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Nelson v. Trierweiler

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

May 3, 2019




         In a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Michigan prisoner Davontah Lee Nelson challenges his convictions of first-degree felony murder and first-degree child abuse. Nelson argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions, other-acts evidence was admitted improperly, and the convictions of both crimes violated his rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The warden contends that the petition should be denied because two of the claims are barred by procedural default and all of the claims lack merit. The Court finds that the petitioner's claims lack merit and do not warrant federal habeas relief. The Court, therefore, will deny the petition.


         The petitioner's convictions arise from the death of his infant daughter on October 9, 2013. The Michigan Court of Appeals summarized the facts on direct appeal as follows:

The victim, Amareah, was almost five months old when she died while in Nelson's care on October 9, 2013. Amareah's pediatrician testified that she was healthy in August 2013. Amareah's mother testified that she and Nelson lived together with their two children, and she left Amareah with Nelson to go to work. Gavin Witten testified that at some point that evening he heard ten or fifteen repetitive thudding noises come from Nelson's apartment.
Firefighter Dan Kimball testified that he was dispatched to Nelson's apartment at about 7:00 p.m. According to Kimball, Amareah was lying on the floor with no pulse or breathing, and he began performing CPR. Nelson stated to Kimball that the baby was on the floor when he woke from a nap on the couch. According to Deputy Sherriff Jesse Smith, Nelson stated that he woke from his nap and saw his nearly two-year-old son holding Amareah around her neck. Detective Michael Babycz testified that when he interviewed Nelson at the hospital, Nelson stated that he fell asleep on the couch and, when he woke, he saw his son holding Amareah to his chest with his arms around her. During a later interview, Detective Craig Raisanen testified that Nelson stated that he tried to give Amareah a bottle but she was being fussy and, out of frustration, he pushed Amareah off the bed and she hit her head on the floor. Detective Raisanen detailed several different versions of events that Nelson gave various investigators, which included that Nelson “was hammering” Amareah's chest while trying to perform CPR.
Though CPR did restart Amareah's heart and breathing, she was removed from life support when doctors determined she had no chance of recovering from her injuries. Amareah died at around 11:00 p.m. that evening.
According to Nelson, who testified at trial, he was in bed with Amareah and trying to give her a bottle when he drifted off to sleep. When he woke up, he noticed that Amareah was falling off the bed, he saw her go over the side, and Amareah was not breathing after she landed on the floor. While performing CPR, he pounded on Amareah's chest, hoping that it would clear her airway or restart her heart. Nelson testified that he told people different things during interviews to get them to stop questioning him.
Washtenaw County Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen testified that he performed an autopsy on Amareah and discovered that she had a lacerated liver, a skull fracture, cranial hemorrhaging, and brain swelling. Jentzen testified that Amareah's specific brain injuries most commonly resulted from high-velocity injuries. Peter Strouse, a pediatric radiologist, testified that x-rays and CT scans of Amareah showed that she had 19 bone fractures in various states of healing, including 15 rib fractures, a skull fracture, and fractures to bones in her arms, legs, and hands. Strouse opined that Amareah's rib fractures were consistent with child abuse and that, while fractures can occur from CPR, CPR did not explain the placement of Amareah's specific fractures. In contrast, Oakland County Chief Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic testified that the injuries to Amareah's chest and abdomen were consistent with “vigorous resuscitation efforts.” However, Dragovic testified that a fall of the nature that Nelson described did not explain the victim's skull fracture.
At trial, Amareah's mother testified that Nelson had previously committed domestic violence against her and Amareah's brother. Amareah's mother testified that Nelson would sometimes “snap” and punch, kick, or choke her. She also observed marks on Amareah's brother and, when she confronted Nelson, Nelson stated that he had spanked the toddler with a belt. However, Amareah's mother never saw Nelson act violently toward Amareah.
The trial court [sitting without a jury] found Nelson guilty of first-degree child abuse and felony murder. Specifically, it found that Nelson had repeatedly lied about the events leading to Amareah's death and that the evidence was consistent with Nelson throwing or punching Amareah to death.

People v. Nelson, No. 326343, 2016 WL 2731121, *1-2 (Mich. Ct. App. May 10, 2016).

         The trial court sentenced Nelson to life in prison without parole for felony murder, and a lesser concurrent sentence for child abuse. On direct appeal, Nelson raised the same issues presented here in his habeas corpus petition. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed, and the state supreme court denied ...

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