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Stackhouse v. Klee

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

July 9, 2015

PAUL KLEE, Respondent.


DAVID M. LAWSON, District Judge.

Petitioner Larry Charles Stackhouse seeks a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, contending that his conviction for domestic assault, third offense, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.81(4), was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights. The petitioner has been released on parole. He challenges his conviction on the grounds that the prosecutor committed misconduct and he received ineffective assistance of counsel. The respondent has filed an answer to the petition contending that the petitioner's first claim was not preserved properly in the state courts, and both of his claims are meritless. The Court finds that the petitioner's claims lack merit. The Court, therefore, will deny the petition.


The petitioner was convicted as set forth above following a jury trial in Cheboygen County, Michigan circuit court. The Michigan Court of Appeals accurately summarized the evidence adduced at trial as follows:

Melissa Brilly testified that in April 2010, she and her boyfriend, Stackhouse, with whom she was living at the time, had an argument. Brilly claimed that Stackhouse had been talking to another woman, and Brilly wanted to see his phone. Stackhouse resisted, but Brilly persisted, the result of the struggle being that the phone broke in half. Brilly testified that Stackhouse then pushed her against some steps, knocked her down, and struck her arm with a metal dog cage. Brilly continued that, after she stood back up, Stackhouse started choking her. Brilly elaborated that she could not breathe and so dug into his arm with her nails, to which Stackhouse retaliated by biting her on the top of her hand, breaking the skin. Brilly testified that the fracas continued into the kitchen, where Stackhouse dumped chicken grease on her, she slipped on the floor, and Stackhouse kicked her all over her body, including her head. Brilly stated that she retreated to a bedroom, where she called a friend. Brilly explained that she initially hesitated to talk to the police because she had an outstanding warrant related to some bad checks and because she did not want to get Stackhouse into trouble.

People v. Stackhouse, No. 301207, 2012 WL 130414, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 17, 2012).

The petitioner was sentenced on November 9, 2010 as a fourth habitual offender to three to 15 years in prison. He filed a direct appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals, raising these claims: (A) the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by shifting the burden of proof, vouching for the credibility of the victim, and arguing facts not in evidence; and (B) counsel was ineffective by failing to object to prosecutorial misconduct and failing to renew the objection during sentencing. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the petitioner's convictions. Stackhouse, 2012 WL 130414.

The petitioner filed an application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court. He raised the same claims raised in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal, People v. Stackhouse, 491 Mich. 945 (Mich. June 25, 2012), and denied reconsideration of that order, People v. Stackhouse, 492 Mich. 871 (Mich. Sept. 4, 2012).

The petitioner then filed this habeas corpus petition. He raises the same claims raised in state court. The respondent filed an answer contesting the merits of the petition, and raising a procedural default defense for the prosecutorial misconduct claims.

The Court finds it unnecessary to address the question of procedural default. It is not a jurisdictional bar to review of the merits of an issue, Howard v. Bouchard, 405 F.3d 459, 476 (6th Cir. 2005), and "federal courts are not required to address a procedural-default issue before deciding against the petitioner on the merits, " Hudson v. Jones, 351 F.3d 212, 215 (6to Cir. 2003) (citing Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997)). Application of a procedural bar would not affect the outcome of this case, and it is more efficient to proceed directly to the merits.


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 an application for a writ of habeas corpus raising constitutional claims, including claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. See Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003). Because Stackhouse filed his petition after the AEDPA's effective date, its standard of review applies. Under that statute, if a claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court's adjudication "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " or if the adjudication "resulted in a decision that was based on 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). "Clearly established Federal law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions." White v. Woodall, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).

The distinction between mere error and an objectively unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent creates a substantially higher threshold for obtaining relief than de novo review. The AEDPA thus imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, and demands that state-court decisions be "given the benefit of the doubt." Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (finding that the state court's rapid declaration of a mistrial on grounds of jury deadlock was not unreasonable even where "the jury only deliberated for four hours, its notes were arguably ambiguous, the trial judge's initial question to the foreperson was imprecise, and the judge neither asked for elaboration of the foreperson's answers nor took any other measures to confirm the foreperson's prediction that a unanimous verdict would not be reached" (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)); see also Dewald v. Wriggelsworth, 748 F.3d 295, 298-99 (6th Cir. 2014); Bray v. Andrews, 640 F.3d 731, 737-39 (6th Cir. 2011); Phillips v. Bradshaw, 607 F.3d 199, 205 (6th Cir. 2010); Murphy v. Ohio, 551 F.3d 485, 493-94 (6th Cir. 2009); Eady v. Morgan, 515 F.3d 587, 594-95 (6th Cir. 2008); Davis v. Coyle, 475 F.3d 761, 766-67 (6th Cir. 2007); Rockwell v. Yukins, 341 F.3d 507, 511 (6th Cir. 2003) (en banc). Moreover, habeas review is "limited to the record that was before the state court." Cullen v. Pinholster, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011).


The petitioner argues that the prosecutor engaged in the following instances of misconduct: she (1) shifted the burden of proof to the defense during jury voir dire and closing argument; (2) vouched for the credibility of the victim; (3) argued facts not in evidence in her closing argument; and (4) improperly appealed to jurors' emotions.

The "clearly established Federal law" relevant to a habeas court's review of a prosecutorial misconduct claim is the Supreme Court's decision in Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 181 (1986). Parker v. Matthews, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2148, 2153 (2012). In Darden, the Supreme Court held that a "prosecutor's improper comments will be held to violate the Constitution only if they so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.'" Ibid. (quoting Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 643 (1974)). In assessing the petitioner's claims under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, this Court must ask whether the Michigan Court of Appeal's decision denying the petitioner's prosecutorial misconduct claims "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'" Id. at 2155 (quoting Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103).


In his criticism of the prosecutor for improperly shifting the burden of proof during jury voir dire, the petitioner points to the following comments:

Prosecutor: I'm not sure which of you ladies has a bag. I see Ms. Parkey you've got a bag there. What if I ran up to you and snatched your bag and ran out of the courtroom and you all see me and I'm on videotape and do I still ...

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