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Iromuanya v. Frakes

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

March 31, 2016

LUCKY I. IROMUANYA Petitioner,
v.
SCOTT FRAKES Respondent.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOSEPH F. BATAILLON SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This matter is before the court on Lucky Iromuanya's petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Filing No. 1. The action was briefed on the merits and submitted on the record. In 2004, a jury convicted Iromuanya in the District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska of Count I, attempted murder in the second degree, Count III, murder in the second degree, and Counts II and IV, using a weapon to commit a felony. See Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 28-201, 28-304, and 28-1205. Iromuanya's convictions were twice affirmed by the Nebraska Supreme Court.[1] Iromuanya is currently serving an aggregate prison term of 70 years to life.[2] After an extended and careful review of the record, the court finds no violation of Lucky Iromuanya's constitutional rights and thus denies his Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus.

I. Factual Background

a. Underlying Crimes

The parties do not dispute the trial court's factual findings. Facts relevant to Iromuanya's claims, as recounted in Iromuanya I & Iromuanya II[3], are as follows:

In the early morning hours of April 25, 2004, Lucky Iromuanya and a friend, Aroun Phaisan, attended a party at the shared residence of Jenna Cooper and Lindsey Ingram in Lincoln, Nebraska. Iromuanya I, 719 N.W.2d at 273. At some point after Iromuanya and Phaisan's arrival, a dispute arose over a missing collection of shot glasses that belonged to Cooper or Ingram. Id. at 274. After Cooper became aware of the missing shot glasses, she followed an unidentified individual outside and said she wanted the shot glasses returned. Id. Iromuanya and Phaisan were standing near the shot glass collection before it went missing. Id. Apparently Iromuanya and Phaisan were concerned they would be accused of the theft, so they left the residence. Id. Outside, Ingram observed Iromuanya and Phaisan leaving the house "very quickly" and she told the two men no one could leave until the items were returned. Id. Shortly thereafter, Nolan Jenkins exited the residence. Id. Jenkins grabbed and pushed Iromuanya, and inquired whether Iromuanya was responsible for the missing glasses. Id. After a brief scuffle between Jenkins and Iromuanya, several bystanders intervened and separated the two men. Id. During this intervention, Iromuanya punched Jenkins in the back of the head. Id.

After the physical altercation, Iromuanya became visibly agitated. Iromuanya I, 719 N.W.2d at 275. Several individuals, including Cooper, approached Iromuanya in an effort to calm him down, but their attempts were unsuccessful. Id. Iromuanya remained agitated and fixated on Jenkins. Id. Iromuanya eventually calmed down, but only briefly; after Cooper asked Iromuanya about the shot glasses, Iromuanya became upset again and denied taking them. Id. Approximately five minutes after the initial altercation, Jenkins walked back across the yard toward Iromuanya. Iromuanya I, 719 N.W.2d at 275. Jenkins walked at a normal pace and "some witnesses testified that [Jenkins'] hand was outstretched, as if he intended to shake hands with Iromuanya. Jenkins testified that [that] was his intent." Id. One witness "observed that Iromuanya appeared to become more upset as Jenkins approached . . . ." Id. Once Jenkins came within one step of Iromuanya, Iromuanya shoved Jenkins in the chest with both hands, knocking Jenkins backward. Id. Several individuals stepped-in between Jenkins and Iromuanya. Id. At that point, Iromuanya removed a handgun from his pants pocket, pointed the weapon at Jenkins, who was approximately five feet away, and fired one round. Iromuanya I, 719 N.W.2d at 276. "It was later determined that a single bullet entered Jenkins' left temple and exited above his left ear. The bullet then pierced Cooper's neck, causing her death." Id.

In 2004, a jury convicted Iromuanya in the District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska, of Count I, attempted murder in the second degree, Count III, murder in the second degree, and Counts II and IV, using a weapon to commit a felony. See Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 28-201, -304, and -1205.

b. Procedural History

i. Direct Appeal

The same counsel represented Iromuanya at trial and on direct appeal. Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d at 418. On direct appeal, Iromuanya made no claims regarding ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and he made only one assignment of error regarding jury instructions. Iromuanya I, 719 N.W.2d at 277. Iromuanya claimed the trial court erred in giving jury instruction No. 8, which pertained to the element of intent.[4] Id. Iromuanya did not argue that the instruction incorrectly stated the law, nor did he argue it violated his constitutional rights; instead, Iromuanya argued that the instruction was prejudicial because it impermissibly allowed the jury to infer his intent from the result of his actions. Id. at 287. The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected Iromuanya's argument and concluded the trial court did not err. Id. at 288. Iromuanya's direct appeal concluded when the Supreme Court of the United States denied his petition for writ of certiorari. Filing No. 12, United States Supreme Court Order Direct Appeal.

ii. Post-Conviction Appeal

After the conclusion of Iromuanya's direct appeal, he filed a petition for postconviction relief. New counsel represented Iromuanya during his postconviction proceedings. Filing No. 12-12, Order Appointing Counsel Other Than Public Defender.

The District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska, denied Iromuanya's petition for postconviction relief without an evidentiary hearing. Filing No. 12-12, Transcript Iromuanya II, at ECF pp.8-32. Iromuanya appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. See Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d 404 (Neb. 2011).

On appeal, Iromuanya argued that the district court erred by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing on all his claims pertaining to ineffective assistance of trial counsel and appellate counsel.[5] Id. at 418. Iromuanya argued that trial counsel "failed to provide objectively reasonable advice and representation in respect to plea negotiations" and that he "was not adequately informed of the status and substance of offers made by the prosecution . . . ." Filing No. 12-9, Brief of Appellant Iromuanya II, at ECF p.33. Iromuanya concluded that "[b]ut for the ineffectiveness of [his] attorneys, the results of the proceedings would have been different." Id. The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected Iromuanya's argument. Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d at 420. The Court observed that "at Iromuanya's sentencing hearing, his trial counsel stated that (1) he had sent a letter to the prosecution extending Iromuanya's offer to plead guilty to manslaughter; and (2) if the prosecutor had accepted the offer, Iromuanya would have pleaded guilty." Id. The Court concluded that because Iromuanya "[did] not allege that the prosecutor offered him a plea agreement[, ]" his allegations were "insufficient to overcome the presumption that his trial counsel acted reasonably."[6] Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d at 420.

Additionally, Iromuanya argued "the [district] court erred in failing to find that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to (1) properly challenge jury instructions and (2) object to the court's response to the jurors' question during deliberations."[7] Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d at 434. The relevant instructions for Iromuanya's claims were Jury Instruction No. 3 and Jury Instruction No. 5. In Iromuanya II, the Nebraska Supreme Court explained these instructions by stating that,

Jury instruction No. 3 set out the elements for attempted second degree murder of Jenkins. The instruction informed jurors that they could find Iromuanya guilty or not guilty and did not have a lesser-included offense.[8]
Jury instruction No. 5 set out the elements for the charge of second degree murder of Cooper. It did have a lesser-included offense of manslaughter and informed jurors that they could find Iromuanya guilty of murder in the second degree, or guilty of manslaughter, or not guilty. If the jury found that the State had failed to prove second degree murder, the instruction stated that it must acquit Iromuanya of that charge and consider the crime of manslaughter.[9]
The manslaughter elements in instruction No. 5 required the State to prove that Iromuanya killed Cooper without malice upon (1) a sudden quarrel or (2) unintentionally while in the commission of an unlawful act, to wit: recklessly causing bodily injury to Jenna Cooper.

Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d at 433 (internal quotation marks omitted). Iromuanya claimed "[t]he critical factual question to be decided [was] whether [he] acted intentionally but by the provocation of a sudden quarrel."[10] Filing No. 12-9, Brief of Appellant Iromuanya II, at ECF pp. 22-23. He claimed the jury was disallowed from considering the issue because "the jury was expressly informed both by Instruction No. 10 and the answer to the jurors' question, that provocation and sudden quarrel [could not] be considered while addressing the intent requirement for second degree murder related offenses."[11] Filing No. 12-9, Brief of Appellant Iromuanya II, at ECF p. 23.

Iromuanya further alleged the instructions relieved the State of its burden to "prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the death or the attempt to cause the death was not committed by provocation during the course of a sudden quarrel." Filing No. 12-9, Brief of Appellant Iromuanya II, at ECF p.24. Thus, Iromuanya argued, defense counsel's failures resulted in "a denial of due process . . . and the right to effective assistance of counsel." Filing No. 12-9, Brief of Appellant Iromuanya II, at ECF p. 24.

The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected all of Iromuanya's arguments. First, the Court addressed Iromuanya's argument that counsel failed to challenge the trial court's response to the jurors' inquiry. The Court noted that the trial court "instructed the jurors that they could not consider a sudden quarrel provocation in deciding Iromuanya's intent for attempted second degree murder. . . ." Iromuanya II, 806 N.W.2d at 434. The Court determined the "response was correct under the governing law at the time of Iromuanya's trial." Id. The Court explained that sudden quarrel provocation was derived from Neb. Rev. Stat. § 28-305(1) (Reissue 2008), which "provides that '[a] person commits manslaughter if he kills another without malice, either upon a sudden quarrel, or causes the death of another unintentionally while in the commission of an unlawful act.'" The Court explained the law governing at the time of Iromuanya's trial:

In State v. Jones, [515 N.W.2d 654, 659 (Neb. 1994) (subsequent history omitted)], we specifically held that "there is no requirement of an intention to kill in committing manslaughter. The distinction between second degree murder and manslaughter upon a sudden quarrel is the presence or absence of an intention to kill."
So under Jones, the district court correctly instructed the jurors that they could not consider a sudden quarrel provocation in deciding whether Iromuanya was guilty or not guilty of attempted second degree murder for shooting at Jenkins. It is true that we have recently overruled our decision in Jones and held that sudden quarrel manslaughter is an intentional killing. But this decision was issued well after Iromuanya's trial and ...

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