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Stewart v. Norris

March 5, 2007



I. Background

Petitioner Alexander Stewart was convicted of rape after a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Pulaski County, Arkansas and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. At the time of the rape, Petitioner was serving five years' probation after pleading guilty to a charge of sexual abuse in the first degree. After the jury trial on the rape charge, the Circuit Court held a probation revocation hearing and found that Petitioner had violated the conditions of his probation by committing the offense of rape. The Circuit Court sentenced petitioner to five years in prison for violating the conditions of his probation. The Arkansas Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the probation revocation. Stewart v. State, 88 Ark. App. 110, 114 (2004). The Arkansas Supreme Court denied review by per curiam order on December 16, 2004. In this habeas corpus action brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Petitioner claims that he was denied his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights because there was not sufficient evidence produced at trial to support the state court rape conviction or at the probation revocation hearing to support the revocation of his probation.

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 Insufficient Evidence Claims

In assessing a habeas petition claiming insufficient evidence to support a state court conviction, the scope of federal review is extremely limited. Sera v. Norris, 400 F.3d 538, 543 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Whitehead v. Dormire, 340 F.3d 532, 536 (8th Cir. 2003)). It is not relevant whether this Court believes that evidence produced at trial establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. Instead, the Court must determine "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19, 99 S.Ct. 2781 (1979).

III. Analysis of ...

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