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Bell v. Rivard

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

May 9, 2019

CHRISTIAN BELL, Petitioner,
v.
STEVEN RIVARD, Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS AND DENYING CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY

          Sean F. Cox U.S. District Judge

         Petitioner Christian Bell, through counsel, seeks habeas corpus relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is a state prisoner in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections pursuant to convictions for second-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He raises two claims for habeas relief. Respondent argues that the claims are meritless. The Court denies the petition.

         I. Background

         Petitioner's convictions arise from the shooting death of Nathaniel Webb. The Michigan Court of Appeals provided this overview of the trial testimony:

Early on a February morning, defendant's 18-year-old sister, Chesica Bell, collapsed and died in the bathroom of her home. Eventually, an autopsy revealed that Chesica had an enlarged heart and abnormal coronary vasculature, and had suffered an acute heart attack. Before the pathologist could explain Chesica's tragic and unexpected death, defendant concluded that Chesica's boyfriend, Nathaniel Webb, had killed his sister. Hours after Chesica's death, defendant texted his father: “daddy, my sista is really gone because of him. I'm gonna kill him.” That same day, mourners including Webb and defendant gathered at Chesica's family home. Defendant's mother described defendant as “devastated” over Chesica's death, the cause of which would remain unknown to the family for a few more days. Defendant obtained a handgun from inside the home and confronted Webb. In his trial testimony, defendant described the events preceding the shooting as follows:
I walked outside, I seen [sic] Nate and I said can I talk to you. He was getting into his car; I ran up to his car; put my door [sic] in his-between his door before he closed it and I asked him can I talk to you. He wanted me to move my arm and I just kept asking him can you please talk to me; and then I got emotional, I start crying. I said can you at least come in the house and talk to my mama. He just-he said [f* * *] you and your mama.
Defendant admitted that he “just lost it, ” his “emotion[s] took over, ” and he started shooting. He explained, “I wasn't thinking. My head wasn't straight, I just blanked out.” After firing three times, defendant disposed of the gun in a dumpster, threw his cell phone on the ground, and fled to Kentucky. Webb died at a nearby hospital. While defendant remained on the lam, the police obtained a warrant to search defendant's cell phone history and text messages. The police eventually apprehended defendant and he stood trial in the Wayne Circuit Court. He now appeals his second-degree murder conviction and his sentence.

People v. Bell, No. 315196, 2014 WL 3887196, *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Aug. 7, 2014).

         Petitioner was convicted by a jury in Wayne County Circuit Court of second-degree murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. On January 16, 2013, he was sentenced to 18 to forty years for the second-degree murder conviction, and 2 years for the felony-firearm conviction.

         Petitioner filed an appeal of right in the Michigan Court of Appeals arguing that the prosecutor improperly exercised two peremptory challenges to exclude two African-American members from the jury pool, the police search of Petitioner's phone violated the Fourth Amendment, the trial court improperly denied request for manslaughter jury instruction, and offense variables 3, 6, and 19 were improperly scored. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied Petitioner's claims with the exception of the Batson claim. Bell, No. 315196, 2014 WL 3887196, at *12-*13. The court of appeals held that the trial court failed to properly evaluate Petitioner's objection to the prosecutor's peremptory challenges during jury selection and remanded to the trial court to conduct a hearing pursuant to Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). Id. at *8-*9, *12-*13. The State appealed the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision remanding the case, but the Michigan Supreme Court denied the State's application for leave to appeal. People v. Bell, 497 Mich. 856 (Mich. Sept. 5, 2014).

         On remand and after holding a hearing and taking testimony from the prosecutor, the trial court held that the peremptory challenges had not been motivated by purposeful racial discrimination. See 12/12/2014 Tr. at 68-74. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's denial of the Batson claim, People v. Bell, No. 315196, 2015 WL 1314122 (Mich. Ct. App. March 24, 2015), and denied Petitioner's motion for reconsideration. People v. Bell, No. 315196 (Mich. Ct. App. May 6, 2015). The Michigan Supreme Court denied Petitioner's application for leave to appeal. People v. Bell, 498 Mich. 907 (Mich. Oct. 28, 2015).

         Petitioner then filed this habeas corpus petition. He raises these claims:

I. The prosecutor's exercise of peremptory challenges to exclude two African-American members from a jury pool that was severely underrepresented with African American jurors violated [Bell's] constitution[al] right to equal protection of the law.
II. The trial court improperly denied [Bell's] requested jury instruction on manslaughter, which deprived him of his constitutional rights to a properly instructed jury and to present a defense, because it negated his sworn testimony and theory of the case regarding the only disputed issue at trial: his intent.

         II. Standard

         Review of this case is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Under the AEDPA, a state prisoner is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus only if he can show that the state court's adjudication of his claims -

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the ...

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