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Fordhan v. Hoffner

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

July 30, 2018

BONITA J. HOFFNER, Respondent.



         This is a habeas case filed by a Michigan prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner Ronald Fordham was convicted after a jury trial in the Wayne Circuit Court of second-degree murder. Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317. Petitioner was sentenced to a term of 27 to 50 years' imprisonment.

         The petition raises seven claims: (1) insufficient evidence at trial to sustain Petitioner's conviction, (2) Petitioner's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the misconduct of the prosecutor, (3) the prosecutor improperly vouched for the credibility of two witnesses, (4) Petitioner's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present a substantial defense, failing to request a jury instruction on manslaughter, and failing to have Petitioner testify in his own defense, (5) the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on its own initiative on the lesser offense of manslaughter, (6) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to subject the prosecutor's case to meaningful adversarial testing, and (7) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to advise Petitioner to accept a favorable plea bargain.

         The Court finds that Petitioner's claims are without merit or barred by his state court procedural default. Therefore, the petition will be denied. The Court also denies a certificate of appealability, but it will grant permission to appeal in forma pauperis.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was originally charged with first-degree murder along with co-defendants Shameka Shamily and Tinga Harvey as a result of the May 3, 2012, stabbing death of Kiewone Watkins at a Detroit apartment building. Harvey and Shamily pled guilty to manslaughter, and before trial the charge against Petitioner was reduced to second-degree murder.

         At trial, the medical examiner testified that Watkins died as the result of multiple stab wounds. The most serious wounds penetrated the right chest cavity and injured both of his lungs and heart. The medical examiner noted a defensive stab wound on the victim's forearm and a laceration to the back of the head.

         The incident occurred after a fight erupted at Watkins' apartment building. The two-story “U” shaped building had an outdoor walkway on the second floor and outdoor staircases. The fight initially involved Shamily and Harvey arguing with Shamily's step-sister, Shana Granger. Harvey is the mother of Petitioner's child, and Granger was Watkins' boyfriend. Granger and Watkins lived at the same building but in different apartments.

         Shamily testified at trial that she and Harvey went to the apartment building after drinking heavily. Multiple intoxicated people were arguing. Shamily and Harvey got involved in the argument; they argued with Watkins. At some point Shamily and Harvey left the building, got Petitioner, and returned with the intention of continuing the fight.

         When they returned, Shamily and Harvey engaged in a physical fight with the victim on the second-floor walkway. During the fight, Shamily saw Petitioner hit the victim in the chest and stomach, but she did not see a knife. Petitioner then started running away and told Shamily and Harvey that they had to go. Meanwhile, Shamily saw the victim lying on the ground. Shamily testified that she was charged with second-degree murder, but she pled guilty to manslaughter with a 4 to 15 year sentence and an agreement to testify truthfully at trial.

         Harvey testified that she is the mother of Petitioner's daughter. She was also charged with second-degree murder but pled guilty to manslaughter with a 4 to 15 year sentence and an agreement to testify truthfully. She described how on the date of the incident, Granger called Harvey and Shamily over to her building. When they arrived, Harvey argued with Watkins, who pushed her and threatened to punch her. In response, Harvey broke a bottle and prepared to use it as a weapon. Watkins spit on her. When other individuals came out of Watkins' apartment, Harvey and Shamily left to get Petitioner.

         Harvey testified that they returned with Petitioner, another man named Ralph, Paris Simpkins, and her boyfriend. Harvey and Shamily went back to Watkins' apartment, and the three began to fight on the walkway. During the fight, Petitioner intervened and stabbed the victim several times. The victim fell to the floor. As they fled, Petitioner told Harvey that he stabbed the victim but that he did not kill him.

         Shana Granger testified that Harvey and Shamily arrived at her apartment building sometime after midnight on the date of the incident. The women started to argue with each other, leading Watkins to argue with Harvey and Shamily. The two women left, but they returned with Petitioner who accused the victim of spitting on Harvey. Harvey and Shamily then started fighting with Watkins, and during the fight Granger thought she saw Petitioner strike the victim in the chest with his fist. The victim fell to the ground. Petitioner, Shamily, and Harvey then ran from the scene. Granger never saw a knife.

         Paris Simpkins testified she was also at the scene during the fight. She saw Shamily and Harvey fighting with the victim. She then saw Petitioner punch the victim in the stomach and pull him to the ground. Her boyfriend also kicked the victim. Petitioner then yelled at the women that they had to go, and they all left the building. She never saw anyone with a weapon.

         When Detroit Police Officers arrived at the scene aroud 2:45 a.m., they found the victim in a pool of blood on the second-floor walkway near the stairwell. The area was well-lit by street lights and a light on the building. He had no vital signs. Police found Granger hiding in a closet in her apartment. She was visibly shaken, but she was able to provide the names of three suspects.

         Detroit Police Homicide Detective Johnell White testified that he obtained several statements, including statements from Petitioner, Granger, Harvey, and Shamily. The statements were recorded on video, and Petitioner's statement was played for the jury. Petitioner denied in his statement that he was present at the scene of the fight.

         The jury found Petitioner guilty of second-degree murder.

         After sentencing, Petitioner filed an application for delayed appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals, raising what now form his first two habeas claims. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied Fordham's delayed application “for lack of merit in the grounds presented.” People v. Fordham, No. 317522 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 21, 2014).

         Petitioner then filed an application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court, raising the same claims he raised in the Michigan Court of Appeals, as well as additional claims of prosecutorial misconduct, erroneous jury instructions, and additional allegations of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The Michigan Supreme Court denied the application because it was not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by the Court. People v. Fordham, 849 N.W.2d 355 (Mich. 2014) (Table).

         In September 2014, Petitioner filed his first habeas petition with this Court, raising all the claims he presented to the Michigan Supreme Court. The petition was dismissed without prejudice for Petitioner to exhaust state court remedies with respect to the claims he did not present to the Michigan Court of Appeals. Fordham v. McKee, No. 14-cv-13713 (May 28, 2015).

         Petitioner returned to the trial court and filed a motion for relief from judgment on October 9, 2015, raising all seven of the claims that he presents in his habeas petition, along with a claim this his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise his third through seventh claims on direct appeal. The trial court denied the motion for relief from ...

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