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Benton v. Brewer

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

June 29, 2018

SHAWN BREWER, [1] Respondent.



         Allanah Tumura Benton, (“Petitioner”), confined at the Huron Valley Women's Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging her conviction for two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC-I), M.C.L.A. § 750.520b(a)(1), for which she was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 25 to 38 years. For the reasons that follow, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was convicted following a jury trial in the Genesee County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts relied upon by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which are presumed correct on habeas review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). See e.g. Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009):

Defendant, a former elementary school teacher, was convicted of engaging in sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old former student from her sixth grade class. The victim had academic and behavioral problems and was suspended from school for fighting with another student at the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year. Defendant intervened on the victim's behalf and persuaded the school principal not to expel the victim from school. After the victim returned to school, defendant invited him to religious activities at her masjid (mosque) and to her home, purportedly to offer him guidance and help him with his anger and academic problems. The victim was subsequently expelled from school after a second fighting incident. After his expulsion, he spent more time with defendant at her home, with his mother's permission.
According to the victim, he and defendant progressed from hugging, to holding hands, to kissing, before eventually engaging in sexual intercourse. The victim testified that he and defendant had sexual intercourse on two different evenings in October 2007. After the second incident, the victim called defendant from his home and inadvertently recorded the call. During the recorded call, the victim referred to defendant as his girlfriend and stated that he was proud to be involved with a grown woman. The victim's mother heard the recording and reported it to the school. The school board later terminated defendant from her teaching position and that decision was upheld by the tenure commission.

People v. Benton, 294 Mich.App. 191, 194-95, 817 N.W.2d 599, 602-03 (2011).

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id., lv. den. 491 Mich. 917, 813 N.W.2d 286 (2012).

         Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds:

I. The prosecution deliberately elicited statements from complainant that portrayed him as sexually naive knowing he told a forensic interviewer of previous sexual partners. Those prior inconsistent statements were not given to the jury and the Court denied defendant her right of confrontation and right to present a defense. U.S. Const., Amends VI, XIV; Mich. Const, Art. 1, § 20.
II. The trial court improperly admitted misleading and unduly prejudicial testimony of a finding made at a teacher tenure hearing that complainant's claims were not mere allegations. In addition, the rules on hearsay were violated. Only if this Court deems it necessary does defendant further make an ineffective assistance claim.
III. The mandatory 25 year minimum term imposed under MCL 750.520b(2)(b) constitutes cruel or unusual punishment in violation of the Michigan and Federal Constitutions as applied to the facts of this case.
IV. Defense counsel told Benton that, if she accepted the prosecution's plea offer of one year in jail, her parental rights would necessarily be terminated. This was not true. Due process applies to petitions to terminate parental rights. Said error caused Benton to reject said offer and denied Benton her right to effective assistance of counsel under Lafler v Cooper.

         II. Standard of Review

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim-
(1) 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
(2) 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.

         A decision of a state court is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). An “unreasonable application” occurs when “a state court decision unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the facts of a prisoner's case.” Id. at 409. A federal habeas court may not “issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly.” Id. at 410-11. “[A] state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011)(citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). Therefore, in order to obtain habeas relief in federal court, a state prisoner is required to show that the state court's rejection of his or her claim “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103. A habeas petitioner should be denied relief as long as it is within the “realm of possibility” that fairminded jurists could find the state court decision to be reasonable. See Woods v. Etherton, 136 S.Ct. 1149, 1152 (2016).

         III. Discussion

         A. The Confrontation Clause violation.

         Petitioner alleges that she was denied due process under the Confrontation Clause when the prosecutor deliberately elicited statements from the complainant, portraying him as sexually naive, when earlier inconsistent statements made by the complainant were not given to the jury. Petitioner also claims that she was denied her right to cross-examine the complainant in connection with those statements. Petitioner refers to an earlier forensic interview in which the complainant related prior sexual experiences with a 13-year-old girl and a 14-year-old girl. At trial, when describing the two acts of intercourse with petitioner, the complainant testified that petitioner placed a condom on his penis and inserted the complainant's penis into her vagina because he did not know how to do so. The trial judge denied petitioner's request to cross-examine the complainant concerning statements he previously made during a forensic interview in which he mentioned these prior sexual experiences with the two young girls. The judge ruled that the evidence was barred by the rape-shield statute, M.C.L.A. § 750.520j.

         Just as an accused has the right to confront the prosecution's witnesses for the purpose of challenging their testimony, he or she also has the right to present his or her own witnesses to establish a defense. This right is a fundamental element of the due process of law. Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14, 19 (1967); see also Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 690 (1986)(“whether rooted directly in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, or in the Compulsory Process or Confrontation clauses of the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants ‘a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense'”) (internal citations omitted). However, an accused in a criminal case does not have an unfettered right to offer evidence that is incompetent, privileged, or otherwise inadmissible under the standard rules of evidence. Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37, 42 (1996). The Supreme Court has indicated its “traditional reluctance to impose constitutional constraints on ordinary evidentiary rulings by state trial courts.” Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. at 689. The Supreme Court gives trial court judges “wide latitude” to exclude evidence that is repetitive, marginally relevant, or that poses a risk of harassment, prejudice, or confusion of the issues. Id. (quoting Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 679 (1986)). Moreover, under the standard of review for habeas cases as enunciated in § 2254(d)(1), it is not enough for a habeas petitioner to show that the state trial court's decision to exclude potentially helpful evidence to the defense was erroneous or incorrect. Instead, a habeas petitioner must show that the state trial court's decision to exclude the evidence was “an objectively unreasonable application of clearly established Supreme Court precedent.” See Rockwell v. Yukins, 341 F.3d 507, 511-12 (6th Cir. 2003).

         The Supreme Court has noted that the legitimate state interests behind a rape-shield statute include giving a rape victim a heightened protection against surprise, harassment, and unnecessary invasions of privacy and may allow the exclusion of relevant evidence if the state's interests in excluding the evidence outweigh the defendant's interests in having the evidence admitted. Michigan v. Lucas, 500 U.S. 145, 152-53 (1991).

         Michigan's rape-shield statute, M.C.L.A. § 750.520j(1), states the following:

(1) Evidence of specific instances of the victim's sexual conduct, opinion evidence of the victim's sexual conduct, and reputation evidence of the victim's sexual conduct shall not be admitted ... unless and only to the extent that the judge finds that the following proposed evidence is material to a fact at issue in the case and that its inflammatory or prejudicial nature does not outweigh its probative value:
(a) Evidence of the victim's past sexual conduct with the actor.
(b) Evidence of specific instances of sexual activating showing the source or origin of semen, pregnancy, or disease.
(2) If the defendant proposes to offer evidence described in subsection (1)(a) or (b), the defendant within 10 days after the arraignment on the information shall file a written motion and offer of proof. The court may order an in camera hearing to determine whether the proposed evidence is admissible under subsection (1). If new information is discovered during the course of the trial that may make the evidence described in subsection (1)(a) or (b) admissible, the judge may order an in camera hearing to determine whether the proposed evidence is admissible under subsection (1).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals initially found that the evidence of the victim's prior sexual experiences did not fit within one of the categories listed in the rape shield statute. People v. Benton, 294 Mich.App. At 197. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed that although not admissible under one of the statutory exceptions of the rape-shield law, evidence of a victim's prior sexual conduct may be admissible to preserve a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right of confrontation. The Michigan Court of Appeals noted that such evidence could be admissible to show the complaining witness' bias, a complainant's ulterior motive for making a false charge, and to show that the complainant had made false accusations of rape in the past. Id. (citing People v. Hackett, 421 Mich. 338, 344, 348-49, 365 N.W.2d 120 (1984)). The Michigan Court of Appeals further noted: “When a trial court exercises its discretion to determine whether evidence of a complainant's sexual conduct not within the statutory exceptions should be admitted, the court ‘should be mindful of the significant legislative purposes underlying the rape-shield statute and should always favor exclusion of evidence of a complainant's sexual conduct where its exclusion would not unconstitutionally abridge the defendant's right to confrontation.'” Id. at 197-98 (quoting Hackett, 421 Mich. at 349).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that the exclusion of this evidence did not deny petitioner his right ...

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