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Witherspoon v. Chapman

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

June 13, 2019

AARON RUSSELL WITHERSPOON, Petitioner,
v.
WILLIS CHAPMAN, Respondent.

          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 APPEAL

          LINDA V. PARKER U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Petitioner 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 denied.

         I. Background

         Petitioner 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.

         In June 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).

         Petitioner 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 petition.

         II. Standard of Review

         The 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).

         “A 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.

         III. Analysis

         A. Competence

         Petitioner 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.

         1. Clearly Established Federal Law

         “A 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 ...


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