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Jimenez v. State

Superior Court of Rhode Island

September 19, 2016


         (P1/00-2878 AG)

          For Plaintiff: Mark B. Laroche, Esq.

          For Defendant: Jeanine McConaghy, Esq.


          KRAUSE, J.

         In this postconviction relief application, petitioner Mariano Jimenez says that his trial attorney inadequately represented him sixteen years ago, before and during a jury trial which resulted in his conviction for first degree murder. This Court denied Jimenez' motion for a new trial on December 8, 2000, and the Supreme Court rejected his appeal and has affirmed his conviction. State v. Jimenez, 882 A.2d 549 (R.I. 2005).

         At a July 7, 2016 hearing on the petitioner's application for postconviction relief (PCR), both the petitioner and trial counsel, John Ruginski, testified. No other witnesses were presented. At the conclusion of those proceedings, the parties agreed to submit the matter to the Court for decision based upon the pleadings and the record, without oral argument or further hearing. PCR Tr. at 154. For the reasons set forth herein, this Court finds the petitioner's PCR application meritless.

         The benchmark for a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which has been adopted by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. LaChappelle v. State, 686 A.2d 924, 926 (R.I. 1996); Brown v. Moran, 534 A.2d 180, 182 (R.I. 1987). Whether an attorney has failed to provide effective assistance is a factual question which a petitioner bears the "heavy burden" of proving. Rice v. State, 38 A.3d 9, 17 (R.I. 2012); Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356, 371 (2010) (noting that Strickland presents a "high bar" to surmount).

         When reviewing a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, the question is whether counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of the adversarial process that the trial cannot be relied on as having produced a just result. Heath v. Vose, 747 A.2d 475, 478 (R.I. 2000). A Strickland claim presents a two-part analysis. First, the petitioner must demonstrate that counsel's performance was deficient. That test requires a showing that counsel made errors that were so serious that the attorney was "not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; Powers v. State, 734 A.2d 508, 522 (R.I. 1999).

         The Sixth Amendment standard for effective assistance of counsel, however, is "very forgiving, " United States v. Theodore, 468 F.3d 52, 57 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting Delgado v. Lewis, 223 F.3d 976, 981 (9th Cir. 2000)), and "the court should recognize that counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. Hughes v. State, 656 A.2d 971, 972 (R.I. 1995) ("[A] defendant must overcome a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance and sound trial strategy."); Bell v. State, 71 A.3d 458, 461 (R.I. 2013) ("(A)pplicants seeking postconviction relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel are saddled with a heavy burden, in that there exists a strong presumption [recognized by this Court] that an attorney's performance falls within the range of reasonable professional assistance and sound strategy * * *." Rice, 38 A.3d at 17 (quoting Ouimette v. State, 785 A.2d 1132, 1138-39 (R.I. 2001)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Even if the petitioner can satisfy the first part of the Strickland test, he must still overcome a second hurdle by demonstrating that his attorney's deficient performance was prejudicial. By that yardstick, he is required to show that a reasonable probability exists that but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694; Hazard v. State, 968 A.2d 886, 892 (R.I. 2009).

         Ordinarily, tactical decisions by trial attorneys do not, even if hindsight proves the strategy unwise, amount to defective representation. Linde v. State, 78 A.3d 738, 747 (R.I. 2013). "As the Strickland Court cautioned, a reviewing court should strive 'to eliminate the distorting effects of hindsight.'" Clark v. Ellerthorpe, 552 A.2d 1186, 1189 (R.I. 1989) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689). "Thus, a choice between trial tactics, which appears unwise only in hindsight, does not constitute constitutionally-deficient representation under the reasonably competent assistance standard." United States v. Bosch, 584 F.2d 1113, 1121 (1st Cir. 1978);

         * * *

         Jimenez alleges that trial counsel mishandled his self-defense and diminished capacity claims. He also asserts that counsel neglected to secure a lesser, second degree murder instruction, as well as an accident instruction. He further maintains that trial counsel failed to discuss the case with him, did not tell him of the state's disposition offer until just before trial commenced, and neither alerted him that he would have to testify nor prepared him to testify at the trial. He is mistaken on all counts.

         Jimenez' complaints that trial counsel misjudged his self-defense hypothesis and failed to obtain second degree murder and accident instructions rest entirely upon accepting his professed version of events which he says led to the shooting of the decedent, Manuel Clemente. The jurors, as well as this Court at Jimenez' hearing on a new trial motion, have rejected his self-serving explications. See State v. Mattatall, 603 A.2d 1098, 1109 (R.I. 1992) (noting that the factfinders are not only free to reject the self-serving stories of vitally interested defendants, they may further conclude, instead, that the opposite of what they say is actually the truth); accord State v. Smith, 39 A.3d 669, 674 (R.I. 2012).

         At trial and at the PCR hearing, Jimenez testified that the antagonism started during a social gathering in an apartment where, he claims, Clemente and a nameless friend of Clemente's started an argument with him. Heated words then prompted a physical altercation. Jimenez said that Clemente and his friend approached him menacingly and that one of them struck him with a bottle. To defend himself, he pulled out his concealed semi-automatic handgun and fired an errant shot, which struck no one.[1]

         The scuffle then moved to what Jimenez claims was an unlit hallway, where he and Clemente grappled, Jimenez getting the worst of it, he says. According to Jimenez, Clemente's companion had disappeared. Although he saw no weapon in Clemente's hands, PCR Tr. at 84-85, he tried to shoot Clemente anyway, but the gun jammed. Eventually, Clemente separated himself from Jimenez, who said at both the trial and at the PCR hearing that Clemente turned his back on him, started down the stairs, and, as he was leaving, yelled to Jimenez that he would return and kill him. As Clemente was leaving, Jimenez said that when he tried to clear his pistol, it accidentally discharged, fatally shooting Clemente in the back of his neck as he retreated down the staircase.

         In denying Jimenez' motion for a new trial, this Court flatly rejected Jimenez' dissembling version of events, finding him "not at all credible." Trial Tr. at 245. The Court found, instead, that the trustworthy and reliable evidence reflected that Jimenez and Clemente, who was unaccompanied by anyone else in the apartment, were the only ones arguing, that no blows were exchanged before or after Jimenez drew his weapon, and that Jimenez was never hit by a bottle.

         The Court further found that Jimenez' claim-- that he had been attacked by Clemente and another man was--"flat out prevarication." Id. at 249. The Court also rejected Jimenez' claim that the hallway was unlit. The Court accepted, as wholly credible, the testimony of Yvette Mendez, an upstairs resident in the apartment house who witnessed the hallway altercation. Assessing her testimony, this Court said:

"The state's key witness was, as Mr. Ruginski indicates, Yvette Mendez. She was an upstairs resident in the apartment building. She had absolutely no interest in the outcome of this case. She was not in any way connected to the defendant or the others who were present that night. She was a completely disinterested witness who simply and plainly recounted what she clearly observed from her vantage point on the landing above the hallway. The credible evidence, in my view, was that the landing and the hallway were well-illuminated. Miss Mendez says she saw the defendant and Mr. Clemente, who was being held down by the defendant, and she heard the defendant yell that he was going to kill Clemente. Clemente, she said, was bent over and not struggling at all. Indeed, because of Clemente's bent posture, she thought he had already been shot or seriously injured. She did not see the defendant with a weapon at that point, but she distinctly heard the defendant say to Clemente, "I'm going to kill you." She then ...

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