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Belton v. Woods

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

May 17, 2017

JEFFREY WOODS, Respondent.


          Hon. John Corbett O'Meara Judge

         This is a habeas case filed by a Michigan prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner Jonathan Belton was convicted after a jury trial in the Oakland Circuit Court of one count of first-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(a), murder of a police officer, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(c), and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. As a result of his convictions Petitioner is currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment.[1] The petition raises a single claim: Petitioner was denied his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and his Fourteenth Amendment right to present a defense when the trial court refused to instruct the jury on the defense of accident and the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter. The Court finds that Petitioner's claim is without merit. Therefore, the petition will be denied. The Court will also deny Petitioner a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was charged in connection with the December 28, 2008, fatal shooting of Oak Park Police Officer Mason Samborski. The Court recites verbatim the relevant facts relied upon by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which are presumed correct on habeas review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). See Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009):

Eyewitness Kendiesha Jackson testified that defendant tried to deceive Officer Samborski by pretending to live in Ms. Jackson's apartment complex. She further testified that defendant tried to get an adult female to impersonate his mother after Officer Samborski stopped defendant for a traffic violation. When Officer Samborski became suspicious and indicated that he would take defendant to jail, defendant ran from the officer. Officer Samborski's attempts to restrain defendant were met with physical resistance from defendant, who also ignored the officer's verbal instructions to “stop.” Defense counsel suggests that defendant's verbal requests that Samborski “get off of him” implies a struggle resulting in the accidental discharge of the weapon, but the actual testimony provided by Ms. Jackson belies that position. Ms. Jackson saw Officer Samborski and defendant struggling on the stairway when defendant uttered these remarks and no evidence indicates that Officer Samborski's gun was out of its holster at that time. Ms. Jackson saw defendant and Officer Samborski fall down a stairway in the apartment building and testified that she never saw Officer Samborski draw a weapon or have one in his hand. Defendant was positioned on top of Officer Samborski following the fall. Though Ms. Jackson did not see the shot fired, immediately after hearing the shot she saw defendant holding a gun and standing over Officer Samborski. Ms. Jackson also testified that she received a call from defendant using a “517 number, ” later identified as Officer Samborski's cellular telephone. According to Ms. Jackson, “he told me he was sorry what he - for what he did and he had wanted me to tell his sister that he was at home.” Officer Samborski's service revolver and cellular telephone were never recovered.
The medical examiner, Dr. Patrick Cho, testified about the results of the autopsy he conducted on Officer Samborski. Dr. Cho testified that, based on the location of the wound, its trajectory, stippling at the wound site, and the presence of an impact wound from the gun barrel, Officer Samborski was shot at close range and at an angle inconsistent with a self-inflicted wound. Dr. Cho also discounted a theory of accident, noting the absence of any defensive wounds or abrasions on Officer Samborski's hands and the presence of evidence of independent head wounds indicative of a pre-death head trauma, which could have served to impair or incapacitate Officer Samborski. Dr. Cho specifically noted the absence of a “slide injury” from the recoil of the handgun, which would be expected if Samborski had been holding the gun when it discharged.
During trial, defense counsel repeatedly questioned witnesses about whether they had obtained or uncovered any evidence that this event was the result of an accident or that Officer Samborski was holding the gun when it discharged. Oak Park police officer Walter Duncan responded by denying receipt of any such information. Similar queries were made to Oak Park police officer Troy Taylor. Over the prosecution's hearsay objection, Officer Taylor responded: “Some of the people I did interview indicated that Mr. Belton . . . stated . . . that something happened other than . . . what has been stated in court.” Defense counsel also questioned Oak Park police detective Jason Ginopolis regarding evidence that Samborski was holding the gun when it discharged. Detective Ginopolis testified that defendant's friends made contradictory statements, but that some reported that defendant indicated the shooting was accidental.

People v. Belton, No. 302107, 2013 WL 5763031, at *1-2 (Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 24, 2013) (footnote omitted).

         Following his conviction and sentence, Petitioner filed a claim of appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Petitioner's brief on appeal raised four claims, three of which are not being raised in his habeas petition. Petitioner's lead claim asserted:

Mr. Belton's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, and Fourteenth Amendment due process right to present a defense, was denied by the trial judge's refusal to instruct the jury on the defense theory of accident, as well as on the lesser-included charge of involuntary manslaughter, where those rulings were factual conclusions that usurped the jury's exclusive role to arrive at a determination of Mr. Belton's guilt or innocence.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions, but remanded the case for resentencing in light of Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012), holding that automatic sentences of life imprisonment without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment. Belton, 2013 WL 5763031, at *14.

         Petitioner then filed an application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court, raising the three claims rejected by the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Michigan Supreme Court denied the application because it was not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed. People v. Belton, 846 N.W.2d 548 (Mich. 2014) (Table).

         II. Standard of Review

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) curtails a federal court's review of constitutional claims raised by a state prisoner in a habeas action if the claims were adjudicated on the merits by the state courts. Relief is barred under this section unless the state court adjudication was “contrary to” or resulted in an “unreasonable application of” clearly established Supreme Court law.

         “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 [this] precedent.'” Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16 (2003), quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000).

         “[T]he ‘unreasonable application' prong of the statute 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 ...

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