United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
OPINION AND ORDER DENYING THE PETITION FOR WRIT OF
HABEAS CORPUS AND DECLINING TO ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF
APPEALABILITY OR LEAVE TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS
CARAM STEEH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Lee Taylor, (“petitioner”), confined at the
Carson City Correctional Facility in Carson City, Michigan,
seeks the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 2254. In his pro se application,
petitioner challenges his conviction for first-degree felony
murder and first-degree criminal sexual conduct. For the
reasons stated below, the petition for writ of habeas corpus
was convicted following a jury trial in the Oakland County
Circuit Court. This 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):
Defendant was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering
Rosaline Lee, whose body was discovered floating in a lake in
Pontiac on May 26, 2013. The victim was naked except for a
sports bra pulled up over her breasts. An autopsy revealed
that the victim died of manual strangulation. Abrasions on
her arms, trauma to her forehead, and other injuries were
indicative of a struggle. The victim's vaginal swabs
revealed the presence of semen deposited within the last 24
hours, and DNA testing of it matched defendant's DNA
profile. The victim was involved in a relationship
with Julius Hall,  a longtime friend, and the victim's
family members and friends reported that the victim never
mentioned defendant's name or engaged in one-night
The night before the victim's body was discovered, Jamar
Carter, who had known Michelle Toth for two weeks and knew
defendant “by face, ” invited Toth and defendant
to his home. The three were observed on video cameras near a
bus stop by St. Joseph's Hospital in Pontiac, and their
bus ride was confirmed by the driver, Patricia Vuocolo, who
exchanged phone numbers with defendant. Toth and defendant
intended to engage in sexual relations in front of Carter,
but Toth changed her mind and left to go to the hospital.
After Toth and defendant left Carter's home, Carter
discovered that three of his prescription bottles were
missing. Carter's roommate, Andre Teasley, could not have
been responsible for the missing bottles because he was
hospitalized at the time. Telephone records and other
evidence indicated that defendant had contacted multiple
women that evening, but was not successful in connecting up
with any of them. Defendant admitted in a police interview
that he was trying to “hook up” with a woman that
The victim was last seen at the Chase office building in
Pontiac, where she went to meet the father of her child,
Matthew Caffey, to obtain money for diapers. The victim
called Caffey at 3:17 a.m. on May 26 to advise him that she
was in the parking lot, but when Caffey began to exit the
building, he saw the victim's white van drive out of the
lot. Caffey believed there was another individual in the van,
but his efforts to contact the victim by phone call and text
went unanswered. The office building was 1-1/2 to 2 miles
from the hospital where defendant was observed that evening.
At approximately 9:00 a.m., a man answered Caffey's call
to the victim's phone and indicated that he had found the
phone in pieces on the ground.
The day after the victim's body was recovered, her white
van was found near an abandoned school and wooded area.
Prescription bottles belonging to Carter and Teasley were
found in or near the van. Police contact with Carter led them
to seek out defendant, and Vuocolo assisted the police by
texting defendant to request his photograph. When brought
into custody on June 5, 2013, defendant gave conflicting
accounts of his whereabouts and contacts that weekend, denied
the theft of any prescription medications, and invoked his
right to counsel. During his statement, he admitted to parole
violations because of his use of marijuana and alcohol. A
parole hearing was held the next day and defendant received a
30-day sentence. While serving the sentence, a warrant was
authorized against defendant for the victim's homicide.
When interviewed a second time on June 20, 2013, defendant
denied knowing the victim, but declined to speak further
after invoking his right to counsel.
The prosecution's theory at trial was that defendant was
on a “mission” to have sex on the night of May
25-26 and, after Toth reneged on their plan to have sex in
front of Carter, and defendant was unsuccessful in connecting
with other women, he encountered the victim at the Chase
office building and seized upon that opportunity to carry out
his mission, whereupon he apprehended, sexually assaulted,
and then killed her. The defense denied that defendant was
the perpetrator, and argued that the prosecution's
witnesses were not credible, that there were other plausible
suspects, and that the DNA evidence was the product of
v. Taylor, No. 320085, 2015 WL 5657380, at *1-2 (Mich.
Ct. App. Sept. 24, 2015).
conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id., lv. den. 499
Mich. 871, 875 N.W.2d 227 (2016).
seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds:
I. [Taylor's] convictions failed the sufficiency of the
evidence test and should be set aside and vacated. U.S. Const
II. The prosecution violated MRE 403 by referencing the
“penis image.” The trial court erred in denying a
mistrial. U.S. Const.
III. [Taylor] was denied a fair trial when the circuit court
excluded the statement of an unavailable third party that he
was the person who murdered Ms. Lee. VI and XIV Amendments.
IV. [Taylor] unequivocally request[ed] counsel. His Fifth and
Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when the police
failed [to] scrupulously honor that request. The trial court
erred in failing to suppress the entirety of his statement.
V. [Taylor's] illegal arrest, detention without probable
cause determination violated his Fourth Amendment
VI. [Taylor] was denied his constitutional right to the
effective assistance of counsel as guaranteed by the U.S.
Const Am XIV.
VII. [Taylor's] federal due process right was violated
when police held him in custody illegally and refused to
release him back into his normal life environment to
constitute a break in custody. His Fourteenth Amendment right
was violated when police used an illegal statement to gain
tactical advantage as a device to violate his parole
conditions without a warrant or probable cause determination.
Standard of Review
U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by The Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), imposes the
following standard of review for 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;
(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 proceeding.
decision of a state court is “contrary to”
clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at
a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on
a question of law or if the state court decides a case
differently than the Supreme Court has on a set of materially
indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529
U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). An “unreasonable
application” occurs when “a state court decision
unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the
facts of a prisoner's case.” Id. at 409. A
federal habeas court may not “issue the writ simply
because that court concludes in its independent judgment that
the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established
federal law erroneously or incorrectly.” Id.
at 410-11. “[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, 562 U.S. 86, 101
(2011)(citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652,
664 (2004)). Therefore, in order to obtain habeas relief in
federal court, a state prisoner is required to show that the
state court's rejection of his claim “was so
lacking in justification that there was an error well
understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any
possibility for fairminded disagreement.”
Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103. A habeas petitioner
should be denied relief as long as it is within the
“realm of possibility” that fairminded jurists
could find the state court decision to be reasonable. See
Woods v. Etherton, 136 S.Ct. 1149, 1152 (2016).
Claim # 1. The sufficiency of evidence claim.
argues there was insufficient evidence to establish his
identity as the person who raped and murdered the victim.
beyond question that “the Due Process Clause protects
the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a
reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the
crime with which he is charged.” In Re
Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). But the critical
inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to
support a criminal conviction is, “whether the record
evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443
U.S. 307, 318 (1979). This inquiry, however, does not require
a court to “ask itself whether it believes
that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt.” Instead, the relevant question is
whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of
fact could have found the essential elements of the crime
beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 318-19(internal
citation and footnote omitted)(emphasis in the original).
importantly, a federal habeas court may not overturn a state
court decision that rejects a sufficiency of the evidence
claim simply because the federal court disagrees with the
state court's resolution of that claim. Instead, a
federal court may grant habeas relief only if the state court
decision was an objectively unreasonable application of the
Jackson standard. See Cavazos v. Smith, 565
U.S. 1, 2 (2011). “Because rational people can
sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this
settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter
convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they
must nonetheless uphold.” Id. Indeed, for a
federal habeas court reviewing a state court conviction,
“the only question under Jackson is whether
that finding was so insupportable as to fall below the
threshold of bare rationality.” Coleman v.
Johnson, 132 S.Ct. 2060, 2065 (2012).
on habeas review, a federal court does not reweigh the
evidence or redetermine the credibility of the witnesses
whose demeanor was observed at trial. Marshall v.
Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 434 (1983). It is the province
of the factfinder to weigh the probative value of the
evidence and resolve any conflicts in testimony. Neal v.
Morris, 972 F.2d 675, 679 (6th Cir. 1992). A habeas
court therefore must defer to the fact finder for its
assessment of the credibility of witnesses. Matthews v.
Abramajtys, 319 F.3d 780, 788 (6th Cir. 2003).
Michigan Court of Appeals rejected petitioner's claim:
The evidence revealed that on the night the victim was
killed, defendant went to Carter's home with Toth to
engage in sexual relations in front of Carter. However, Toth
declined to participate, left Carter's residence, and
checked into a hospital. Defendant left his phone number with
Carter and indicated that he frequently had relations with
women, and they would “hook” up another time.
Later that evening, after defendant's departure, Carter
realized that three of his prescription medicine bottles were
missing. Carter's roommate at the time, Teasley, was
hospitalized, and therefore, could not have committed the
theft, and Carter did not have any other guests at his home.
The victim agreed to meet Caffey later that night at his
office building to obtain money for diapers. The office
building was 1-1/2 to 2 miles from St. Joseph's hospital,
where defendant was last seen. The victim called Caffey at
3:17 a.m. to indicate that she had arrived at his building.
When Caffey came downstairs, he saw the victim's van
driving away from the building, and Caffey believed that
someone else was in the van with the victim.
The victim was dating Hall, and her family and friends
indicated that she did not engage in a promiscuous lifestyle
and had never mentioned defendant's name. The
victim's body was found the next morning in Terry Lake,
and her bra was raised over her breasts. The evidence
indicated that she struggled with her assailant, causing
blunt force trauma to her forehead, abrasions to her arms,
bruising to her elbow, and died from manual strangulation.
Testing revealed that DNA matching defendant's DNA
profile was found in the victim's vagina. The
victim's van was found the next day near an abandoned
school, and prescription bottles belonging to Carter and his
roommate were found near the vehicle. Defendant gave a
statement to the police in which he acknowledged having
relationships with various women and trying to “hook
up” with a woman that evening.
The circumstantial evidence permitted the jury to infer that
defendant took Carter's and Teasley's prescription
medication when he was at Carter's home. Defendant's
phone records indicated that he contacted multiple women that
evening, but did not successfully connect up with any of
them. However, the evidence revealed that defendant made
contact with the victim within 24 hours of her death because
his DNA was left in her vagina. Additionally, she had
incurred multiple injuries, which she did not have before she
left her home to meet with Caffey. The circumstantial,
physical, and DNA evidence was sufficient to enable the jury
to find beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant stole pills
from Carter's home, encountered the victim at
Caffey's office building and drove away with her in her
van, and then sexually assaulted her before strangling her to
death and placing her body in Terry Lake. The jury could find
that defendant left the scene in the victim's van, which
he left near an abandoned school, and that the presence of
Carter's prescription medication in the vicinity of the
van, which defendant had stolen earlier that night, further
linked him to the victim's apprehension, sexual assault,
Defendant identifies various itemized points that he contends
refute his identity as the perpetrator. However, the facts on
which defendant relies to cast doubt on his guilt were
submitted to the jury. Defendant essentially argues that the
jury should have interpreted the evidence differently.
Defendant's argument ignores that the weight and
credibility of evidence, and the inferences to be drawn from
the evidence, are matters for the jury to resolve. This Court
must defer to the jury's determination of those matters,
and we may not substitute our judgment for the jury's
verdict. Moreover, the prosecution was not required to negate
every theory consistent with defendant's innocence, but
only had to prove its own theory beyond a reasonable doubt
regardless of contradictory evidence offered by defendant.
The evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to find beyond
a reasonable doubt that defendant was the perpetrator of the
People v. Taylor, 2015 WL 5657380, at * 2-3
(internal citations omitted).
Michigan law, “[T]he identity of a defendant as the
perpetrator of the crimes charged is an element of the
offense and must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Byrd v. Tessmer, 82 F. App'x. 147, 150 (6th Cir.
2003)(citing People v. Turrell, 25 Mich.App. 646,
181 N.W.2d 655, 656 (1970)).
present case, there was strong circumstantial evidence which
established petitioner's identity the perpetrator.
Circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to support a
conviction, and it is not necessary for the evidence at trial
to exclude every reasonable hypothesis except that of guilt.
Johnson v. Coyle, 200 F.3d 987, 992 (6th Cir.
2000)(internal quotations omitted). Identity of a defendant
can be inferred through circumstantial evidence. See Dell
v. Straub, 194 F.Supp.2d 629, 648 (E.D. Mich. 2002).
identification is not necessary to sustain a conviction.
See United States v. Brown, 408 F.3d 1049, 1051 (8th
Cir. 2005); Dell v. Straub, 194 F.Supp.2d at 648.
The victim's vaginal swabs revealed the presence of semen
deposited within the last 24 hours. The DNA testing of this
semen matched petitioner's DNA profile. The DNA evidence
was sufficient in and of itself to establish petitioner's
identity as the perpetrator.
e.g. U.S. v. Seawood, 172 F.3d 986, 988 (7th Cir. 1999);
Kelley v. Jackson, 353 F.Supp.2d 887, 892 (E.D.
circumstantial evidence supported a rational trier of fact
concluding that petitioner raped and murdered the victim.
Jamar Carter, Michelle Toth, and petitioner were observed on
video cameras near a bus stop by St. Joseph's Hospital in
Pontiac, on the night in question, which was only one and a
half to two miles from where the victim was last seen alive.
Carter testified that Toth and petitioner went to his house
intending to have sex. Carter testified that shortly after
petitioner left his house, he discovered that three of his
prescription medications were missing. These medications were
found the next day inside of or near the victim's van.
The victim was last seen driving this van at about 3:17 a.m.
on May 26 by Matthew Caffey in the parking lot where he
worked. Caffey believed there was another individual in the
van. A jury could infer from this evidence that petitioner
stole the prescriptions from Carter's house, met up with
the victim in the early morning hours, drove with her in her
van, before sexually assaulting and murdering her.
this circumstantial evidence was sufficient for a rational
trier of fact to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that
petitioner sexually assaulted and murdered the victim.
See Spalla v. Foltz, 788 F.2d 400, 402-03 (6th Cir.
1986)(conviction of second-degree murder was supported by
sufficient circumstantial evidence, including witnesses'
description of getaway car, other witnesses' testimony
placing defendant in car with same general description and
location of cornfield only 15 minutes from victim's
house, where defendant and victim had left together).
Moreover, “Pieces of evidence are not to be viewed in a
vacuum; rather, they are viewed in relation to the other
evidence in the case.” Davis v. Lafler, 658
F.3d 525, 533 (6th Cir. 2011). Because there were multiple
pieces of evidence to establish petitioner's identity as
the perpetrator, the Michigan Court of Appeals did not
unreasonably apply Jackson v. Virginia in rejecting
the petitioner's sufficiency of evidence claim. See
Moreland v. Bradshaw, 699 F.3d 908, 919-21 (6th Cir.
Claim # 2. The evidentiary law claim.
next contends that he was denied a fair trial by the
admission of irrelevant and prejudicial evidence that
petitioner sent a text photograph of his penis to Ms. Vuocolo
on the night of the rape and murder.
“not the province of a federal habeas court to
reexamine state- court determinations on state-court
questions.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62,
67-68 (1991). A federal court is limited in federal habeas
review to deciding whether a state court conviction violates
the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.
Id. Errors in the application of state law,
especially rulings regarding the admissibility of evidence,
are usually not questioned by a federal habeas court.
Seymour v. Walker,224 F.3d 542, 552 (6th Cir.
2000). Petitioner's claim that he was denied a fair trial
by the admission of irrelevant and highly prejudicial
evidence cannot form the basis for habeas relief, because it
involves a state law evidentiary issue. See Hall v.
Vasbinder, 551 F.Supp.2d 652, ...