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Mejia v. Nooth

United States District Court, D. Oregon

May 21, 2014

MARK NOOTH, Superintendent, Snake River Correctional Institution, Respondent.

Thomas J. Hester, Assistant Federal Defender, Portland, OR, Attorney for Petitioner.

Ellen F. Rosenblum, Attorney General, Andrew Hallman, Assistant Attorney General Department of Justice, Salem, OR, Attorneys for Respondent.


GARR M. KING, District Judge.

Petitioner Leopoldo Hernandez Mejia, an inmate in the custody of the Oregon Department of Corrections, brings this action, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254, seeking a writ of habeas corpus. For the reasons set forth below, I deny the petition.


On June 9, 2006, a jury unanimously convicted petitioner of Murder, Attempted Aggravated Murder, Robbery in the Third Degree, Assault in the Fourth Degree, and Unlawful Possession of a Firearm. He received a total sentence of 361 months' imprisonment.

Petitioner, who had been drinking the day of the charged events, July 9, 1992, began arguing with his girlfriend, Terri Batson, [1] outside the Nordic Motel room where the two were living. When Batson challenged him, saying she was going to call his boss and tell him petitioner had been drinking, petitioner grabbed Batson's purse which held his boss' phone number. The two fought over the purse, moving the fight into an adjacent motel room from which Kristina Tautfest[2] and Robert Strobel successfully ejected them. Back in their own motel room, the strap broke off Batson's purse and petitioner began striking Batson with the strap. Batson's friend and another motel occupant, Tammy Jennings, intervened. She punched and kicked petitioner and was able to topple him to the motel room floor.

At that point, Stroebel pulled Jennings off of petitioner. Both Jennings and Tautfest were standing in the motel room doorway, with Stroebel inside the room, when petitioner, in one smooth motion, rose from the ground, pulled a.22 caliber semi-automatic firearm from his right pocket, racked the slide on top of it to send a round into the chamber, and shot twice. The first shot lodged in the room's wall. The second shot hit Jennings in the face and she fell backward. Tautfest took off running. Stroebel saw petitioner step over Jennings' body and fire two shots at Taufest; one shot was never found, and the other one hit and broke the overhead motel light.

Petitioner left the scene on foot and eventually made his way to Mexico. He was brought back to Oregon for trial after agents discovered him crossing the border back into the United States in February 2005.

The Court appointed two attorneys to represent petitioner on May 20, 2005. About eight months later, on January 19, 2006, defense counsel, petitioner, and the government appeared before Judge Linda Bergman at defense counsel's request to address representation issues. Petitioner complained, "Well, a lot of time's passing and I don't really see that they're helping me much." Tr. 3-4.[3] Judge Bergman explained that murder cases take time to prepare for trial. Petitioner then remarked, "Well, also they're not really explaining clearly to me what's going on with my case. And I would really like to know how my case is going because I just don't understand." Tr. at 4. When Judge Bergman explained more time would pass if she appointed new counsel, petitioner said that was "okay" and that "I just need somebody who helps me more." Tr. at 5. Petitioner wanted more time to ask them about his case and what they were working on. Defense counsel proposed to spend a week in February with petitioner, and announced a settlement conference with Judge McShane was scheduled for February 15. Judge Bergman denied petitioner's request for new counsel.

On March 1, 2006, petitioner appeared before Judge LaBarre on a motion for substitution of attorney. Defense counsel represented that they made themselves available-that they "were at the jail for as long as was necessary." Tr. 12. They had attended a settlement conference on February 15 with Judge McShane. Defense counsel reported to Judge LaBarre:

Judge McShane saw that this request was going to be renewed by Mr. Mejia and asked me to impart to you the following. That given the current situation, settlement negotiations are not going to be very fruitful, and he added that a change of lawyer would not aid that in any way.

Tr. 13. Petitioner then explained to Judge LaBarre, "I'm seeing that my lawyers aren't really helping me." Tr. 13. When asked why, he explained he had asked for a copy of his file and had not been provided with it. He also complained they gave him conflicting advice, which made him "think they're not really doing very good work, and - and it makes me think I need another lawyer because it seems like they're telling me lies." Tr. 14. When Judge LaBarre asked for a specific example, petitioner said every time he talks with his lawyers the amount of imprisonment time is higher. Judge LaBarre explained the State has to make an offer to settle the case and confirmed with petitioner that Judge McShane was helping him. Judge LaBarre then said,

Okay. Let me just clarify something. Obviously, this is a difficult situation for everybody. It's hard for Mr. Mejia. Sometimes an attorney strenuously urges that the attorney or attorneys be relieved as counsel.
Frankly, I'm not sensing that now. I'm sensing that we have a lot of confusion. Certainly not easy to be a criminal defense attorney and to be on the receiving end of unspecified allegations, and it's a hard job. I admire counsel on both sides, particularly defense counsel.

Tr. 16.

After determining that petitioner faced approximately 30 years in prison, Judge LaBarre explained petitioner "can't just toss lawyers aside unless there is a basis, a reason in the law. Your lawyers are very good lawyers. You have not put forth a reason for me to fire those lawyers." Tr. 20. He denied the motion to substitute counsel. After the ruling, petitioner asked, "So if we can't understand each other and get along, then how can I keep going with them?... We just don't understand each other." Tr. 21. Judge LaBarre told petitioner to "try harder" and work with Judge McShane. Tr. 21.

On June 5, 2006, petitioner appeared for trial. He again reported a problem with his lawyers and stated he had not requested a trial. Judge LaBarre referenced a letter he had received from petitioner dated April 19, 2006 complaining about only one of his defense counsel, Stephen Williams. Petitioner confirmed he was asking for new counsel "[j]ust because we haven't reached any agreement every time we talk, they always have an excuse." Tr. 26. Petitioner then handed Judge LaBarre a copy of a complaint he had filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon against Williams. Williams explained that petitioner had also filed a notice of tort claim against him, dated May 24, 2006. The other defense counsel, Christopher Howard, speculated that he also would have been included as a defendant in the civil action and named in the tort notice, except that petitioner could not remember his name.

After some back-and-forth with counsel, Judge LaBarre said, "But you don't believe there's an impairment on your ability to go forward as defense counsel on this case and at trial. Am I hearing that right?" Tr. 37-38. Howard answered:

I'm not so sure you are, Judge. There's a comfort level here that we have - or discomfort level which I think we're beginning to reach, given these notices. Disagreements between ourselves and Mr. Mejia over strategy and things like that comes with the territory, and I'm always prepared to proceed, ...

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