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Leachman v. Winn

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

December 14, 2017

CURTIS R. LEACHMAN, Petitioner,
v.
THOMAS WINN, Respondent,

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING THE PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS, DECLINING TO ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY, AND DENYING LEAVE TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS

          BERNARD A. FRIEDMAN, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Curtis R. Leachman, (“Petitioner”), confined at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland, Michigan, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his application, filed pro se, petitioner challenges his convictions for second-degree murder, M.C.L.A. 750.317; and carrying a weapon with unlawful intent, M.C.L.A. 750.226. For the reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was originally charged with first-degree murder and carrying a weapon with unlawful intent. Following a jury trial in the Isabella County Circuit Court, petitioner was convicted of the lesser included offense of second-degree murder and guilty as charged of the weapons offense.

         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):

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS[1]

         A. BACKGROUND

         On November 9, 2012, Leachman, then 25 years old, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Isabella County that was leased by Valerie Sprague. The building that housed the apartment had retail space on the first floor and two apartments on the second floor. The apartments were labeled apartment A and apartment B;[2]Leachman lived in apartment A.[3] Leachman was permitted to rent the spare bedroom in that apartment because Sprague was injured and was temporarily unable to live there. Sprague instructed Leachman to keep the apartment clean, not to have any parties, and to stay out of her bedroom. Leachman, however, allowed his then-close friend, Brandon Harner, to live in the apartment with him and sleep in Sprague's bedroom.[4]

         B. NOVEMBER 23-24, 2012

         On November 23, 2012, Harner arrived home in the early evening after spending time with a woman who he had been dating. Harner encountered Leachman outside, near the apartment. The two men returned to the apartment together and talked for about 25 minutes. Leachman told Harner about his plans for the evening, which included seeing a woman who Leachman had been dating. After they finished talking, Leachman left the apartment and did not return for several hours.

         Once Leachman returned home, he and Harner remained in the apartment for some time. At approximately 10:00 p.m., Leachman and Harner heard a bang on the wall outside of his apartment. When Leachman checked to see what caused the noise, the hallway was empty, but a hole had been made in the wall to the left of the apartment's front door. Leachman grabbed a bucket of drywall from his apartment, walked down to apartment B, and asked its occupant, Reyes Hinojosa Jr., who was going to fix the hole. Hinojosa appeared intoxicated. The conversation between Leachman and Hinojosa started off calm, but then escalated. There was an exchange of words, which included obscenities, and Leachman threw down the bucket of drywall. Leachman then picked up the bucket, and returned to his apartment. The interaction with Hinojosa lasted about two minutes.

         Sometime after midnight on November 24, 2012, someone pounded on the door of Leachman's apartment. Leachman answered the door, seemingly upset about the banging. Hinojosa, Tyrone Stanley, and Chino Alaniz were in the hallway.[5] Taylor Gepford and Alsina Waboose were behind them. Harner remained inside of the apartment, a couple of feet from the door. The conversation between Leachman and the three men started off calm. Leachman and Stanley then began arguing. Stanley threatened to beat up Leachman, and the two men discussed where Harner's loyalty would lie if Leachman and Stanley fought. It was Harner's impression that because Leachman allowed Harner to live in the apartment, Leachman wanted Harner to side with him. Harner, however, told Stanley and Leachman that he would not choose sides because he was friends with both of them. Gepford encouraged Leachman and Stanley to fight.[6] The conversation lasted less than five minutes and ended without a physical altercation. After Leachman closed the door, he purportedly overheard Hinojosa, Stanley, and Alaniz discussing the need to get additional people to come to the building.[7] Leachman told Harner that he was not a good friend because he would not fight for him. At that time, it was obvious to Harner that Leachman wanted to fight.

         Approximately 15 minutes later, Leachman told Harner that he wanted to go to Michael and Jacob Partie's house to see Leachman's brothers, Ethan and Andrew. Leachman and Harner walked to the Parties's house, which was five minutes away, but Ethan and Andrew were not there. Leachman then attempted to recruit people to come back to his apartment because he believed that he was going to get “jumped”[8].[9] Joe Babosh agreed to return to Leachman's apartment, so Leachman, Harner, and Babosh walked back.

         Harner wanted to remove himself and Babosh from the situation and discourage Leachman from pursuing a fight. As such, once they returned to the apartment, Harner lied to Babosh and told him that there were eight people interested in fighting Leachman.[10] Around 4:00 a.m., Babosh heard yelling and banging on the walls outside of Leachman's apartment. As a result, Babosh called Caleb Donley to pick him and Harner up. Donley arrived at Leachman's apartment shortly thereafter with Nicole Coan, Karena Tucker, and Stephanie Alwood. Donley and Alwood entered apartment A, and greeted Leachman, Harner, and Babosh. Alwood then went and spoke with Stanley who was standing outside of the door to apartment B. Donley stayed in apartment A and teased Leachman, Harner, and Babosh for hiding in the apartment.[11] Donley then joined Coan, Tucker, and Alwood, outside of apartment B and spoke with Stanley. Donley had been concerned that Leachman was going to get “jumped, ” but Stanley told him that he intended to fight Leachman one-on-one.

         Over the course of the evening, people became aware of the possibility that Stanley and Leachman may fight, so there were many people congregating in the hallway between apartments A and B. Leachman eventually exited his apartment and he and Stanley began exchanging words from opposite ends of the hall. The situation began to escalate, so Harner briefly went to speak with Stanley, who was near apartment B, in an effort to alleviate the tension. The exchange of negative words continued between Leachman and Stanley; Stanley being more verbal than Leachman. According to Leachman, Stanley then removed a gun that he had in his waistband and handed it to Hinojosa, who pointed it at Leachman.[12] Stanley joked with Alaniz that he needed a belt to use on Leachman, so Alaniz handed Stanley his belt.[13]Leachman then went inside of apartment A, purportedly to retrieve a knife for his protection. It was the impression of several witnesses that the confrontation was over at that time.

         Within a minute, Leachman exited apartment A, passed the stairwell, and headed toward Stanley, who was by the door of apartment B. Leachman stopped approximately eight feet from Stanley and continued arguing with him. Stanley then approached Leachman and they continued to exchange words. Then Stanley (with a belt in hand), and Leachman (holding a knife) simultaneously advanced toward each other. Leachman then stabbed Stanley in his left armpit region, and also inflicted minor knife wounds to Stanley's left shoulder and left cheek.[14] Leachman reported to law enforcement that he only used light force when he stabbed Stanley in the armpit and believed that he penetrated Stanley's skin an inch to an inch and a quarter. However, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy testified that the wound to Stanley's armpit was over four inches deep.

         After the stabbing, Leachman returned to apartment A with the bloody knife in hand. Stanley returned to apartment B and collapsed outside of the bathroom. Waboose called 911 at approximately 4:21 a.m. about 10 minutes after the stabbing.[15] Alaniz and Gepford applied pressure to Stanley's wound until Stanley stopped breathing, which was shortly before the ambulance arrived at 4:38 a.m.[16] The knife that killed Stanley was identified as a decorative knife belonging to Sprague that was one of a pair of knives that fit together and were kept on a stand in Sprague's bedroom.

         Harner, Babosh, Alwood, Coan, Tucker, and Donley immediately left the building, and Donley drove them all to the Parties's house. Leachman arrived at the Parties's house shortly thereafter looking for Harner. Many of those at the Parties's house had become aware of the stabbing, and Leachman was told that Harner did not want to speak with him. Tucker overheard Leachman say “Where are the witnesses at? I'm going to stab them.” Tucker responded by shouting to no particular person that Leachman was going to kill them. Leachman was escorted out of the house, at which time he told Jacob Partie that Stanley was hitting him with a belt, and he did not know what else to do.

         C. INVESTIGATION

         After leaving the Parties's house, Leachman returned to his apartment building. The police were present. Leachman was detained without incident in a patrol car for questioning, and was transported to the police department. Leachman did not identify himself as the person who stabbed Stanley, but rather was detained because he lived in the building. While being questioned regarding what happened that evening, Leachman recommended to Officers Nathan Koutz and Dale Hawks, two of the investigating officers, that they look for a gun in apartment B. Police recovered parts of a plastic air soft gun from inside and around the building where Leachman lived. The gun had been separated into four parts and did not have an orange tip, which would alert the public that it was not a real firearm. After the incident, law enforcement also recovered a pair of gloves in front of 510 Main Street, which is situated between Leachman's apartment and the Parties's house.[17]

         People v. Leachman, No. 317508, 2015 WL 159942, at *1-3 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 13, 2015).

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id., lv. Den. Mich. 855, 864 N.W.2d 579 (2015).

         Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds:

I. Whether [Leachman's] convictions should be overturned because there was insufficient evidence at trial to prove [Leachman] guilty of the crimes?
II. Whether [Leachman's] convictions must be reversed because they are against the great weight of the evidence and involve a miscarriage of justice?
III. The trial court denied [Leachman] a fair trial and his due process rights by: not properly instructing the jury regarding the issue of curtilage; his ruling to allow opinion testimony into evidence on the aggressive nature of [Leachman] under certain circumstances; his refusal to allow funds for a psychological expert and an engineer; and failing to grant [Leachman's] motions for a directed verdict and a new trial?
IV. Whether the prosecutor's actions denied [Leachman] a fair trial and his due process rights under the Michigan and federal constitutions?
V. Whether [Leachman] received ineffective assistance of trial counsel?
VI. Whether the prosecutor's actions denied [Leachman] a fair trial and his due process rights under the Michigan and federal constitutions?
VII. Whether [Leachman] received ineffective assistance of trial counsel?[18]

         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 or her 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. Claims # 1, 2, and 3. The insufficiency of evidence/great weight of evidence claims.

         The Court discusses petitioner's first and second and a portion of his third claims together for judicial clarity. In his first claim, petitioner contends that the evidence was insufficient to convict him. In his second claim, petitioner argues that the verdict went against the great weight of the evidence. As part of his third claim, petitioner alleges that the judge erred in denying his motion for directed verdict.

         Taking petitioner's second claim first, petitioner is not entitled to relief because the claim is non-cognizable on habeas review. A federal habeas court cannot grant habeas relief because a state conviction is against the great weight of the evidence. Cukaj v. Warren, 305 F.Supp.2d 789, 796 (E.D. Mich. 2004); Dell v. Straub, 194 F.Supp.2d 629, 648 (E.D. Mich. 2002); See also Nash v. Eberlin, 258 F. App'x. 761, 764, n. 4 (6th Cir. 2007)(“a manifest-weight-of-the-evidence argument is a state-law argument”); Artis v. Collins, 14 F. App'x. 387 (6th Cir. 2001)(declining to grant certificate of appealability to habeas petitioner on claim that jury's verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence). The test for habeas relief is not whether the verdict was against the great weight of the evidence, but whether there was any evidence to support it. Dell, 194 F.Supp.2d at 648. As long as there is sufficient evidence to convict the petitioner, the fact that the verdict went against the great weight of the evidence does not entitle him to habeas relief. Id. Petitioner is not entitled to relief on his second claim.

         In his first claim, petitioner argues that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of second-degree murder because there was insufficient evidence that he acted with malice aforethought and because the prosecutor failed to disprove his self-defense claim.

         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).

         Petitioner initially contends that there was insufficient evidence of malice to support his second-degree murder conviction. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the claim, finding that the evidence that the victim had been killed by petitioner “after being purposefully stabbed with a knife” was sufficient to establish that petitioner acted with malice so as to support his second-degree murder conviction. Leachman, 2015 WL 159942, at * 4.

         Under Michigan law, the elements of second-degree murder are: (1) a death, (2) caused by an act of the defendant, (3) with malice, and (4) without justification or excuse. See Stewart v. Wolfenbarger, 595 F.3d 647, 654 (6th Cir. 2010)(citing People v. Goecke, 457 Mich. 442 463-64; 579 N.W.2d 868 (1998)). “[M]alice is defined as the intent to kill, the intent to cause great bodily harm, or the intent to do an act in wanton and wilful disregard of the likelihood that the natural tendency of such behavior is to cause death or great bodily harm.” Id. (citing People v. Aaron, 409 Mich. 672, 728; 299 N.W.2d 304 (1980)). Additionally, “[t]he offense of second-degree murder ‘does not require an actual intent to harm or kill, but only the intent to do an act that is in obvious disregard of life-endangering consequences.'” Stewart, 595 F.3d at 658 (quoting People v. Aldrich, 246 Mich.App. 101, 123; 631 N.W.2d 67 (2001)). “Malice may be inferred from defendant's use of a knife.” People v. Roper, 286 Mich.App. 77, 85, 777 N.W.2d 483 (2009). Petitioner's intentional use of a knife to stab the victim was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have inferred that petitioner acted with malice. The Michigan Court of Appeals' rejection of his claim was reasonable.

         Petitioner's primary contention is that the prosecutor failed to disprove his claim of self-defense.

         Petitioner's claim is non-cognizable on habeas review. Under Michigan law, self-defense is an affirmative defense. See People v. Dupree, 486 Mich. 693, 704, 712; 788 N.W.2d 399 (2010). “An affirmative defense, like self-defense, ‘admits the crime but seeks to excuse or justify its commission. It does not negate specific elements of the crime.'” People v. Reese, 491 Mich. 127, 155, n. 76; 815 N.W.2d 85 (2012)(quoting Dupree, 486 Mich. at 704, n. 11). Although under Michigan law the prosecutor is required to disprove a claim of self-defense, See People v. Watts, 61 Mich.App. 309, 311, 232 N.W.2d 396, 398 (1975), “[p]roof of the nonexistence of all affirmative defenses has never been constitutionally required....” See Smith v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 714, 719 (2013)(quoting Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 210 (1977)). The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit have rejected the argument that the Constitution requires the prosecution to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. See Gilmore v. Taylor, 508 U.S. 333, 359 (1993)(Blackmun, J., dissenting)(“In those States in which self-defense is an affirmative defense to murder, the Constitution does not require that the prosecution disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt”); Martin v. Ohio, 480 U.S. 228, 233-36 (1987); see also Allen v. Redman, 858 F.2d 1194, 1197 (6th Cir.1988)(explaining that habeas review of sufficiency-of-the-evidence claims is limited to elements of the crimes as defined by state law and citing Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107 (1982), and Duffy v. Foltz, 804 F.2d 50 (6th Cir. 1986)). Therefore, “the due process ‘sufficient evidence' guarantee does not implicate affirmative defenses, because proof supportive of an affirmative defense cannot detract from proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had committed the requisite elements of the crime.” Caldwell v. Russell, 181 F.3d 731, 740 (6th Cir. 1999). Petitioner's claim that the prosecutor failed to disprove his affirmative defense is non-cognizable on habeas review. Id.; Allen v. Redman, 858 F.2d at 1200.

         Moreover, even if this Court were to determine that petitioner's claim was cognizable, he would not be entitled to habeas relief. The Michigan ...


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