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Jackson v. Smith

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 6, 2017

Ronnie Jerome Jackson, III, Petitioner,
v.
Michelle Smith, Warden, MCF-Oak Park Heights, Respondent.

          Ronnie Jerome Jackson, III, pro se Petitioner.

          Donald F. Ryan, Esq., Crow Wing County Attorney, counsel for Respondent.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          BECKY R. THORSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In 2012, Ronnie Jerome Jackson was convicted of first-degree arson and given an aggravated sentence of 115 months imprisonment. Jackson now petitions for relief from this sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (See Doc. No. 1, Habeas Pet.) Petitioner has also filed a renewed motion for discovery. (See Doc. No. 12.) For the reasons stated below, this Court recommends that the § 2254 petition and discovery motion be denied.

         I. Background

         A. Arson at a Residence in Brainerd, Minnesota

         On June 21, 2011, authorities questioned Petitioner about an early-morning fire at a residence in Brainerd, Minnesota. State v. Jackson, No. A13-0346, 2014 WL 902667, at **1-2 (Minn.Ct.App. Mar. 10, 2014). The home was owned by the mother of Petitioner's girlfriend. Id. at *1. Petitioner had been staying at the home from time to time along with his girlfriend and another housemate. Id. The housemate was in the house at the time of the fire, but not the girlfriend. See id.

         At first, Petitioner denied knowing anything about the fire. Id. at *2. The following day, however, Petitioner gave a statement to investigators, admitting his participation. Id. Petitioner said that he and a person named Nancy Portz bought gasoline from a Holiday station at around 3:29 a.m. on June 21, 2011. Id. Petitioner further stated:

[A]fter they parked behind the house, [Ms. Portz] ran to the house while Jackson waited in the car. Jackson stated, ‘When I . . . next time I look up, dude, it was whoosh.' When asked where Portz poured the gas, he said, ‘I don't know. I just know where I was parked at . . . . Somewhere along the porch it was set. I know that much because it . . . when I looked back up, all I seen was whoosh . . . .' Jackson also stated that, at some point after they drove away, Portz threw the gas can out of the window. Jackson insisted several times that he did not think that Portz would ‘do it, ' but he admitted to ‘egging her on.'

Id. Petitioner also admitted that he knew the housemate was in the house when the blaze was set. Id.

         B. Petitioner is Convicted of First-Degree Arson

         Petitioner and Ms. Portz were both charged with first-degree arson. (See Doc. No. 11-13, 3/18/16 Mem. Order Denying Postconviction Relief (“3/18/16 Mem. Order”) 1.) In August 2011, a plea hearing was held for Ms. Portz's case. (Id.) Ms. Portz pled guilty to a newly-added felony charge of providing after-the-fact aid to an offender who committed arson, and the first-degree arson charge was dropped. (Id.) In her plea, Portz agreed that the State had evidence indicating that Petitioner had started the fire, and that she had provided him aid relative to the offense. (Id.)

         Meanwhile, the case against Petitioner went forward. (Id. at 2.) A Sentencing Guidelines Worksheet indicated that if Petitioner was convicted, the presumed outcome was an executed prison sentence of 58 to 81 months. (Id.) In September 2011, however, the State provided notice that it intended to seek an aggravated sentence, on the grounds that the victims of the arson offense were “particularly vulnerable” since they were asleep in the home at the time the fire was started. (Id. (citing Minn. Stat. 244.10, Subd. 5a).)

         In April 2012, the State filed an amended complaint against Petitioner. (Id.) The amended complaint charged Petitioner as a direct actor, and alternatively, as a person criminally liable for the act of another, whereas the initial complaint charged Petitioner only as a direct actor. (Id.) Petitioner's attorney did not specifically advise Petitioner that the amended complaint had been filed. (Id.) However, Petitioner's attorney frequently advised Petitioner that in the trial, the State could ask the jury to convict Petitioner of arson on the theory that he had aided and abetted Ms. Portz in the commission of the crime. (Id. at 2-3.)

         For a lengthy period of time before trial, the State maintained an offer that would allow Petitioner to plead guilty to the arson charge and receive a 58-month executed prison sentence. (Id. at 3.) Counsel advised Petitioner about this offer, other possible offers, and the possibility that the State would seek an aggravated sentence if the case went to trial and Petitioner was convicted. (Id.) During all of these discussions, Petitioner continually insisted that he would not accept any plea offer that would require him to serve any prison time. (Id.)

         The case proceeded to a jury trial, and on May 1, 2012, the jury found Petitioner guilty of first-degree arson. (Id.) On May 2, 2012, a Blakely hearing[1] was held, and the jury responded “yes” to four special verdict form questions regarding aggravating factors. (Id.) After a contested sentencing hearing on November 29, 2012, the district court sentenced Petitioner to a 115 month term of imprisonment. (Id.)

         C. Petitioner's Direct Appeal

         In February 2013, Petitioner appealed his conviction, arguing: (1) the evidence was insufficient to convict him; (2) the district court committed plain error by failing to properly instruct the jury on accomplice liability; (3) the district court erred in permitting the State to reopen its case-in-chief; (4) the facts found by the jury were insufficient to prove that Petitioner's sleeping roommate was a “particularly vulnerable” victim; and (5) the district court committed plain error in failing to properly instruct the sentencing jury. (Id. at 3-4.) The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed ...


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