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Syzak v. Haas

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

March 15, 2018

SCOTT SYZAK, Petitioner,
RANDY HAAS, Respondent.


          Arthur J. Tarnow Senior United States District Judge

         Petitioner Scott Syzak, a prisoner in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections, has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         Petitioner challenges his first-degree felony murder conviction on the grounds that the trial court erred in denying a motion to suppress expert witness testimony and the trial court admitted Petitioner's custodial statement in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights.

         Respondent, through the Attorney General's Office, has filed an answer in opposition to the petition arguing that the claims are meritless. For the reasons discussed, the Court will deny habeas corpus relief.

         I. Background

         Petitioner's conviction arose from the death of Petitioner's four-month-old daughter Jessica, on October 12, 1995. Jessica sustained a skull fracture and cerebral contusion several weeks before her death. Dr. Richard Anderson, the medical examiner who performed an autopsy, determined that these injuries were the cause of Jessica's death. During the initial investigation, Jessica's mother, Candace Syzak, claimed responsibility for the fall that caused Jessica's head injury. Syzak told authorities that she accidentally dropped Jessica while bathing her. The investigation did not result in Petitioner's arrest until August 2010, when police re-interviewed Petitioner and Candace. Petitioner was interviewed on August 25 and 26, 2010 in his then home state of Indiana. He filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the second interrogation. Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion.

         At trial, Candace Syzak, Jessica's mother, testified that Jessica was born on May 31, 1995. One day in August 1995, when Candace returned home from work, Jessica, who had been alone with Petitioner all day, had a bump on her forehead. When Candace asked Petitioner about the bump, Petitioner said that she kicked away from him when he was bathing her and she hit her head on the bathtub's faucet. Candace and Petitioner waited two weeks to take Jessica to the hospital. Candace testified that, before taking Jessica for medical treatment, they discussed what they would tell medical personnel. Petitioner asked Candace to tell police that she had dropped Jessica. She agreed to do so because she knew that Petitioner had previously gone to prison for assault. At the time, she did not know that his previous conviction involved a child.

         Jessica was kept over night at a hospital in Saginaw. When she was released the next day, Candace and Petitioner were told to follow up with Dr. Gerald Schell. The Syzaks took Jessica to Dr. Schell approximately one week later, on October 11, 1995. He drained Jessica's bump and sent her home. That evening, Jessica woke up at approximately 2:00 a.m., and Petitioner went to check on her. Candace woke up at approximately 6:30 a.m. and, when she went to check on Jessica, found her lifeless in the playpen where she had slept. Jessica's playpen had a blanket and comforter in it.

         Cocette Blay testified that she and Petitioner dated in the 1980s, when she was a teenager. At some point in time, Petitioner was permitted to live with her and her family. In March 1989, Blay came home one day to find Petitioner standing on the front lawn crying. He said that the baby (Blay's younger sister Candy) had been hurt. Petitioner reported that Candy had fallen off the couch and landed on some toys. Eventually, Candy was taken for medical treatment and Michigan State Police conducted an investigation. Petitioner was charged with child abuse. Petitioner told Blay that his attorney had told him he faced 12 years in prison, so they needed to leave the state. Blay agreed to move to Florida with Petitioner. After they moved to Florida, they had a child together, Alisha Syzak. In September 1990, when Alisha was about one month old, Blay was taking a bath when she heard Alisha crying from the other room. Alisha ran into the room and found Alisha's foot swelling and bruising. Petitioner, who had been alone with Alisha, told Blay that he had just been playing with Alisha. They decided to take Alisha to the hospital. On the way there, Petitioner told Blay to tell medical personnel that she had dropped Alisha in the bathtub because he was already in trouble regarding Candy. Petitoiner also told Blay to give hospital personnel a false name for him. At the hospital, they discovered that Alisha's leg was broken. Ultimately, police discovered Petitioner's true identity and he was extradited to Michigan. Petitioner pleaded no contest to second-degree child abuse and was imprisoned in Michigan. After that time, Blay and Petitioner did not continue their romantic relationship. When Blay learned what happened to Jessica, she wrote a letter to the prosecuting attorney to inform him that the story about the baby falling in the bathroom had previously been used by Petitioner when Alisha had been hurt.

         Dr. Anderson, who performed the autopsy, identified the cause of death as skull fracture and cerebral contusion. He did not believe these injuries were consistent with a fall from several feet. Dr. Anderson found evidence of nine posterior rib fractures. During the autopsy, Dr. Anderson took several tissue samples and prepared slides. After Jessica's body had been released to a funeral home, Dr. Anderson consulted Dr. Werner Spitz, a noted forensic pathologist, regarding the case. At Dr. Spitz's suggestion, he had Jessica's body returned from the funeral home to allow him to take samples from her eyes and from the broken ribs. Dr. Anderson testified that he did not obtain records from Dr. Schell or any hospital before completing the autopsy report. None of the physical slides of the tissue samples taken during the autopsy were available at the time of trial. On cross-emanation, Dr. Anderson admitted that evidence of eye hemorrhages and rib fractures possibly signified Shaken Baby Syndrome. He also testified that he could not rule out asphyxiation as a cause of death. He found no evidence of subdural hematoma, intercranial bleeding or brain stem involvement.

         The defense presented a single witness, Dr. Brian Woodruf. Dr. Woodruf testified as an expert in pediatric neurology. He testified that Jessica did not die as a result of a skull fracture or injury to her brain. He found no medical support for the theory that Jessica died from a seizure disorder caused by head trauma. Dr. Woodruf could not rule out Sudden Infant Death Syndrome as the cause of Jessica's death. He noted that medically accepted risk factors for SIDS death include sleeping on a soft surface with blankets, comforters or soft stuffed animals in the sleeping area.

         II. Procedural History

         Petitioner was convicted by a jury in St. Clair County Circuit Court of first-degree felony murder. On July 1, 2011, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

         Petitioner filed an appeal of right in the Michigan Court of Appeals challenging the admission of the medical examiner's testimony, the admission of Petitioner's custodial statement, and the prosecution's questioning of three government witnesses. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's conviction. Id. The Michigan Supreme Court denied Petitioner's application for leave to appeal. People v. Syzak, 495 Mich. 899 (Mich. 2013).

         Petitioner, through counsel, then filed the pending habeas corpus petition. Respondent has filed an answer and the related Rule 5 materials.

         The petition raises these claims:

I. The state trial court reversibly erred in denying the defense motion to suppress the testimony by Dr. Anderson where the State lost or destroyed evidence of material or exculpatory value to the defense, or lost that evidence through gross negligence, in violation of Mr. Syzak's constitutional due process rights.
II. The state courts unreasonably applied the controlling United States Supreme Court's precedent in finding that Mr. Syzak's statement to police on the second day of interrogation, following his detention on suicide watch, was the result of a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his Fifth Amendment rights, and thus the admission of his statements at trial violation due process.

         III. Standard of Review

         This habeas petition is reviewed under the exacting standards set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), Pub.L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996). Under AEDPA, a federal court cannot grant habeas relief with respect to any claim adjudicated on the ...

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