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Hardesty v. Haas

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

May 22, 2019

RANDALL HAAS, Respondent.



         Petitioner Robert Eugene Hardesty (“Petitioner”) has applied for the writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The habeas petition challenges Petitioner's Wayne County, Michigan convictions for three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct (“CSC”), Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520b, two counts of second-degree CSC, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520c, two counts of distributing sexually explicit material to a minor, Mich. Comp. Laws § 722.675, one count of furnishing alcohol to a minor, Mich. Comp. Laws § 436.1701, and one count of third-degree child abuse, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.136(b)(5). Petitioner alleges as grounds for relief that (1) prejudicial other “bad acts” evidence was introduced at his trial, (2) there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions for CSC, and (3) his trial attorney was ineffective.

         Respondent argues in an answer to the petition that: Petitioner's first claim is not cognizable on habeas review, is meritless, and was reasonably adjudicated by the Michigan Court of Appeals; there was sufficient evidence to support Petitioner's CSC convictions, and the state appellate court's decision was objectively reasonable; Petitioner cannot demonstrate the factual predicate for his third claim or that counsel's performance prejudiced his defense, and the state court's decision was not an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The Court agrees that Petitioner's claims do not warrant habeas corpus relief. Accordingly, the Court is denying the petition.

         I. Background

         Petitioner initially was charged with ten counts of first-degree CSC, three counts of second-degree CSC, two counts of distributing sexually explicit material, one count of furnishing alcohol to a minor, and one count of third-degree child abuse. The charges arose from allegations that Petitioner sexually abused two girls (LF and DW) and physically abused one boy (KW) while he was living with the youngsters and their grandmother, who was his fiancée at the time.

         Petitioner waived his right to a jury trial and was tried before a Wayne County Circuit Court judge in 2014. The three complainants, their grandmother, and the officer in charge of the case testified for the prosecution.

         Petitioner did not testify or present any witnesses. His defense was that the prosecution had not proved its case and that, at most, he was guilty of assault and battery as a lesser-included offense to the child-abuse charge. Defense counsel implied during his closing argument that the complainants were not credible because there were inconsistencies in their testimonies and because they delayed disclosing the abuse even though they had multiple opportunities to reveal the abuse to people they could trust.

         At the close of the proofs, the prosecution dismissed two counts of first-degree CSC because the trial testimony did not support those counts. The trial court then found Petitioner not guilty of an additional five counts of first-degree CSC and one count of second-degree CSC. The court found Petitioner guilty, as charged, of the remaining three counts of first-degree CSC, two counts of second-degree CSC, two counts of distributing sexually explicit material, one count of furnishing alcohol to a minor, and one count of third-degree child abuse. On February 21, 2014, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to prison as follows:

one to two years for each distributing obscene material conviction, 18 to 40 years for the first two CSC-I convictions, 25 to 40 years for the remaining CSC-I conviction, 18 to 40 years for one CSC-II conviction, 1 to 15 years for the other CSC-II conviction, one to two years for the furnishing alcohol to a minor conviction, and three to five years for the third-degree child abuse conviction.

People v. Hardesty, No. 320627, 2015 WL 3649049, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. June 11, 2015).

         Petitioner appealed as of right, raising the same claims that he has presented to this Court in his habeas petition. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions, see id., and on March 8, 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because it was not persuaded to review the issues. See People v. Hardesty, 875 N.W.2d 217 (Mich. 2016).

         Petitioner filed his pro se habeas corpus petition on October 6, 2016. As noted above, Respondent urges the Court to deny the petition.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”)

requires federal habeas petitioners who challenge a matter “adjudicated on the merits in State court” to show that the relevant state court “decision” (1) “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, ” or (2) “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). Deciding whether a state court's decision “involved” an unreasonable application of federal law or “was based on” an unreasonable determination of fact requires the federal habeas court to “train its attention on the particular reasons-both legal and factual- why state courts rejected a state prisoner's federal claims, ” Hittson v. Chatman, 576 U.S. __, __, 135 S.Ct. 2126, 2126, 192 L.Ed.2d 887 (2015) (GINSBURG, J., concurring in denial of certiorari), and to give appropriate deference to that decision, Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101-102, 131 S.Ct. 770, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011).

Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1191-92 (2018). When, as in this case, the last state court to decide a prisoner's federal claim explains its decision on the merits in a reasoned opinion, “a federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those reasons if they are reasonable.” Id. at 1192.

         “[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. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 411 (2000).

         “AEDPA thus imposes a ‘highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings,' Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333, n. 7 (1997), and ‘demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt,' Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam).” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010). In fact, “[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.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 101 (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). To obtain a writ of habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on his or her claim “was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Id. at 103.

         “[R]eview under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). “Furthermore, state findings of fact are presumed to be correct unless the defendant can rebut the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.” Baze v. Parker, 371 F.3d 310, 318 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)).

         III. Analysis

         A. “Bad Acts” Evidence

         Petitioner alleges that the trial court deprived him of due process and a fair trial when it permitted the prosecution to elicit testimony about his other acts of domestic violence and anger toward the complainants, especially the two female complainants. This issue was raised at a pretrial hearing where the prosecutor indicated that she wanted to introduce evidence that Petitioner used a homemade electrical weapon on the children and also hit them with closed fists, open hands, and a belt. (1/10/14 Mot. Hr'g Tr. at 5-6.) The trial court ruled that the evidence was appropriate and admissible to explain the complainants' delay in reporting Petitioner's abuse. Id. at 18.

         Petitioner contends that the evidence also was admitted for other purposes, such as showing that he was a bad person and had a propensity for violence. Petitioner also contends that there was no need for additional evidence of his violence and that the prejudicial nature of the “bad acts” evidence outweighed its probative value.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded on review of Petitioner's claim that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the prosecutor to elicit evidence of Petitioner's other acts of domestic violence. The court of appeals stated that the evidence was appropriate and admissible under Mich. Comp. Laws § 768.27b[1] to show why the children were afraid of Petitioner and did not report his abusive behavior at an earlier time. The Michigan Court of Appeals also stated that the evidence gave the trial court a full and complete picture of Petitioner's behavioral history so that the court could view the facts in context. Finally, the court of appeals stated that the probative value of the evidence was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

         This Court finds no merit in Petitioner's claim because “[t]here is no clearly established Supreme Court precedent which holds that a state violates due process by permitting propensity evidence in the form of other bad acts evidence.” Bugh v. Mitchell, 329 F.3d 496, 512 (6th Cir. 2003). Although “the Supreme Court has addressed whether prior acts testimony is permissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence, it has not explicitly addressed the issue in constitutional terms.” Id. at 513 (internal citations omitted). Thus, “there is no Supreme Court precedent that the trial court's decision could be deemed ‘contrary to' under AEDPA.” Id.

         Furthermore, the contention that the evidence was inadmissible under state law is not a basis for federal habeas corpus relief. The Supreme Court has made clear that

it is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.

Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991).

         Of course, “[i]f a ruling is especially egregious and ‘results in a denial of fundamental fairness, it may violate due process and thus warrant habeas relief.'” Wilson v. Sheldon, 874 F.3d 470, 475 (6th Cir. 2017) (citations omitted). But state-court evidentiary rulings do not rise to the level of a due process violation unless they offend a fundamental principle of justice. Id. at 475-76. ...

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