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Thomas v. Winn

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

February 1, 2017

THOMAS WINN, Respondent.



         Petitioner, presently confined at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan, has filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He challenges his conviction for first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316. For the reasons stated below, the Court shall deny the application.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was convicted on September 10, 2009, following a jury trial in Kent County Circuit Court. The Michigan Court of Appeals summarized the facts as follows:

Debra Jean VanKlaveren, the victim, was found dead on January 5, 2009, in her apartment. Asphyxia by manual strangulation was determined to be the cause of death. Billie Jo Lowry talked to VanKlaveren about rent money on January 2, 2009, outside VanKlaveren's apartment. VanKlaveren advised Lowry that she did not have the rent money that day. Lowry returned on Monday, January 5, 2009, but received no response when she knocked on VanKlaveren's door. Lowry then got permission from her supervisor and entered VanKlaveren's locked apartment using her own keys. From across the apartment, Lowry saw a person on the bed in the bedroom. Upon realizing that the person on the bed was VanKlaveren, Lowry left the apartment and contacted the police.
Thomas was staying with VanKlaveren in December 2008 and early January 2009. VanKlaveren's neighbor, David Badger, testified that he saw Thomas leave VanKlaveren's apartment on Saturday night, January 3, 2009. Badger observed Thomas lock VanKlaveren's apartment door and then drive away in VanKlaveren's car.
On January 5, 2009, Thomas telephoned his brother for a ride. When Thomas got in his brother's car, he was high on crack cocaine and was speaking rapidly about numerous topics. Thomas told his brother, “I might have choked someone.” His brother was upset and brought Thomas to their sister's home. Thomas then told his brother, his sister, and his brother-in-law that he did choke someone, that the person he choked still had a pulse, and that she was on a bed. Thomas demonstrated to them how he choked his victim, by placing both thumbs and fingers together with a circle in the center.
After his arrest, Thomas also allegedly confessed to his cellmate while incarcerated. Thomas told Christopher Eugene Cummings that he was smoking crack cocaine with VanKlaveren. She started pointing and telling him to look under the furniture for some crack cocaine that may have dropped. Cummings testified that Thomas said he then pushed VanKlaveren's hand away, punched her in the face, and choked her. Cummings testified that Thomas said “Deb” was the person he choked. Thomas said he left the apartment after he choked her, but that he later came back to take money from VanKlaveren and to take her dog so that no one would hear it barking. Thomas said that he moved VanKlaveren to the bed so it would look like she was asleep.

People v. Thomas, No. 294789, 2011 WL 192384, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 20, 2011).

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id.; lv. den. 490 Mich. 878, 803 N.W.2d 690 (2011). On September 27, 2012, petitioner filed a post-conviction motion for relief from judgment pursuant to M.C.R. 6.500, et seq., which was denied by the trial court. People v. Thomas, No. 09-02487-FC (Kent Cty. Cir. Ct., Oct. 9, 2012). The Michigan appellate courts denied petitioner leave to appeal. People v. Thomas, No. 313330 (Mich. Ct. App.); lv. den. 495 Mich. 949, 843 N.W.2d 524 (2014). On May 19, 2014, petitioner filed the instant application for a writ of habeas corpus seeking relief on the following grounds:

1. Whether the Court of Appeals should have decided that the Appellant's conviction of first-degree premeditated murder is erroneous and should be set aside because: A. The proofs presented at trial are insufficient to establish that the Appellant caused the decedent's death; and/or B. the trial court erroneously denied the defendant's motion for directed verdict regarding premeditation?
2. The Court of Appeals should have decided that the Appellant's right to present a defense under the Michigan and Federal Constitutions was denied by the trial court's evidentiary rulings.
3. The Court of Appeals should have decided that the totality of the trial court proceedings denied the Appellant his rights under the Michigan and Federal Constitutions to a fair trial.
4. The Court of Appeals should have decided that the Appellant's federal and state constitutional rights to effective assistance of counsel were violated in this case.
5. Trial counsel rendered incompetent advice during the plea bargaining process, which denied Mr. Kenneth Ray Thomas the effective assistance of counsel.
6. Whether Mr. Thomas is entitled to avail himself of a plea offer to a reduced charge that included a sentence agreement of 25 years, which he turned down based on legally erroneous advice from his trial counsel, in violation of the recent United States Supreme Court case Lafler v Cooper, 566 U.S.; 132 S.Ct. 1376; 182 L.Ed.2d 398 (2012).

         II. Standard of Review

         The following standard applies in federal 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 proceedings.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). “A state court's decision is ‘contrary to' . . . clearly established law if it ‘applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court cases]' or if it ‘confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [that] precedent.'” Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16 (2003) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)); see also Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). “[T]he ‘unreasonable application' prong of § 2254(d)(1) permits a federal habeas court to ‘grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of petitioner's case.” Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 413); see also Bell, 535 U.S. at 694. However, “[i]n order for a federal court find a state court's application of [Supreme Court] precedent ‘unreasonable, ' the state court's decision must have been more than incorrect or erroneous. The state court's application must have been ‘objectively unreasonable.'” Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 520-21; see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 409. “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) (quoting Lindh, 521 U.S. at 333 n.7).

         The United States Supreme Court has held that “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, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011). The Court emphasized “that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. Pursuant to § 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. Thus, in order to obtain federal habeas relief, a state prisoner ...

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