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Porter v. Jackson

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

July 25, 2017

DONALD PORTER, Petitioner,
SHANE JACKSON, Respondent.



         This is a pro se habeas case under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. After the shooting death of his girlfriend Lauri Pilot, at their home in Henderson, Michigan on December 15, 2010, a Shiawassee County jury convicted Donald Porter of first-degree murder in violation of Michigan Compiled Laws § 750.316(1)(a) and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony in violation of § 750.227b. Porter was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murder conviction and a consecutive two-year term of imprisonment for the firearm conviction. His habeas claims lack merit, so the Court will deny his petition.


         By way of background, the Michigan Court of Appeals described some of the relevant facts as follows:

Defendant's convictions arise from the December 15, 2010 shooting death of his live-in girlfriend, Lauri Pilot, in their house in Henderson, Michigan. Evidence indicated that defendant and Pilot had a tumultuous relationship. The prosecution's theory was that, on the night of Pilot's death, defendant and Pilot argued before defendant placed a 20-gauge shotgun directly on Pilot's chest and pulled the trigger. Pilot died instantly. When the police arrived, Pilot was lying on her bed with a shotgun parallel to her body. Defendant initially told the police that Pilot committed suicide, but later stated that the shotgun accidentally discharged during a mutual struggle over the gun. At trial, the prosecution presented evidence through expert witnesses and law enforcement personnel that Pilot's death was a homicide, that she suffered a tight contact wound, that the scene was altered, and that it was unlikely that Pilot died from a self-inflicted wound or an accidental shooting. The defense maintained that defendant did not shoot Pilot, and defendant testified that Pilot committed suicide.
The prosecution presented the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Richard Turner, who testified that defendant made several comments about his case, including that he had been fighting with Pilot over a “legal issue” concerning the title to the house, and that defendant had another girlfriend who came to visit him in jail. Turner was cross-examined regarding his pending charge of manufacturing more than 200 marijuana plants, and denied being promised anything in return for his testimony.

People v. Porter, No. 308094, 2014 WL 575760, *1-2 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 11, 2014) (per curiam) (footnoted citation omitted). The Court will discuss other relevant facts throughout its analysis.

         Following his convictions and sentencing, Porter filed an appeal of right with the Michigan Court of Appeals, raising six claims: (1) the evidence was insufficient to sustain the first-degree murder conviction; (2) the trial court erred by allowing witness testimony about statements the victim had made before her death about Porter's threat to kill her; (3) the trial court erroneously refused to suppress Porter's inconsistent statements to the police; (4) the trial court erred in refusing to give a jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter; (5) the trial court improperly restricted Porter's cross-examination of a jailhouse informant; and (6) the trial court erred in allowing the late endorsement of the jailhouse informant as a witness. In an explained decision, the appellate court denied relief on those claims and affirmed Porter's convictions. Id. at *2-10. Porter then filed an application for leave to appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court raising the same claims. The court denied leave to appeal because it was “not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed.” People v. Porter, 847 N.W.2d 506 (Mich. Jun. 24, 2014). Porter's habeas petition raises the same six claims as his direct appeal. (R. 1.) He has not petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari nor sought post-conviction relief in state court.


         The standard of review this Court applies to each of Porter'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, 568 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).



         Porter first asserts that he is entitled to habeas relief because the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to support his first-degree murder conviction, particularly on whether he acted with premeditation and deliberation.

         To assess a sufficiency of evidence claim, “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.” Davis v. Lafler, 658 F.3d 525, 531 (6th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979)). “The Jackson v. Virginia standard ‘gives full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts.'” Id. (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319). The standard “is so demanding that ‘[a] defendant who challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his conviction faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle.'” Id. at 534 (quoting United States v. Oros, 578 F.3d 703, 710 (7th Cir. 2009)). “Adding to this extremely high bar are the stringent and limiting standards of AEDPA, ” which allows a federal habeas court to disrupt “a state court's decision that correctly identified and applied the controlling Supreme Court precedent only if the application of that precedent was objectively unreasonable, meaning more than incorrect or erroneous.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Jackson standard “is applied ‘with explicit reference to the substantive elements of the criminal offense as defined by state law, '” so the Court will look to Michigan law. Id. at 531 (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 324 n.16).

         Under Michigan law, first-degree murder includes “[m]urder perpetrated by means of . . . any . . . willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(a). Relevant factors for establishing premeditation and deliberation include “(1) the prior relationship of the parties; (2) the defendant's actions before the killing; (3) the circumstances of the killing itself; and (4) the defendant's conduct after the homicide.” See, e.g., People v. Schollaert, 486 N.W.2d 312, 318 (Mich. Ct. App. 1992) (citations omitted). In other words, “[t]he elements of premeditation and deliberation may be inferred from the circumstances surrounding the killing.” Id. (citation omitted).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected Porter's claim “on the merits” as follows:

[T]he prosecution presented evidence that defendant and Pilot had a tumultuous relationship, fueled by heavy alcohol consumption. Defendant's nephew and brother observed Pilot slap defendant on occasion. Pilot's father observed Pilot with black eyes a few times. Pilot's father also received several calls from Pilot over the course of the parties' relationship because she and defendant were arguing. After one such call, Pilot's father went to the house, calmed down defendant and Pilot, and, on noticing a shotgun in the garage, took it home out of concern. He returned the gun about a month before Pilot's death. Two days before her death, Pilot told a coworker that defendant had threatened to kill her. On the day of Pilot's death, as defendant acknowledged, defendant and Pilot were involved in an argument, which led to Pilot throwing a plate of food at defendant and going into the bedroom. Subsequently, Pilot was found dead on her bed with the shotgun aligned next to her body.
Medical evidence indicated that the 20-gauge shotgun was placed “right up against” the center of Pilot's chest when the trigger was pulled, leaving a “relatively large wound.” Afterward, the spent shell casing was manually ejected from the chamber of the shotgun; it was not an automatic weapon that would eject the shell as part of the firing process. Defendant's DNA was found on the trigger of the shotgun. Expert medical testimony indicated that because of the explosive and extensive injuries from the “tight contact gunshot, ” Pilot immediately collapsed and died; therefore, it was extremely improbable that she could have ejected the shell after firing, supporting the inference that someone else ejected it. Defendant and Pilot were the only two people in the house. A jury could reasonable infer from this evidence that defendant placed the 20-gauge shotgun directly on Pilot's chest, pulled the trigger, ejected the spent shell casing, and placed the gun next to her body.
Further, the evidence showed that defendant did not use the working cellular telephone in the house to call 911, but instead went to his nephew's residence and announced that Pilot had committed suicide. The officers who arrived at the scene, many with several years of experience in investigating suicide deaths involving a long gun, immediately observed that the scene was inconsistent with a suicide and appeared to have been altered. Both a medical expert and a firearms expert also agreed that the scene had been altered and there was a “cover-up.” Testimony from both the responding paramedic and a law enforcement officer also indicated that Pilot had not died as recently as defendant reported. From this testimony, a jury could reasonably infer that after shooting Pilot at close range with a 20-gauge shotgun, defendant took the time to adjust the scene to stage a suicide before reporting her death. In addition, defendant gave the police three different versions of what occurred, first stating that Pilot shot herself, and ultimately stating that the gun accidentally discharged as he and Pilot struggled over it. But there was no sign of a struggle around the body or in the bedroom. At trial, defendant reverted to the assertion that Pilot committed suicide.
The reasonable inferences arising from this evidence, considered together, were sufficient to support a finding of premeditation and deliberation for first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Although defendant argues that different inferences should be drawn from the evidence, those challenges are related to the weight of the evidence rather than its sufficiency. . . . The same challenges asserted on appeal were presented to the jury during trial. This Court will not interfere with the jury's role of determining issues of weight and credibility. . . . Rather, this Court must draw all reasonable inferences and make credibility choices in support of the jury's verdict, and that deferential standard of review “is the same whether the evidence is direct or circumstantial.” . . . Viewed in a light most favorable to the prosecution, the evidence was sufficient to sustain defendant's conviction of first-degree premeditated murder.

Porter, 2014 WL 575760 at *2-3 (internal citations omitted).

         There is nothing unreasonable about this decision and it is fully supported by the record.

         For one, Porter and Pilot had a tumultuous relationship. (See, e.g., 8-16, PID 1170.) At times, their often alcohol-fueled disagreements became physical. (See, e.g., 8-16, PID 1190, 1208.) And according to Pilot's co-worker, Ashley Rolfe, Pilot said days before the shooting that Porter had even threatened to kill her. (R. 8-6, PID 1304.) (As the Court will discuss later, it was not unreasonable for the Michigan Court of Appeals to conclude that this testimony was admissible.) They argued again on the day of the shooting.

         A reasonable jury could have inferred that the ensuing shotgun wound to Pilot's chest was inconsistent with suicide, for several reasons. The gun was found in an unnatural position next to her body. (R. 8-18, PID 1893.) The wound was consistent with Pilot laying still at the time of the shooting, meaning Porter would have had time to contemplate his actions while approaching her with the gun. (See R. 8-18, PID 1843.) Absent was the type of blood splatter expected from a self-inflicted wound. (R. 8-17, PID 1356, 1530.) Moreover, a spent shell casing was found on the floor, one that in all likelihood had to have been manually removed from the weapon by someone other than the victim. (R. 8-17, PID 1564, 1571.) And Porter's own DNA matched a sample taken from the trigger. (R. 8-19, PID 2182-83.)

         After the shooting, instead of calling 911, Porter left the scene and told family members that Pilot had committed suicide. (R. 8-16, PID 1282.) But he left only after apparently altering the crime scene, leaving the gun placed “neatly” next to her. (R. 8-17, PID 1530.) He subsequently gave inconsistent accounts to the police, one including a claim the gun went off during a struggle between the two of them. (R. 8-19, PID 2024.) The Court of Appeals reasonably found that this overwhelming evidence was sufficient to sustain the jury's first degree murder conviction.

         Porter's arguments to the contrary are meritless. First, he attacks the credibility of Dr. Brian Hunter, a forensic pathologist who opined that Pilot's death was not a suicide, in part because another forensic pathologist, Dr. Joyce DeJong (the medical examiner in the case), classified the cause of death as “indeterminate.” (R. 11, PID 3135; R. 8-18, PID 1895; R. 8-18, PID 1857.) But “attacks on witness credibility are simply challenges to the quality of the government's evidence and not to the sufficiency of the evidence.” Martin v. Mitchell, 280 F.3d 594, 618 (6th Cir. 2002). Second, Porter criticizes the Michigan Court of Appeals for failing to emphasize that he was drunk at the time of his questioning by police. (R. 11, PID 3136.) ...

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