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Flake v. Winn

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

August 21, 2019

THOMAS WINN, Respondent.



         Michigan prisoner Aaron Desean Flake ("Petitioner") was convicted of arson of a dwelling, under Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.72, following a 2013 jury trial in the Wayne County Circuit Court. ECF 8-11, PgID 1421. He was sentenced to between 10 years, 8 months' and 20 years' imprisonment. ECF 8-13, PgID 1459. On June 23, 2016, Petitioner filed a habeas petition, in which he raises claims concerning the composition of the jury, the impartiality of the jury and the effectiveness of trial counsel, the admission of video surveillance evidence, the sufficiency of the evidence, and the validity of his sentence. ECF 1. For the following reasons, the Court will deny the habeas petition. The Court will also deny a certificate of appealability and leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal.


         The Michigan Court of Appeals described the relevant facts, which are presumed correct on habeas review, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009), as follows:

This case arises from an incident that occurred in Detroit on November 17, 2012. On that evening, there was a fire in a Detroit home. After the fire was contained, a resident of the home was found dead inside. It was determined, however, that the victim died from three gunshots [sic] wounds incurred before the fire was started. The prosecution alleged that defendant, who was seen at the home on the night of the fire, perpetrated the murder and arson. Surveillance footage from a church across the street from the residence was downloaded and admitted at trial. The footage showed two individuals arriving at the home in a two-door vehicle before the fire and leaving the home after the fire was set. Defendant was ultimately convicted of arson.

People v. Petitioner, No. 317325, 2014 WL 6602604, *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2014).

         At the close of trial, the jury convicted Petitioner of arson, but acquitted him of first-degree murder and felony firearm. Following his conviction and sentencing, Petitioner filed an appeal as of right with the Michigan Court of Appeals raising several claims, including the claims presented on habeas review. The court denied relief on those claims and affirmed his conviction and sentence. Petitioner, 2014 WL 6602604 at *1-7. The Michigan Supreme Court denied Petitioner's application for leave to appeal. People v. Petitioner, 497 Mich. 1029 (2015).

         Petitioner thereafter filed his federal habeas petition. ECF 1. He raises the following five claims:

I. The prosecutor's exercise of peremptory challenges to exclude two members of from a jury pool that was severely under-represented with African-American jurors violated his constitutional right to equal protection of the laws.
II. He was denied a fair trial and impartial jury under the federal constitution where, during the trial, one of the jurors became concerned that a spectator in the courtroom had been involved in witness intimidation in an unrelated case where she was on the jury, and counsel failed to request a mistrial and the court failed to interview the other jurors to determine if this information had been disclosed to the other jurors.
III. The trial court denied him due process of law when the trial court allowed the admission of inadmissible and highly prejudicial surveillance video footage.
IV. He was denied due process of law when he was convicted based on insufficient evidence.
V. The court violated his due process rights in imposing a sentence that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.


         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 federal 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 [the] 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 only when its application of precedent is "objectively unreasonable." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520-21 (2003) (internal citations omitted). A merely "incorrect or erroneous" application is insufficient. Id. "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.


         I. Batson Claim

         Petitioner first asserts that he is entitled to habeas relief because the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to improperly exclude two African-American women from the jury pool.

         Although a criminal defendant has no right to have a member of a particular race on the jury, he or she does have the right to be tried by a jury whose members are selected by non-discriminatory criteria. See Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400, 404 (1991). The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a prosecutor from challenging potential jurors solely on account of their race. See Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 89 (1986).

         To establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination in the selection of a jury based on the prosecutor's exercise of peremptory challenges, a defendant must show that he or she is a member of a cognizable racial group and that the prosecutor used peremptory challenges to remove members of the defendant's race from the jury. Id. at 94. The defendant must also show that other relevant circumstances raise an inference that the prosecutor used the peremptory challenges to exclude jurors on account of their race. Id. at 96. Relevant circumstances include the pattern of strikes and the prosecutor's questions and statements. Id. at 96-97.

         Once the defendant makes a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to offer a "race neutral explanation" for challenging the jurors. Id. at 97. A "race neutral" explanation is one based upon something other than the juror's race. Id. "Unless a discriminatory intent is inherent in the prosecutor's explanation, the reason offered will be deemed race neutral." Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 360 (1991).

         If a race-neutral explanation is offered, the court must then determine whether the defendant carried the burden to prove purposeful discrimination. Batson, 476 U.S. at 98. The ultimate question of discriminatory intent concerns an evaluation of the prosecutor's credibility. Such a decision represents a factual finding accorded great deference on appeal, which will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous. See Miller-El v. Cockrell, ...

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