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Carter v. Woods

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

May 30, 2017

JEFFREY WOODS, Respondent.


          STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III United States District Judge

         A jury in the Wayne County Circuit Court found Petitioner Willie James Carter guilty of first-degree murder in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316. As a result of his conviction, Carter is currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Carter filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny the petition, deny a certificate of appealability, and deny Carter permission to file an appeal in forma pauperis.


         Carter's case began with a fist fight occurring in front of his residence in the City of River Rouge. The fight turned deadly when Carter produced a knife and stabbed Tarrance Talley to death. Carter was charged with first-degree murder.

         Following jury selection, the prosecutor offered Carter a plea deal to the lesser offense of second-degree murder with a sentence agreement of 15 to 30 years. The trial judge cleared the courtroom and allowed defense counsel to meet with Carter and his mother to discuss the plea offer. After the meeting, Carter confirmed on the record that he was thirty years old and had graduated from high school, that he understood the charge against him, and that he had discussed the prosecutor's plea offer with his attorney and his mother. ECF 5-4, PgID 504-05. Carter stated that he decided to reject the plea offer and proceed to trial, that no one forced him to do so, that no one promised him anything, that no one threatened him, and that he was making the decision to proceed to trial voluntarily and knowingly. Id. at 504-06.

         At trial, multiple eyewitnesses-Dominique Walker, Leobardo Yanez, Jenna West, Alexis Moorehead, Adrian Collins, and Kenneth Herman-all described roughly the same event. Carter and his girlfriend, Walker, returned in their vehicle to Carter's residence after a shopping trip. When the two got out of their vehicle, Carter was confronted by the victim, Tarrance Talley, who was accompanied by another man, Kyle "Smiley" Browen. The confrontation quickly escalated into a fist fight between Talley and Carter. Talley was the initial aggressor. Carter was about 5'6" tall and weighed around 130 pounds. Talley was a much larger man, standing 6'0" tall and weighing 225 pounds. Nevertheless, witnesses described the two men exchanging blows, with the consensus being that Talley was getting the better of Carter, who suffered a broken nose.

         After exchanging blows for several minutes, Carter was backed into his vehicle where he ended up lying on his back on the seat with Talley on top of him. Talley then sprang from the vehicle holding his mid-section. He stumbled into the street and fell. Carter followed him into the street holding a knife in his hand. Carter then stabbed a prone Talley multiple times. Talley tried to crawl away, but Carter kicked him in the head. Browen attempted to intervene, but Carter shrugged him off and then stabbed and kicked Talley additional times. Browen ran away. Eyewitnesses called 9-1-1 and police quickly arrived at the scene.

         When Officer Craig Waple of the River Rouge Police Department arrived at the scene he found an exhausted, beaten, and bloodied Carter holding a bloody knife in his hand. Waple told Carter to drop the knife, and then placed him in custody. Waple found Talley lying unconscious in the street in a pool of blood. A subsequent autopsy revealed that Talley had been stabbed ten times and had multiple other contusions and abrasions. Carter was taken to a hospital, where it was determined that he had a broken nose, and a cut on his thumb. The police attempted-unsuccessfully-to locate Browen up until the eve of trial. ECF 5-5, PgID 913-17.

         The defense presented two witnesses. Stacey Wiedyke, a nurse at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital, testified that she treated Carter in the emergency room. According to hospital records, Carter was 30 years old, 167 centimeters tall, and weighed 59.9 kilograms (which converts to about 5'6", 132 lbs). Carter was treated for facial bruising, a nasal fracture, pain in the eyes, head, and abdomen, a foot contusion, and a thumb laceration. His face was swollen and bruised. The trial court admitted medical records which included a statement made by Carter at the hospital about how he was injured. ECF 5-6, PgID 1014. John Gifford, an investigator hired by the defense, testified regarding measurements he made at the scene of the incident used to determine the relative position of the eyewitnesses to the location of the incident.

         After the defense rested, it was revealed that Browen was found housed at the Wayne County Jail on another case. Carter's trial counsel asked to be given an opportunity to interview Browen, but Browen refused to speak with him. Defense counsel was then given an opportunity to speak with Carter, and defense counsel then indicated that he did not wish to call Browen as a defense witness. The prosecutor responded that she intended to call Browen as a rebuttal witness. Defense counsel objected that the prosecutor was impermissibly re-opening their proofs. The trial court overruled the objection, stating that Browen's testimony could be used to rebut the testimony of the defense witnesses, including Carter's statements to nurse Wiedyke about how he was injured. ECF 5-6, PgID 1012-14.

         Browen testified that Talley confronted Carter as he exited his vehicle. Talley started swinging at Carter and a fist fight ensued. Carter got knocked into his car, and about two minutes later, Browen saw Talley lunge backward out of the car, holding his stomach. Browen saw that Carter was holding a knife. Talley then fell in the street, his "legs were like gone, " and he was unable to get away from Carter. When Browen tried to stop Carter, Carter said "get the fuck out of the way; I'm about to kill this nigger." Id. at 1026-31. Browen tried to shield Talley, pleading with Carter that Talley was hurt, that "it's over with . . . you going to kill him." Id. at 1032. But Carter kept repeating "get the fuck out of the way, " yelling "Fenkell for life, " and then he continued to stab Talley. Talley asked Browen to call an ambulance, and Browen was screaming for someone to call the paramedics. Carter flipped Talley over, kicked him a couple more times, and then went through Talley's pockets. Id. at 1034-35. Browen left because he knew the police were coming, and he had a warrant out for his arrest. After Browen testified, Carter again waived his right to testify in his own defense. Id. at 1098.

         Defense counsel argued in closing that the evidence showed that Carter was attacked by the much larger victim, and that he acted in self-defense. The prosecutor asserted that even assuming the victim initiated the fight, Carter's actions after he first stabbed the victim indicated that he was no longer acting in self-defense and that he killed Talley with premeditation and deliberation. The jury found Carter guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

         Following his conviction and sentence, Carter filed a claim of appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Carter's brief on appeal filed by his appellate counsel raised two claims, and a supplemental pro se brief raised a third claim:

I. The trial court abused its discretion and denied defendant his state and federal constitutional rights to a fair trial by admitting improper rebuttal testimony that could have been presented in its case-in-chief.
II. Defendant's conviction for first-degree murder must be reversed where there was insufficient evidence of ...

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