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Castorena v. Brewer

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

June 29, 2018

SHAWN BREWER, Respondent.




         This is a habeas corpus case brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Michigan prisoner Maryann Castorena (“Petitioner”) was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(a), conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 750.157a and 750.316(1)(a), solicitation of first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.157b(2), and lying to a peace officer, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.479c(2)(d), following a jury trial in Ottawa County Circuit Court. Petitioner alleges as a ground for relief that evidence admitted at trial relating to a prior conspiracy to commit arson was wrongfully admitted under Michigan Rule of Evidence (“MRE”) 404(b). Petitioner also alleges that the evidence violated her right to a fair trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

         The State argues in an answer to the habeas petition that Petitioner abandoned her claim by presenting it in a one-sentence statement with no supporting argument. The State also maintains that Petitioner's claim is not cognizable on habeas review because there is no federal prohibition on the evidence in question in the habeas context.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner was charged with first-degree premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder, solicitation of first-degree premeditated murder, and lying to a peace officer. She was tried before a jury in Ottawa County Circuit Court. The state appellate court summarized the facts at Petitioner's trial as follows:

This case arises out of the murder of Jose Hernandez in January 2014. At the time, defendant was a beneficiary of Hernandez's life insurance policies as well as the 401k account, stock option plan, and life insurance policy that Hernandez received through his job. In total, defendant was in a position to receive over $1.2 million upon Hernandez's death.
In 2005, defendant and Hernandez began dating, and they later lived together along with other family members. In June 2012, Hernandez applied for a $750, 000 20-year term life insurance policy through a Farm Bureau Insurance agency where defendant worked. He named his niece as the sole beneficiary of the policy, but he asked the insurance agent about the possibility of changing the beneficiary at a later date to his future wife and children. This insurance policy went into effect on July 20, 2012.
Later, in November 2012, defendant, Hernandez, and defendant's sons, Jamie Hinojosa and Gabriel Delarosa, were living in an apartment on Ambertrace Lane in Holland, Michigan (“the Ambertrace apartment”).[1] At that time, defendant was introduced to one of Hinojosa's friends, Anthony Delagarza, who was an initiated member of the Latin Kings, a local gang. Delagarza was living with his brother, but he wanted to move out because he was “hanging around with a lot of gang members” at his brother's apartment and hoped to “turn [his] life around.” Learning of this, defendant invited Delagarza to live with her, Hernandez, and her sons at the Ambertrace apartment. Delagarza moved into the unit shortly thereafter, and he was “jumped out” of the Latin Kings, meaning that he was assaulted in order to be allowed to leave the gang, in December 2012.
In February 2013, Hernandez listed defendant as the only beneficiary of his employee stock options plan, his 401k plan, and his life insurance policy issued through his employer. A month later, in March 2013, defendant asked Delagarza if he knew of anyone who could “total out the [2012 Nissan Maxima] so the insurance would pay out” because they were having trouble paying for the insurance on the vehicle each month. Hernandez was with defendant when she discussed this matter with Delagarza, but defendant was the one who spoke while Hernandez stood nearby. Delagarza told defendant that he did not know anyone who would do that, but he could do it. Defendant then told him, “I'll pay you about $1, 000 for this job.” Delagarza testified that the “cover story” that defendant developed for the arson involved defendant staying at her sister's house-as her sister was in the midst of a custody dispute with her ex-husband-and making it appear that the ex-husband committed the arson. At trial, Delagarza confirmed that he did, in fact, blow up the vehicle using Molotov cocktail bombs while it was parked outside the home of defendant's sister. He also explained in detail the way in which the arson plot was executed, including defendant's presence at her sister's home during the commission of the crime. In addition, documentation regarding the insurance claim filed on the vehicle, testimony from a police officer who responded to the scene of the arson, and a video of the burning vehicle were admitted at trial. After the incident, defendant paid Delagarza for his involvement in the crime.
In April 2013, approximately $40, 000 was paid to Hernandez for the total loss of the 2012 Nissan Maxima. Later in April, Hernandez changed the designated beneficiary on his Farm Bureau life insurance policy so that his niece would receive 60% of the proceeds and defendant would receive 40%.
In July 2013, Delagarza moved out of the Ambertrace apartment. That month, he also traveled to California. While he was visiting his godparents during the trip, he accidentally videotaped himself on his cellular telephone while discussing the fact that defendant hired him to burn the Maxima, and he described the way he did the crime. Around the same time, defendant also moved to California. At the end of July 2013, she married another man in Nevada, which she never disclosed to Hernandez.
A few days after the marriage, defendant temporarily returned to Michigan to help Delarosa move in with one of defendant's sisters.[2]During her visit, she reconnected with Delagarza, requesting that he meet with her the following weekend. During the meeting, defendant told Delagarza that she had a new “job” for him to do and that it would pay out “really, really good.” Delagarza testified at trial that defendant explained that she would “have [Hernandez] take out a $75, 000 life insurance policy, ” and that Delagarza would be paid $50, 000 for murdering him. They then discussed how the murder would be accomplished, and Delagarza agreed to complete the homicide. Subsequently, defendant returned to California.
The murder did not occur until several months later.[3] In the meantime, Hernandez applied for a second 20-year term life insurance policy in the amount of $750, 000 through Farm Bureau, under which defendant was the sole beneficiary.[4] Additionally, during this period of time, Hernandez continued to refer to defendant as his girlfriend.
In November 2013, defendant moved back to Holland, Michigan, with her new husband. Upon their arrival, defendant and her husband lived in her sister's home. Hinojosa continued to live with Hernandez in the Ambertrace apartment despite his mother's return to Michigan. Defendant met with Delagarza multiple times in November and December 2013 to discuss the murder plan. Then, around Christmas, while Hinojosa was still living with Hernandez, defendant began ...

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