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Yates v. Sinclair

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

February 7, 2014

ROBERT LEE YATES, JR., Petitioner,


RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, District Judge.


This matter comes before the Court on Petitioner Robert Lee Yates, Jr.'s Motion for Stay and Abeyance pursuant to Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269, 276 (2005). Dkt. # 18. In this capital habeas corpus action, Mr. Yates seeks to stay the Court's consideration of his First Amended Petition so that he may exhaust two claims that have yet to be considered by a Washington state court. Respondent opposes a full stay and asks the Court consider the claims that have been exhausted while staying consideration of the two unexhausted claims. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Stay and Abeyance shall be granted in its entirety and this matter shall be stayed pending resolution of Mr. Yates' state court proceedings.


Petitioner Yates is a prisoner held in the Intensive Management Unit of the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, Washington. Yates' incarceration derives from two cases: State v. Yates , Spokane County Cause No. 00-1-01153-0 ("Spokane County case") and State v. Yates , Pierce County Cause No. 00-1-03253-8 ("Pierce County case").

In the Spokane County case, Yates pleaded guilty to thirteen counts of First Degree Murder and one count of Attempted First Degree Murder on October 13, 2000. See Dkt. # 11 (First Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, hereafter referred to as Dkt. # 11), ¶ II.A.4. The court sentenced Yates to a 408 year prison term for those crimes. See id. at ¶ II.A.5. In July of 2012, Yates filed a personal restraint petition ("PRP") challenging his convictions in the Spokane County case. See id. at ¶ II.A.6; In re Personal Restraint of Yates, Washington Supreme Court No. 875189. Petitioner states that the Washington Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling although the PRP has been fully briefed. See Dkt. # 11, ¶ II.A.6.

In the Pierce County case, Yates was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder in October 2002. See id. at ¶ II.B.4. After a sentencing hearing, the jury returned a sentence of death. On October 9, 2002, Yates was formally sentenced to death in Pierce County Superior Court. See id. Yates then filed a direct appeal and a PRP in the Washington Supreme Court. See id. at ¶¶ II.B.5-II.B.6; see also State v. Yates, 161 Wash.2d 714 (2007) and In re Yates, 177 Wash.2d 1 (2013). All of Yates' claims for relief were rejected by the Washington Supreme Court, and on April 3, 2013, Yates filed a Notice of Intent to file a Habeas Corpus Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in this Court.

Yates filed a preliminary pleading entitled Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus; Motion to Appoint Counsel; Unopposed Request for Stay of Execution on May 10, 2013. See Dkt. # 1. Then, on January 21, 2014, Yates filed the First Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus wherein he raised two claims that have yet to be resolved in the Washington state courts.

As to these unexhausted claims, Claim One alleges that Yates' Pierce County case trial counsel were ineffective for failing to file a motion for improper venue pursuant to CrR 5.1, CrR 5.2(a), or Washington Constitution Article I, § 22. It also alleges that post-conviction counsel were ineffective by failing to raise the ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim. Yates filed additional evidence in the form of declarations to support this new claim. In addition, he recently filed a PRP in the Washington Supreme Court. See Dkt. # 11, ¶ II.C.3. The Washington Supreme Court has assigned cause number 89792-1 to the new PRP. Dkt. # 18, p. 3 n.2.

Claim Three raises a legal claim challenging the guilty pleas in the Spokane County case. See Dkt. # 11, ¶¶ IV.C.1-IV.C.8. Claim Three alleges that the guilty pleas and judgment in the Spokane County case were unconstitutional and therefore the jury in the Pierce County case should not have considered them during the penalty phase. As noted above, Yates raised the constitutional challenge to the Spokane guilty pleas and judgment in a June 2012 PRP that the Washington Supreme Court has yet to rule upon.


A. Legal Standard

A federal court may not grant habeas corpus relief on a claim that has not been exhausted in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b). The federal habeas statutes codify the longstanding common law rule that a state prisoner must "fairly present" to the state courts the substance of the federal claim. Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275 (1971). The doctrine of exhaustion derives from the policy of federal-state comity and gives state courts the first occasion to correct any constitutional violations. See id. at 275-76.

A mixed petition is one that contains both exhausted and unexhausted claims. "When faced with a petition that contains unexhausted claims, a district court has four options: (1) stay the petition pending the outcome of state proceedings; (2) allow the petitioner to delete the unexhausted claims and proceed on the exhausted claims; (3) dismiss the petition without prejudice as unexhausted; or (4) deny the unexhausted claims on the merits under 28 U.S.C. 2254(b)(2)."[1] Baker v. Ricci, CIV. 09-3654 KM, 2013 WL 4833415, at * 11 (D.N.J. Sept. 9, 2013) (citing Rhines, 544 U.S. at 277-78).

If a federal habeas petitioner requests a stay and abeyance to bring the unexhausted claims in state court, the district court may stay the mixed petition if three conditions have been met. Stay and abeyance is appropriate where (1) the petitioner has shown "good cause" for his failure to exhaust; (2) the unexhausted claims are not "plainly meritless"; and (3) the petitioner has not engaged in dilatory or abusive litigation practices. See Rhines, 544 U.S. at 277-78. "In such circumstances, the district court should stay, rather than dismiss the mixed petition." Id. at 278. This is because "the petitioner's interest in obtaining federal review of his claims outweighs the competing interests in finality and speedy resolution of federal petitions." Id.

B. Analysis

Claim One

Yates' contends that his newly raised ineffective assistance of trial and post-conviction counsel claim satisfies Rhines ' "good cause" for failure to exhaust standard pursuant to two recent Supreme Court cases- Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309 (2012) and Trevino v. Thaler, 133 S.Ct. 1911 (2013).

In Rhines, the Supreme Court did not offer detailed explanation of what constitutes good cause to warrant a stay of a mixed petition. And although Martinez did not expound upon Rhines, it addressed a related, albeit distinct issue: when a habeas petitioner demonstrates cause and prejudice to excuse a procedural bar. " Martinez announced an exception to the longstanding Coleman rule that ineffective assistance of PCR counsel cannot establish cause to overcome procedural default." Dickens v. Ryan, 08-99017, 2014 WL 241871, at * 12 (9th Cir. Jan. 23, 2014) (en banc). The Supreme Court held that where state law requires that an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim must be raised at the initialreview collateral proceeding, and post-conviction counsel fails to raise the claim at that proceeding, there is cause for the federal habeas court to review the procedurally defaulted claim. Id. at 1320.

The Supreme Court revisited and subtly extended Martinez in Trevino. Trevino differed from Martinez in that the state law governing the procedural bar did not categorically require that an ineffective assistance claim be raised at the initial-review proceeding. 133 S.Ct. at 1918. In Trevino, however, the state's post-conviction procedures severely limited appellate counsel's ability to raise the claim on direct review. Id. at 1921. The Court held that such a scenario also demonstrated cause for the federal habeas court to review the procedurally defaulted claim. Id.

When faced with certain unexhausted claims for ineffective assistance of counsel, district courts have read Martinez to inform the Rhines good cause standard. See, e.g., Byford v. Baker, Case No. 11-cv-00112-JCM-WGC, 2013 WL 431340, at * 5 (D. Nev. Feb. 1, 2013) (concluding-after considering Martinez -that post-conviction counsel's failure to raise an ineffective assistance of trial counsel claim during initial-review collateral proceedings "may establish cause for failure to exhaust that claim"). For example in Byford, like here, the petitioner raised an unexhausted claim for ineffective assistance in his federal habeas petition. Id. at * 3. The petitioner alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present mitigating evidence during his penalty-phase trial and that his habeas counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the ineffective assistance of counsel claims in his first state court habeas action. Id. Because, under Nevada law, a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel must be raised in a first state habeas action, the Byford court concluded that the petitioner demonstrated good cause for failing to exhaust his ineffective assistance claims, which were likely procedurally defaulted. See id. at * 5. The court then granted the motion for stay and abeyance to allow petitioner to exhaust his claims in Nevada state court.[2]

While making no determination that Yates' ineffective assistance claims are procedurally defaulted, the Court concludes that Claim One would be properly before the Court under Martinez and Trevino, and that there is good cause to stay the federal habeas petition so that the Washington Supreme Court "gets the first crack at new claims while preserving the [petitioner's] ability to file a federal habeas petition if relief is denied." Dickens 2014 WL 241871 at * 20 (Callahan, J. dissenting) (citing with approval the stay procedure adopted in Trevino ).

Although the Court has determined that Yates has shown good cause for failing to exhaust Claim One, Rhines also requires that unexhausted claims must not be "plainly meritless." 544 U.S. at 277-78. Yates contends that he "has presented a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial." Dkt. # 18, p. 9. The First Amended Petition alleges that the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney refused to accept the plea arrangement suggested by the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney and instead sought the death penalty against Yates. See Dkt. # 11, ¶¶ IV.A.3 and IV.B.3-IV.B.10. It further alleges that there is reasonable doubt as to whether the murders prosecuted in Pierce County actually occurred in Pierce County. See id. at ¶¶ IV.A.5.-IV.A.8.; see also RP 7469 (prosecutor's concession that Ms. Mercer was likely murdered before her body entered Pierce County).

Yates' trial attorneys stated that they hoped to identify a strategy that would limit the discretion of the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney, but that they failed to consider bringing a motion for improper venue under CrR 5.1, CrR 5.2(a), or Washington Constitution Article I, § 22, which require that criminal actions be brought in the county where the crime was alleged to have been committed. See Dkt. # 14, Hunko Decl., ¶¶ 4-5, 8; see also Dkt. # 13 and 19, Hugh Decl., ¶ 3. Further, Yates' expert, Mr. Iaria, opines that Mr. Yates' trial counsel "abandoned a vital legal issue" and that this error constituted a violation of the American Bar Association's Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases (Rev. ed. 2003). Dkt. # 15, Iaria Decl., ¶¶ 36-39. Given the evidence and allegations presented, and the absence of argument to the contrary by Respondent, the Court does not find Claim One to be plainly without merit.

In addition, the evidence does not support Respondent's argument that Yates could have brought this claim earlier. Yates has filed several declarations from trial counsel and post-conviction counsel that show that they did not consider the issue. See generally Dkt. ## 12-14, 16-17, 19. Yates' newly appointed federal habeas counsel states that he first identified the claim in September of 2013. Dkt. # 23, p. 6. Once identified, counsel filed the First Amended Petition by the deadline set by the Court as well as a new PRP before the Washington Supreme Court. See Dkt. # 11, ¶¶ IV.A.1-IV.C.3. There is no indication that Yates acted dilatory or abusive in bringing his new claim. Thus, as Claim One satisfies the Rhines test, a stay and abeyance is warranted.

Claim Three

Claim Three also warrants application of a stay. The claim alleges that the Spokane County convictions are constitutionally invalid such that use of the convictions by the Pierce County Prosecutor to obtain a death sentence was improper. As discussed above, Yates is currently challenging the constitutionality of his Spokane County convictions before the Washington Supreme Court. In Johnson v. Mississippi, 486 U.S. 578 (1988), the Supreme Court held that where a death sentence was predicated in part on a prior conviction that was later vacated, the death sentence must also be vacated if the sentencing jury considered evidence that was "revealed to be materially inaccurate." Id. 589-90. Here, if the Washington Supreme Court finds the Spokane County convictions unconstitutional, Yates contends that he "will most likely file a successor PRP based on that new' evidence" in the Pierce County case. Dkt. # 23, p. 5. Should the successor PRP be unsuccessful, Yates will then ask this Court to apply Johnson to vacate the Pierce County death sentence. Id. Thus, until the state Supreme Court addresses the merits of Yates' constitutional challenge, this Court's consideration of Claim Three would be premature.

Yates filed the unexhausted claims to preserve his right to federal habeas review before expiration of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996's one-year statute of limitations. Full exhaustion of Yates' habeas claims will serve to "reduce[] piecemeal litigation... [and] as a result the [Court] will be more likely to review all of [Yates]'claims in a single proceeding, thus providing for a more focused and thorough review." Rose v. Lundy, 455 U.S. 509, 520 (1982). Accordingly, Yates' Motion for Stay and Abeyance is GRANTED.


Having considered the Motion, the Response and Reply thereto, and the balance of the record, the Court hereby finds and ORDERS:

(1) Petitioner's Motion for Stay and Abeyance (Dkt. # 18) is GRANTED;
(2) This action is STAYED so that Petitioner may exhaust, in state court, the unexhausted claims of the First Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus;
(3) Following the conclusion of Petitioner's state court proceedings, Petitioner shall, within thirty (30) days, bring a motion to lift the stay.

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