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Edwards v. Hoffner

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

July 16, 2018




         Michigan prisoner Willie Edwards (“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 assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder and two firearm offenses. Petitioner asserts that the jury instructions were defective, trial and appellate counsel were ineffective, the trial court engaged in ex parte communications with the jury, and he was deprived of counsel during a critical stage of the proceedings. 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

         Petitioner was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, felon in possession of a firearm, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. The victim, Andrew Paschal, testified that, on January 8, 2010, his wife Dominique Anderson and his mother-in-law Cloria Anderson lived at 5031 Stringham Court in Detroit, Michigan. He did not live with his wife, but he went to visit her that day at approximately 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. Petitioner and several other people were there at the time. He and Dominique got into a verbal and physical fight, but he did not have a gun on him, and he left the house with his wife's cousin, Devae Sanders. He and Sanders went to a party store and then walked back to his wife's home. On the way there, he saw Petitioner inside the home of Petitioner's cousin, which was about four or five townhouses away from Dominique's townhouse. As Paschal approached Dominique's home, he heard a gunshot behind him. He turned and saw Petitioner standing there with a weapon in his hand. He asked Petitioner what he was doing with the gun. Petitioner said something and then shot him in the leg. He tried to grab Petitioner's gun, which was pointed at him, and as the two of them wrestled, the gun went off and he got hit in the arm. He was hit a third time in the chest near his armpit. He recognized the gun used in the shooting as one that his mother-in-law kept in the house. After the shooting, he went home, assisted by Devae Sanders. He required surgery for his gunshot wounds and eventually informed both his wife and some detectives who had shot him. 5/24/10 Trial Tr. at 98-119, PageID.465-476 (Dkt. 8-7).

         Detroit police officer Aaron Colwell testified that he was sent to 5031 Stringham Court after 8:00 p.m. on January 8, 2010. He found two casings on the front porch, and he saw a trail of blood leading away from the porch. Inside the house, he found a manufacturer's box for a Smith and Wesson .40 caliber handgun and live ammunition for a .40 caliber handgun, but no weapon was recovered. 5/25/10 Trial Tr. at 26-44, PageID.539-557 (Dkt. 8-8).

         Police Officer Raymond Diaz was the evidence technician assigned to the case. He arrived at the crime scene at 11:50 p.m. on January 8. He observed drops of blood leading away from the porch and two casings on the porch. Inside the house, there was an empty box for a .40 caliber Smith and Wesson gun in a bedroom closet and .40 caliber live ammunition in a dresser drawer, but no weapon was recovered. Id. at 54-65, PageID.567-578.

         Dominique Anderson testified under a grant of immunity due to certain conversations that she had with Petitioner while Petitioner was in jail. Id. at 130, PageID.643. Dominique explained that Paschal was her husband, Cloria Anderson was her mother, and Petitioner was her mother's boyfriend. On January 8, 2010, she was living with her mother, Petitioner, her brother, and her children at 5031 Stringham Court. Several people, including Petitioner and Devae Sanders, were listening to music and drinking alcoholic beverages at the house that evening. Paschal was also there, and she got into an argument with him. After Petitioner told Paschal to leave, Paschal went to the party store with Sanders. Paschal returned from the store and made a vulgar comment to the group inside the house. Petitioner then left the house, and she got into another argument and physical fight with Paschal. Sanders and Paschal subsequently left the house a second time. She did not see a weapon on Paschal, but she later heard two or three gunshots in front of her home, and her mother said that Petitioner had shot Paschal. She had seen Petitioner with a clip to a gun a few hours earlier, and she had seen Petitioner with her mother's gun on two prior occasions. The gun was missing when she went to look for it after Paschal was shot, and when she ran outside, Paschal told her that Petitioner had shot him. Id. at 77-113, PageID.590-626.

         Continuing, Dominique testified that Petitioner did not return to the house after the shooting, but he subsequently called the house from jail and offered to pay Paschal $20, 000 for not appearing in court. Petitioner suggested making payments in increments of $800, but he never made any payments. Petitioner also asked Dominique to tell Paschal that he was sorry and that he did not mean to do it. Id. at 115-132, PageID.628-645.

         Petitioner was the only defense witness. He testified that during Paschal's second fight with Dominique on January 8, 2010, Paschal had a gun in his waistband. After Paschal and Devae Sanders left the house, Petitioner grabbed the loaded gun from the bedroom because Dominique tended to do stupid things with the gun after she and Paschal fought. He then left for his cousin Robert Harris's house, which was a short distance away. After spending twenty to thirty minutes at his cousin's house, he went to buy cigarettes and walked past Paschal. Then he walked to Dominique and Cloria's residence at 5031 Stringham Court. As he approached the porch, somebody said, “Watch out.” He turned around and saw Paschal approaching him with a gun. He pulled out his gun and shot into the ground two times. He was about ten to twelve feet away from Paschal at the time. Paschal then raised his hand to shoot him, but Paschal dropped his gun when his hand hit the railing. Then the two of them wrestled for Petitioner's gun, and the gun went off two times. The gun dropped to the ground. He then lit a cigarette, walked down the street, called a cab, and went to his brother's house. 5/26/10 Trial Tr. at 9-30, PageID.696-717 (Dkt. 8-9). Petitioner denied trying to bribe anyone to beat the charges against him. He also denied trying to hide the gun or any casings. Id. at 31-35, PageID.718-722.

         The defense theory was that Petitioner lacked the intent to be found guilty of assault with intent to commit murder, and that, even if the jury thought he acted with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, he acted in self-defense. Id. at 141-142, PageID.828-829. On May 27, 2010, the jury found Petitioner guilty of assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.82, as a lesser-included offense of assault with intent to commit murder. The jury also found Petitioner guilty, as charged, of felon in possession of a firearm, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.224f, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. 5/27/10 Trial Tr. at 4-5, PageID.867-868 (Dkt. 8-10). The trial court sentenced Petitioner as a habitual offender to two years in prison for the felony-firearm conviction, followed by concurrent terms of ten to thirty years in prison for the assault and felon-in-possession convictions. 6/14/10 Sentence Tr. at 8-10, PageID.880-882 (Dkt. 8-11).

         In an appeal of right, Petitioner argued that: (i) the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to support his assault conviction; (ii) the trial court (a) improperly refused the deliberating jury's reasonable request to review the complaining witness's testimony and (b) foreclosed the possibility of allowing the jury to review the testimony; and (iii) trial counsel deprived him of effective assistance by acquiescing in the trial court's response to the jury's request to review the complaining witness's testimony. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected these claims and affirmed Petitioner's convictions in an unpublished, per curiam opinion. See People v. Edwards, No. 299263 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 22, 2011). Petitioner raised the same claims in the Michigan Supreme Court, which denied leave to appeal because it was not persuaded to review the issues. See People v. Edwards, 809 N.W.2d 585 (Mich. 2012).

         Petitioner raised his habeas claims in a motion for relief from judgment, which the trial court denied. The trial court addressed the merits of Petitioner's claims and also concluded under Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D)(3)(b) that Petitioner had not established actual prejudice from the alleged irregularities that supported his claims. See People v. Edwards, No. 10-3027-FC (Wayne Cty. Cir. Ct. Mar. 6, 2013) (Dkt. 8-13); Register of Actions (Dkt. 8-1). The Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal the trial court's decision on the basis that Petitioner had failed to establish entitlement to relief under Rule 6.508(D). See People v. Edwards, No. 318081 (Mich. Ct. App. Mar. 14, 2014). On December 30, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal for the same reason. See People v. Edwards, 857 N.W.2d 17 (Mich. 2014).

         On May 14, 2015, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition. He raises the following six claims: (i) trial counsel was ineffective for requesting a jury instruction on the duty to retreat, and the trial court erred by giving the requested instruction; (ii) the trial court abused its discretion by giving a jury instruction on “deadly aggressor-withdrawal” after prohibiting any testimony about Petitioner's aggressive behavior, and trial counsel was ineffective for requesting the instruction; (iii) the trial court engaged in ex parte communications with the jury by answering two of the jury's questions in Petitioner's and his attorney's absence; (iv) trial counsel provided ineffective assistance when he failed to (a) investigate multiple 911 calls and (b) call witnesses to testify in Petitioner's favor; (v) he was denied effective assistance of counsel during the reading of the jury's verdict; and (vi) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise numerous “dead-bang winner” issues on direct appeal. Pet. at 5-11, PageID.5-11 (Dkt. 1).

         Respondent Bonita Hoffner urges the Court to deny the petition on grounds that Petitioner's claims are procedurally defaulted, not cognizable on habeas review, or meritless. Respondent also claims that the state-court decisions were not contrary to federal law, unreasonable applications of federal law, or unreasonable determinations of the facts. Resp't Answer to Pet. at i-v, 104, PageID.150-154, 259 (Dkt. 7).

         To obtain habeas relief on procedurally defaulted claims, a petitioner “must establish cause and prejudice for the defaults” and “also show that the claims are meritorious.” Babick v. Berghuis, 620 F.3d 571, 576 (6th Cir. 2010). Petitioner's claims do not warrant habeas relief, and the Court finds it more efficient to address their merits than to analyze whether the claims are procedurally defaulted. Accordingly, the Court excuses the alleged procedural defaults and “cut[s] to the merits here, ” as “the cause-and-prejudice analysis adds nothing but complexity to the case.” Id.


         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. The Jury Instruction on Duty to Retreat

         Petitioner alleges that trial counsel was ineffective for requesting a jury instruction on the duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense and that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on the duty to retreat. Petitioner contends that he had no duty to retreat from his own home or from the curtilage of his home, and because the testimony at trial suggested that the shooting occurred on the porch to his home, the jury was misled by the instruction on the duty to retreat. Pet. at 5, PageID.5; Brief in Support of Pet. at 8-14, PageID.45-51.

         The trial court adjudicated this claim on post-conviction review and concluded that the duty-to-retreat instruction was warranted as part of the instruction on self-defense because there was evidence that the shooting involved a confrontation between Petitioner and the victim during which a struggle ensued. The ...

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