United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
OPINION AND ORDER DENYING THE PETITION FOR WRIT OF
HABEAS CORPUS, DECLINING TO ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF
APPEALABILITY, AND GRANTING IN FORMA PAUPERIS STATUS ON
V. PARKER U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.
Aaron Russell Witherspoon, a state prisoner at the Thumb
Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, filed a pro
se petition for the writ of habeas corpus under 28
U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 1.) In his petition, Petitioner
challenges his plea-based conviction for one count of
first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of
second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Petitioner alleges as
grounds for relief that (1) the trial court should have
determined whether he was competent, and (2) if he was
incompetent, he was deprived of his right to a meaningful
allocution. The State argues in an answer to the petition
that, because Petitioner's guilty plea was voluntary,
intelligent, and knowing, the state appellate court's
denial of leave to appeal was objectively reasonable, and
Petitioner's claim about the trial court's failure to
determine whether he was competent lacks merit and is not
cognizable on habeas review. The Court agrees that Petitioner
is not entitled to relief. Accordingly, the petition will be
was charged in Wayne County, Michigan with three counts of
first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of
second-degree criminal sexual conduct. On June 2, 2016, he
pleaded guilty in Wayne County Circuit Court to one count of
first-degree criminal sexual conduct, Mich. Comp. Laws §
750.520b(1)(b)(i) (sexual penetration of a person thirteen,
fourteen, or fifteen years of age by a member of the same
household), and one count of second-degree criminal sexual
conduct, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520c(1)(b)(i) (sexual
contact with a person thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen years
old by a member of the same household). In return, the
prosecutor dismissed the other two counts. The plea agreement
also called for a sentence of ten to twenty years in prison.
of 2016, the trial court sentenced Petitioner pursuant to the
plea agreement to two concurrent terms of ten to twenty years
in prison. The state court's register of actions
indicates that, on December 7, 2016, the trial court amended
the judgment of sentence by reducing the sentence for
second-degree criminal sexual conduct to five to fifteen
years in prison. (See ECF No. 9-1, p. 2, PageID 55).
raised his habeas claims in applications for leave to appeal.
The Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal
“for lack of merit in the grounds presented, ”
see People v. Witherspoon, No. 336275 (Mich. Ct.
App. Jan. 31, 2017), and on September 12, 2017, the Michigan
Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because it was not
persuaded to review the issues. See People v.
Witherspoon, 501 Mich. 862; 901 N.W.2d 102 (2017). On
January 10, 2018, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus
Standard of Review
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996
(“AEDPA”) requires 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 proceedings.'” Wilson v.
Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188, 1192 (2018) (quoting 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254(d)). “[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).
state court's determination that a claim lacks merit
precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fair-minded
jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state
court's decision.” Harrington v. Richter,
562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (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 fair-minded disagreement.”
Id. at 103.
alleges that the trial court had an obligation to determine
sua sponte whether he was competent, because his
pre-sentence investigation report indicates that he was
diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2015. Petitioner contends
that he may have had a limited capacity to understand the
proceedings and the consequences of his actions and,
therefore, the trial court erred in failing to make a
determination about his competence.
Clearly Established Federal Law
criminal defendant may not . . . plead guilty unless he does
so ‘competently and intelligently.' ”
Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 396 (1993) (quoting
Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 468 (1938)). The
test for competency is whether the defendant “has
sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a
reasonable degree of rational understanding - and whether he
has a rational as well as factual understanding of the
proceedings against him.” Dusky v. United
States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960) (per ...