioner at Donaldson Correctional Facility on May 22 and 23, 2014, and August 28 and 29, 2014. The district court denied counsel's motion for a competency hearing on the ground that a hearing would only be required if a death penalty petitioner whose competency was in question sought to dismiss the entirety of his § 2254 petition. Because Eggers had filed pleadings suggesting that he did not want to abandon his federal habeas petition but rather only sought to proceed pro se or with different counsel, a competency hearing was not required.

         On November 25, 2015, the district court denied the counseled and pro se § 2254 petitions in their entirety. The district court fully addressed the claims contained in Eggers's counseled petition -- including that: (1) Eggers was mentally incompetent at trial and during the post-conviction proceedings, and the trial court deprived him of a constitutionally-mandated competency hearing; (2) appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance; (3) trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance in litigating his insanity defense at trial and his competence to stand trial, in investigating and litigating the claim that Eggers was mentally ill when he confessed, in investigating Eggers's mental illness in order to support a lesser included offense or to show that he lacked the intent to commit capital murder, and in preparing for the penalty phase of the trial; (4) the State withheld evidence concerning Eggers's 1987 arrest and commitment in a mental hospital; (5) the State caused mental health experts to present false testimony that Eggers was not insane; and (6) Eggers was denied counsel during a custodial interrogation.

         The district court also thoroughly considered Eggers's pro se claims that: (1) the State withheld evidence concerning Eggers's 1987 arrest and commitment in a mental hospital, and records from the FBI and San Bernardino Sheriff's Department; (2) his arrest and the admission of his confessions were unconstitutional because he was arrested pursuant to an illegal search and seizure and the three confessions he made to law enforcement were involuntary; (3) he was incompetent to stand trial; (4) the trial court erred in addressing his mental illness and incompetency; and (5) his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel on various other grounds. After explaining in detail that the state court had not issued a decision that was either contrary to or an unreasonable application of Supreme Court law, the district court denied Eggers's motions for discovery and an evidentiary hearing, and denied him a certificate of appealability.

         On December 22, 2015, Eggers filed in district court a pro se "Motion to Appoint Successor Counsel Who Shall Effectively Waive Future Appeals, " seeking leave to "move forward with his state sanctioned execution without any further undue delays." Soon thereafter, Eggers filed what he characterized as a pro se "Motion for a Final Order, " asking the district court to give him a copy of its final order so he could send it to the Alabama Supreme Court "to expedite [his] execution." Eggers also contemporaneously lodged a pro se "Waiver/Notification/ Motion to Expedite Execution" in the Alabama Supreme Court. The State responded that it had no objection to the waiver of any appeal.

         At that point, and on appointed counsel's motion, the district court agreed to conduct a competency hearing.


         After Eggers's counsel filed a notice of appeal from the denial of his underlying § 2254 petition, we stayed the appeal so that the district court could conduct a competency hearing. The district court held an extensive hearing, taking testimony from Dr. Ken Benedict, a psychologist retained by counsel; Dr. Glen King, a psychologist retained by the State; and from Eggers himself. The court also received in evidence, among other things, Eggers's extensive Alabama Department of Corrections ("ADOC") file, Dr. Benedict's psychological evaluation report dated October 17, 2014, and Dr. King's psychological evaluation report dated April 5, 2016.

         Dr. Benedict opined that Eggers suffered from schizophrenia, a psychotic spectrum disorder, and possibly from a delusional disorder, as well as a narcissistic personality disorder and a history of substance abuse. The district court allowed Eggers to personally question Dr. Benedict, and in that exchange, Eggers challenged many of the things Dr. Benedict had based his diagnosis on, denied that he was delusional, explained several of his legal filings, and detailed his complaints about prison and the courts. Eggers also explained that he was trying to establish that while he suffered from psychological problems at the time of the murder, he was no longer suffering from any of them, he was not delusional and fully understood the claims he sought to raise on federal habeas review.

         Dr. King, retained by the State, testified next. He opined that Eggers "does not have a serious mental illness or mental defect and that he certainly is able to proceed pro se. And he has a rational understanding of courtroom procedures, the issues in the courtroom, and that he has a rational and reasonable understanding of what it means to consult with counsel." Dr. King formally diagnosed Eggers with narcissistic personality disorder, and observed that the separate diagnoses of a psychiatrist and psychologist at the time of Eggers's trial in 2002 reached essentially the same diagnosis as he did. He explained that a narcissistic personality disorder "is not considered to be a serious mental illness, " and that it is not a psychotic disorder or a delusional disorder.

         Eggers then testified. The petitioner reiterated his views concerning his legal proceedings, explained his delusions at the time of trial, and detailed some of the problems he encountered in prison, and with lawyers and the court. He offered that if the district court would reopen his case and consider the arguments he had advanced in a pro se capacity -- not the arguments advanced by his counsel -- then he might want to continue with his case, but "if you are not going to do that, then there is no reason for me to even proceed pro se on appeal because you have ...

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