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Vega v. Horton

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

May 7, 2019

ULISES CORRALES VEGA, Petitioner,
v.
CONNIE HORTON, Respondent.

          OPINION

          Janet T. Neff United States District Judge

         This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Promptly after the filing of a petition for habeas corpus, the Court must undertake a preliminary review of the petition to determine whether “it plainly appears from the face of the petition and any exhibits annexed to it that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court.” Rule 4, Rules Governing § 2254 Cases; see 28 U.S.C. § 2243. If so, the petition must be summarily dismissed. Rule 4; see Allen v. Perini, 424 F.2d 134, 141 (6th Cir. 1970) (district court has the duty to “screen out” petitions that lack merit on their face). A dismissal under Rule 4 includes those petitions which raise legally frivolous claims, as well as those containing factual allegations that are palpably incredible or false. Carson v. Burke, 178 F.3d 434, 436-37 (6th Cir. 1999). After undertaking the review required by Rule 4, the Court concludes that the petition must be dismissed because it fails to raise a meritorious federal claim.

         Discussion

         I. Factual allegations

         Petitioner Ulises Corrales Vega is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) in Kincheloe, Chippewa County, Michigan. Following a jury trial in the Ingham County Circuit Court, Petitioner was convicted of second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317, and carrying a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.226. On February 26, 2016, the court sentenced Petitioner to respective prison terms of 25 to 50 years and 23 to 60 months.

         On February 16, 2019, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition. Under Sixth Circuit precedent, the application is deemed filed when handed to prison authorities for mailing to the federal court. Cook v. Stegall, 295 F.3d 517, 521 (6th Cir. 2002). Petitioner placed his petition in the prison mailing system on February 16, 2019. (Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.15.)

         The petition raises four grounds for relief, as follows:

I. [PETITIONER] WAS DENIED DUE PROCESS AND A FAIR TRIAL WHEN THE COURT REFUSED THE REQUEST TO INSTRUCT THE JURY ON MANSLAUGHTER, AND WHEN THE OTHER RELEVANT INSTRUCTIONS WERE NOT GIVEN.
II. [PETITIONER] WAS DENIED EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL WHEN THE ACCIDENT INSTRUCTION WAS NOT REQUESTED, IN LIGHT OF [PETITIONER'S] TESTIMONY THAT HE KILLED THE COMPLAINANT UNINTENTIONALLY, AND THE VOLUNTARY INTOXICATION INSTRUCTION WAS NOT GIVEN IN FULL.
III. [PETITIONER] WAS DENIED DUE PROCESS AND A FAIR TRIAL WHEN THE JURY REQUESTED HIS TESTIMONY AND MR. MCCONNELL'S TESTIMONY, AND THE COURT PROVIDED MR. MCCONNELL'S TESTIMONY FIRST, WITHOUT ANY INPUT FROM TRIAL COUNSEL AS TO THE PROCESS.
IV. [PETITIONER] WAS DENIED EFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE [OF] COUNSEL WHEN TRIAL COUNSEL FAILED TO ADEQUATELY INVESTIGATE AND MASTER THE FACTS OF THE CASE THERE BY DENYING [PETITIONER] HIS SIXTH AMENDMENT RIGHT TO COUNSEL AND TRIAL.

(Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.5, 7, 9, 11.)

         Petitioner has filed a brief, outlining the facts presented at trial. While Petitioner includes certain additional facts, his statement is fully consistent with the factual summary set forth in the opinion of the Michigan Court of Appeals:

Defendant's convictions arise from the June 12, 2015 fatal stabbing of Phineas Oliver. Defendant and his neighbor, William McConnel, [1] had been drinking alcohol and barbequing throughout the afternoon of June 11 before retiring to their respective apartments. Later that night, they returned to their shared porch and resumed drinking. At some point, Oliver and a companion approached defendant and McConnel; it appears that all four men knew each other. At Oliver's request, McConnel retrieved a bottle of whisky from his apartment. Oliver took the bottle, “hit the bottom of it, ” and asked McConnel if he would help him “knock the devil out of the bottle.” McConnel acquiesced by “smack[ing]” the bottle. Oliver extended the bottle to defendant for the same purpose. When defendant “slapped the bottle, ” it fell from Oliver's hand and “cracked” when it landed on the porch. McConnel testified that Oliver asked defendant, “why did you do that, why did you spill Bill's whiskey[?]”
Defendant testified that he decided that it was time for Oliver and his companion to leave. Defendant retrieved a “sword” from his living room with the intention of “trying to confirm [with Oliver]: Go home.” Defendant said that he only intended to “pinch” Oliver with the sword and was “very surprised” when “everything went in.” McConnel testified that he observed defendant holding the sword with one hand on the handle and one hand on the blade and that “the sword thrust into [Oliver's] chest” and was “held there” by defendant before being “yanked out.” McConnel said that defendant looked shocked and told him to call 911. The medical examiner testified that Oliver died of a stab wound to the chest that was approximately seven inches deep.
Defendant initially told police that he had found Oliver lying in the street. Defendant also initially denied that a sword was involved in the stabbing and denied that there was any blood in his apartment. Police followed a “blood trail” from Oliver to defendant's apartment where they found what was described as a “2-foot long Samurai sword” with what appeared to be blood on its tip. Police also discovered what appeared to be blood in defendant's bathroom sink. Defendant eventually admitted to having stabbed Oliver but claimed that the stabbing was accidental. Oliver's DNA was found on the sword blade and handle, while defendant's DNA was found on the sword's handle.
Defense counsel requested jury instructions on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The trial court found that neither instruction was supported by the evidence. The jury was instructed, with regard to defendant's specific intent to kill Oliver, that it was not a defense that defendant was intoxicated by alcohol or drugs that he had voluntarily and knowingly consumed.
The jury was excused to begin deliberations on January 25, 2016. The trial court convened the next day at 1:31 p.m., after the jury verdict had been reached but before the verdict was announced on the record. The trial court stated on the record that at “9:30” the jury had requested “‘[a]ctual testimony of Mr. Vega and neighbor Bill[.']” The trial court stated that the court reporter “start[ed] to compile that testimony” and that “the testimony of Mr. McConnel was completed” “about 12, 12:30 . . .” at which point the transcript was given to the jury. The trial court said that “work was [then] started on [defendant's] testimony” but that
[d]uring the interim . . . at 11:33, the jury requested what they referred to as a transcript of the 9-1-1 call. And we gave them the actual call. That was played in the jury room, I assume. But they got that information.
And when the first transcript was completed, Mr. McConnel, we gave that to the jury while waiting for the completion of [defendant's] [t]ranscript. And it appears that the jury reached their verdict prior to receiving Mr. Vega's transcript.
Defense counsel moved for a mistrial, arguing that McConnel's testimony was over-emphasized because the jury had received only the transcript of his testimony (and not that of defendant) before rendering its verdict. Defense counsel noted that “[i]f I would have had the opportunity to have input in the process by which we give these transcripts, which I didn't, I would have told the Court to give both transcripts at the same time.” “By not giving [defendant's] transcript at all, ” counsel argued, “it seems unfair and prejudicial.”
The trial court, acting on the assumption that the as-yet-unknown jury verdict was for a conviction, denied defendant's motion for a mistrial, noting that “[t]he Jury can make their decision at any time.” The court said that “historically, we have always given the transcripts to the jury as they're completed” and that “time is a factor here, judicial economy is a factor here.” After an off-the-record discussion, defense counsel noted that the jury's written requests showed that “[t]hey first wanted to see [defendant's] transcript.” The court explained that the transcripts “were prepared in the order that they testified. So that's why Mr. McConnel was first.” The court also reasoned that “[o]nce they've reached the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, I don't see how there is any undue prejudice.”

(Mich. Ct. App. Op., ECF No. 1, PageID.58-60.)

         On January 26, 2016, the jury found Petitioner guilty of second-degree murder and use of a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent. The trial court sentenced Petitioner to respective prison terms of 25 to 50 years and 23 to 60 months.

         Petitioner appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, raising the same four grounds presented in his petition. In an opinion issued on October 17, 2017, the court of appeals rejected all appellate grounds and affirmed the convictions. (Mich. Ct. App. Op., ECF No. 1, PageID.58-65.) Petitioner sought leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, again raising the same four grounds. The supreme court denied leave to appeal on May 1, 2018. (Mich. Order, ECF No. 1, PageID67.)

         II. AEDPA standard

         This action is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (AEDPA). The AEDPA “prevents federal habeas ‘retrials'” and ensures that state court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under the law. Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693-94 (2002). An application for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person who is incarcerated pursuant to a state conviction cannot be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the adjudication: “(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 upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This standard is “intentionally difficult to meet.” Woods v. Donald, 575 U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (internal quotation omitted).

         The AEDPA limits the source of law to cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This Court may consider only the holdings, and not the dicta, of the Supreme Court. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000); Bailey v. Mitchell, 271 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir. 2001). In determining whether federal law is clearly established, the Court may not consider the decisions of lower federal courts. Williams, 529 U.S. at 381-82; Miller v. Straub, 299 F.3d 570, 578-79 (6th Cir. 2002). Moreover, “clearly established Federal law” does not include decisions of the Supreme Court announced after the last adjudication of the merits in state court. Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 37-38 (2011). Thus, the inquiry is limited to an examination of the legal landscape as it would have appeared to the Michigan state courts in light of Supreme Court precedent at the time of the state-court adjudication on the merits. Miller v. Stovall, 742 F.3d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Greene, 565 U.S. at 38).

         A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the “contrary to” clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in the Supreme Court's cases, or if it decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Bell, 535 U.S. at 694 (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06). “To satisfy this high bar, a habeas petitioner is required to ‘show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'” Woods, 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)). In other words, “[w]here ...


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