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Bethea v. United States

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 11, 2016

TERENCE K. BETHEA, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, District Judge.

A jury in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia convicted petitioner Terence K. Bethea of six counts of an eight-count indictment arising from a stabbing incident. Mr. Bethea was sentenced in October 2010 to an aggregate prison term of 144 months followed by five years' supervised release. His convictions were affirmed on direct appeal. In the instant petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254, Mr. Bethea claims that his appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance, in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The United States has opposed the petition [Dkt. # 13], and Mr. Bethea has replied [Dkt. ## 17, 20, 23]. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions and the entire record, and for the reasons explained below, the Court finds no grounds for issuing the writ.

I. BACKGROUND

The trial transcript [Dkt. # 24] establishes the following relevant facts. On July 30, 2009, during an encounter at a Shell gas station in the District's northeast quadrant, Mr. Bethea stabbed Anthony "Tony" Morris in the face and head five times. Mr. Morris had been drinking beer when he decided to bike to the gas station to buy cigarettes. Upon seeing Mr. Bethea walking toward the gas station, Mr. Morris approached him to collect a $30 drug debt Mr. Bethea owed Mr. Morris's nephew, D.J. Mr. Bethea told Mr. Morris that he would pay the nephew when he received the money. Mr. Morris considered taking further action but decided against it to stay out of trouble. A "few seconds" later, Mr. Bethea "cut" Mr. Morris. (May 20, 2010 Tr. at 67 [Dkt. # 24-15].) Mr. Morris felt a "big cut" across his face, and his "blood was, like, shooting out." ( Id. at 68.) He later learned at the hospital that he was stabbed five times. ( Id. at 70.)

Romaine Swinson, who was in a relationship with Mr. Bethea and lived with him at the time of the incident, was visiting a neighbor's house when she heard Mr. Bethea arguing with someone. When Ms. Swinson arrived at the gas station, she saw Mr. Bethea arguing with Mr. Morris. Ms. Swinson attempted to intervene in order to avoid an "altercation" and to convince Mr. Bethea to go home. ( Id. at 168.) Ms. Swinson stood between the two men, but Mr. Bethea "pushed" her to the ground where she remained until the police arrived. ( Id. at 169.)

Officer Phokham Vongkeo of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) was on routine patrol when he saw Mr. Bethea swinging at Mr. Morris. Officer Vongkeo did not see a weapon but noticed that no one else was near Mr. Morris. When someone yelled out police, Mr. Bethea "started to turn and walk away." (May 20 Tr. at 120.) Officer Vongkeo followed Mr. Bethea and told him multiple times to stop so that they could talk. Eventually, Officer Vongkeo caught up with Mr. Bethea near the driveway of a house south of the gas station, took him back to the gas station, and saw that Mr. Morris was bleeding "profusely" from his mouth. ( Id. at 125.) As Mr. Bethea was being handcuffed, Mr. Morris identified Mr. Bethea as the individual who had stabbed him.

MPD Officer Christopher Henry arrived at the scene and saw Mr. Morris "sitting in a pool... of his own blood... covering his face, just kind of hunched over." (May 20 Tr. at 221.) Mr. Morris answered "Terrance" when Officer Henry asked who had done that to him. ( Id. )

MPD Investigator William Talbert arrived at the crime scene, opened the rear door of the police car where Mr. Bethea sat, and saw blood splatter on the left side of Mr. Bethea's shirt. Mr. Bethea was taken to MPD's Fifth District Headquarters and held in an unsupervised cell block. Mr. Talbert noticed later at the police station that Mr. Bethea had turned his shirt inside out. At Mr. Talbert's direction, Mr. Bethea's clothing was seized. Based on the results of DNA testing, Mr. Bethea stipulated that the blood on his shirt and pants was that of Mr. Morris. (May 20 Tr. at 234-35.)

After other officers at the crime scene secured Mr. Bethea, Officer Vongkeo, armed with a flashlight, searched for a weapon by "tracking from where the incident occurred toward where [Mr. Bethea] was walking[.]" (May 20 Tr. at 127.) Officer Vongkeo saw a knife near the driveway of the house, in "the same spot" where he had stopped Mr. Bethea. ( Id. at 130.) Ms. Swinson testified that the knife "look[ed] like" one of Mr. Bethea's knives that he kept in a tool box, but she could not positively identify it as the same knife. ( Id. at 173.) Based on the results of DNA testing, Mr. Bethea stipulated that the blood on the blade of the knife was that of Mr. Morris.

Mr. Morris was taken by ambulance from the crime scene to Washington Hospital Center. Medical testimony established that Mr. Morris sustained a laceration to his face that was 15 centimeters long and tore through his facial muscle and nerves, a laceration to his ear that punctured his salivary gland, and a laceration over his left eye where the knife penetrated his skull.

Mr. Bethea was indicted on September 30, 2009, for assault with intent to kill while armed (count one); aggravated assault while armed (count two); malicious disfigurement while armed (count three); assault with significant bodily injury (count four); and carrying a dangerous weapon (count five).

In October 2009, while incarcerated awaiting trial, Mr. Bethea sent Ms. Swinson letters on three separate occasions, seeking her assistance with securing witnesses to testify that Mr. Morris was cut during an altercation with a group of "youngens, " and that he had tried to break up the altercation. (May 20 Tr. at 176-87). In exchange for the testimony, Mr. Bethea promised to pay each witness $40, and he promised Ms. Swinson a cell phone. Those letters resulted in the government's filing of a superseding indictment on December 2, 2009, adding three counts of obstructing justice.

During his testimony at trial, Mr. Bethea denied stabbing or cutting Mr. Morris, and he denied having "the knife that the police found outside." (May 24, 2014 Tr. at 36-37 [Dkt. # 24-16].) Mr. Bethea admitted that he and Ms. Swinson used marijuana and crack cocaine, and that he had assumed Ms. Swinson's drug debt owed D.J., ( Id. at 42-3.) Mr. Bethea also admitted that he had discussed the debt with Mr. Morris, but he described Mr. Morris as "drunk out of his head... really hot, ... mad, and... just mean." ( Id. at 52-3.) While Mr. Morris was threatening and insisting on payment, Mr. Bethea "stood there and told [Mr. Morris] to go ahead." Ms. Swinson then "jumped in the middle... and put [in] her two cent[s], " telling Mr. Morris that they did not have the money. ( Id. at 54.) A group "of 15 to 20 people" gathered in the parking lot. ( Id. at 55.) Mr. Bethea testified:

[I]t was more or less a mele [sic] out there. Everyone was getting real antsy out there. It was getting real crowded. I knew something was going to go down. You know, you could tell by the way the little youngins out there were running each other and, you know, all those little Smokey boys. We knew something was going to go down. And as they started pushing up, I'm telling Tony, I'm going, man, you need to go ahead. You know, go ahead, Tony. I gotcha, man. Go ahead. I'll get you tomorrow, you know. He wasn't trying to hear it, and the boys started saying, man, get out of here, you know, go ahead. And they ...

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