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Lofland v. Horton

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

May 24, 2019

CONNIE HORTON, Respondent,



         Brandon Jamar Lofland, (“Petitioner”), confined at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges his conviction for first-degree felony murder, M.C.L.A. 750.316(1)(b), two counts of carjacking, M.C.L.A. 75.529a, felon in possession of a firearm, M.C.L.A. 750.224f, and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. M.C.L.A. 750.227b.

         For the reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         I. Background

         A jury convicted Petitioner in Wayne County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts relied upon by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which are presumed correct on habeas review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). See Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009):

Defendant's convictions arise from a crime spree in Detroit on the night of September 13, 2014, during which he first carjacked Kevin Foy and took the vehicle Foy was sitting in, a 2014 red Dodge Charger, and then later attempted to carjack Quinton Brown, who was driving a Cadillac Escalade. Brown was shot during the offense and later died from his injury. The prosecutor's theory at trial was that between 9:00 and 9:45 p.m., Foy was sitting in the passenger seat of the running Charger when defendant ordered him out of the vehicle at gunpoint, and then drove away in the car. The Charger, which had a pushbutton starter, could be driven without the key fob if it was already running, but it could not be restarted once it was stopped. The prosecution presented video evidence from a gas station showing the stolen Charger pull up to a gas pump after 10:00 p.m., and the driver ultimately abandoning the vehicle when he could not restart it after purchasing gas. Defendant's former girlfriend, Nivra Bracey, identified defendant as the driver in still photographs obtained from the video. The video showed defendant walking away from the gas station in the direction of where Brown was later found. The prosecution theorized that defendant walked from the gas station in search of another vehicle, encountered Brown sitting in his Cadillac, and then shot Brown, planning to take his vehicle. Brown, who was armed, managed to shoot defendant. At approximately 11:00 p.m., defendant called Bracey, informed her that he had been shot in the neck, and asked her to call 911; defendant informed Bracey of his location, but then later gave her a different location. Ultimately, at 11:18 p.m., police officers responded to a gas station half a mile away from where Brown had been shot, and found defendant with gunshot wounds to his throat and cheek. The defense theory at trial was misidentification.

People v. Lofland, No. 329186, 2017 WL 252242, at * 1 (Mich. Ct. App. Jan. 19, 2017).

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed. Id., lv. den. 500 Mich. 1061, 898 N.W.2d 591 (2017).

         Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds: (1) The evidence was insufficient to establish Petitioner's identity, (2) the trial court erred in allowing a witness to identify Petitioner from photographs taken from a security videotape, and (3) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to present evidence pointing to an alternative suspect.

         II. Standard of Review

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim-
(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 on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

         A decision of a state court is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). An “unreasonable application” occurs when “a state court decision unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the facts of a prisoner's case.” Id. at 409. 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.” Id. at 410-11. “[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.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011)(citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). To obtain habeas relief in federal court, a state prisoner is required to show that the state court's rejection of 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. Habeas relief should be denied as long as it is within the “realm of possibility” that fairminded jurists could find the state court decision to be reasonable. See Woods v. Etherton, 136 S.Ct. 1149, 1152 (2016).

         III. Discussion

         A. Claim # 1. The sufficiency of evidence claim.

         Petitioner argues that the prosecution presented insufficient evidence to establish his identity as the perpetrator.

         It is beyond question that “the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). But the crucial question on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction is, “whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318 (1979). A court need not “ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 318-19 (internal citation and footnote omitted)(emphasis in the original).

         When considering a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence to convict, the reviewing court must give circumstantial evidence the same weight as direct evidence. See United States v. Farley, 2 F.3d 645, 650 (6th Cir. 1993). “Circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to sustain a conviction and such evidence need not remove every reasonable hypothesis except that of guilt.” United States v. Kelley, 461 F.3d 817, 825 (6th Cir. 2006)(internal quotation omitted); See also Saxton v. Sheets, 547 F.3d 597, 606 (6th Cir. 2008)(“A conviction may be sustained based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence.”). Moreover, “[c]ircumstantial evidence is not only sufficient, but may also be more certain, satisfying and persuasive than direct evidence.” Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 100 (2003)(quoting Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 508 n.17 (1957)); See also Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 140 (1954)(circumstantial evidence is “intrinsically no different from testimonial evidence, ” and “[i]f the jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, we can require no more”); Harrington, 562 U.S. at 113 (“sufficient conventional circumstantial evidence” supported the verdict).

         A federal habeas court cannot overturn a state court decision that rejects a sufficiency of the evidence claim simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court's resolution of that claim. Instead, a federal court may grant habeas relief only if the state court decision was an objectively unreasonable application of the Jackson standard. See Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1, 2 (2011). “Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold.” Id. Indeed, for a federal habeas court reviewing a state court conviction, “the only question under Jackson is whether that finding was so insupportable as to fall below the threshold of bare rationality.” Coleman v. Johnson, 566 U.S. 650, 656 (2012). A state court's determination that the evidence does not fall below that threshold is entitled to “considerable deference under [the] AEDPA.” Id.

         Finally, on habeas review, a federal court does not reweigh the evidence or redetermine the credibility of the witnesses whose demeanor was observed at trial. Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 434 (1983). It is the province of the factfinder to weigh the probative value of the evidence and resolve any conflicts in testimony. Neal v. Morris, 972 F.2d 675, 679 (6th Cir. 1992). A habeas court therefore must defer to the fact finder for its assessment of the credibility of witnesses. Matthews v. Abramajtys, 319 F.3d 780, 788 (6th Cir. 2003).

         Under Michigan law, “[T]he identity of a defendant as the perpetrator of the crimes charged is an element of the offense and must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” Byrd v. Tessmer, 82 Fed.Appx. 147, 150 (6th Cir. 2003)(citing People v. Turrell, 25 Mich.App. 646, 181 N.W.2d 655, 656 (1970)). Identity of a defendant can be inferred through circumstantial evidence. See Dell v. Straub,194 F.Supp.2d 629, 648 (E.D. Mich. 2002). Eyewitness identification is not necessary ...

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