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Pruitt v. Stewart

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

May 23, 2017

AUDREY PRUITT, Petitioner,



         The case sounds in habeas under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner Audrey Devonne Pruitt challenges her convictions for arson of a dwelling house, burning of insured property, and insurance fraud. At the time she filed the petition, Pruitt was in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections. She has since been unconditionally discharged from custody.[1] She claims that the trial court erred in admitting expert witness testimony regarding the cause of the fire, trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the expert witness's testimony, and that offense variable 19 was incorrectly scored. Respondent argues that the claims are procedurally defaulted, not cognizable on habeas review and are without merit. For the reasons below, the Court will deny habeas relief.


         Pruitt's convictions arise from a fire at her home in Buena Vista Township in November 2009. The Michigan Court of Appeals described the circumstances leading to Petitioner's convictions as follows:

In December 2008, Mary Liddell sold defendant a home located in Buena Vista Township, Michigan. Defendant purchased the home on a $9, 000 land contract, putting $700 down and making payments of $350 per month. The land contract required defendant to obtain renter's insurance and Liddell to maintain her homeowner's insurance on the property. The contract also indicated that if anything happened to the home, defendant would not receive any proceeds from Liddell's insurance. While the land contract did not require defendant to obtain homeowner's insurance, she nonetheless entered into a homeowner's insurance policy with State Auto Insurance (State Auto) on September 4, 2009, insuring the home for $87, 000 and personal property for $60, 900.
Two months later, on November 10, 2009, the home caught fire. Diana Diaz, who lived across the street from defendant, was looking through her living room window when she saw defendant's truck go by and then saw smoke billowing from defendant's roof. Diaz called 911. Patrick Brown, who resided next to Diaz, was outside smoking a cigarette on the morning of the fire and saw defendant drive to a stop sign at the end of the street. Brown went inside, got something to eat, and when he came back out, saw smoke coming from defendant's home.
Another neighbor, David Thomas, was also outside that morning when he looked up and saw black smoke coming from defendant's home. As Thomas started toward defendant's home, he saw defendant driving down the street. Thomas ran toward defendant's car and tried to get her attention by yelling her name and waving, but defendant kept driving. Thomas then walked over to Diaz, who was in her front yard and confirmed that she had already called 911. According to Thomas, fire trucks arrived 10 to 15 minutes later.
Firefighters received a call from dispatch at 9:37 a.m. and arrived at defendant's home at 9:53 a.m. Upon arrival, grayish-brown smoke was escaping from eaves and soffits of defendant's home, suggesting that a "heavy working structure fire" was inside. According to one of the firemen, the fire had spread to the living room along the ceiling but was most intense along the back wall of the kitchen between the refrigerator and the stove; a burnt "v" pattern on the wall at that location indicated the fire's point of origin. The firefighters extinguished the fire and the fire captain conducted an investigation of the property that same day.
Fire Captain Craig Gotham, qualified as an expert in fire cause and origin, testified that he investigated the cause of the fire after it was extinguished. He testified that he ruled out accidental causes because the refrigerator's electrical wiring and the stove's gas fitting were "clean." He found a can of aerosol starting fluid (ether) by a loveseat that was burnt at its spray-nozzle. Gotham also testified that he talked to defendant on the day of the fire. She told him that she left her home around 9:30 that morning to go shopping with her mother and that she had cooked breakfast sandwiches approximately an hour earlier. She also indicated that she did not smoke or use incense or candles.
Keith LaMont, a Michigan State Police forensic analyst, testified that he tested some charred remains taken from the home, but found no ignitable liquid within the samples. LaMont explained that ignitable liquid, such as the starter fluid found in defendant's home, could have been used but been completely consumed by the fire. This was because the ether contained in the starter fluid found at the scene was "very volatile" and could either evaporate or be quickly consumed by the fire, thereby decreasing the likelihood of its detection.
David Row .... was qualified as an expert in the field of fire investigation. Row testified that there are "four processes" used in conjunction to establish the origin of the fire, including witness information, burn pattern analysis, arc mapping, and fire dynamics evaluation.[ ] Row indicated that he began his investigation by questioning defendant regarding her activities on the day of the fire.4 Row said that defendant told him that she left the home around 9:30 on the morning of the fire. Row also took into consideration the observations of Diaz.
4 Row said he asked defendant a multitude of questions, including: whether she had turned everything off when she left the home, had poured grease into the trashcan, or had had any circuit breaker trips recently; whether there had been any problems with the stove; whether she had to use a match to light the pilot, and; whether there were candles or incense in the home.
Row then recounted to the jury his visual observations of the exterior and interior of the home, displaying photographs he had taken during his investigation. He testified that both the gas and electric meters were intact and that neither could have caused the fire. Row said that, once inside the home, he systematically went through the rooms and observed evidence of fire damage. According to Row, he was able to rule out certain rooms as the origin of the fire based on the level of damage to personal belongings in the rooms. Based on his observations of low-level burn damage in the kitchen, Row testified that the origin of the fire was an empty "Rubbermaid or Hefty style 33 gallon" garbage can between the stove and refrigerator at or near floor level. The fire damage in this area extended all the way to the floor, where the trashcan had "melted down into a big blob of plastic." Row testified that analysis of the refrigerator cord indicated that it was not the cause of the fire.5
5 Jason McPherson, qualified as an expert in the field of electrical engineering, testified that he assisted Row with the origin and cause study by evaluating the power cord to the refrigerator. According to McPherson, the cord showed no signs that it was the origin of the fire; rather, the condition of the cord merely indicated that it had been burnt by the fire.
Having determined the origin of the fire, Row explained that his next task was to determine its cause. Row testified that two considerations are relevant in this regard, including what material was ignited and what ignition source is hot enough to start the fire, as well as witness statements. Row then stated:
So in this particular case, what I believe was ignited was the trashcan and whatever contents there may have been in the trashcan. This is a pretty thick plasticized material. I've done quite a bit of testing on these garbage cans to see, you know, how easily they burn versus, you know, how difficult it is to keep them burning, and part of it depends on what was put inside the trashcan in order to help the trashcan catch fire.
But the biggest issue in this particular circumstance is that I have been able to, by my process of elimination here, and by my scientific methodology that I've followed, I have been able to establish that there is no electrical, mechanical or chemical causation for this fire, so the only other plausible explanation is there had to be some kind of an introduction of an open flame to this trashcan and the contents of this trashcan in order for it to be able to ignite.

         Row then repeated that defendant told him she left her home at 9:30 a.m. and that Diaz saw smoke emanating from the home's soffit area as defendant drove away. Row then explained:

Now, this is a 1, 090 square foot house.... So I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say this is approximately 9, 000 cubic feet of air that now has to be displaced with smoke to the point where the smoke is now under pressure and it's forcing itself out through the eaves....
So, what then could generate 9, 000 cubic feet of smoke in that short of a period of time? And based upon my observations of where the origin of the fire is and what the causation of the fire is, i.e. an open flame application to the trashcan, that trashcan could not have generated 9, 000 cubic feet of smoke in the time it would have taken her to ...

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