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Conner v. Warren

March 24, 2010

SUSIE MAE CONNER, PETITIONER,
v.
MILLICENT WARREN, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David M. Lawson United States District Judge

Honorable David M. Lawson

OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

The petitioner, Susie Mae Conner, a Michigan prisoner, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging her conviction of first-degree murder and sentence of life in prison without parole. A jury in Mecosta County, Michigan found the petitioner guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(a), first-degree felony murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(b), and one count of kidnapping, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.349, as a result of the abduction and killing of Angela Hadrich. The trial judge merged the two murder convictions into a single first-degree murder conviction based on the alternative theories of premeditation and felony murder, and vacated the kidnapping conviction. The petitioner alleges that her conviction is unconstitutional because the jury heard testimony about statements made by the petitioner's non-testifying spouse in violation of the petitioner's Sixth Amendment rights, prosecutorial misconduct abridged her due process rights, and admission of certain improper evidence at trial resulted in violation of the petitioner's right to a fair trial. The respondent has filed an answer asserting that the petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief because the petitioner's claims are either procedurally defaulted or without merit. The Court finds no merit in the petitioner's claims and therefore will deny the petition.

I.

Two fishermen found Angela Hadrich's body floating in the Muskegon River on November 26, 1998. Police recovered the body from the river on December 12, 1998. The death was ruled an accidental drowning and the case was closed. In January 2002, the petitioner's son, Bruce Conner, contacted the police to report that his mother and father, Susie and Tim Conner, were involved in Hadrich's death. As it turned out, Bruce was also involved in the events that led to Hadrich's death. Bruce gave several statements to the police and assisted authorities with their investigation by wearing a device to record conversations with the petitioner and Tim Conner. Prior to the petitioner's trial, both Bruce and Tim pleaded guilty to kidnapping Hadrich. The state dismissed open murder charges filed against both. The petitioner was charged with first-degree murder, felony-murder and kidnapping.

It appears that the reason Bruce waited for so long to contact police was his reluctance to expose himself to criminal liability. However, he finally decided to contact the authorities because Tim Conner and the petitioner were threatening him, his younger sister, and his fiancé. He believed his parents were having increasing difficulty living with the knowledge of their involvement in Hadrich's death.

At trial, Bruce testified that the petitioner became angry with Hadrich because Hadrich had stolen money or drugs from her. When Hadrich stopped by the Conners' house, the petitioner attacked Hadrich on the porch. The petitioner threatened to kill Hadrich and threatened to kill Tim and Bruce if they did not cooperate. The petitioner directed Bruce to get duct tape from the house, which was used to bind Hadrich's wrists and ankles. The petitioner then directed Bruce to get a heavy chain from the side of the house. When Bruce returned with the chain, Hadrich had been moved to the bed of the petitioner's pickup truck. The petitioner directed Bruce to chain Hadrich to the truck to immobilize her. The petitioner had covered Hadrich's mouth and eyes with duct tape. The petitioner and Tim crushed up a large amount of Valium pills, mixed them with soda, and forced Hadrich to drink the concoction. The petitioner and Tim then drove away in the petitioner's truck with Hadrich in it.

The petitioner stated that she was going to "dump" Hadrich. At trial, Bruce testified on direct examination that Tim urged the petitioner to "just leave it be, leave it as a simple assault." Tr. Vol. III, p. 64. Tim accompanied the petitioner on the ride to persuade her to drop Hadrich off at the hospital or at her home and to dissuade the petitioner from following through on earlier threats to kill Hadrich. Bruce stayed at home with his younger sister.

Bruce testified that when Tim returned home later that night, Tim told Bruce that he did not realize how easy it was to break someone's neck. Tim also told Bruce that he and the petitioner threw Hadrich in the river near the Conners' old home and that together they drowned her. At a later point in time, Tim told Bruce that he and the petitioner threw Hadrich over a cliff that led to the river but that Hadrich did not make it down to the river so Tim and the petitioner had to roll Hadrich into the river and hold Hadrich's head under water because she kept bobbing above the water.

The state called Dr. Stephen Cohle, a forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy of Hadrich on December 14, 1998. He declared her cause of death to be asphyxia by drowning. Initially, he categorized the manner of her death as an accident. He testified that the anatomical findings in Hadrich's case would be identical whether the manner of death was accident or homicide, and the facts surrounding the death would determine how to categorize it. Subsequent to the autopsy, Dr. Cohle received additional information about the circumstances leading up to Hadrich's death, which later came out at trial, causing him to re-categorize Hadrich's death as a homicide.

Dr. Cohle also testified that most adults will die from drowning after submersion in water for three to four minutes. The prosecutor asked Dr. Cohle whether he thought that three to four minutes was long enough to give a suspect time to think about what she is doing, to weigh the pros and cons of her actions, and to re-think and reflect upon her decision. Dr. Cohle answered yes. At no time during the course of Dr. Cohle's testimony did the defense counsel lodge any objections.

As its last witness, the state called Troy Ernst, a forensic scientist with the Michigan State Police who was qualified as an expert in microchemical analysis. Tr. Vol. VII, pp. 4-5. Ernst testified that he tested the clothing Hadrich was wearing when her body was recovered. In October 2002, he found duct tape on one of the victim's socks. During trial, Ernst learned that the state believed he had performed a microscopic examination of all of the clothing during the analysis he performed in October 2002 when in fact he had not. As a result of this misunderstanding, the state asked Ernst to examine the victim's clothing microscopically. This examination took place the week before Ernst testified at trial. Ernst located adhesive residue on the sleeve of the victim's jacket; the residue was consistent with the infrared spectroscopy of the duct tape found previously on the victim's sock. The petitioner moved to exclude the evidence of the results of this microscopic examination because it was discovered so late in the proceedings. The trial court denied the motion.

The jury convicted the petitioner of first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder and kidnapping. In compliance with double jeopardy protections, the state trial court consolidated the two murder convictions into one count of first-degree murder under alternative theories of premeditation and felony murder, and vacated the kidnapping conviction. The petitioner's conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, People v. Conner, No. 253179, 2005 WL 562806 (Mich. Ct. App. Mar. 10, 2005), and the Michigan Supreme Court denied her application for leave to appeal, People v. Conner, 474 Mich. 933, 706 N.W.2d 18 (2005).

The petitioner timely filed her habeas petition raising the following claims, all of which had been presented to the state appellate courts:

I. Whether the petitioner's Confrontation Clause rights were violated when her son testified about statements made by her ex-husband and non-testifying co-defendant.

II. Whether the prosecutor engaged in misconduct resulting in the denial of the petitioner's right to a fair trial when he elicited testimony from the state's expert witness that was outside the area of his expertise.

III. Was it error for the trial court to admit evidence of adhesive residue on the victim's jacket where a proper chain of evidence could not be established and where it was discovered so late in the proceedings that it resulted in the denial of the petitioner's right to a fair trial.

Habeas Pet. at 11.

II.

The provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996), which govern this case, "circumscribe[d]" the standard of review federal courts must apply when considering applications for a writ of habeas corpus raising constitutional claims. See Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003). As amended, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) permits a federal court to issue the great writ only if the state court decision on a federal issue "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court," or it amounted to "an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)&(2); Franklin v. Francis, 144 F.3d 429, 433 (6th Cir. 1998). Mere error by the state court will not justify issuance of the writ; rather, the state court's application of federal law "must have been objectively unreasonable." Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 520-21 (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 409 (2000) (internal quotes omitted)). Additionally, this Court must presume the correctness of state court factual determinations. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) ("In a proceeding instituted by an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court, a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct."); see also West v. Seabold, 73 F.3d 81, 84 (6th Cir. 1996) (stating that "[t]he court gives complete deference to state court findings of historical fact unless they are clearly erroneous").

The Supreme Court has explained the proper application of the "contrary to" clause as follows:

A state-court decision will certainly be contrary to [the Supreme Court's] clearly established precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the ...


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