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Ridling v. Norris

February 21, 2007



I. Background

Petitioner Danny J. Ridling was convicted of rape after a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Pulaski County, Arkansas, based on his having engaged in sexual intercourse with a child under the age of fourteen. Petitioner admitted to having had sex with the girl, but contended that she was fourteen at the time they first had sex.*fn1 The Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the conviction on appeal. Ridling v. State, 348 Ark. 213, 72 S.W.3d 466 (2002).

After his conviction was affirmed on direct appeal, Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief under Rule 37 of the Arkansas Rules of Criminal Procedure ("Rule 37 Petition"). The trial court denied the Rule 37 Petition without a hearing, and Petitioner appealed to the Supreme Court of Arkansas. In that appeal, Petitioner claimed, among other alleged errors,*fn2 that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance at trial. First, he contended that his lawyer was ineffective for advising him not to accept a plea offer; second, he assigned error to his lawyer's "disparaging" comments about him in closing argument; third, he faulted his lawyer for failing to object to two jurors who slept during the trial; and fourth, he contended that his lawyer should have called witnesses to testify that he did not live around the public park where the underage victim testified that she first met Petitioner until after the victim was fourteen years old. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's denial of the Rule 37 Petition in an unpublished opinion.

In this habeas corpus action, Petitioner claims that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to effective trial counsel because his lawyer: (1) failed to advise him adequately of the risks involved with opting not to accept a plea offer; (2) failed to call "alibi" witnesses; (3) made disparaging remarks about Petitioner in closing argument; and (4) failed to object to sleeping jurors. Each of these grounds was raised in Petitioner's Rule 37 Petition to the state trial court and again in his appeal of the denial of the Rule 37 Petition to the Supreme Court of Arkansas.

II. Standard of Review:

A. Limited Federal Review of Claims Adjudicated in State Court

"When a claim has been adjudicated on the merits in state court, habeas relief is warranted only if the state court proceeding resulted in (1) a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, or (2) a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." Bucklew v. Luebbers, 436 F.3d 1010, 1015 (8th cir. 2006) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2)); see also Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 380, 125 S.Ct. 2456, 2462 (2005).

A state court decision is "contrary to" federal law if the state court "arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the United States Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the United States Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13, 120 S.Ct. 1495 (2000).

A decision is "an unreasonable application" of federal law "if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the United States Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Williams, 529 U.S. at 413.

Under § 2254(d)(1)'s "unreasonable application" clause, then, a federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.

Siers v. Weber, 259 F.3d 969, 973 (8th Cir. 2001) (citing Williams, supra). See also, Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5, 124 S.Ct. 1, 4 (2003) (holding that where a state court's application of federal law is challenged, that application "must be shown to be not only erroneous but objectively unreasonable.") "In other words, it is not enough for us to conclude that, in our independent judgment, we would have applied federal law differently from the state court; the state court's application must have been objectively unreasonable." Rousan v. Roper, 436 F.3d 951, 956 (8th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).

In addition, in a federal habeas proceeding, a state court's factual findings are entitled to a presumption of correctness, absent procedural error. Those findings may be set aside "only if they are not fairly supported by the record." Simmons v. Luebbers, 299 F.3d 929, 942 (8th Cir. 2002) (quoting Purkett v. Elem, 514 U.S. 765, 769, 115 S.Ct. 1769 (1995) and Middleton v. Roper, 455 F.3d 838, 845 (8th Cir. 2006)).

B. Limited Federal Review of Claims for Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel

The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the effective assistance of counsel at every stage of the proceeding. "That right is denied when a defense attorney's performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and thereby prejudices the defense." Yarborough, 540 U.S. at 5 (citing Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 521 (2003) and Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). Thus, in order to prevail on a habeas corpus claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must show: (1) that trial counsel's performance was so deficient that it fell below an objective standard of the customary skill and diligence displayed by a reasonably competent attorney; and (2) that there is a reasonable probability the outcome of the trial would have been different but for the substandard performance of trial counsel. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687-94. Furthermore, "[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance is highly deferential, indulging a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional judgment." Bucklew, 436 F.3d at 1016 (citing Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689); ...

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