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Sheffield v. Gidley

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

October 3, 2016

ALFRED JOHN SHEFFIELD, Petitioner,
v.
LORI GIDLEY, Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING THE HABEAS CORPUS PETITION, DECLINING TO ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY, BUT GRANTING LEAVE TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS ON APPEAL

          HONORABLE ARTHUR J. TARNOW SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter has come before the Court on petitioner Alfred John Sheffield's pro se petition for the writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges his Wayne County, Michigan conviction for second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws §750.317. Petitioner asserts that the evidence at trial was insufficient, that his sentence was based on inaccurate information, that the prosecutor committed misconduct during closing arguments, and that his trial and appellate attorneys were ineffective. Petitioner also claims to have newly-discovered evidence that his young co-defendant, Arthur Murray (“Murray”), fabricated evidence against him. Respondent Lori Gidley urges the Court to deny the habeas petition on grounds that Petitioner's claims are meritless, are not cognizable on habeas review, are barred by the doctrine of procedural default, or were waived. The Court agrees that Petitioner's claims do not warrant habeas relief. Accordingly, the petition will be denied.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was tried before a jury in Wayne County Circuit Court where the evidence established that,

[o]n July 20, 2009, while walking his dog in an alley between Sturdevant and Highland Streets in Highland Park, Michigan, Robert Wilson noticed a body. Wilson immediately notified the police, who arrived at the scene and identified the victim as Mary McCullum. McCullum was found in some tall grass with her pants unbuttoned and unzipped. According to officers on the scene, judging from the tracks formed in the tall grass, her body had been dragged to the location where she was found. As police worked the case, they eventually were told of two possible suspects, “Al” and “Ace.”[1]Following a lead that defendant owned a van which matched a description given by an anonymous source, defendant voluntarily appeared at the Highland Park Police Station for an interview. After initially telling detectives that he did not know the victim or anyone named Ace, he subsequently changed his story and told police that on July 20, 2009, at around 1:30 a.m., he drove Ace to a gas station where they met the victim. Ace then propositioned the victim for sex. According to defendant's statement, he drove Ace and the victim to a location where they could “take care of business.” After defendant left his van, he noted that people were coming up and buying drugs from Ace, and eventually defendant asked Ace if he was finished, and Ace responded that he thought the victim had stolen money from him. According to defendant, he suggested that Ace search the victim. Defendant also stated that he drove Ace and the victim to another location. It was at this location, an alley between Highland and Sturdevant, that defendant stopped the van and Ace dragged the victim out of the van and beat her. According to defendant's statement, when he confronted Ace, Ace threatened to kill defendant. On August 14, 2009, Murray was arrested and charged in the killing of Mary McCullum.
On August 19, 2009, police arrested defendant and impounded his van. A second interview of defendant was conducted. Although in the first statement defendant had asserted that he left Ace and the victim in the alley, to be flagged down by Ace at a different location, in his second statement, defendant told police that he observed Ace stomp on the victim's head, drag her to a nearby fence and hit her with a brick. He also told police that Ace may have used a knife from defendant's van to stab the victim. Defendant told police that following the killing of the victim, Ace requested to be driven home and defendant complied.

People v. Sheffield, No. 296780, 2011 WL 2623383, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. July 5, 2011) (footnote in original).

         The victim was five feet tall and 106 pounds. Her body was found in a deserted area near vacant houses. She had been stabbed fourteen times in the chest and had facial and skull fractures consistent with blunt force injury. Seminal fluid on her jacket and biological material found under her fingernails matched Murray's DNA. There was no forensic evidence linking Petitioner to the crime.

         The prosecutor's theory was that Petitioner aided and abetted Murray in killing the victim. Petitioner did not testify or present any witnesses. His defense was that Murray was to blame for the victim's death and that there was no connection between him and the harm done to the victim.

         On January 27, 2010, the jury found Petitioner guilty, as charged, of second-degree murder. On February 16, 2010, the trial court sentenced Petitioner as a habitual offender, fourth offense, to imprisonment for forty to sixty years with credit for 189 days. Petitioner was almost fifty years old at the time.

         On direct appeal, Petitioner argued through counsel that the evidence at trial was insufficient to convict him. In a pro se supplemental brief, Petitioner raised the same claim, as well as, claims about trial counsel and appellate counsel. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence, see id., and on December 28, 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because it was not persuaded to review the issues. See People v. Sheffield, 490 Mich. 971; 806 N.W.2d 331 (2011).

         Petitioner subsequently filed a motion for relief from judgment in which he alleged that his sentence was based on inaccurate information, that he was entitled to a new trial due to newly-discovered evidence, that he was deprived of effective assistance of trial counsel at the preliminary examination, and that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise meritorious issues. The trial court denied Petitioner's motion, and the Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal for failure to establish entitlement to relief under Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D). See People v. Sheffield, No. 312846 (Mich. Ct. App. June 5, 2013). On February 5, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal for the same reason. See People v. Sheffield, 495 Mich. 939; 843 N.W.2d 211 (2014).

         On February 21, 2014, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition. He asserts the following claims as grounds for relief: (1) the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence to satisfy the reasonable-doubt standard of proof; (2) his sentence was based on inaccurate information; (3) the prosecutor violated his rights to a fair trial and due process of law during closing arguments; (4) he is entitled to a new trial on the basis of newly-discovered evidence that Murray fabricated evidence against him; (5) he was denied effective assistance of trial counsel by counsel's failure to challenge the prosecutor's case; (6) he was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel on direct review; and (7) there was insubstantial evidence linking him to the murder. Respondent argues in an answer to the habeas petition that some of Petitioner's claims are procedurally defaulted, either because Petitioner did not exhaust state remedies for the claims and no longer has an available remedy, or because Petitioner raised the claims for the first time on state collateral review.

         A procedural default is not a jurisdictional matter, Trest v. Cain, 522 U.S.87, 89 (1997), and an analysis of whether Petitioner's claims are procedurally defaulted “adds nothing but complexity to the case.” Babick v. Berghuis, 620 F.3d 571, 576 (6th Cir. 2010). The Court therefore proceeds directly to the merits of Petitioner's claims, using the following standard of review.

         II. Standard of Review

         “The statutory authority of federal courts to issue habeas corpus relief for persons in state custody is provided by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 97 (2011). Pursuant to § 2254, the court may not grant a state prisoner's application for the writ of habeas corpus unless the state court's adjudication of the prisoner's claims on the merits

(1) 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
(2) 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).

Under the “contrary to” clause [of § 2254(d)(1)], a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Under the “unreasonable application” clause [of § 2254(d)(1)], a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.

Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000) (O'Connor, J., opinion of the Court for Part II).

         “[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.” Id. at 411. “AEDPA thus imposes a ‘highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, ' Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333 n.7 (1997), and ‘demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt, ' Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam).” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010).

         “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 101 (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). To obtain a writ of habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on his 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 103.

         III. Analysis

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Petitioner's first and seventh claims allege that the prosecutor failed to produce sufficient evidence to support Petitioner's conviction. Petitioner points out that there was no forensic evidence linking him to the murder and that the prosecutor failed to establish a motive for him to commit the crime. Petitioner also contends that there was no evidence that he supported, encouraged, or incited the commission of the crime and that, at most, he was merely present when Murray beat and stabbed the victim. The Michigan Court of Appeals adjudicated Petitioner's claim on direct review and concluded that sufficient evidence existed to support Petitioner's conviction.

         1. Clearly Established Federal Law

         The relevant question on review of the sufficiency of the evidence is “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979) (emphasis in original). The Supreme Court has made clear that

Jackson claims face a high bar in federal habeas proceedings because they are subject to two layers of judicial deference. First, on direct appeal, “it is the responsibility of the jury-not the court-to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial. A reviewing court may set aside the jury's verdict on the ground of insufficient evidence only if no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury.” Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1, __, 132 S.Ct. 2, 4, 181 L.Ed.2d 311 (2011) (per curiam). And second, on habeas review, “a federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court. The federal court instead may do so only if the state court decision was ‘objectively unreasonable.' ” Ibid. (quoting Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, __, 130 S.Ct. 1855, 1862, 176 L.Ed.2d 678 (2010)).

Coleman v. Johnson, 132 S.Ct. 2060, 2062 (2012) (per curiam).

         The Jackson standard “must be applied with explicit reference to the substantive elements of the criminal offense as defined by state law.” Jackson, 443 U.S. at 324 n.16. In Michigan,

[t]he elements of second-degree murder are: (1) a death, (2) caused by an act of the defendant, (3) with malice, and (4) without justification or excuse. People v. Bailey, 451 Mich. 657, 669, 549 N.W.2d 325 (1996).
Malice is defined as the intent to kill, the intent to cause great bodily harm, or the intent to do an act in wanton and wilful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of such behavior is to cause death or great bodily harm. Peo ...

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