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Sickels v. Craig

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

April 17, 2017

DAN CRAIG, Respondent.



         This case is before me on a Report and Recommendation (R&R) filed by the Honorable C.J. Williams, Chief United States Magistrate Judge, on February 24, 2017. Doc. No. 24. Judge Williams recommends that I deny the application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. No. 1) filed by John West Sickels (petitioner) on September 18, 2015. Petitioner filed timely objections (Doc. No. 25) to the R&R on March 10, 2017. In addition, petitioner filed a motion for a certificate of appealability (Doc. No. 26) on March 13, 2017.


         The R&R includes a detailed recitation of the relevant facts and procedural history. Doc. No. 24 at 1-10. To summarize, a jury found petitioner guilty of sexual abuse in the second degree, with the victim being L.S. On direct appeal, petitioner argued that insufficient evidence supported the jury's determination, the prosecutor's rebuttal argument deprived him of a fair trial, the Iowa District Court improperly excluded evidence, the prosecutor improperly cross-examined his character witnesses and the Iowa District Court improperly awarded restitution. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed petitioner's conviction. See State v. Sickels, No. 09-0897, 2010 Iowa App. LEXIS 1427, 2010 WL 4792316 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 24, 2010).

         Petitioner then sought post-conviction relief (PCR) in the Iowa District Court. He argued that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance because he: (1) failed to move for a separate trial from his co-defendant, (2) failed to investigate and argue the role of L.S.'s boyfriend, including his influence on L.S., (3) failed to object to the use of a prior bad act to impeach his character witnesses and (4) failed to argue properly that he should be allowed to present evidence of L.S.'s past sexual behavior. The Iowa District Court rejected all of these arguments. The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed. See Sickels v. State, No. 13-1848, 2015 Iowa App. LEXIS 279, 2015 WL 1331312 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 25, 2015).

         Petitioner then sought federal habeas corpus relief. He asserts the same four ineffective assistance of counsel claims that he asserted in the state PCR proceedings. Doc. No. 17. Respondent contends that the Iowa courts properly applied federal law when rejecting the petitioner's claims. Doc. No. 18. After the parties completed their briefing, Judge Williams filed the R&R. The petitioner now objects to all of Judge Williams' legal conclusions.


         The standard of review with regard to a magistrate judge R&R is established by statute:

Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)©; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2)-(3) (providing procedure to file written objections and making clear that, where a proper objection is made, the district judge must determine de novo a magistrate judge's recommendation on a dispositive motion). Thus, when a party objects to any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of the issue.

         Any portions of a R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that, when no objections are filed, “[the district judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”). “A finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review a R&R under a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:

Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party, under a de novo or any other standard.

Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).


         The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) strictly limits a federal court's power to review habeas corpus petitions brought by state-court prisoners. See White v. Kelley, 824 F.3d 753, 756 (8th Cir. 2016) (“‘In the interests of finality and federalism, federal habeas courts are constrained . . . to exercise only a limited and deferential review of underlying state court decisions.'” (quoting Sera v. Norris, 400 F.3d 538, 542 (8th Cir. 2005))); Abernathy v. Hobbs, 748 F.3d 813, 816 (8th Cir. 2014) (“AEDPA modified a federal habeas court's role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas retrials and to ensure state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.”); Taylor v. Roper, 561 F.3d 859, 862 (8th Cir. 2009) (explaining that only a limited and deferential review of underlying state court decisions is permitted when habeas corpus relief is sought); Lomholt v. Iowa, 327 F.3d 748, 751 (8th Cir. 2003) (noting review is limited and deferential). The AEDPA prohibits the grant of habeas corpus relief unless the state adjudication:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that 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).

         When considering § 2254(d) matters, the court is guided by well-established principles: (1) “an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law, ” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000)) (emphasis in original), see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 411 (emphasizing that a court “may not grant relief simply because it concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly, ” rather the application “must also be unreasonable”), Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007) (“The question under AEDPA is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.”), Cole v. Roper, 623 F.3d 1183, 1187 (8th Cir. 2010) (making clear that relief is available only if the state court decision is both incorrect and unreasonable); (2) “even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable, ” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102; (3) the purpose of § 2254(d) is to “‘guard against extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice systems, '” id. at 102-03 (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment)); and (4) the burden is on the petitioner to “show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing ...

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