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Blanch v. Stoddard

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

January 16, 2018

JONESAFER L. BLANCH, JR., Petitioner,
v.
CATHLEEN STODDARD, Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

          DAVID M. LAWSON, United States District Judge

         A Wayne County, Michigan jury convicted state prisoner Jonesafer L. Blanch, Jr. of using a firearm to rob a Detroit bus driver. Blanch now challenges those robbery and firearm convictions and ensuing prison sentences in a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus. He contends that there was a breakdown in the relationship with his trial attorney, his trial and appellate attorneys were ineffective, and the prosecutor committed misconduct by arguing facts not in evidence. Warden Cathleen Stoddard responds that the petitioner did not preserve some of those claims for federal review and the state courts' decisions did not contravene federal constitutional law. The state court record demonstrates that the petitioner's claims do not warrant habeas relief. Therefore, the Court will deny the petition for writ of habeas corpus.

         I.

         The criminal information charged the petitioner with armed robbery, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony.

         Dwayne Bloodworth (“Bloodworth”) was a bus driver for the City of Detroit Department of Transportation. At trial, he testified that about midnight on November 24, 2009, going into November 25, 2009, he stepped off his bus on Varjo Street to smoke a cigarette. The petitioner and another young black man approached him and asked him a question. The petitioner was wearing a dark blue jacket with light blue sleeves.

         Both young men walked away after making small talk, but they came back while Bloodworth was still smoking his cigarette outside the door of the bus. The petitioner then pulled out a gun, pointed the gun at Bloodworth, and said, “You know what time it is cuz.” That meant to give up everything. Bloodworth responded by putting up his hands, but the petitioner told him to put his hands down, and he told the other young man to reach in Bloodworth's pockets. The other man complied and pulled out Bloodworth's wallet, which contained $425. The two men then walked away. They looked back and started running when Bloodworth activated a “call police” sign on his bus.

         The police arrived within approximately five minutes. Bloodworth described the young men's clothing to the police and the black semi-automatic High Point gun that the petitioner had pointed at him. He also told the police that the petitioner was 18 to 22 years of age, 5'8” tall, and 175 pounds. At some point, he went to the police station and identified someone other than the petitioner and his accomplice in a group of pictures. He said he intentionally misidentified the suspects so that the young men who robbed him would get out of jail that night and he “could take justice in [his] own hands.” At trial, he had no doubt that the petitioner was the man who robbed him and was wearing the blue coat with light blue sleeves on November 25, 2009.

         Detroit police officer Howard W. Sweeney, III, testified that, about midnight on November 24, 2009, going into November 25, 2009, he and another officer were conducting an investigation at 7478 Varjo Street in Detroit. As a result of some information he received, he was dispatched to the corner of Van Dyke and Varjo Streets where he spoke with Bloodworth, the bus driver. He acquired some information and descriptions from Bloodworth and then went westbound on Varjo Street to School Street and an alley where the suspects had fled. He entered the backyard at 7478 Varjo Street because there was an open privacy fence there, and he figured that the suspects might have doubled back there. He retrieved a loaded .45 caliber black High Point handgun from underneath the back porch at that address. The petitioner's mother subsequently admitted the officers at the front of the house. The petitioner and his co-defendant, Mark Taylor, were inside the house and taken into custody. In his police report, Officer Sweeney described the petitioner as a black male about twenty-two years old, 5'11” tall, 200 pounds, with black braided hair.

         Sergeant Ryan Lovier of the Detroit Police Department testified that, on November 25, 2009, he and Sergeant Robert LaLone went to 7478 Varjo Street to search for evidence related to a robbery that had occurred earlier that morning. The officers received consent to search the home, and in one of the bedrooms, Lovier observed a dark blue jacket with light blue sleeves. The jacket matched the description of a jacket worn by the perpetrator of the armed robbery that occurred the previous night.

         Sergeant Robert LaLone testified that he spoke with the petitioner in a detention area on November 25, 2009. After notifying the petitioner of his constitutional rights, he asked the petitioner about the robbery of the bus driver at Varjo and Van Dyke on November 25, 2009. The petitioner told him that someone named Nez had called him and Mark and asked them whether they wanted to get some money. They said, “Yeah, ” and Mark confirmed that he had a gun. Later, Nez arrived at the petitioner's house with “John John.” The petitioner, Mark, Nez and John John got in Nez's car and went to Nevada Street. When a bus turned the corner and the driver got out of the bus, he and Mark approached the bus driver and asked the driver a question. Then they walked away, but Mark encouraged him to take the gun and “do it.” He did not want to do it and told Mark to give the gun to John John, who walked up to the bus driver with Mark. Mark then grabbed the gun from John John and took some things from the man. He met up with Mark and John John on School Street where Nez had parked. John John got in the car, and Mark handed the wallet to Nez. The petitioner and Mark ran to the petitioner's house at 7478 Varjo where Mark put the gun under the porch. The police arrived about fifteen minutes later.

         The petitioner told Sergeant LaLone that he thought some money was taken from the bus driver, but that he had not wanted to be a part of the robbery. He claimed that he had merely stood at the Van Dyke bus stop or walked slowly down Van Dyke.

         The parties stipulated that the petitioner had previously been convicted of a specified felony and was ineligible to use or possess a firearm on November 25, 2009. The petitioner did not testify or present any witnesses. His defense was that the victim's description of him did not fit him and that, at most, he was merely present at the time of the robbery.

         The jury convicted the petitioner of all three charges. He was sentenced to prison terms of six to fifteen years for armed robbery, a concurrent term of one to five years for being a felon in possession of a firearm, and a consecutive term of five years for possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, second offense.

         On direct appeal, the petitioner argued that he was entitled to a new trial because there was a breakdown in the relationship with his trial attorney and because the trial judge did not conduct an adequate inquiry into the breakdown. The Michigan Court of Appeals found no merit in this claim and affirmed the petitioner's convictions. People v. Blanch, No. 300508 (Mich. Ct. App. Mar. 13, 2012). The state supreme court denied leave to appeal. People v. Blanch, 492 Mich. 857, 817 N.W.2d 69 (2012).

         The petitioner raised the same claim in a motion for relief from judgment. His post-judgment motion also alleged that trial counsel was ineffective because he did not secure the presence of two witnesses, that the prosecutor violated his right to due process by arguing facts not in evidence, and that trial counsel was ineffective by not objecting to the prosecutor's comments. The petitioner also asserted that appellate counsel was ineffective by not raising all his claims on direct appeal. The trial court rejected the petitioner's claims because the claims lacked merit and because the petitioner previously raised, or could have raised, his claims on direct review. People v. Blanch, No. 09-031216-01-FC (Wayne Cty. Cir. Ct. July 2, 2013). On appeal from the trial court's decision, the petitioner raised only the issues about the prosecutor and the old claim about the breakdown in the relationship between the petitioner and his trial attorney. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal on the basis that the petitioner failed to meet the burden of establishing entitlement to relief under Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D), People v. Blanch, No. 319189 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 16, 2014), and the state supreme court denied leave to appeal for the same reason, People v. Blanch, 497 Mich. 867, 853 N.W.2d 366 (2014).

         On October 22, 2014, the petitioner commenced this action, raising the claims that he presented to the state court on direct appeal and in his motion for relief from judgment. As noted above, Warden Stoddard contends in her response to the petition that two of the petitioner's claims are procedurally defaulted, meaning that he did not raise them properly in the state courts so as to preserve them for review on the merits by a federal court.

         The “procedural default” argument is a reference to the rule that the petitioner did not raise all his claims on direct review, and the state trial court's denial of those claims on that basis is an adequate and independent ground for the denial of relief under state law, which is not reviewable here. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). The Court finds it unnecessary to address this procedural question. It “is not a jurisdictional bar to review of the merits, ” Howard v. Bouchard, 405 F.3d 459, 476 (6th Cir. 2005), and “federal courts are not required to address a procedural-default issue before deciding against the petitioner on the merits, ” Hudson v. Jones, 351 F.3d 212, 215 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997)). The procedural default will not affect the outcome of this case, and it is more efficient to proceed directly to the merits.

         II.

         The provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996), which govern this case, “circumscribe[d]” the standard of review federal courts must apply when considering an application for a writ of habeas corpus raising constitutional claims, including claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. See Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003). Because Blanch filed his petition after the AEDPA's effective date, its standard of review applies. Under that statute, if a claim was adjudicated on the merits in state court, a federal court may grant relief only if the state court's adjudication “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 if the adjudication “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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)-(2). “Clearly established Federal law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions.” White v. Woodall, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).

         The distinction between mere error and an objectively unreasonable application of Supreme Court precedent creates a substantially higher threshold for obtaining relief than de novo review. 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) (finding that the state court's rapid declaration of a mistrial on grounds of jury deadlock was not unreasonable even where “the jury only deliberated for four hours, its notes were arguably ambiguous, the trial judge's initial question to the foreperson was imprecise, and the judge neither asked for elaboration of the foreperson's answers nor took any other measures to confirm the foreperson's prediction that a unanimous verdict would not be reached” (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)); see also Leonard v. Warden, Ohio State Penitentiary, 846 F.3d 832, 841 (6th Cir. 2017); Dewald v. Wriggelsworth, 748 F.3d 295, 298-99 (6th Cir. 2014); Bray v. Andrews, 640 F.3d 731, 737-39 (6th Cir. 2011); Phillips v. Bradshaw, ...


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