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Jackson v. Smith

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 30, 2018

MICHELLE SMITH, Warden, MCF-OAK Park Heights, Defendant.

          Ronnie J. Jackson, III, pro se plaintiff.

          Donald F. Ryan, OFFICE OF THE CROW WING COUNTY ATTORNEY, and Edwin W. Stockmeyer, III, and Matthew Frank, OFFICE OF THE MINNESOTA ATTORNEY GENERAL, for defendant.



         Plaintiff Ronnie Jackson brought this petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in state custody. Jackson is serving time for a conviction of first-degree arson in Minnesota state court. In support of his petition, Jackson states four grounds: (1) the state denied him due process by committing a Brady violation; (2) the state denied him due process by using factually inconsistent theories to obtain a guilty verdict; (3) ineffective assistance of trial counsel; and (4) ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. Jackson has also filed a Renewed Motion for Discovery and a request for a Certificate of Appealability (“COA”). The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that the Court deny Jackson's petition, motion, and request. Because the Court will find that Jackson's due process claims are procedurally defaulted and his ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim was not exhausted at the state level, the Court will overrule Jackson's objections and adopt the Magistrate Judge's R&R. The Court will thus deny Jackson's Petition, his Renewed Motion for Discovery, and his request for a COA.


         Jackson is a prisoner detained at Minnesota Correctional Facility - Oak Park Heights. (Pet. at 1, June 29, 2017, Docket No. 1.) He was convicted of first-degree arson on November 29, 2012, in Minnesota state court and sentenced to 115 months. (Id.) See also State v. Jackson (“Direct Appeal”), 2014 WL 902667, at *2 (Minn.Ct.App. Mar. 10, 2014).


         In the early hours of June 21, 2011, police officers responded to a call about a fire at a house in Brainerd where Jackson's girlfriend, J.S., lived. Id. at *1. The house was owned by J.S.'s mother, and Jackson had been staying there off and on since he and J.S. began their relationship. Id.

         The night before, Jackson had gotten into an argument with J.S. while at her mother's other house in Barrows. Id. After the argument, Jackson went to the Brainerd house and packed some of his belongings. Id. He then returned to the Barrows house where he woke J.S. up by punching her in the face. Id. When J.S.'s mother called 911, he said, “I can burn both your houses down.” Id. He also told a friend that if he really wanted to he could burn both the houses down. Id.

         A police sergeant responded to J.S.'s mother's 911 call at the Barrows house and directed officers to begin looking for Jackson. Id. One officer noticed Jackson's car outside a trailer at the Lazy Acres trailer park and spoke to a woman, D.P., at the trailer. Id. She told the officer that Jackson was not there, but her gray Hyundai Sonata was missing. Id. At that moment, the officer received a call about the fire at the Brainerd house and responded. Id. After responding to the fire, he returned to D.P.'s trailer because she wanted to report that her car was stolen. Id. D.P. told the officer that Jackson and her daughter, Nancy Portz, had arrived at her house just after the officer left to respond to the fire call. Id. Portz was driving D.P.'s car when they arrived, but a few minutes later Portz and Jackson left in Jackson's car. Id.

         Officers investigating the fire spoke with an employee at a gas station who said that a customer matching Jackson's description bought a gasoline can, a lighter, and five dollars' worth of gasoline earlier that morning. Id. at *2. The employee described the car that Jackson had gotten out of, and the description matched D.P.'s car. Id. That same morning, officers stopped Jackson driving his car. Id. Portz was with him. Id. They found a lighter and J.S.'s purse in the car, as well as a Visa gift card whose numbers matched the Visa card used to buy the items at the gas station. Id. Officers also found a gas can along the route between the Brainerd home and D.P.'s trailer.

         While Jackson first denied knowing anything about the fire, he gave a statement the next day that admitted his participation. Id. He said that he and Portz bought the gasoline, that he handed the can to Portz, that he told Portz where J.S. lived, and that Portz put gloves on and ran to the house while Jackson waited in the car. Id. He said: “When I . . . next time I look up, dude, it was whoosh.” Id. He said that he did not know where Portz poured the gas, but “[s]omewhere along the porch it was set.” Id. While Jackson claimed that he did not think Portz would “do it, ” he admitted to “egging her on.” Id. Two people were in the house when it was set on fire, including Jackson's roommate, and Jackson admitted that he knew one of them was there. Id.


         Jackson and Portz were both charged with first-degree arson in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.561, subd. 1. (March 18, 2016 Order Denying Postconviction Relief (“State Ct. Postconviction”) at 2, Aug. 12, 2017, Docket No. 11-13.) Portz ultimately entered an Alford plea to a lesser felony charge of providing after-the-fact aid to an offender who committed arson under Minn. Stat. § 609.495, subd. 3. (Id.) Portz agreed that the state had evidence indicating that Jackson had started the fire. (Id.) Jackson maintained his not guilty plea, and the state provided notice that it would seek an aggravated sentence on the grounds that the victims of the arson were “particularly vulnerable” because they were asleep inside the house when the fire was started. (Id. at 3.) The state also filed an amended complaint in Jackson's case; while the initial complaint only charged him as a direct actor under Minn. Stat. § 609.561, subd. 1, the amended complaint added an alternative charge as a person criminally liable for the act of another under Minn. Stat. § 609.05, subds. 1-2. (Id.) Jackson's attorney might not have actually advised him that the amended complaint had been filed, but he advised him on numerous occasions that the state could ask the jury to convict him of arson on a theory of aiding and abetting Portz. (Id.) He also discussed a plea agreement offered to Jackson and the possibility that the state would seek an aggravated sentence. (Id. at 4) Jackson was insistent that he would not accept any offer that required him to serve prison time. (Id.)

         The case proceeded to a jury trial, and the jury found Jackson guilty of first-degree arson. (Id.) Portz did not testify at his trial. (Id. at 11.) Jackson did not testify and did not call any witnesses. Direct Appeal, 2014 WL 902667, at *2. However, his statement to investigators in which he acknowledged participation in the crime with Portz was admitted. Jackson v. State (“Postconviction Appeal”), 2017 WL 1164503, *1 (Minn.Ct.App. Mar. 27, 2017), review denied (June 20, 2017).


         Jackson appealed his conviction in state court on the following grounds: (1) the evidence was insufficient to convict him; (2) the district court erred 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 Jackson's sleeping roommate was a “particularly vulnerable” victim; and (5) the district court erred in failing to properly instruct the sentencing jury. Direct Appeal, 2014 WL 902667, at *1. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed Jackson's conviction, holding that the evidence was sufficient to convict him and that no reversible error occurred. Id. The Minnesota Supreme Court denied review. (Apr. 29, 2014 Order Denying Review, Aug. 12, 2017, Docket. No. 11-8.)


         Jackson also sought postconviction relief in state court. (State Ct. Postconviction at 1.) He alleged that the state failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, improperly presented inconsistent theories of liability at trial, and presented false evidence. (Id. at 5-8.) He also alleged ineffective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel. (Id. at 8-17.) The court denied his petition, finding that the majority of Jackson's claims were barred by State v. Knaffla, 243 N.W.2d 737, 741 (Minn. 1976), which limits the claims that can be considered for postconviction relief.[1] (Id. at 5-6, 8, 12, 15, 17.) The court also found that Jackson's trial and appellate counsels' representations did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness. (Id. at 16.) The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court denied review. Postconviction Appeal, 2017 WL 1164503, at *1.

         V. PETITION FOR RELIEF UNDER 28 U.S.C. § 2254

         Jackson filed the present petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on June 29, 2017. (Pet. at 1.) He seeks relief on four grounds: (1) the state violated due process under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), by withholding the factual basis of his codefendant's plea; (2) the state violated due process by using factually inconsistent theories to obtain a guilty verdict; (3) trial counsel was ineffective because he did not advise Jackson to accept the state's plea offer; and (4) appellate counsel was ineffective because he lacked the necessary information to provide Jackson with a meaningful review and/or failed to provide Jackson with the necessary documents ...

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