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Gentry v. Berghuis

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

December 20, 2016

MARY BERGHUIS, Respondent.



         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. On May 26, 2011, following a jury trial in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court, Petitioner Richard Charles Gentry was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(a), two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.83, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony firearm), Mich. Comp. Laws 750.227b. On June 22, 2011, Petitioner was sentenced as a fourth-offense felony offender, Mich. Comp. Laws § 769.12, to life imprisonment on the conspiracy to commit first-degree murder conviction, concurrent to 30 to 50 years on the two assault with intent to commit murder convictions. Those sentences, in turn, are consecutive and subsequent to two concurrent five year sentences on the felony firearm convictions.

         In his pro se petition, Petitioner raises four grounds for relief, the same grounds he raised in the Michigan Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court on his direct appeal:

I. Was there sufficient identification evidence?
II. Was the identification admissible?
III. Was there evidence for an arrest?
IV. Was there ineffective assistance of counsel?

         (Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.6-10.)[1] On September 9, 2013, Respondent filed an answer to the petition (ECF No. 5), stating that the grounds should be denied because they are noncognizable, procedurally defaulted, and/or without merit. On September 17, 2013, Respondent filed the state-court record, pursuant to Rule 5, Rules Governing § 2254 Cases. (ECF Nos. 6-21.)[2] Upon review and applying the AEDPA standards, the Court finds that all habeas grounds are meritless. Accordingly, the Court will deny the petition for failure to raise a meritorious federal claim.

         Procedural and Factual Background

         During the early morning hours of June 1, 2010, Ryan Allen backed a pickup truck into a parking space in the courtyard of the Forest Court Apartments in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He called for bystander Kevin McMillan, a person with whom Allen had argued a few hour earlier, to come over to the truck. As McMillan approached, Allen said “get him.” A gunman concealed in the bed of the pickup sprang up and fired three shots hitting McMillan, his friend Ariel Ortiz, and a nearby apartment. The testimony was remarkably consistent regarding the events of the day. The only dispute was the identity of the gunman. McMillan testified that the gunman was Petitioner. Petitioner testified that McMillan was simply wrong because Petitioner was babysitting in the Detroit area at the time of the shooting. The jury apparently found McMillan to be the more credible witness.

         Standard of Review

         This action is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (AEDPA). See Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 792 (2001). The AEDPA “prevents federal habeas ‘retrials'” and ensures that state court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under the law. Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693-94 (2002). The AEDPA has “drastically changed” the nature of habeas review. Bailey v. Mitchell, 271 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir. 2001). An application for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person who is incarcerated pursuant to a state conviction cannot be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication: “(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 upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This standard is “intentionally difficult to meet.” Woods v. Donald, 575 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1372');">135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The AEDPA limits the source of law to cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This Court may consider only the “clearly established” holdings, and not the dicta, of the Supreme Court. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Bailey, 271 F.3d at 655. In determining whether federal law is clearly established, the Court may not consider the decisions of lower federal courts. Lopez v. Smith, 135 S.Ct. 1, 3 (2014); Bailey, 271 F.3d at 655. Moreover, “clearly established Federal law” does not include decisions of the Supreme Court announced after the last adjudication of the merits in state court. Greene v. Fisher, 132 S.Ct. 38 (2011). Thus, the inquiry is limited to an examination of the legal landscape as it would have appeared to the Michigan state courts in light of Supreme Court precedent at the time of the state-court adjudication on the merits. Miller v. Stovall, 742 F.3d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Greene, 132 S.Ct. at 44).

         A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the “contrary to” clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in the Supreme Court's cases, or if it decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Bell, 535 U.S. at 694 (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06). “To satisfy this high bar, a habeas petitioner is required to ‘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.'” Woods, 2015 WL 1400852, at *3 (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)). In other words, “[w]here the precise contours of the right remain unclear, state courts enjoy broad discretion in their adjudication of a prisoner's claims.” White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1705 (2014) (quotations marks omitted).

         The AEDPA requires heightened respect for state factual findings. Herbert v. Billy, 160 F.3d 1131, 1134 (6th Cir. 1998). A determination of a factual issue made by a state court is presumed to be correct, and the petitioner has the burden of rebutting the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Lancaster v. Adams, 324 F.3d 423, 429 (6th Cir. 2003); Bailey, 271 F.3d at 656. This presumption of correctness is accorded to findings of state appellate courts, as well as the trial court. See Sumner v. Mata, 449 U.S. 539, 546 (1981); Smith v. Jago, 888 F.2d 399, 407 n.4 (6th Cir. 1989).


         I. Sufficiency of the evidence

         A § 2254 challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence is governed by the standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979), which 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 standard of review recognizes the trier of fact's responsibility to resolve reasonable conflicts in testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts. Id. Issues of credibility may not be reviewed by the habeas court under this standard. See Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 40102 (1993). Rather, the habeas court is required to examine the evidence supporting the conviction, in the light most favorable to the prosecution, with specific reference to the elements of the crime as established by state law. Jackson, 443 U.S. at 324 n.16; Allen v. Redman, 858 F.2d 1194, 1196-97 (6th Cir. 1988).

         The Jackson v. Virginia 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, 443 U.S. at 319. Moreover, because both the Jackson standard and AEDPA apply to Petitioner's claims, “‘the law commands deference at two levels in this case: First, deference should be given to the trier of fact's verdict, as contemplated by Jackson; second, deference should be given to the Michigan [appellate court's] consideration of the trier of fact's verdict, as dictated by AEDPA.'” Davis v. Lafler, 658 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting Tucker v. Palmer, 541 F.3d 652, 656 (6th Cir. 2008)). This standard erects “a nearly insurmountable hurdle” for petitioners who seek habeas relief on sufficiency of the evidence grounds. Id. at 534 (quoting United States v. Oros, 578 F.3d 703, 710 (7th Cir. 2009)).

         Mr. McMillan identified Petitioner as the person who sprang up from the bed of the pickup and fired the near-fatal shots. People v. Gentry, No. 305644, 2012 WL 4039279 at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 13, 2012). Applying the Jackson standard, the Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that such evidence was sufficient to support finding the essential elements of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt:

         Gentry argues that there was insufficient evidence of his identity as the assailant. We disagree. We review a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence de novo.

[W]hen determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to sustain a conviction, a court must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution and determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The element of identity is always an essential element in a criminal prosecution. Here, one of the victims, Kevin McMillan, identified Gentry as the assailant at trial. On appeal, Gentry raises a series of factual claims to challenge the credibility of McMillan's identification. “The credibility of identification testimony is a question for the trier of fact that we do not resolve anew.” Further, “positive identification by witnesses may be sufficient to support a conviction of a crime.” Accordingly, the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to ...

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