5th Circuit grants COA on Atkins claim in Texas death penalty case
Posted on: 9/16/2013 03:28:07 PM by Peoples

In Matamoros v. Stephens, ___ Fed.Appx. ___, 2013 WL 4712741 (5th Cir. Sept. 3, 2013), the Fifth Circuit (per curiam - Jolly, James, Elrod) found that John Matamoros was entitled to a COA on his claim that he is mentally retarded but not on his claim of Penry II error. In addition, the panel denied Matamoros’s request for a remand to the district court to reconsider the Atkins claim de novo.

After Matamoros filed his initial federal habeas petition, Atkins was decided. Federal proceedings were then held in abeyance while Matamoros returned to state court to raise his claim of mental retardation. Following an evidentiary hearing in the trial court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCC) ruled that Matamoros had failed to establish the requisite adaptive deficits or the onset of mental retardation prior to age 18. Matamoros returned to federal court and his Atkins claim was denied by the district court and no COA issued. While his request for a COA was pending in the Fifth Circuit, Matamoros requested a stay of proceedings so he could return to state court to present new evidence supporting his Atkins claim. The evidence related to the state’s expert, Dr. George Denkowski, who had been reprimanded by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists and, as part of a settlement with the organization, had agreed not to conduct mental retardation evaluations in future criminal proceedings. The Fifth Circuit granted the stay request. In state court, Matamoros presented the settlement information and tendered new affidavits criticizing Dr. Denkowki’s diagnostic methodology. Rather than hold a hearing, the trial court signed an order adopting the state’s Amended Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, which recommended that relief be denied. Although the trial court announced that it had totally discounted anything in the records provided by Dr. Denkowski, in the order the trial court continued to rely on records and evidence provided by Dr. Denkowski. The TCC again denied Matamoros’s Atkins claim and the Fifth Circuit lifted the stay.

First, the panel was unpersuaded by Matamoros’s argument that the state court decision was unreasonable because it was based on the 1992 American Association for Mental Retardation (AAMR) definition of mental retardation, rather than the updated 2002 definition. It did find, however, that the challenge to Dr. Denkowski’s methodology supported a COA on the Atkins claim.

Regarding the Penry II claim, although the district court had found it to be meritorious, it also concluded that the claim was procedurally defaulted. This was because Matamoros had raised in state court a claim based on Penry I, but he failed to rely on Penry II. The panel ruled that the district court’s rejection of the claim on procedural grounds was not debatable by reasonable jurists and so no COA would issue for that claim.