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Whitlow v. Palmer

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

January 23, 2018

JAJUAN RICHARD WHITLOW, Petitioner,
v.
CARMEN D. PALMER, Respondent.

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Promptly after the filing of a petition for habeas corpus, the Court must undertake a preliminary review of the petition to determine whether “it plainly appears from the face of the petition and any exhibits annexed to it that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court.” Rule 4, Rules Governing § 2254 Cases; see 28 U.S.C. § 2243. If so, the petition must be summarily dismissed. Rule 4; see Allen v. Perini, 424 F.2d 134, 141 (6th Cir. 1970) (district court has the duty to “screen out” petitions that lack merit on their face). A dismissal under Rule 4 includes those petitions which raise legally frivolous claims, as well as those containing factual allegations that are palpably incredible or false. Carson v. Burke, 178 F.3d 434, 436-37 (6th Cir. 1999). After undertaking the review required by Rule 4, the Court concludes that the petition must be dismissed because it fails to raise a meritorious federal claim.

         Discussion

         I. Factual allegations Petitioner

         Jajuan Richard Whitlow is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Michigan Reformatory (RMI) in Ionia, Ionia County, Michigan. On December 9, 2013, a Macomb County Circuit Court jury found Petitioner guilty of second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317. On April 10, 2014, the court imposed a sentence of 13 to 40 years.

         On November 15, 2017, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition. Under Sixth Circuit precedent, the application is deemed filed when handed to prison authorities for mailing to the federal court. Cook v. Stegall, 295 F.3d 517, 521 (6th Cir. 2002). Petitioner placed his petition in the prison mailing system on November 15, 2017. (Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.7.)

         The petition raises two grounds for relief, as follows:

I. THE STATE COURT DECISION[] WAS CONTRARY TO, OR INVOLVED AN OBJECT[IVE]LY UNREASONABLE APPLICATION OF CLEARLY ESTABLISHED FEDERAL LAW, AND/OR AN OBJECT[IVE]LY UNREASONABLE DETERMINATION OF THE FACTS IN LIGHT OF EVIDENCE PRESENTED IN THE TRIAL COURT, WHEN IT DENIED THAT APPELLANT'S CONVICTION VIOLATES DUE PROCESS OF LAW AND MUST BE VACATED BECAUSE THERE WAS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO OVERCOME HIS PROOF OF INSANITY AND THE VERDICT IS AGAINST THE GREAT WEIGHT OF THE EVIDENCE.
II. THE STATE COURT DECISION [] WAS CONTRARY TO, OR INVO[L]VED AN OBJECT[IVE]LY UNREASONABLE APPLICATION OF CLEARLY ESTABLISHED FEDERAL LAW, AND/OR AN OBJECT[IVE]LY UNREASONABLE DETERMINATION OF THE FACT IN LIGHT OF EVIDENCE PRESENTED IN THE TRIAL COURT, WHEN IT DENIED THAT THE TRIAL COURT VIOLATED APPELLANT'S DUE PROCESS RIGHTS BY EMPANELING A JURY REFERRED TO ONLY BY JUROR NUMBERS AND BY FAILING TO GIVE A PROPER CAUTIONARY INSTRUCTION.

(Br. in Supp. of Pet., ECF No. 2, PageID.10.)

         The state-court conviction arose from Petitioner's assault of a fellow resident, Albert Potter, at the Behavioral Center of Michigan, which occurred a few hours after Petitioner was admitted for treatment of his mental disorders following a psychotic episode. According to the facts admitted in Petitioner's brief on appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals (Def.-Appellant's Br. on Appeal, ECF No. 2-1, PageID.34), which Petitioner adopts for purposes of habeas review, Petitioner apparently attempted to suffocate Potter, Petitioner's 80-year-old, physically ill roommate, after which Petitioner beat Potter in the face approximately 10 or 15 times. When the nurse responded to Potter's screams and tried to stop Petitioner, Petitioner charged at the nurse, who ran. Petitioner then turned out the light and began punching Potter in the face again. After Petitioner had been removed from the room, he asked about Potter's HIV status and yelled, “He f**king attacked me. You all f**king know it.” (Id., PageID.34.) When Petitioner learned that the police wanted to search his person for bodily fluids and trace evidence, he repeatedly spit on his hands and chewed his fingernails, attempting to clean them with his teeth. (Id., PageID.35-36.) Potter was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. He died a few days later of blunt force trauma to the head. (Id.)

         Petitioner presented the testimony of Ellen Garver, a forensic psychologist from the Center for Forensic Psychiatry. Garver initially found Petitioner incompetent to stand trial. Three months later, she concluded that he was competent to be tried. She also evaluated him for his criminal responsibility, concluding that he met the statutory criteria for a substantial disorder of thought that caused him to lack the capacity to appreciate the nature and quality or wrongfulness of his actions or to conform his actions to the law. Garver diagnosed Petitioner with schizoaffective disorder with a combination of thought and mood disorder, or paranoid schizophrenia. She concluded that, based on her evaluation, Petitioner was not guilty by reason of insanity. (Id., PageID.37.)

         The prosecutor presented no contrary expert testimony. Instead, as the Michigan Court of Appeals discussed in its decision on appeal, the prosecutor argued that Petitioner's behavior demonstrated that he was aware of what he was doing at the time of the attack: Petitioner chose a vulnerable victim only after knowing that the only male guard had left the floor; when confronted, Petitioner rushed at the nurse to get her to leave the room, turned out the light, and began beating the victim again; Petitioner immediately deflected responsibility, suggesting that the victim had initiated the attack; Petitioner went to the bathroom immediately after the attack to wash his hands; he asked if the victim was HIV positive; he immediately complied with the police when they arrived, though he had refused to comply with staff; and, when told that he would be swabbed and his nails clipped for DNA, Petitioner immediately tried to bite his nails off and then tried to keep his fingers away from the officers. (Mich. Ct. App. Op., ECF No. 2-1, PageID.52-53.) Petitioner does not contest the court of appeals' factual summary.

         After four days of trial, the jury found Petitioner to be guilty but mentally ill on the offense of second-degree murder. The court sentenced him to 13 to 30 years' imprisonment. The trial court subsequently denied his motion for a new trial. Petitioner appealed his conviction, raising the same two issues presented in the instant habeas petition. In an unpublished opinion issued on March 24, 2016, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected ...


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