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Laux v. Zatecky

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 17, 2018

Fredrick A. Laux, Petitioner-Appellant,
Dushan Zatecky, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued February 21, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 14-CV-340 - Sarah Evans Barker, Judge.

          Before Ripple, Kanne, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.


         In 2002, Fredrick Laux broke into his ex-wife's home and murdered her with a crowbar. A jury in Grant County, Indiana, decided that the aggravating circumstance of Laux's crime-that he committed murder during a burglary-outweighed the primary mitigating circumstance-that he had no criminal history. The jury recommended a sentence of life without parole, which the state trial judge imposed. The Indiana state courts affirmed Laux's convictions and sentence. After a post-conviction hearing, they also rejected the claim that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

         In 2014, Laux filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court denied the petition. On appeal, Laux contends that his trial counsel was ineffective by not fully investigating and presenting all of the available mitigating evidence about Laux's childhood that surfaced at his 2011 post-conviction hearing. If his trial counsel had presented all of these details in 2002, Laux argues, there is a reasonable chance that the jury would not have recommended a sentence of life without parole. We affirm the judgment of the district court. The state courts' conclusion that Laux received effective assistance of counsel was not unreasonable.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         A. The Murder Trial and Penalty Phase

         Laux's state public defender said at the outset of his post- conviction proceeding, "there is really no doubt about who killed Heidi Laux. And this trial"-the subject of Fred Laux's ineffective assistance claims here-"was all about what punishment Mr. Laux was set to receive" for what he did to his ex-wife.

         After eleven years of marriage and a period of separation, the couple divorced in November 2001. Distraught by the divorce, and increasingly disturbed by the prospect that Heidi had found a new partner, Laux made a romantic gesture toward Heidi on Valentine's Day in 2002. He was rebuffed. Heidi and Laux, along with their two daughters, attended a social event the next evening where "Laux became increasingly suspicious that Heidi was involved with a co- worker." Laux v. State, 821 N.E.2d 816, 817 (Ind. 2005) (Laux I).

         Laux returned home and put his daughters to bed, but remained fixated on Heidi's new life without him. The Indiana Supreme Court explained what happened next:

Around 3 a.m. the following morning, Laux awoke and decided to "fix" Heidi. He dressed in two pairs of sweatpants, a sweatshirt, gloves, a hat, and a ski mask. He collected a flashlight and a crowbar and ran to Heidi's house.
Upon arrival, Laux used the crowbar to pry open a coal chute and gain entrance to Heidi's house. He entered the basement through the chute and made his way upstairs. Laux proceeded to Heidi's bedroom, struck her three times with the crowbar, strangled her, and left. She died from her injuries within twenty minutes.
The State charged Laux with murder, felony murder, and burglary resulting in bodily injury. It later requested a sentence of life in prison without parole. After a three-day trial, the jury found Laux guilty on all counts and recommended life in prison without parole. The trial court merged Laux's murder and felony murder convictions and sentenced him to life in prison without parole for the murder and a consecutive term of twenty years for the burglary.

Id. at 817-18 (footnotes omitted). Because Laux contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to ward off a life sentence, we focus on the penalty stage of his trial.

         In Indiana, "life without parole is imposed under the same standards and is subject to the same requirements" as imposing the death penalty. Ajabu v. State, 693 N.E.2d 921, 936 (Ind. 1998). This meant that with no dispute as to guilt, Laux's trial came down to the penalty phase where the jury considered the aggravating and mitigating circumstances that surrounded the crime. See Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(b), (c), (d). By statute, if a jury finds that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances and thus decides to recommend life without parole, its recommendation must be accepted by the trial judge at sentencing. § 35-50-2-9(e).

         In the penalty phase of his trial, Laux's jury heard evidence that he broke in to Heidi's house that night intending to beat her with his crowbar and kill her, and possibly also to rape her. This undisputed evidence was the basis for Laux's burglary conviction, which in turn was the aggravating circumstance under § 35-50-2-9(b)(1)(B) for his murder conviction.

         As for mitigating circumstances, Laux qualified for only one of the seven circumstances specified by statute-no prior criminal conduct. § 35-50-2-9(c)(1). The law also permitted the jury to weigh any "other circumstances appropriate for consideration." § 35-50-2-9(c)(8). Laux's trial counsel used this opportunity to present him as a devoted father and devout Catholic of above-average intelligence who, in the words of a psychiatrist, had been overtaken by a "severe mental disease at the time of the offense" (i.e., "major depression").

         Because Laux was found to be sane at the time of the offense, his mental condition did not qualify as one of the express mitigating circumstances under the law. See § 35-50- 2-9(c)(6). Jurors heard from two experts about Laux's episode of depression and related medications. These experts formally testified as the State's witnesses, though they had been appointed by the trial court at the behest of Laux's trial lawyer, who reviewed their written reports ahead of their testimony. Both Dr. Parker (a psychiatrist) and Dr. Atkinson (a psychologist) had interviewed Laux and studied his personal history and mental health. Though their diagnoses differed somewhat, both experts rejected the idea that Laux's mental-health struggles caused him to commit the murder.

         Laux's lawyer called as a witness a priest who had known Laux for over fifteen years, since Laux had been a student at Purdue University. In the priest's judgment, Laux was a particularly devoted Catholic. The priest also shared that because Laux was so distraught after the police came to inform him of Heidi's death, the priest had to inform Laux's young daughters about their mother's murder. After the priest's testimony, Laux's lawyer called a Catholic school teacher who had one of Laux's young daughters in her class. She reported that Laux was a devoted father and active in their parish. Finally, Laux himself took the stand to express his remorse and to (try to) explain his actions.

         In his closing statement in the penalty phase, Laux's trial lawyer stressed that Laux had no history at all of violent behavior or criminal activity. His lawyer repeated that even if it did not legally amount to a defense, Laux had a "severe mental disease" according to the experts. "I understand the State wants you to ignore that, " his lawyer continued, "but that's a fact, that's what was said by the doctors and those are doctors … that's not my diagnosis." "[D]on't just totally discount that and throw that in the trash. That's the whole reason we did this trial was to get that story before you."

         Laux's lawyer summed up by reminding the jurors that Laux "had something go seriously, tragically wrong with his thinking that night … all I'm asking you to do is weigh that as a [factor in] mitigation [regarding] … whether he should go to jail for the rest of his life. You can't discount that and say it didn't happen." The jury recommended life without parole.

         B. Post-trial Procedural History

         1. State Court Proceedings

         a. Direct Review

         Laux appealed his life-without-parole sentence directly to the Indiana Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over such appeals. Ind.App. R. 4(1)(a). Before rendering a decision, however, the Supreme Court remanded Laux's case to the state trial court for additional findings in light of Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002), Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and a conforming change in state law specifying that aggravating circumstances must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(l); see also Corcoran v. Neal, 783 F.3d 676, 678 n.2 (7th Cir. 2015); Laux I, 821 N.E.2d at 818, 821; id. at 824 (Sullivan, J., dissenting). The Indiana Supreme Court decided in 2005 to ...

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