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Cooper v. Palmer

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

April 14, 2017

JAMES COOPER, Petitioner,
CARMEN PALMER, Respondent.


          John Corbett O'Meara United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Petitioner James Cooper's pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner was convicted of assault with intent to murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.83, torture, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.85, and first-degree home invasion, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.110a(2). Petitioner raises four claims for habeas corpus relief. Respondent, through the Attorney General's Office, has filed an answer in opposition arguing that one of Petitioner's claims is procedurally defaulted and that all of the claims lack merit. The Court finds no basis for habeas corpus relief and denies the petition.

         I. Background

         Petitioner's convictions arise from the assault of Henry Merritt at his home in Adrian, Michigan on December 30, 2012. The Michigan Court of Appeals described the evidence adduced at trial as follows:

In December 2012, the victim, Henry Merritt, allowed his adult daughter, Jessica Tabernero, and her daughter to live in his home with him. Tabernero had a bad drug addiction. After her work ended at a local bar in the early morning hours of December 30, 2012, Tabernero went to the home of defendant's brother-in-law, Eric Williams, where defendant also lived, and began using crack cocaine. Also present were defendant; defendant's wife, Leah Cooper; Williams; and Jessica Miller. All were, and had been, ingesting significant amounts of crack cocaine. Soon after her arrival, defendant asked Tabernero to have sex with Leah as a birthday present to her; she agreed, and after doing so she exited the room and began showing signs of overdosing. While in that condition she stated that her father had raped her. Hearing this, defendant asked for her father's name and address, left the house and picked up Leondre McCarver, defendant's drug supplier, and proceeded to Merritt's home.
Thus, in the early morning of December 30, 2012, Merritt heard a noise that sounded like a loud boom coming from his kitchen. Merritt went to his kitchen and saw two men, a black man and a white man. Merritt identified the white man as defendant, though he had never seen either man before.1 Merritt asked the two men why they were in his home, to which they responded, “‘We're here to do a job.'” After this interaction, Merritt was “subdued by both of them and beat unmercifully around [his] face area.” The men then took Merritt to his bedroom, where defendant accused Merritt of having sex with Tabernero. Merritt told them that he did not have sex with his daughter, 2 but that his ex-wife's husband had done so.
Undeterred by Merritt's statement, both men continued to beat and choke Merritt while also continuing to accuse him of having sex with Tabernero. Defendant told Merritt that if he had “anything to do with sex” in his home, defendant was going to kill him. After this, Merritt was in and out of consciousness. Eventually, the two men dragged Merritt to the bathroom, “[f]orcibly, ” with a belt around his neck. Defendant and McCarver continued to beat Merritt in the bathroom.
Defendant then put Merritt in the bathtub, continued punching Merritt, and told McCarver to get a gas can that was just outside Merritt's house. Defendant then doused Merritt with gasoline and said, “‘You're going to feel it, you're going to feel the wrath of me, you're going to feel the pain.'” Defendant then lit Merritt on fire. Merritt's neck was the only part of his body that caught on fire.
Merritt prayed “the whole time out loud and to [himself] asking God to help [him]....” The pain from the fire was indescribably hot, and Merritt endured the heat until the gasoline burned itself out. To help with the pain, Merritt turned on the shower. Defendant reacted violently after Merritt turned on the water, punching him repeatedly. After that, defendant repeatedly hit Merritt's head with a hammer. Merritt was lit on fire again, burning his neck and upper back. Eventually, defendant and McCarver left the bathroom, and Merritt moved a dresser to block the bathroom door. However, both men obtained reentry after they broke the door down.
Eventually, defendant and McCarver left. The damage to Merritt's body was horrific. His middle finger was sliced off and he was stabbed in the arm either with a knife or the claw of a hammer. Merritt's arm was broken, his neck and the top part of his shoulders were burnt, and his face was bloody and swollen. Before getting help for his injuries, Merritt went downstairs in his home to smoke a cigarette. After he finally3 lit the cigarette, Merritt went outside and called for help; Merritt's neighbors, Laurie Damon and Tori Helsel, came to his rescue. Both testified that his injuries were so horrific that they were surprised that he could talk. Merritt was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital.
1Merritt was shown a photo array before trial and selected defendant without hesitation.
2Tabernero subsequently indicated that this was true. Merritt had not raped her.
3Despite being soaked in gasoline, Merritt did not catch himself on fire. When asked if he was able to light his cigarette, Merritt explained: “Yeah, but my finger that was cut off, hanging off, the end of my finger, by doing this it put it out, the cigarette out.” The blood from Merritt's missing finger was putting the cigarette out.

People v. Cooper, 309 Mich.App. 74, 76-79 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 22, 2015).

         Following a jury trial in Lenawee County Circuit Court, Petitioner was convicted of assault with intent to murder, torture, and first-degree home invasion. On August 14, 2013, Petitioner was sentenced as a twelfth-offense habitual offender to 320 to 640 months' imprisonment for first-degree home invasion, life imprisonment for assault with intent to commit murder, and 900 to 1, 800 months' imprisonment for torture.

         Petitioner filed an appeal of right in the Michigan Court of Appeals raising these claims: (i) defense counsel was ineffective in eliciting testimony regarding Petitioner's alleged drug dealing and prior assault of a prosecution witness; (ii) the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of prosecution witnesses and defense counsel was ineffective for failing to object; and (iii) defense counsel was ineffective in failing to cross-examine accomplice about plea agreement. Petitioner also filed a motion for remand. The trial court granted the motion to remand to allow Petitioner to file a motion for new trial and for the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on the ineffective assistance of counsel claims. People v. Cooper, No. 318159 (Mich. Ct. App. May 6, 2014), ECF No. 8-11, Pg. ID 1036. Following an evidentiary hearing pursuant to People v. Ginther, 390 Mich. 436 (1973), the trial court denied the motion for new trial. 7/30/14 Op. & Order, ECF No. 8-11, ...

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