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Taylor v. Mackie

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

June 20, 2017

THOMAS MACKIE, Respondent.



         Bobby 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 is DENIED.

         I. Background

         Petitioner 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.[1] The victim was involved in a relationship with Julius Hall, [2] 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 stands.
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 evening.
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 contamination.

         People v. Taylor, No. 320085, 2015 WL 5657380, at *1-2 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 24, 2015).

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id., lv. den. 499 Mich. 871, 875 N.W.2d 227 (2016).

         Petitioner 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 Am XIV.
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 constitutional right.
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.

         II. Standard of Review

         28 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; or
(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.

         A 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).

         III. Discussion

         A. Claim # 1. The sufficiency of evidence claim.

         Petitioner argues there was insufficient evidence to establish his identity as the person who raped and murdered the victim.

         It is 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).

         More 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).

         Finally, 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).

         The 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, and murder.
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 charged crimes.

People v. Taylor, 2015 WL 5657380, at * 2-3 (internal citations omitted).

         Under 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)).

         In the 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).

         Eyewitness 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.

         See 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. Mich. 2005).

         Additional 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.

         All of 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. 2012).

         B. Claim # 2. The evidentiary law claim.

         Petitioner 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.

         It is “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, ...

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