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Chenault v. Campbell

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

December 1, 2017




         Schuyler Chenault, (“Petitioner”), confined at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his application, filed through his attorney, Craig A. Daly, petitioner challenges his convictions for first-degree felony murder, M.C.L.A. 750.316, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, M.C.L.A. 750.227b. For the reasons stated below, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was convicted of the above offenses following a jury trial in the Oakland County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts relied upon by the Michigan Supreme Court in affirming petitioner's conviction, 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):

The defendant's convictions for felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b), and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, MCL 750.227b, arose out of the shooting death of Kevin Harris in Pontiac, Michigan, on June 29, 2008. Harris was a cocaine dealer, who often used Jared Chambers as a middleman to connect with buyers. Chambers occasionally contacted Harris through Harris's girlfriend, Heather Holloway.
On June 29, 2008, Chambers arranged a transaction between the defendant and Harris. The defendant and Chambers, together with several others, met Harris on a side street in Pontiac. Harris pulled up behind the defendant's car. Holloway was in Harris's passenger seat. As both Chambers and the defendant approached Harris' car, shots were fired at Harris, and he was struck in the head.
The Pontiac Police Department conducted an investigation and interviewed Holloway on June 29 and July 2, 2008, and Chambers on June 30, 2008. All of these interviews were video recorded. Holloway also produced two written statements, one after each interview, and Detective Steven Wittebort summarized the interviews in an incident report. Holloway's written statements and the police report summarizing them were provided to defense counsel before trial, but the video recordings were not.
Holloway was more forthcoming in her second interview than in her first. At her first interview, Holloway told the police that two unknown men walked up to the car and shot Harris. During her second interview, which took place after Harris died on June 30, 2008, Holloway said that Harris had been shot as part of a drug deal. Although Holloway identified the defendant in a photo array, neither of Holloway's written statements mentioned Chambers's presence. According to Wittebort's report, Holloway said that she did not get a good look at the shooter but that she could identify him. The report also revealed that she confidently selected the defendant's photo from an array.
The defendant never denied that he was present at the scene of the shooting, and most of the facts were likewise not in dispute. The sole question at trial concerned the identity of the shooter. Only the defendant, Holloway, and Chambers witnessed the shooting and, unsurprisingly, they did not agree about what happened: the defendant identified Chambers as the shooter while Holloway and Chambers identified the defendant.[1] There was no physical evidence to tie either the defendant or Chambers to the shooting. The defense theory was that Chambers shot Harris, and that Holloway identified the defendant as the shooter out of fear of Chambers.
On the last day of trial, the prosecution called Wittebort as its final witness. When questioned, Wittebort was surprised that Holloway's second written statement did not confirm that she had mentioned Chambers and was confident that the video recordings would verify his recollection. He was also surprised to learn that the recordings had not been provided to the defendant. On March 11, 2010, the defendant was convicted of felony murder and felony-firearm.
On April 13, 2010, defense counsel filed a motion for a new trial and requested a copy of the interview recordings. Later, counsel amended the motion to add claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct regarding the failure to provide the recorded statements. There was no dispute that the defendant never had the recordings.[2] The trial court conducted two evidentiary hearings on the motion. On February 29, 2012, Wittebort testified that the police generally let the prosecution know when recordings are available, but the regular practice was to provide them only “if there's an admission or something of that nature from the person of interest or defendant in that matter.”[3] On March 8, 2012, the trial court granted the defendant's motion for a new trial, concluding that his due process rights were violated pursuant to Brady because the suppressed videotaped recordings undermined confidence in the outcome of the trial.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. People v. Chenault, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued November 27, 2012 (Docket Nos. 309384 and 310456).

People v. Chenault, 495 Mich. 142, 146-49, 845 N.W.2d 731, 733-35 (2014).

         Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds: (1) The prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence, (2) petitioner was denied a fair trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, (3) ineffective assistance of counsel, and (4) petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his ineffective assistance of counsel claims.

         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.

         The Supreme Court has explained that “[A] federal court's collateral review of a state-court decision must be consistent with the respect due state courts in our federal system.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). The “AEDPA thus imposes a ‘highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, 'and ‘demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010)((quoting Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333, n. 7 (1997); Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002)(per curiam)). “[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)). The Supreme Court has emphasized “that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. at 102 (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)). Furthermore, pursuant to § 2254(d), “a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or...could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision” of the Supreme Court. Id. Habeas relief is not appropriate unless each ground which supported the state court's decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under the AEDPA. See Wetzel v. Lambert, 132 S.Ct. 1195, 1199 (2012).

         III. Discussion

         A. Claim # 1. The Brady claim.

         Petitioner alleges that the prosecution failed to provide the Pontiac Police Department videotaped interviews of Holloway, made on June 29 and July 2, 2008, and of Chambers made on June 30, 2008, to defense counsel.

         To prevail on his claim, petitioner must show (1) that the state withheld exculpatory evidence and (2) that the evidence was material either to guilt or to punishment irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963). Evidence is material only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A “reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 683 (1985). In Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 281-82 (1999), the Supreme Court articulated three components or essential elements of a Brady claim: (1) the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching; (2) the evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; and (3) prejudice must have ensued. “Prejudice (or materiality) in the Brady context is a difficult test to meet.” Jamison v. Collins, 291 F.3d 380, 388 (6th Cir. 2002). A habeas petitioner bears the burden of showing the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence. See Bell v. Howes, 703 F.3d 848, 853 (6th Cir. 2012).

         As found by the Michigan Supreme Court, the prosecution conceded that the evidence was suppressed and that the evidence was favorable to petitioner. However, in a detailed opinion, the Michigan Supreme Court further found that petitioner failed to meet the third prong of the suppression test as follows:

We now apply the controlling Brady test to the defendant's claim. As an initial matter, we note that the prosecution has conceded that the evidence in question was suppressed. That leaves two questions: whether the suppressed evidence was favorable to the defendant, either as exculpatory or impeaching evidence, and whether it was material.
In contrast to the question of materiality, the favorability of evidence is a simple threshold question that need not delay us long. Only three people witnessed the shooting: Holloway, Chambers, and the defendant. Other than the testimony of Holloway and Chambers, there was no other evidence at trial that identified the defendant as the shooter. Because the videotaped statements could have impeached Holloway and Chambers as well as undermined the strength of Holloway's identification, the evidence was favorable to the defense.
We are not convinced, however, that the suppressed evidence was material. “The question is not whether the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, but whether in its absence he received a fair trial, understood as a trial resulting in a verdict worthy of confidence.” We conclude that, even in the absence of the suppressed evidence, the defendant received a trial that resulted in a verdict worthy of confidence, because the cumulative effect of the evidence was not material.
We disagree with the defendant that Wittebort's promises of leniency to both Holloway and Chambers were material. While the detectives assured both witnesses that they would not be investigated or charged for drug crimes, these promises of leniency were not conditioned on any behavior on the part of the witnesses. Indeed, Chambers decided not to make any written statement even after such promises were made, and, likewise, any alleged promises of leniency occurred after Chambers implicated himself in the drug activity. For her part, Holloway also admitted that she lied in her first interview, promises of leniency notwithstanding, and in her second interview, the alleged promises were made after she disclosed the drug activity.
We are similarly unconvinced that the evidence would have undermined Holloway's identification of the defendant in a material way. While there were minor discrepancies between the characterization of Holloway's identification as expressed in the disclosed material and at trial as contrasted with her recorded identification, she was able to quickly identify the defendant as the shooter in her second interview. Although the specific strong language that Wittebort attributed to Holloway as she identified the defendant is not supported by the recording, Holloway did identify the defendant with confidence. Holloway's honest qualifications about her ability to view the shooter do not undermine the overall strength of her identification.
Finally, we disagree with the defendant that the suppressed evidence supports his trial theory that Chambers was the shooter, and that Holloway only identified the defendant as the shooter out of fear of Chambers. Although Holloway was not forthright in her first statement about Chambers's involvement, in her second interview she expressed confidence that Chambers must have been involved. If Holloway were frightened of Chambers to the extent that she would implicate an innocent third party, she would not have engaged in a discussion with the police about Chambers's own culpability. The suppressed evidence did not contain information that leads us to conclude that defense counsel would have asserted the defense that Holloway misidentified the defendant, rather than the cover-up theory that defense counsel pursued at trial. Furthermore, another witness placed the defendant on the side of Harris's car where the shooter indisputably stood.
We therefore conclude that, even in the absence of the suppressed evidence, the defendant received a trial that resulted in a verdict worthy of confidence. The defendant's Brady claim must fail because the suppressed evidence was not material to his guilt.

People v. Chenault, 495 Mich. at 156-59 (2014)(citations and footnote omitted).

         Petitioner has met the first and second prong of the Brady test, as articulated in Strickler v. Greene, by showing suppressed evidence favorable to his defense; however, petitioner fails to satisfy the third prong of the test by demonstrating that the evidence was material, in that it would have undermined the confidence in the verdict.

         Petitioner argues that the videotaped recording would have impeached the testimony of Holloway and Chamber who testified that they were present when Harris was shot in the head.

         Evidence that impeaches a witness “may not be material if the State's other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict.” Smith v. Cain, 132 S.Ct. 627, 630 (2012)(citing United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 112-113, and n. 21 (1976)). Impeachment evidence may be considered to be material where the witness in question supplies the only evidence linking the defendant to the crime or the only evidence of an essential element of the offense. See United States v. Avellino, 136 F.3d 249, 256 (2nd Cir. 1998); Lyon v. Senkowski, 109 F.Supp.2d 125, 139 (W.D.N.Y. 2000). The Sixth Circuit has noted that: “[C]onsiderable authority from the Supreme Court and our court indicates that a defendant suffers prejudice from the ...

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