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Traxler v. Burt

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

March 14, 2018

James Traxler, Petitioner,
v.
Sherry Burt, Respondent.

          Honorable Gordon J. Quist Judge.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PHILLIP J. GREEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner James Traxler is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan. On October 2, 2012, a Newaygo County Circuit Court jury found Petitioner guilty of second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317, and felony firearm, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. On November 5, 2012, the court sentenced Petitioner to a term of imprisonment of twenty to eighty years for the second-degree murder conviction, consecutive to a term of two years for the felony firearm conviction.

         On March 30, 2017, Petitioner filed his amended habeas corpus petition raising three grounds for relief, as follows:

I. [PETITIONER] WAS DEPRIVED OF THE RIGHT TO PRESENT A DEFENSE AND EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL FOR FAILING TO PROPERLY RAISE SELF DEFENSE.
II. INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL FOR FAILING TO MOVE TO EXCLUDE EXPERT TESTIMONY.
III. INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF APPELLATE COUNSEL.

(Am. Pet., ECF No. 11, PageID.154-157.) Respondent has filed an answer to the petition (ECF No. 15), stating that the grounds should be denied because issue I is procedurally defaulted and meritless, and issues II and III are simply meritless. Upon review and applying the standards of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (AEDPA), I find that the grounds are meritless. Accordingly, I recommend that the petition be denied.

         Discussion

         I. Factual allegations

         On June 25, 2011, Petitioner shot his neighbor three doors down, Michael Boynton, point blank in the head, killing him. That is undisputed. Petitioner claims he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service and a prior beating at the hands of Mr. Boynton, and that his perception of the events because of that disorder turned his action in pulling the trigger into self-defense. The jury did not agree.

         Petitioner presented the testimony of Psychologist James VanTreese in support of his claims that: (a) he was not criminally responsible for shooting his neighbor; and (b) the shooting was justified. (Trial Tr. V, ECF No. 16-13, PageID.1043-1149.) The prosecutor presented the testimony of Psychologist Margo Gilbert in support of his claim that Petitioner was criminally responsible and the shooting was not justified. (Trial Tr. VI, ECF No. 16-14, PageID.1267-1347.)

         Petitioner testified that Michael Boynton was coming at him and, so fresh on the heels of a brutal beating by Mr. Boynton, Petitioner feared for his life when he pulled the trigger. (Trial Tr. VI, ECF No. 16-14, PageID.1189-1193.) That may have been what was going on in Petitioner's head, but there was an eyewitness to the incident who told a different story.

         Eric Carrier, the boyfriend of a Maria Fifield who lived in a house between Mr. Boynton and Petitioner's homes, was in Ms. Fifield's backyard at the time of the shooting, only thirty to forty yards away. (Trial Tr. I, ECF No. 16-9, PageID.650-670.) He saw Petitioner next to and slightly behind Mr. Boynton, as Mr. Boynton sat on his riding mower on his property.[1] (Id.) According to Mr. Carrier, as Mr. Boynton sat on his mower, Petitioner raised up a gun and shot him in the head. (Id.)

         Mr. Carrier and Ms. Fifield immediately left the scene in their vehicle to report the incident at the state Police Post. (Id.) Petitioner called 911 to report the incident as well. (Id., PageID.644-648; Trial Tr. VI, ECF No. 16-14, PageID.1236-1240.) When police and emergency medical personnel arrived, Mr. Boynton was dead. (See, e.g., Trial Tr. II, ECF No. 16-10, PageID.703-706; 711, 714, 761, 763-764, 770.) The position of his body on the mower, however, seemed more consistent with Mr. Carrier's version of events than Petitioner's version. (Id.) That is why the expert testimony was so important.

         The trial court instructed the jury that for Petitioner to act in self-defense, he “must have honestly and reasonably believed that he was in danger of being killed or seriously injured.” (Trial Tr. VII, ECF No. 16-15, PageID.1428.) It would be difficult to conclude that Petitioner honestly and reasonably believed himself to be in danger based on Mr. Carrier's disinterested description of the shooting. Petitioner's description of the events-that Mr. Boynton lunged at him causing Petitioner to fear for his life-only appears “reasonable” if what he perceived was understandably different than what Mr. Carrier perceived. Petitioner's expert's explanation that Petitioner was in a trauma-induced disassociative state (Trial Tr. V, ECF No. 16-13, PageID.1071-1077), provided the foundation necessary for ...


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