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Sparks-Ross v. Warren

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

December 1, 2016

FAYDRA APRIL SPARKS-ROSS, Petitioner,
v.
MILLICENT WARREN, Respondent.

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

          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge.

         Petitioner Faydra April Sparks-Ross has filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1), challenging her state conviction and sentence of 30 to 120 months' imprisonment for assaulting a prison employee, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.197c. Respondent Millicent Warrant urges the Court to deny the petition on grounds that one of Petitioner's claims is not cognizable on habeas review, and that her other claims lack merit. See Answer at 3-4 (Dkt. 8). For the reasons stated below, the Court denies the petition for writ of habeas corpus, declines to issue a certificate of appealability, and grants leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The charge against Petitioner arose from allegations that Petitioner threw urine, feces, and toilet paper at a correctional officer while she was confined at the Huron Valley Women's Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The prosecutor's theory was that Petitioner committed the assault to get transferred from the prison infirmary to another unit in the prison.

         Petitioner was tried before a jury in Washtenaw County Circuit Court in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Prosecution witness Karla Mitchell Hedrick testified that Petitioner was a patient in the infirmary at the Huron Valley Women's Facility on May 29, 2009. Officer Hedrick explained that the infirmary was like a hospital inside of the prison, and that Petitioner was housed there because she was eight or nine months pregnant and the doctor thought Petitioner would benefit from being in the infirmary. At approximately 3:30 p.m. on May 29, 2009, Officer Hedrick conducted her rounds at the prison and observed that the window to Petitioner's room was covered with magazines or papers. She banged on the door, and when she did not get a response, she called her supervisor. With her supervisor's permission, she opened the door to Petitioner's cell. She was then hit in the face with the contents of Petitioner's porta potty, which included urine, feces, and toilet paper. She claimed that she had ongoing concerns for her health and well-being as a result of the assault, because it was possible to contract a disease from urine and fecal matter, and the risk of contracting hepatitis was very high in the prison. 9/13/2010 Trial Tr. at 92-111, 113 (Dkt. 9-3).

         Merlyn Niles testified that he was a former shift supervisor at the Huron Valley Women's Facility. On May 29, 2009, at about 3:30 p.m., he responded to Officer Hedrick's call for assistance. He observed the blocked window to Petitioner's cell, and he tried knocking on the door to get a response from Petitioner. He and Officer Hedrick opened the door to make sure that Petitioner was alright. Petitioner then threw a bucket of excrement and urine at Officer Hedrick. Sergeant Niles called another officer to escort Petitioner to segregation, because that was where prisoners went when they assaulted staff. Id. at 128-134.

         Officer Evelyn Ewing also responded to the call for assistance in the infirmary on May 29, 2009. She saw feces and paper on the door to Petitioner's cell and on the floor. She and Sergeant Niles hand-cuffed Petitioner and then Ewing escorted Petitioner part of the way to segregation. On the way there, Petitioner said, “Well, I did it this time. I did the assault this time.” Id. at 136-138.

         Michigan State Trooper Duane Zook was notified of the assault and made contact with Petitioner at the prison. Petitioner mentioned to Trooper Zook that she was mistreated in the infirmary, but she did not admit to throwing anything at Officer Hedrick. Petitioner informed Trooper Zook that she was placed in the infirmary two days earlier and that she thought the infirmary was not the right place for her because she was not ill. She explained that she had irregular bowel movements in the infirmary, that she was transported to the hospital for the problem, and that subsequently she was sent back to the infirmary where she did not want to be. After the assault, she was moved out of the infirmary. Id. at 142-146.

         Petitioner was the only defense witness. She testified that, initially she was in a segregation unit, but that she was moved to the infirmary so that she could be observed, as she was nine months pregnant at the time. She claimed that she could have been moved to the pregnancy unit where other pregnant women were housed and that, by moving her to the infirmary, she and her unborn child were endangered. She claimed that, before she went to the infirmary, she was very healthy, but after being placed in the infirmary, she became ill and went to the hospital where she was giving antibiotics. The antibiotics made her feel better, and on the following day, she was sent back to the infirmary. She claimed that the thought of going back to the infirmary made her scared for her baby because she had already gotten sick and she feared that she might lose her baby. She also claimed that she had filed a grievance and contacted a number of prison officials in an effort to be removed from the infirmary, but everyone refused her request for a transfer to another unit.

         Continuing, Petitioner admitted that she subsequently devised a plan to get out of the infirmary. The plan included covering her door with magazine papers and then waiting until someone opened her door. Petitioner also admitted that she threw her feces, urine, and used toilet paper at an officer, but she claimed that she threw the mixture over the officer's head, rather than directly at the officer. She denied intending to harm or embarrass anyone; she claimed instead that she had wanted to get someone's attention so that officials would send her back to the segregation unit where she was previously housed. She said that it was a desperate situation that called for desperate measures and that, even though she could have done things differently, her other attempts to solve the problem had not worked. Id. at 149-166.

         On September 13, 2010, the jury found Petitioner guilty, as charged, of assaulting a prison employee. On October 14, 2010, the trial court assessed fees and costs against Petitioner and sentenced Petitioner to imprisonment for 30 to 120 months. Petitioner moved for re-sentencing, but the trial court denied her motion after hearing oral arguments on the motion.

         Petitioner subsequently raised her first three habeas claims in a delayed application for leave to appeal. She raised her fourth claim in a motion for leave to file a supplemental brief. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied Petitioner's motion to file a supplemental brief and denied leave to appeal “for lack of merit in the grounds presented.” People v. Sparks-Ross, No. 307498 (Mich. Ct. App. Mar. 7, 2013) (Dkt. 9-6). On September 3, 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because it was not persuaded to review the issues. See People v. Sparks-Ross, 835 N.W.2d 584 (Mich. 2013) (table).

         On April 18, 2014, Petitioner filed her habeas corpus petition. At the time, Petitioner was incarcerated at the Huron Valley Women's Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Records maintained by the Michigan Department of Corrections on its official website indicate that the Michigan Parole Board released Petitioner on parole on June 1, 2016. See http://mdocweb.state.mi.us/OTIS2/otis2profile.aspx?mdocNumber=339161.

         Petitioner raises the following four grounds for relief in her petition: (i) the trial judge reversibly erred by ruling that Petitioner would not be allowed to present a self-defense/duress defense; (ii) the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by (a) injecting irrelevant and highly prejudicial information into the trial and (b) presenting evidence of uncharged misconduct; (iii) trial counsel's performance was deficient because he failed to (a) ask the presiding judge to instruct the jury on self-defense, etc., and (b) argue that mental illness/pre-partum depression should constitute a mitigating factor at sentencing; and (iv) the trial court's assessment of $1, 664.00 in costs was an abuse of discretion because of the utter lack of foundation for the assessment. Pet. at 4-9. As noted above, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Petitioner's first three claims for lack of merit, and the Michigan Supreme Court was not persuaded to review the issues.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214, imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim -
(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.

         A decision of a state court is “contrary to” clearly established federal law 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. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-406 (2000). An “unreasonable application” occurs when “a state-court decision unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the facts of a prisoner's case.” Id. at 409. 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.” Id. at 411.

         The Supreme Court has explained that a “federal court's collateral review of a state-court decision must be consistent with the respect due state courts in our federal system.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). Thus, the AEDPA “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). 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.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011). The Supreme Court has emphasized “that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. at 102. Furthermore, pursuant to section 2254(d), “a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision” of the Supreme Court. Id. Habeas relief is not appropriate unless each ground that supported the state-court's decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under the AEDPA. See Wetzel v. Lambert, 132 S.Ct. 1195, 1199 (2012).

         “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102. Although 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by the AEDPA, does not completely bar federal courts from re-litigating claims that have previously been rejected in the state courts, it preserves the authority for a federal court to grant habeas relief only “in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with” the Supreme Court's precedents. Id. Indeed, section 2254(d) “reflects the view that habeas corpus is a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Id. Thus, a “readiness to attribute error [to a state court] is inconsistent with the presumption that state courts know and follow the law.” Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). Therefore, in order to obtain habeas relief in federal court, a state prisoner is required to show that the state-court's rejection of his claim “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 786-787.

         A state court's factual determinations are presumed correct on federal habeas review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). A habeas petitioner may rebut this presumption of correctness only with clear and convincing evidence. Id.; Warren v. Smith, 161 F.3d 358, 360-361 (6th Cir. 1998). Moreover, habeas review is ‚Äúlimited to ...


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