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Jefferson v. Warren

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

March 9, 2015



ARTHUR J. TARNOW, Senior District Judge.

Petitioner Tammy Jefferson has filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner was convicted after a jury trial in the Kent Circuit Court of first-degree felony-murder, MICH. COMP. LAWS § 750.316(1)(b), with the predicate felony being second-degree vulnerable adult abuse, MICH. COMP. LAWS § 750.145n(2). As a result of her conviction, Petitioner is serving a mandatory life sentence for the murder conviction and 3-to-6 years for the vulnerable adult abuse conviction. The petition raises three claims: 1) there was insufficient evidence presented at trial to sustain Petitioner's convictions, 2) the trial court erred in allowing the prosecutor to offer evidence regarding Petitioner's mistreatment of her surviving child, and 3) the trial court erroneously allowed expert testimony regarding Petitioner's computer use. The Court will deny the petition because the claims are without merit. The Court will grant Petitioner a certificate of appealability with respect to her first claim, but deny one with respect to her other claims. The Court will also grant Petitioner permission to proceed on appeal in forma pauperis.

I. Background

Charges against Petitioner arose when on March 7, 2009, Taryn Jefferson, Petitioner's twenty-one-year-old severely disabled daughter, died. The prosecution alleged that Petitioner, Taryn's sole caregiver, neglected her in the last months of her life leading to her death.

At trial, evidence established that Petitioner's daughter was shaken as a baby by her father and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Since the injury, Petitioner was required to attend to Taryn's basic needs, as she was completely unable to care for herself.

Registered nurse Susan Fillmore testified at trial that she worked at an outpatient clinic in Grand Rapids, where her job was to refill Baclofen pumps, including the pump that was surgically implanted in Taryn Jefferson in 2005. When Petitioner failed to bring Taryn in for a November 11, 2008 appointment, the nurse sent an "alarm" letter to the home. When that brought no response, she called Adult Protective Services.

Petitioner finally brought her daughter in on November 21, and the clinical staff determined that Taryn had lost 31 pounds. Petitioner reported that everyone in the household had been sick. Fillmore made appointments for Taryn to be seen at a hospital, but Petitioner failed to keep them.

Taryn had been a student at the Lincoln Developmental Center. Her teacher stated that she did not attend the school much during the fall of 2008, and in December stopped coming altogether. The school principal sent Petitioner a letter in October of 2008 saying that Taryn would be disenrolled for non-attendance.

School social worker Patty Joynt testified that she was unable to reach Petitioner in September of 2008, and in October, Petitioner told Ms. Joynt that she was trying to get her life back on track and "needed to get back to being a mom again."

Lynn Yondo, the school nurse at Lincoln, testified that she last weighed Taryn in October of 2007, and she weighed 117 pounds. Around this same time, Taryn's half-brother Michael Squires was not attending school regularly.

Grand Rapids Public School truant officer Jeana Young testified that she sent letters to the home and attempted home visits. She did speak with Tammy Jefferson on October 17, 2008, and Petitioner told her that the children had been sick. Michael Squires had 46 unexcused absences between September of 2008 and the end of February of 2009.

John Scheid, a home help worker with the Department of Human Services, conducted a home visit in October of 2008. Taryn looked thinner than on prior visits, but not drastically so, and her mother seemed not to have noticed the extent of the weight loss. He scheduled another interview, but on that date he got no response at the home, so he did not see Taryn again until March 3, 2009, four days before her death. On that date, Taryn looked "gaunt" and her mother said she had a "nasty bug." Petitioner acknowledged that they had missed some medical appointments and said she was having transportation problems. Mr. Scheid did not think Taryn was in "obvious distress" on March 3, and he was going to help reschedule an appointment for her with a primary care physician. Petitioner expressed to him an interest in having Taryn return to school.

Steven Squires testified that he and Petitioner lived together for seven or eight years. After their son Michael was born with spida bifida in 2000, Steven Squires assisted in caring for both children, and even after he left the home he would return to help out. Mr. Squires said that Petitioner was a very good mother until she got a computer in 2006 or 2007. As she spent more time on the computer, she seemed to spend less time caring for the children. Mr. Squires testified that toward the end of Taryn's life, whenever he or Petitioner would try to feed Taryn, Taryn would push the food out of her mouth with her tongue.

Petitioner's friend of twelve years, Nicole Smith, also described Tammy Jefferson as a very good mother. She said that she saw Petitioner three or four times a week and was aware that Taryn was sick in the month before her death.

Using medical records, Detective Eric Wiler of the Wyoming, Michigan Police Department put together a chart of the fluctuations in Taryn's weight between June of 2005 and her death on March 7, 2009. The chart was introduced into evidence and reflects that at the time of her death Taryn weighed 65 pounds.

After Taryn's death, Petitioner moved with Michael Squires to Omaha, Nebraska, to live with her estranged sister Lori Vasquez. Ms. Vasquez testified at trial that she had never known Taryn, and that after Petitioner moved into her Omaha home with Michael, Petitioner needed to be reminded to bathe Michael and change his diaper.

Detective Todd Didion interviewed Petitioner in Omaha on September 29, 2009, and testified that she told him that while she let some of Taryn's medical appointments slide, she never did so for "life and death matters." Petitioner explained that Taryn was sick before she died, and Petitioner's priority became keeping her healthy, while keeping her in school became much less of a priority. Because she was with Taryn everyday, she did not notice the dramatic weight loss in a way a person who saw Taryn less frequently would notice it.

Police seized Ms. Jefferson's computer and monitor, and turned it over to Dr. Earl Fife for examination. Dr. Fife determined that Petitioner had engaged in chat line conversations on 209 different days for an average period of two hours per day, and that for internet usage exclusive of chats, Dr. Fife calculated that the average number of pages per day, as reflected in the computer history file, was 131. That 131 pages did not include repeat visits to the same site, which increased the average number of pages to over 400 per day.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Stephen Cohle testified as an expert witness that he performed an autopsy on Taryn Jefferson on March 7, 2009. He understood that she had suffered from a severe brain injury and cerebral palsy. At the time of her death, Taryn was 4'8" tall, weighed 65 pounds and was filthy. She had an electronic Baclofen pump implanted in her abdomen. There was no evidence of trauma, but her brain was one-half of normal size, which is consistent with a severe head injury. The doctor offered the opinion that Taryn ...

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