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McGarvey v. Laughlin

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

March 22, 2017

TROY McGARVEY, Petitioner,


          Dana L. Christensen, Chief Judge

         United States Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch entered his Findings and Recommendations in this case on December 21, 2016, recommending that Petitioner Troy McGarvey's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 be dismissed. (Doc. 20.) McGarvey timely objected to the Findings and Recommendations. (Doc. 21.) The government then responded to McGarvey's objections. (Doc. 22.)

         The facts, which Judge Lynch described in full, are incorporated throughout this Order as necessary. Following a three-day trial in November 2013, McGarvey was convicted on two counts of deliberate homicide for the murders of Clifford Grant and Norman Nelson. Before, during, and after the state court proceedings, McGarvey has consistently maintained his innocence. He appealed his initial conviction to the Montana Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court. Later, his appeal for post-conviction relief through the state court system was denied.

         In his petition for writ of habeas corpus, brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, McGarvey argues that he is entitled to a new trial under three theories: (1) Brady, (2) ineffective assistance of counsel; and (3) cumulative error. The magistrate judge considered McGarvey's arguments, and he recommends that the Court dismiss the petition. McGarvey objects, claiming that the magistrate judge erred in analyzing each of his claims for relief. The Court dismisses McGarvey's petition, adopting the Findings and Recommendations in full.


         I. Brady Violations

         McGarvey argues that the State failed to disclose critical evidence and that the Montana Supreme Court erred in analyzing his claims under Brady. Judge Lynch agreed-and the State conceded-that the Montana Supreme Court failed to apply the correct Brady standard, but he nonetheless determined that the no Brady violation occurred. McGarvey now argues that the magistrate judge erred by finding that he has no Brady claim arising from the State's failure to disclose four pieces of evidence: (1) the jail notes of Robert Armstrong, one of two key witnesses[1]; (2) a drug connection between the other key witness, Stan Edwardson, and another individual, Rod Monroe; (3) information regarding Tony Sanchez, who McGarvey suggests was the true perpetrator; and (4) a letter written by Armstrong's mother questioning Armstrong's mental state. The Court discusses each alleged error in turn, ultimately agreeing with the magistrate judge that McGarvey did not suffer prejudice as a result of the State's failure to disclose exculpatory material.

         A. Robert Armstrong's Jail Notes

         While in jail, Armstrong made notes which call into question his mental and emotional stability. He wrote:

Nervous tension, stress, crippling anxiety, inability to concentrate, unable to enjoy relaxed though or anything for that matter. Good meds. Possibly skip alcohol treatment center. Noises in head sound like the pressurized sound you get when you dive deep in water. Afraid of God listening to conscience. Got over paranoia. Now occasionally get discouraged when I can't think clearly because of agitation to the motherfuckers trying to hear my conscious. New form of defense and inevitable discovery, step toward the future. Identifying mood signals or sound waves associated with conversation and identifying thought based conversation and the signals the mind is giving off and must be very patient schizo.

         During discovery, the State informed McGarvey that it had these notes in its possession but that Armstrong's handwritten notes "are voluminous and serve no evidentiary value nor are they exculpatory in nature." It also stated that it had consulted with McGarvey's trial counsel and that the parties had agreed that the notes would be available to the defense during trial. It is unclear whether McGarvey's trial counsel reviewed the notes at any time, but the State offered them to the defense for review at trial.

         The Montana Supreme Court concluded that the State did not suppress Armstrong's jail notes, and Judge Lynch determined that the decision was neither an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law nor based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. The Court agrees. The State's characterization of the notes was not unfair, and the State did not fail to disclose the existence or nature of the notes to the defense.

         B. Edwardson's Connection to Monroe

         Edwardson initially denied knowing anything about the murders, but-after conversations with his sister and with Monroe-he told law enforcement that he heard McGarvey confess to the crime. In the months following Edwardson's statement implicating McGarvey, Edwardson and Monroe manufactured methamphetamine together, and the State charged both of them for their ...

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