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Flores v. Stoddard

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

July 10, 2017

ROLANDO FLORES, Petitioner,
v.
CATHLEEN STODDARD, Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS, DENYING A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY, AND GRANTING PERMISSION TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS

          LAURIE J. MICHELSON U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Petitioner Rolando Flores and an accomplice invaded John Ledbetter's home at night in an attempt to rob him. One of the two masked assailants stabbed Ledbetter several times, and he died months later. An Oakland County Circuit Court jury convicted Flores of first-degree felony murder, and the trial court imposed a life sentence. Before the Court is Flores's pro se habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which raises two claims: (1) the evidence at trial was insufficient to prove that he caused Ledbetter's death, and (2) the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of prosecution witnesses. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the petition.

         I.

         Just hours before his vicious stabbing, John Ledbetter and his soon-to-be assailant enjoyed a cookout together. (R. 6-3, PID 199.) Ledbetter eventually told his cookout companions to leave so that he could go to sleep, and he went to sleep in a living room chair. (Id., PID 199- 200.)[1] The soon-to-be assailant, Petitioner Rolando Flores, did not leave for long.

         At some point, Ledbetter heard someone say “hey” at the door. (Id., PID 200.) When he went to the peephole, the door “came down on top of [him], ” and two people demanded his money and guns and threatened to kill him. (Id.) Though the two assailants were masked or hooded, Ledbetter recognized Flores's voice and testified that he had no doubt that it was him. (Id., PID 200-01, 203.) A neighbor also overheard part of the struggle and recognized Flores's distinctive voice. (R. 6-3, PID 194, 198.) The assailants proceeded to beat Ledbetter mercilessly. One of the men also stabbed him multiple times, breaking the knife's blade off in his thigh. (Id., PID 203.) After tearing through Ledbetter's home, the assailants fled empty-handed. (Id., PID 201, 203.) For a time, Ledbetter survived the incident.

         It did not take long for the police to zero in on Flores. Ledbetter told police after the incident that “Rally Flores” was one of the assailants. (R. 6-3, PID 212.) Ledbetter's neighbor and an anonymous tipper also implicated Flores. (R. 6-3, PID 213.) And in a post-arrest interview, Flores admitted that he was involved, identified his accomplice as Carlos Ramirez, and said that they discarded their clothes and the knife after the incident. (Id., PID 213-14.) Flores maintained that while he kicked down Ledbetter's door, Ramirez was the one who stabbed Ledbetter. (Id., PID 214, 218.)

         Ledbetter died months later, on January 2, 2011. The primary issue disputed at trial was whether the stab wounds killed him. A unanimous jury thought so, finding Flores guilty of first-degree felony murder.

         Following his conviction, Flores appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, raising claims that the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of certain State witnesses and that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he caused Ledbetter's death. (R. 6-6, PID 300.) The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Flores's conviction in an explained decision. People v. Flores, No. 309262, 2013 WL 1490618, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 11, 2013) (per curiam). Flores raised the same claims in an application for leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. (R. 6-7, PID 382-84.) But the Michigan Supreme Court denied the application in a summary order because it was “not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed.” People v. Flores, 836 N.W.2d 158 (Mich. 2013) (unpublished table decision). Flores filed his federal habeas petition in August 2014, raising essentially the same claims as his direct appeal:

[1] The prosecutor violated [his] state and federal constitutional right of Due Process of the Fourteen[th] Amendment.
[2] Insufficient evidence . . . to prove that [he] was the primary cause of death of the decedent.

         (R. 1, PID 6-7.) Flores has not sought state-court post-conviction relief.

         II.

         The standard of review this Court applies to each of Flores's claims depends on whether the claim was “adjudicated on the merits in State court[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); see also Johnson v. Williams, 586 U.S. 289 (2013). If the Michigan Court of Appeals decided a claim “on the merits, ” the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 prohibits this Court from granting habeas corpus relief unless the adjudication “(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.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). But “[w]hen a state court does not address a claim on the merits, . . . ‘AEDPA deference' does not apply and [this Court] will review the claim de novo.” Bies v. Sheldon, 775 F.3d 386, 395 (6th Cir. 2014).

         III.

         A.

         The Court will first address Flores's claim that the prosecution presented insufficient evidence at trial to prove beyond a reasonable doubt ...


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