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United States v. Fields

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

December 30, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
EDWARD LEON FIELDS, JR., Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma (D.C. Nos. 6:10-CV-00115-RAW and 6:03-CR-00073-RAW-1)

          Hunter Labovitz, Assistant Federal Defender (Katherine Ensler, Assistant Federal Defender, with him on the briefs), Capital Habeas Unit, Federal Community Defender Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, appearing for Appellant.

          Jeffrey B. Kahan, Deputy Chief, Capital Case Section, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC (Brian A. Benczkowski, Assistant Attorney General, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC; Brian J. Kuester, United States Attorney, Christopher J. Wilson, Assistant United States Attorney, and Linda Epperley, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, Muskogee, Oklahoma, with him on the brief), appearing for Appellee.

          Before BRISCOE, McHUGH, and CARSON, Circuit Judges.

          BRISCOE, Circuit Judge.

         This is a federal death penalty case arising from two murders committed in a national forest in Oklahoma. Petitioner Edward Leon Fields pleaded guilty in federal court to two counts of first degree murder, two counts of using a firearm during a federal crime of violence causing the death of a person, and two counts of assimilative crime. Fields was sentenced, following a penalty phase proceeding before a jury, to death on each of the two murder convictions, and to significant terms of imprisonment on each of the remaining convictions.

         After completing the direct appeal process, Fields initiated these proceedings by filing a motion to vacate, set aside or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The district court denied Fields's petition, and also denied him a certificate of appealability (COA). We subsequently granted Fields a COA with respect to four issues. Now, exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court with directions to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Fields's claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to adequately investigate and present at trial evidence of his organic brain damage.


         Fields's criminal conduct

         We previously, in addressing Fields's direct appeal, outlined the underlying facts of Fields's crimes:

Edward Leon Fields killed Charles and Shirley Chick at the Winding Stair Campground in the Ouachita National Forest on July 10, 2003. He had seen the couple there days earlier and drove there the evening of July 10 with a homemade ghillie suit (a covering for head and body made to resemble underbrush that Fields referred to as his sniper suit) and a camouflaged and powerfully scoped rifle in his truck. He found the Chicks on a vista some distance from their campsite. He retrieved the rifle, put on the ghillie suit, and hid near their campsite as it grew dark. In time, the Chicks came back to the campsite and sat at a table. Fields waited and watched them for about twenty minutes. When Charles told Shirley he was going to the tent, Fields shot him in the face. As Charles slumped to the table, Shirley got up and began running toward the couple's van. Fields shot at her and a bullet tore through her foot. She reached the passenger door of the van, but was shot again, on the side of her head. Fields caught up and shot her once more, in the back of the head, in the doorway of the van. Shirley died as a result of both head wounds. Fields returned to the table and shot Charles a second time in the head. Charles also died as a result of both of his wounds.
Physical evidence indicated that Fields then left the campsite and only returned hours later, when he broke the driver's window of the van and stole some items. He rummaged through only the driver's area of the van; the rest of the van and the Chicks' tent were untouched. A tip eventually led police to Fields'[s] truck, where they found the rifle, the ghillie suit, and some of the items stolen from the Chicks' van. In the meantime, Fields had been taken in for questioning. He initially denied any connection to the crime, but confessed when confronted with the evidence taken from his truck.

United States v. Fields, 516 F.3d 923, 927 (10th Cir. 2008) (Fields I).

         The trial proceedings and sentencing

         On August 1, 2003, a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Oklahoma returned a six-count indictment charging Fields with: two counts of first degree murder (Counts 1 and 3), in violation 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111(a) and (b), 7(3) and 13; two counts of use of a firearm in a federal crime of violence causing the death of a person (Counts 2 and 4), in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A), (d), (j), 7(3) and 13; one count of assimilative crime - robbery with a firearm (Count 5), in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 7(3) and 13; and one count of assimilative crime - burglary of an automobile (count 6), in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 7(3) and 13.

         On June 30, 2005, Fields entered pleas of guilty as to all six counts alleged in the indictment. Shortly thereafter, the district court began death penalty qualification of potential jurors. On July 13, 2005, the penalty phase proceeding, which was conducted pursuant to the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 (FDPA), began. "At the conclusion of the proceeding, the jury determined that Fields was eligible for a death sentence under §§ 3591(a)(2) and 3593(e)(2) by finding, unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, (1) that he possessed the requisite homicidal intent, and (2) the presence of one (here, two) statutorily defined aggravating factors ('statutory aggravators'): substantial planning and premeditation to cause death (§ 3592(c)(9)), and multiple intentional killings committed in a single episode (§ 3592(c)(16))." Fields I, 516 F.3d at 927.

         "The jury then turned to the ad hoc non-statutory aggravators framed and formally noticed by the government under § 3593(a)." Id. "The jury found, again unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fields (1) posed a future danger to the lives and safety of other persons; (2) caused permanent loss to Charles Chick's family, friends, and community; (3) caused permanent loss to Shirley Chick's family, friends, and community; and (4) inflicted mental anguish on Shirley Chick before her death." Id. at 927-28.

         "Next, the jury considered a host of mitigating factors offered by the defense" and made a number of findings. Id. at 928.

At least one juror found, by the required preponderance of the evidence, that (1) Fields did not have a significant prior criminal history; (2) Fields served in and was honorably discharged from the Navy; (3) Fields had worked as a state prison guard; (4) Fields has special talents in cooking, art, and computers; (5) Fields is a loved father; (6) Fields is a loved brother; (7) Fields is a loved son; (8) Fields is a valued friend; (9) Fields'[s] father died months before the offenses; (10) Fields'[s] mother moved away weeks before the offenses; (11) Fields'[s] ex-wife and their children moved away months before the offenses; (12) Fields'[s] ex-wife recently had cancer that may or may not be in remission; (13) Fields'[s] death will impact his children, family, and friends; (14) Fields cooperated with authorities after his arrest; (15) Fields confessed to the crimes; (16) Fields pled guilty to the crimes; and (17) Fields sought treatment for mental illness. All jurors, however, rejected several mitigators, including that (1) Fields'[s] capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct and conform his conduct to the law was significantly impaired; (2) Fields committed the offenses under severe mental or emotional disturbance; (3) Fields expressed remorse for the crimes; and (4) Fields will not present a future danger to society by being imprisoned for life without possibility of release.


         "Finally, pursuant to § 3593(e), the jury weighed all of the aggravating and mitigating factors to determine whether the aggravators sufficiently outweighed the mitigators to justify a sentence of death." Id. "The jury concluded, unanimously, that they did." Id. "Thereafter, the district court imposed death sentences on both murder counts." Id.

         On November 8, 2005, the district court sentenced Fields to death on Counts 1 and 3, 405 months on Counts 2 and 4, to be served consecutively to one another and consecutively to any other term of imprisonment imposed, 405 months on Count 5, and 84 months on Count 6.

         The direct appeal

         Fields filed a direct appeal asserting thirteen propositions of error. These included a challenge to "the jurisdictional basis for his federal conviction, which [wa]s a matter not waived by his guilty plea," and "many other objections with respect to the sentencing proceeding." Id. On February 28, 2005, we issued a published opinion "conclud[ing] that federal jurisdiction was properly exercised and that no reversible error occurred in the proceedings." Id.

         Fields filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. That petition was denied on April 6, 2009. Fields v. United States, 556 U.S. 1167 (2009).

         The § 2255 proceedings

         On April 6, 2010, Fields, through appointed counsel, initiated these proceedings by filing a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The motion asserted nine general grounds for relief, as well as numerous sub-issues.

         In October 2015, following years of extensive discovery, Fields filed an amended brief in support of his § 2255 motion, and the government in turn filed a motion for summary judgment.

         On December 15, 2016, the district court issued an opinion and order denying Fields's § 2255 motion in its entirety. The district court entered final judgment on that same date.

         Fields filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment. The district court denied that motion.

         Fields filed a timely notice of appeal. A judge of this court subsequently issued an order granting Fields a COA on four issues that we shall proceed to address.


         Standards of review

Section 2255(a) provides as follows:
A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack, may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.

28 U.S.C. § 2255(a).

         "[A]s a general rule, federal prisoners may not use a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to relitigate a claim that was previously rejected on direct appeal." Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 1758 (2016). Instead, relief under § 2255 is generally confined to situations where (a) the "convictions and sentences [were] entered by a court without jurisdiction," (b) the sentence imposed was outside of the statutory limits, (c) a constitutional error occurred, or (d) a non-constitutional error of law or an error of fact occurred that constituted a fundamental defect which inherently resulted in a complete miscarriage of justice, i.e., that rendered the entire proceeding irregular and invalid. United States v. Addonizio, 442 U.S. 178, 185-186 (1979).

         Section 2255(b) states, in pertinent part, that "[u]nless the [2255] motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, the [district] court shall . . . grant a prompt hearing thereon, determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect thereto." The Supreme Court has interpreted this statutory language to mean that a hearing is unnecessary in those instances (a) "where the issues raised by the motion were conclusively determined either by the motion itself or by the 'files and records' in the trial court," or (b) where the motion alleges circumstances "of a kind that the District Judge could completely resolve by drawing upon his own personal knowledge or recollection." Machibroda v. United States, 368 U.S. 487, 494-95 (1962). In contrast, where "[t]he factual allegations contained in the petitioner's motion and affidavit" are "put in issue by the affidavit filed with the Government's response" and "relate[] primarily to purported occurrences outside the courtroom and upon which the record could . . . cast no real light," a hearing is required under the statute. Id.

         "On appeal from the denial of a § 2255 motion, ordinarily we review the district court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo." United States v. Barrett, 797 F.3d 1207, 1213 (10th Cir. 2015) (quotations omitted). "Where, as here, the district court does not hold an evidentiary hearing, . . . our review is strictly de novo." Id. (quotations and brackets omitted). That "review proceeds in two steps." United States v. Herring, 935 F.3d 1102, 1107 (10th Cir. 2019). "First, we ask whether the defendant's allegations, if proved, would entitle him to relief, an inquiry we conduct de novo." Id. (citations omitted). "If so, we then determine whether the denial of the evidentiary hearing constituted an abuse of discretion." Id.

         Issue One - ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to adequately investigate and present evidence of Fields's organic brain damage

         In his first issue on appeal, Fields argues that the district court abused its discretion by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing on his claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present evidence of Fields's organic brain damage. To resolve this claim, we begin by outlining the legal standards that are applicable to the claim. We then review Fields's allegations of ineffective assistance and determine whether, if proved, they would entitle him to relief under the applicable legal standards. Finally, we review the evidence presented by both parties that is relevant to the claim and determine whether the district court abused its discretion by rejecting the claim without benefit of an evidentiary hearing. Given the applicable legal standards, we separate this final portion of our analysis into two components: whether trial counsel's performance was deficient and whether Fields was prejudiced by the allegedly deficient performance. As we shall proceed to explain, we ultimately conclude that the district court abused its discretion by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing on both of these components, and therefore remand the case to the district court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Fields's claim.

         a) Law applicable to Fields's claim

         The seminal Supreme Court case addressing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel is Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). In Strickland, the Court held that "[a] convicted defendant's claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction or death sentence has two components." Id. at 687. "First," the Court held, "the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment." Id. "Second," the Court held, "the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Id. "Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction or death sentence resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable." Id.

         b) Fields's allegations of ineffective assistance regarding evidence of organic brain damage

         Fields alleged in his amended § 2255 motion that, "[a]t the time of the offenses," he "suffered from organic brain damage." ROA, Vol. 11 at 36. He further alleged that his "[t]rial counsel failed to discover the full extent of his brain damage because they arranged for [him] to receive only limited neuropsychological testing and then, after that testing indicated frontal lobe dysfunction, they ignored their neuropsychologist's recommendation to conduct further testing." Id. Fields alleged that even the limited neuropsychological testing that was actually performed "showed that [his] frontal lobes were impaired" and "[t]hese impairments affected his executive functioning in areas such as judgment and impulse control." Id. Fields alleged that "[e]vidence of this damage would have been mitigating in its own right and also would have bolstered the defense that [he] experienced a manic flip at the time of the offenses." Id. Fields in turn alleged that "[b]ecause [his] trial counsel did not fully investigate and discover this brain damage, the jury never heard this crucial mitigating mental health evidence." Id. at 36-37. Lastly, Fields alleged that, "[h]ad the jury known that [he] suffered from organic brain damage, there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury's verdict would have been different." Id. at 50.

         Considering these allegations in light of the applicable legal standards outlined in Strickland, we have little trouble concluding that the allegations, if ultimately proven by Fields, would entitle him to federal habeas relief from his sentence. Therefore, we proceed to review the evidence that was submitted by the parties in support of and in opposition to these allegations.

         c) The performance prong of the Strickland test

         We begin by outlining the evidence relevant to the issue of trial counsel's performance. This includes evidence contained in the record of the trial proceedings, as well as extra-record evidence obtained by Fields and presented in support of his § 2255 motion, including a post-conviction declaration from Fields's lead trial attorney.

         "Strickland requires a reviewing court to 'determine whether, in light of all the circumstances, the identified acts or omissions were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.'" Kimmelman v. Morrison, 477 U.S. 365, 386 (1986) (quoting Strickland, 477 U.S. at 690). The Supreme Court emphasized in Strickland that "[t]here are countless ways to provide effective assistance in any given case." 466 U.S. at 689. Consequently, Fields "must overcome the strong presumption that [his] counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." United States v. Sanders, 372 F.3d 1183, 1185 (10th Cir. 2004). In determining whether Fields has overcome this strong presumption, we must consider "counsel's overall performance, before and at trial," and not focus exclusively on the "particular [alleged] act or omission" giving rise to the claim of ineffective assistance. Kimmelman, 477 U.S. at 386.

         Fields's lead trial attorney was Julia O'Connell, who at that time was an assistant federal public defender in the Northern and Eastern Districts of Oklahoma. O'Connell was assisted by three other attorneys: Isaiah Gant, a federal public defender from Nashville, Tennessee, and Michael Able and Barry Derryberry, both of whom worked in O'Connell's office.

         In July 2004, O'Connell retained neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Gelbort "to conduct a forensic neuropsychological evaluation of . . . Fields." ROA, Vol. 11 at 504. Gelbort "met with . . . Fields on August 11, 2004 at the Muskogee County Jail," "conducted a clinical interview[, ] and administered a battery of neuropsychological tests." Id. at 505. Based on the interview and testing, Gelbort concluded that "Fields suffer[ed] from brain dysfunction and cognitive impairments . . . focused in the frontal lobes." Id. "Frontal lobe damage," according to Gelbort, "is well-known to adversely impact executive function, which acts in part as the 'brakes' for a person's actions." Id. at 506. The deficits caused by this frontal lobe damage, according to Gelbort, "impact[ed] [Fields's] ability to think in a logical, adaptive and goal-directed manner" and "also affect[ed] his social functioning."[1] Id. at 507.

         Gelbort "relayed [his] preliminary finding of brain dysfunction focused on the frontal lobe to Ms. O'Connell on August 24, 2004." Id. Gelbort "provided a preliminary report to . . . O'Connell on November 10, 2004," and "provided an updated report to [her] on March 8, 2005." Id. Gelbort concluded, in pertinent part, that Fields "display[ed] a pattern often found in individuals with frontal lobe or non-dominant hemisphere neurocognitive dysfunction and brain damage with further evaluation warranted." ROA, Vol. 9 at 227.

         In June 2005, O'Connell asked Gelbort if he "could do additional testing" of Fields, and Gelbort responded by asking "what kind of additional testing [she] wanted [him] to conduct." ROA, Vol. 11 at 507. According to Gelbort, "[h]ad [O'Connell] followed up and asked [him] to conduct additional neuropsychological testing, [he] would have told [her] it was unnecessary and would have instead suggested that a qualified expert conduct medical testing such as PET scan or EEG to analyze . . . Fields's brain from a physical standpoint." Id. Gelbort alleges that O'Connell never got back to him on this issue. Id. O'Connell alleges in her post-conviction declaration that she "can offer no tactical or strategic reason for not having the additional testing performed" by Gelbort. Id. at 164.

         "On June 19, 2005, . . . O'Connell requested [Gelbort's] final report, which [he] provided to her." Id. "On July 1, 2005, . . . O'Connell informed [Gelbort] that she would need [him] to testify at trial and that the defense case could begin as early as July 18, 2005." Id. at 508. On July 3, 2005, O'Connell "sent . . . Gelbort a contract to cover his anticipated testimony" and "informed him [again] that he would be needed to testify around July 18, 200[5], and also would be needed to consult ...

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