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Pritchett v. Pat Warren

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

July 9, 2019

ANTHONY PRITCHETT, Petitioner,
v.
PAT WARREN, [1] Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER DIRECTING THE CLERK TO AMEND THE DOCKET, DENYING PETITIONER'S HABEAS PETITIONS [1, 12], DENYING A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY, AND DENYING LEAVE TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS

          STEPHEN J. MURPHY, III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Petitioner Anthony Pritchett is confined in a Michigan prison and petitions the Court for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Pritchett's imprisonment stems from convictions for second degree murder, in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.317; assault with intent to commit murder, in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.83; and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony ("felony firearm"), in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b.

         Pritchett's initial habeas petition presented four grounds for relief: (1) there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions; (2) admission of a witness's prior record testimony was error; (3) the prosecutor's cross-examination of Pritchett regarding other, uncharged bad acts and his argument that Pritchett had an obligation to present witnesses were prejudicial and required a new trial; and (4) trial counsel provided ineffective assistance at sentencing by failing to object when the trial court sentenced Pritchett to a minimum sentence that was more than two-thirds of the maximum sentence. See ECF 1.

         Pritchett's amended habeas petition presented five additional grounds of relief: (1) the trial court abused its discretion by denying his post-conviction motion for relief from judgment and for an evidentiary hearing; (2) newly-discovered evidence creates a viable self-defense claim; (3) he was denied effective assistance of trial counsel; (4) the trial court abused its discretion and violated Pritchett's confrontation rights by admitting a witness's prior record testimony; and (5) he was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel because counsel failed to raise certain claims in Pritchett's post-conviction state proceedings. See ECF 12.

         Pritchett's claims are procedurally defaulted, not cognizable on habeas review, or meritless. And the state courts reasonably adjudicated the merits of some of Pritchett's claims. The Court will therefore deny Pritchett's habeas petition.

         BACKGROUND

         Pritchett waived his right to a jury trial and instead proceed with a bench trial in state trial court. People v. Pritchell, [2] No. 311052, 2014 WL 688560, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2014). The state appellate court summarized the facts of Pritchett's case. Between August 12 and August 13, 2011, "five people were shot in the backyard of a Detroit home." Id. A gunshot to the chest killed one victim, Tramaine Matlock. Id. The other four victims-including Devonta Washington-were not fatally injured. Id.

Nine, .45-caliber casings were found in a straight line along the fence in the backyard. According to testimony at trial, this evidence supported that there was one shooter, who stood in one place while firing a .45- caliber gun. [Pritchett], who was a member of a gang called The Take Over (TTO), was later arrested and charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder, four counts of assault with intent to murder, a gang membership felony, and felony-firearm. Three of the assault with intent to murder charges were dismissed before trial. Washington testified at [Pritchett's] preliminary examination. However, he did not appear at trial. Detroit Police Detective Theopolis Williams testified that police officers were unable to locate Washington to serve him with a subpoena.
At trial, [Pritchett] raised a claim of self-defense. He testified that, while he was at a party in August of 2011, a group of men arrived. Of the men in the group, [Pritchett] recognized Washington and a man named "Vonte," who was a member of a rival gang. [Pritchett] testified that he and the group of men were 10 to 12 feet away from one another in the backyard when he saw Vonte displaying a rival gang sign and Washington holding a clip in his hand and reaching for his pocket. [Pritchett] testified that he believed that Washington was reaching for a gun, and so he fired his .45-caliber pistol four times in the direction of Washington. [Pritchett] was convicted by the trial court of second-degree murder for the death of Matlock, assault with intent to murder with respect to Washington, and felony-firearm.

Id. The trial court sentenced Pritchett to the following terms of imprisonment: (1) eighteen years and nine months to twenty-five years for the murder conviction; (2) a concurrent term of ten years and six months to fifteen years for the assault conviction; and (3) a consecutive term of two years for the felony-firearm conviction. Id.

         Through counsel, Pritchett appealed his convictions and argued that (1) the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to sustain his convictions; (2) Washington's testimony from the preliminary examination was erroneously admitted in evidence; and (3) the prosecutor committed misconduct by (a) eliciting evidence of Pritchett's other "bad acts" and (b) arguing that Pritchett had an obligation to present witnesses. In a pro se supplemental brief, Pritchett argued that his trial attorney should have objected to his minimum sentence for second-degree murder and that the admission of Washington's testimony from the preliminary examination violated his right of confrontation. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Pritchett's convictions in a per curiam opinion. See Id. And the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. People v. Pritchell, 497 Mich. 868 (2014).

         Pritchett filed his habeas petition on September 14, 2015 and raised the four claims that he presented to the state courts on direct review. See ECF 1. He then moved to hold his petition in abeyance so that he could pursue additional state remedies for claims not included in his habeas petition. ECF 6. On November 13, 2015, the Court granted Pritchett's motion, held his petition in abeyance to allow him to initiate post-conviction, state-court proceedings, and administratively closed the case. ECF 7.

         Pritchett subsequently filed a motion for relief from judgment in the state trial court. He argued that: (1) he was entitled to a new trial because newly-discovered evidence gave rise to a viable claim of self-defense; (2) he was denied effective assistance of counsel by trial counsel's failure to (a) investigate, locate, and subpoena res gestae witnesses, (b) request an expert witness on fingerprints and firearms or ballistics, and (c) object to the prosecution's failure to provide the defense with potentially exculpatory evidence from Devonta Washington's Metro PCS account; (3) the trial court abused its discretion and violated his right of confrontation when it allowed Washington's testimony from the preliminary examination to be read into the record; and (4) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise his other claims on appeal. The trial court denied Pritchett's motion in a reasoned decision. See ECF 15-7 (opinion on Pritchett's motion for relief from judgment in Wayne County Circuit Court, People v. Pritchell, No. 11-009262-01-FH).

         Pritchett appealed the trial court's decision, but the Michigan Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal for failure to show that the trial court erred in denying his motion for relief from judgment. People v. Pritchell, No. 333222 (Mich. Ct. App. Aug. 18, 2016).[3] On May 2, 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal because Pritchett failed to establish "entitlement to relief under [Michigan Court Rule] 6.508(D)." People v. Pritchell, 500 Mich. 981 (2017).

         On July 18, 2017, Pritchett filed a motion to lift the Court's stay and an amended petition. ECF 11, 12. The amended petition raises the four claims that Pritchett presented during the post-conviction state court proceedings and an additional claim that the trial court erred by denying his motion for relief from judgment and his request for an evidentiary hearing. See ECF 12.

         The Court reopened the case and directed Respondent to file a responsive pleading. ECF 13. Respondent filed a response and argued that Pritchett's claims lack merit, are procedurally defaulted, are not cognizable on habeas review, or were rejected by the state courts on reasonable grounds. ECF 14, PgID 138-40.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court may not grant habeas relief to a state prisoner unless his claims were adjudicated on the merits and the state court adjudication was "contrary to" or resulted in an "unreasonable application of" clearly established Supreme Court law. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

         "A state court's decision is 'contrary to' . . . clearly established law if it 'applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court cases]' or if it 'confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [this] precedent." Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16 (2003) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)).

         The state court unreasonably applies Supreme Court precedent not when its application of precedent is merely "incorrect or erroneous" but when its application of precedent is "objectively unreasonable." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520-21 (2003) (internal citations omitted). "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) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 654 (2004)).

         A federal court reviews only whether a state court's decision comports with clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision. Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 38 (2011). A state court need not cite to or be aware of Supreme Court cases, "so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts them." Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002). Decisions by lower federal courts "may be instructive in assessing the reasonableness of a state court's resolution of an issue." Stewart v. Erwin, 503 F.3d 488, 493 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Williams v. Bowersox, 340 F.3d 667, 671 (8th Cir. 2003)).

         Finally, a federal habeas court presumes the correctness of state court factual determinations. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). A petitioner may successfully rebut the presumption only by clear and convincing evidence. Id.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Claim One: Insufficient Evidence

         Pritchett first alleges that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to sustain his convictions. ECF 1, PgID 4. More specifically, Pritchett claims that there was insufficient evidence to rebut his claim of self-defense. He contends that the trial court merely relied on the physical evidence and failed to consider whether he was provoked into committing the crime, acted in hot blood, or acted in defense of himself and others. Id. The Michigan Court of Appeals determined on review of Pritchett's claim that the evidence was sufficient to establish that Pritchett did not act in self-defense, that the prosecution met its burden of proof, and that Pritchett was not entitled to relief on his claim. ECF 15-10, PgID 606-07.

         A. Clearly Established Federal Law.

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution "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). Accordingly, the Court considers "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." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979) (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).

         Ordinarily, "the standard must be applied with explicit reference to the substantive elements of the criminal offense as defined by state law." Id. at 324 n.16. Here, Pritchett does not deny committing the crimes for which he is incarcerated, however, and he has not alleged that the prosecution failed to prove the elements of the charged offenses. Rather, the issue is whether the prosecution adequately rebutted Pritchett's defense of self-defense.

         A defendant carries the burden of proving an affirmative defense; the Government need not prove "the nonexistence of all affirmative defenses." Smith v. United States, 568 U.S. 106, 110 (2013) (quoting Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 210 (1977)). The Government may not shift the burden of proof when an affirmative defense negates an element of the crime, however. Id. But, the Government need not overcome an affirmative defense beyond a reasonable doubt when the proffered defense "excuses conduct that would otherwise be punishable, but does not controvert the elements of the offense itself." Id. (citation and internal marks omitted).

         Here, Pritchett seeks to excuse conduct that would otherwise be punishable- shooting another person. He wants to excuse the shooting by asserting that he acted in self-defense or defense of others. His self-defense argument does not warrant federal habeas relief because,

[a]lthough Michigan law places the burden on prosecutors to disprove claims of self-defense, see People v. Dupree, [486 Mich. 693');">486 Mich. 693, 709-10] (Mich. 2010), the Constitution does not, see Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 209-10 (1972); Caldwell v. Russell, 181 F.3d 731, 740 (6th Cir. 1999), abrogated on other grounds, Mackey v. Dutton, 217 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2000). Accordingly, the prosecution's alleged failure to prove that [Pritchett] did not act in self-defense cannot form the basis for the grant of habeas relief. See Caldwell, 181 F.3d at 740.

Arcaute v. Jackson, No. 18-2308, 2019 WL 2056675, at *2 (6th Cir. Feb. 12, 2019). In other words,

the due process "sufficient evidence" guarantee does not implicate affirmative defenses, because proof supportive of an affirmative defense cannot detract from proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had committed the requisite elements of the crime. See Allen v. Redman, 858 F.2d 1194, 1196-98 (6th Cir.1988).

Caldwell, 181 F.3d at 740. Pritchett's claim therefore fails to raise a federal constitutional issue and is not cognizable on habeas review. See Duffy v. Foltz, 804 F.2d 50, 54 (6th Cir. 1986) (stating that, because the petitioner's sanity was not an element of the crime under Michigan law, the petitioner's claim that there was insufficient proof of sanity did not raise a federal constitutional issue).

         B. The Merits.

         Even if Pritchett's claim were cognizable here, claims of insufficient evidence "are subject to two layers of judicial deference." Coleman v. Johnson, 566 U.S. 650, 651 (2012) (per curiam). First, "it is the responsibility of the jury-not the court-to decide what conclusions should be drawn from the evidence admitted at trial." Id. (quoting Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1, 2 (2011) (per curiam)). "And second, on habeas review, 'a federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court. The federal court instead may do so only if the state court decision was ‘objectively unreasonable.'" Id. (quoting Cavazos, 565 U.S. at 2).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded on review of Pritchett's claim that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could find that Pritchett did not act in self-defense. Pritchell, 2014 WL 688560, at *2. The Court of Appeals pointed out that, under Michigan law, once a defendant produces some evidence that he acted in self-defense, "the prosecution bears the burden of proving that a killing was not done in self-defense." Id. at *1 (citing Dupree, 486 Mich. at 709- 10). The Court of Appeals also pointed out that, "to justify the use of 'deadly force,' a defendant must 'have an honest and reasonable belief that there is a danger of [imminent] death' or imminent 'great bodily harm' and that it is necessary to exercise deadly force to prevent such harm." Id. (quoting People v. Guajardo, 300 Mich.App. 26, 35-36 (2013)).

         Pritchett testified at trial that he was scared and feared for his life when someone named Vonte displayed a rival gang signal and Washington put his hand in his pocket while holding an extended clip for a gun in his other hand. ECF 15-4, PgID 448-51. Pritchett further testified that Washington was affiliated with a gang that did not like Pritchett's gang. See Id. at 447, 453. The Michigan Court of Appeals determined that Washington's act of holding a clip and reaching in his pocket was not sufficient to show that Pritchett was in imminent danger. Pritchell, 2014 WL 688560, at *2. The Court of Appeals noted that Pritchett did not see Washington with a gun, the clip was not inside a gun, and Washington's movements were not accompanied by a verbal threat. Id. The Court of Appeals opined that Pritchett could not "manufacture a self-defense theory from the innocent act of placing a hand in a pocket." Id. (quoting People v. Squire, 123 Mich.App. 700, 708-709 (1983)).

         The Court of Appeals went on to say that Pritchett's trial testimony "was inconsistent with his August 23, 2011, statement to Detective Theopolis Williams that someone named 'Vonte,' not Washington, held the clip and reached in his pocket." Id. The Court of Appeals declined to interfere with the trial court's finding that Pritchett was not credible. Id. The Court of Appeals also noted that Pritchett's defense was not consistent with the physical evidence, which "established that the shooter stood in one place and fired nine rounds." Id. Further, "[a]fter the shooting, defendant fled the scene, discarded the weapon, and did not report the incident to the police." Id. The Court of Appeals opined that "the physical evidence and [Pritchett's] behavior after the shooting [were] inconsistent with his assertion that he acted in self-defense based on an honest belief that he was in imminent danger." Id. (citing People v. Yost, 278 Mich.App. 341, 357 (2008)). The Court of Appeals concluded that the prosecution carried its burden of proof and that Pritchett was not entitled to relief. Id.

         For all the reasons given by the state court, a rational trier of fact could have concluded from the evidence that Pritchett did not act in self-defense. The state appellate court's conclusion-that the prosecution met its burden of disproving Pritchett's defense of self-defense-was ...


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