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Matthews v. Maclaren

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

October 27, 2016




         Petitioner Louis Matthews has filed a pro se habeas corpus petition challenging his convictions for second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317, felon in possession of a firearm, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.224f, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. Petitioner raises several claims regarding the sufficiency of the evidence, his trial and appellate attorneys, the prosecutor, allegedly new evidence of actual innocence, and the jury instructions. The State argues in an answer to the habeas petition that four of Petitioner's six claims are procedurally defaulted and that the state courts' rejection of Petitioner's claims was reasonable. The Court agrees that Petitioner's claims do not warrant habeas corpus relief. Accordingly, the habeas petition will be denied.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was charged in Wayne County, Michigan with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and one count of possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony. Although there was only one victim, the prosecutor's theory was that Petitioner was guilty of both felony murder (murder committed during a robbery) and premeditated murder.

         The charges arose from the fatal shooting of Darrell Benson in Detroit about 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 19, 2008. His body was discovered on Thursday, November 20, 2008. The state court of appeals summarized the evidence at Petitioner's jury trial in Wayne County Circuit Court as follows:

[T]he victim's family members testified that the victim was operating a recording studio in his basement. The victim had $400 in his possession and pawned jewelry to obtain an additional $200. The victim was planning to make a major purchase on Thursday. On Wednesday, family members were unable to contact the victim. On Wednesday morning, defendant dropped his girlfriend off at work at 6:30 a.m. so he could use her vehicle, and she testified that he picked her up late at 2:50 p.m. that day. She testified that defendant, to her knowledge, did not have money earlier in the day, but when he picked her up, he repaid her $60 dollars that he had borrowed and had additional money despite paying that debt. The girlfriend also noticed that a black barrel gun was on the floor, and she told defendant, a parolee, that he could not drive in her car with a gun. Defendant said that he would get rid of the gun.
Defendant's girlfriend testified that defendant was arrested by Highland Park police on Wednesday evening. The police told her to retrieve her vehicle, a Monte Carlo, or be charged impound fees. When she picked up the vehicle, there were two mink coats in her back seat, but the gun was missing. The mink coats were not in her vehicle when defendant picked her up from work.
On Wednesday, the victim's neighbor pulled into his own driveway. He was getting groceries out of his car when he observed a man pass by with an intimidating look on his face. The man entered an older model Monte Carlo and sped off. Early the next day, the neighbor noticed that the victim's front door was cracked open despite the fact that it was cold. When he returned home that evening, another neighbor pointed out that the door was still cracked open. Neighbors went to the front door and observed a body lying on the floor. Police officers testified that the body had been dead for at least 24 hours in light of the dried blood that had seeped through the floor to the basement.
Defendant did not account for his whereabouts the entire day of the murder. An FBI agent concluded that cellular phone records and towers indicated that defendant was in the vicinity of the murder on two occasions during the day. Additionally, family members testified that the two mink coats that the victim owned were missing from his home. A hood to one of the mink coats was found near the front door.
Defendant's girlfriend testified that defendant denied any involvement in the killing of the victim, his nephew. However later, he admitted to seeing the victim on the day of the murder. Additionally, defendant instructed his girlfriend to discard the two mink coats that she found in her vehicle, and she placed them in a dumpster. She identified a photograph of one of the two mink coats that belonged to the victim. Family members testified that defendant spoke of “hitting a lick” even if a family member was the intended target of the robbery or theft. Defendant also asked family members to assist him in obtaining a gun. Finally, family members testified that there was discord between defendant and the victim regarding defendant's son.

People v. Matthews, No. 295307, 2011 WL 2694612, at *1-2 (Mich. Ct. App. July 12, 2011) (unpublished).

         Petitioner did not testify or present any witnesses at trial. His defense was that the prosecution's case was weak, that the evidence was misleading, and that someone else must have broken into the victim's house and murdered him.

         The deliberating jury informed the trial court more than once that it could not reach a unanimous decision. On October 23, 2009, however, the jury found Petitioner guilty of two counts of second-degree murder, as a lesser-included offense of first-degree murder, and guilty, as charged, of felon in possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. At Petitioner's sentencing on November 16, 2009, the trial court dismissed one count of murder and then sentenced Petitioner to sixty to one hundred years in prison for the murder conviction, two to five years in prison for the felon-in-possession conviction, and five years in prison for the felony-firearm conviction.

         In an appeal as of right, Petitioner raised issues concerning the sufficiency of the evidence, his trial attorney's failure to call and fully cross-examine witnesses, and the prosecutor's remarks during closing arguments. At Petitioner's request, the Michigan Court of Appeals remanded Petitioner's case for an evidentiary hearing on his claim about trial counsel. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and then denied Petitioner's request for a retrial. The Michigan Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed Petitioner's convictions, see id., and on November 21, 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because it was not persuaded to review the issues. See People v. Matthews, 805 N.W.2d 207 (Mich. 2011).

         On October 22, 2012, Petitioner filed a motion for relief from judgment in which he claimed to have new evidence that he was actually innocent of the murder for which he was convicted and sentenced. Petitioner also claimed that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that it could find him guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and that defense counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the instructions. Finally, Petitioner claimed that his trial and appellate attorneys were ineffective for failing to produce evidence demonstrating his innocence and that the prosecution suppressed the evidence. The state trial court denied Petitioner's motion, and the Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal the trial court's decision because Petitioner failed to establish entitlement to relief under Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D). See People v. Matthews, No. 314691 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 23, 2013). On February 28, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal for the same reason. See People v. Matthews, 843 N.W.2d 537 (Mich. 2014).

         On April 3, 2014, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, raising the six claims that he presented to the state court on direct appeal and on state collateral review. See ECF No. 1. On July 28, 2014, Petitioner filed an application to amend his habeas petition, ECF No. 6, and on October 13, 2014, the State filed an answer to the habeas petition, ECF No. 9. Finally, on November 4, 2014, Petitioner filed a reply to the State's answer, ECF No. 11.

         II. Preliminary Matters

         A. The Application to Amend

         In his application to amend his habeas petition, Petitioner expands on his initial claims, but also alleges that the prosecutor committed a fraud on the state court by leading a witness at the state evidentiary hearing and by soliciting perjury. This is a new claim, and because Petitioner did not exhaust state remedies for the claim, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1), the Court denies Petitioner's request to amend his habeas petition to include that claim. The application to amend is granted as to the arguments that merely supplement Petitioner's initial claims.

         B. The State's Procedural-Default Argument

         The State argues in its answer to the habeas petition that Petitioner procedurally defaulted his third, fourth, fifth, and sixth claims regarding the prosecutor's arguments, the allegedly new evidence, the jury instructions, and allegedly undisclosed evidence. “[I]n the habeas context, a procedural default, that is, a critical failure to comply with state procedural law, is not a jurisdictional matter.” Trest v. Cain, 522 U.S. 87, 89 (1997). And analyzing 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 “cut[s] to the merits here, ” id., using the following standard of review.

         III. 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 or her claim “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.

         IV. Analysis

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence (claim one)

         Petitioner alleges that there was insufficient evidence at trial to convict him of second-degree murder. He points out that there were no eyewitnesses to the crime, there was no physical evidence demonstrating that he caused the victim's death, and there was no “trace” evidence. Petitioner also points out that there was no testimony regarding the caliber of the weapon he possessed[1] and that no one identified the fur coats seen in his girlfriend's car as the victim's coats.[2] Additionally, according to Petitioner, the prosecutor's theory that the murder occurred about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. on November 19, 2008, was not supported by the medical examiner's testimony.[3]Petitioner concludes that the jury's verdict was improperly based on unsupported assumptions and unreasonable inferences.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals adjudicated Petitioner's claim on the merits during the direct appeal. It held that, although Petitioner's murder conviction was premised on circumstantial evidence and inferences arising from the evidence, there was sufficient evidence to support the murder conviction.

         1. Clearly Established Federal Law

         The Supreme Court has held “that the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). Following Winship, the critical inquiry on review of a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a criminal conviction is

whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But this inquiry does not require a court to “ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, the relevant question 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. This familiar standard gives full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts.

Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979) (internal citations and footnote omitted) (emphases in ...

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