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Taylor v. Berghuis

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

July 16, 2018

MARY BERGHUIS, Respondent.



         Michigan prisoner Deon Lamont Taylor (“Petitioner”) filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. 1). The petition challenges Petitioner's Wayne County, Michigan convictions for three counts of solicitation of murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.157b(2), and one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.157a; Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(a). Petitioner alleges as grounds for relief that: (i) he was denied a fair trial by testimony that he had pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct in a related case, (ii) the trial court erred by allowing a deputy sheriff to testify about the alleged co-conspirator's statements, (iii) the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to charge the jury on attempted solicitation of murder, and (iv) the evidence at trial was insufficient. For the reasons stated below, the Court denies the petition for writ of habeas corpus, denies a certificate of appealability, and grants leave to appeal in forma pauperis.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The state appellate court briefly summarized the pertinent facts as follows:

Defendant's convictions arose out of his conspiracy and solicitation of the murders of two witnesses against him in a pending criminal sexual conduct case, as well as a family member of those witnesses. While he was incarcerated, defendant solicited one of his former associates, Carlas May, to effectuate the killings. Unbeknownst to defendant, May cooperated with the police and wore a recording device during one of his meetings with defendant. May also met with Kenisha Faison, defendant's co-conspirator, and recorded two conversations with her.

People v. Taylor, No. 313677, 2014 WL 1234150, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Mar. 25, 2014).

         On October 4, 2012, a Wayne County Circuit Court jury found Petitioner guilty, as charged, of soliciting Carlas May (“May”) to kill Petitioner's former girlfriend, his girlfriend's twelve-year-old daughter, and his biological son. The jury also found Petitioner guilty of conspiring with Kenisha Faison (“Faison”) to kill his former girlfriend, his girlfriend's daughter, and his son. On November 15, 2012, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to concurrent terms of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for the conspiracy conviction and 450 months (thirty-seven and a half years) to seventy years for the solicitation convictions. Petitioner raised his habeas claims in an appeal of right, but the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions, see id., and on July 29, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because it was not persuaded to review the issues. See People v. Taylor, 849 N.W.2d 379 (Mich. 2014).

         On May 11, 2015, Petitioner filed his habeas petition. Respondent argues in an answer to the petition that Petitioner's claims are procedurally defaulted, waived, or not cognizable on habeas review and meritless. Resp't Answer in Opp'n to Pet. at i-iii, PageID.75-77 (Dkt. 7).


         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214, 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.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         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, 405-406 (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 411.

         The Supreme Court has explained that a “federal court's collateral review of a state-court decision must be consistent with the respect due state courts in our federal system.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). Thus, the AEDPA “imposes a highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, and demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010). 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). The Supreme Court has emphasized “that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable.” Id. at 102. Furthermore, pursuant to section 2254(d), “a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision” of the Supreme Court. Id. Habeas relief is not appropriate unless each ground that supported the state-court's decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under the AEDPA. See Wetzel v. Lambert, 520 U.S. 520, 525 (2012).

         “If this standard is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102. Although 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by the AEDPA, does not completely bar federal courts from re-litigating claims that have previously been rejected in the state courts, it preserves the authority for a federal court to grant habeas relief only “in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with” the Supreme Court's precedents. Id. Indeed, section 2254(d) “reflects the view that habeas corpus is a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Id. Thus, a “readiness to attribute error [to a state court] is inconsistent with the presumption that state courts know and follow the law.” Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). Therefore, in order to obtain habeas relief in federal courts, a state prisoner is required to show that the state-court's rejection of his 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 state-court's factual determinations are presumed correct on federal habeas review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). A habeas petitioner may rebut this presumption of correctness only with clear and convincing evidence. Id.; Warren v. Smith, 161 F.3d 358, 360-361 (6th Cir. 1998). Moreover, habeas review is “limited to the record that was before the state court.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Testimony about Petitioner's Guilty Plea

         Petitioner alleges that he was denied a fair trial and due process of law when Detective Sergeant Gary Wiegand testified that Petitioner had pleaded guilty in the underlying criminal-sexual-conduct case. The trial court had previously ruled that the prosecution could elicit some testimony about the criminal-sexual-conduct case to show Petitioner's motive and intent in the current case, but that it would be inappropriate to elicit testimony that Petitioner pleaded guilty to the criminal-sexual-conduct charges, withdrew his plea, then pleaded guilty a second time, and was convicted and sentenced. The court advised the attorneys to caution their witnesses not to say anything about Petitioner's guilty plea, conviction, and sentence in the criminal-sexual-conduct case. 9/25/12 Trial Tr. at 12-14, PageID.274-276 (Dkt. 8-6).

         Wiegand subsequently testified that, while he was attempting to verify information provided by May, he learned that Petitioner had already pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct. See 9/28/12 Trial Tr. at 212, PageID.836 (Dkt. 8-9). The trial court excused the jury immediately, and, in the jury's absence, Wiegand apologized for his error. Although the trial court offered to read a limiting instruction to the jurors, defense counsel declined the offer on the basis that it would draw attention to Wiegand's comment. Id. at 212-215, PageID.836-839.

         Petitioner now claims that Wiegand's testimony bolstered the prosecution's argument that the criminal-sexual-conduct case was the motive for the solicitation of murder and conspiracy. Petitioner also contends that Wiegand's testimony portrayed him as a confessed sexual predator of children. See Brief in Support of Pet. at 16, PageID.32 (Dkt. 1).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals reviewed Petitioner's claim for “plain error affecting substantial rights” because Petitioner failed to request a mistrial or to specify the grounds for his objection at trial. The Court of Appeals went on to say that it was unlikely Petitioner suffered any significant prejudice from the comment because Wiegand's reference to Petitioner's guilty plea was brief. The Court of Appeals also stated that Petitioner waived any error when he refused the trial court's offer to provide an immediate curative jury instruction and agreed that the trial court's jury instruction after the close of the proofs was adequate. Taylor, 2014 WL 1234150, at *1.

         1. Procedural Default

         Respondent argues that Petitioner's claim is procedurally defaulted because the Michigan Court of Appeals reviewed the claim for “plain error.” A procedural default is “a critical failure to comply with state procedural law.” Trest v. Cain, 522 U.S. 87, 89 (1997). Under the doctrine of procedural default, “a federal court will not review the merits of [a state prisoner's] claims, including constitutional claims, that a state court declined to hear because the prisoner failed to abide by a state procedural rule.” Martinez v. Ryan, 566 U.S. 1, 9 (2012). In this Circuit,

“[a] habeas petitioner's claim will be deemed procedurally defaulted if each of the following four factors is met: (1) the petitioner failed to comply with a state procedural rule; (2) the state courts enforced the rule; (3) the state procedural rule is an adequate and independent state ground for denying review of a federal constitutional claim; and (4) the petitioner has not shown cause and prejudice excusing the default.” [Jalowiec v. Bradshaw, 657 F.3d 293, 302 (6th Cir. 2011)]. To determine whether a state procedural rule was applied to bar a habeas claim, [courts] look “to the last reasoned state court decision disposing of the claim.” Guilmette v. Howes, 624 F.3d 286, 291 (6th Cir. 2010) (en banc).

Henderson v. Palmer, 730 F.3d 554, 560 (6th Cir. 2013).

         2. Application

         The state procedural rule in question here is Michigan's contemporaneous-objection rule. This rule requires defendants in criminal cases to preserve their appellate claims by first moving for a mistrial on the same ground in the trial court, People v. Alter, 659 N.W.2d 667, 673-674 (Mich. Ct. App. 2003), or by specifically objecting on the same ground in the trial court. People v. Carines, 597 N.W.2d 130, 137-139 (Mich. 1999); People v. Buie, 825 N.W.2d 361, 374 (Mich. Ct. App. 2012).

         At Petitioner's trial, it was the trial judge, not Petitioner, who interrupted Detective Wiegand mid-sentence when Wiegand mentioned Petitioner's guilty plea. Petitioner subsequently failed to request a mistrial or to make a specific objection to Wiegand's testimony, and he declined the trial court's offer to read a cautionary instruction to the jury. See 9/28/12 Trial Tr. at 212-215, ...

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