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Scott v. Winn

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

December 27, 2017

THOMAS WINN, Defendant.

          Judge Mona K. Majzoub



         Over Mother's Day weekend 2004, Clarissa Vaughn hosted a small party at her home. The party went smoothly until Tahari Briggs got into a verbal argument with Vaughn's sister and a few other women. Vaughn kicked Briggs out. Tempers then briefly cooled. But the next day, Briggs paid two women to attack Vaughn. Andrew Scott, Vaughn's friend, witnessed the assault and helped break it up. The next morning, after an altercation, Scott killed Briggs.

         Though Scott claimed self-defense at trial, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder. He received a mandatory life sentence. The Michigan Court of Appeals found no reason to upset the conviction and the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. Scott now petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus. Scott raises three claims that cannot overcome AEDPA. So the Court will deny Scott's petition.


         Tahari Briggs argued with Clarissa Vaughn's sister at a party Vaughn hosted.[1] (R. 6, PID 237.) Vaughn told Briggs to leave. (Id.) Not long after, Briggs paid two women to beat Vaughn up. (R. 6, PID 172.) Andrew Scott saw the women emerge from Briggs' van and start assaulting Vaughn. (R. 6, PID 315-16.) Scott broke up the attack and immediately contacted Louie Howard, Vaughn's boyfriend at the time. (R. 6, PID 316.)

         Howard arrived and, along with Scott, exchanged threats with one of Briggs's friends. (R. 6, PID 316.) (Id.) But nothing came of the verbal exchange and Scott and Howard departed. (Id.)

         The next day, Scott and Howard were driving in Scott's van when they saw Briggs' van coming toward them. (R. 6, PID 247.) Scott pulled alongside Briggs' van. And Scott says Briggs crouched forward, appearing to reach for a gun, so Scott, armed with a .38 caliber handgun, shot Briggs twice. (R. 6, PID 257, 320.) Briggs died the same day.

         Grand Rapids Police initially suspected that Scott and Howard shot Briggs. (R. 6, PID 171, 270.) But both men denied any involvement in the shooting. (R. 6, PID 257, 321.) And because investigators could not accumulate enough evidence to contradict their claims of innocence, the case went cold. (R. 6, PID 170.)

         Seven years later, detectives unearthed new DNA evidence implicating Scott and issued an investigative subpoena for Howard. (R. 6, PID 270, 274.) Although Howard stood by his earlier statement, it contradicted the new evidence and so the Grand Rapids police charged him with perjury. (R. 6, PID 257.) After the police arrested Howard on the perjury charge, he implicated Scott in Briggs' murder. (R. 6, PID 274.) Howard's new statement, combined with the DNA evidence, led to first-degree murder charges against Scott. (R. 6, PID 275.)

         Scott opted for trial over a plea bargain. (R. 6, PID 365.) At trial, Scott testified he shot Briggs in self-defense. (R. 6, PID 320.) But the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. (R. 6, PID 361.) Scott received a mandatory life sentence without eligibility for parole. (R. 6, PID 365.) He appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals which affirmed his conviction over a partial dissent. See People v. Scott, No. 311955, 2014 Mich.App. LEXIS 780, at *1-7 (Mich. App. Apr. 24, 2014). The Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. People v. Scott, 854 N.W.2d 882 (Mich. 2014).

         Scott now seeks a writ of habeas corpus from this Court. (R. 1.) Scott raises three challenges to the constitutionality of his incarceration: prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and cumulative error. (R. 1, PID 3-4.) The state responded and Scott filed a reply. (R. 5, 7.) Though Scott's prosecutorial misconduct claim highlights some troubling conduct, ultimately the petition does not warrant habeas corpus relief. The Court will address all of Scott's arguments, though not in the order he presents them.


         Habeas corpus petitions do not afford federal courts an opportunity to conduct “ordinary error correction” of state criminal convictions. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102-03 (2011). Rather, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act instructs federal courts to give state courts “the benefit of the doubt.” Stewart v. Trierweiler, 867 F.3d 633, 636 (6th Cir. 2017). According to AEDPA, a federal court must defer to a state court's decision on the merits unless the decision (1) “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) “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).


         Scott contends that multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct violated his due process and fair trial rights.[2] Scott points to portions of the prosecutor's opening and closing statements along with a reference to his tattoo during cross-examination. (R. 1, PID 8-14.) The state responds that Scott procedurally defaulted all of these claims when his trial lawyer did not object to them. (R. 5, PID 52.)

         Where a habeas corpus petitioner raises a claim that the state believes is procedurally defaulted, federal courts may take the path of least resistance. See Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997); Hudson v. Jones, 351 F.3d 212, 215 (6th Cir. 2003). So to ease the analysis, the Court will address the merits of Scott's prosecutorial misconduct claims.


         Scott's strongest claims of prosecutorial misconduct occurred during the opening and closing statements. During her opening statement, the prosecutor told the jury “[w]e [the prosecution] do not come to you and would not come to you unless the evidence would prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that [Scott] . . . killed Tahari Braggs without any lawful justification.” (R. 6, PID 170). Then in closing, the prosecutor attacked the merit of Scott's ...

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