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Bennett v. Christiansen

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

August 30, 2019




         John Eric Bennett (“Petitioner”), confined at the Central Michigan Correctional Facility in St. Louis, Michigan, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his pro se application, Petitioner challenges his convictions for third-degree criminal sexual conduct, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520d(1)(b); and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.520e(1)(b)(i). For the reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         I. Background

         Petitioner was convicted of the above offenses following a jury trial in the Oakland County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts regarding Petitioner's conviction from the Michigan Court of Appeals' opinion affirming his conviction, 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):

On the night at issue, Bennett came home from work and did not want to wake his fiancée and young child, so he went to the basement of his apartment complex and lay down on a mattress in the laundry room. Another resident at the apartment complex, DT, awoke in the middle of the night and realized that she left a load of laundry in the washer. DT went downstairs to the laundry room to move the clothes from the washer to a dryer. After she entered the laundry room, Bennett approached her, introduced himself using his full name, and had a brief conversation with her.
DT testified that she felt uncomfortable with Bennett in the room and tried to leave. Bennett moved up to her, put his hands under her pajamas, and groped her bare breasts and buttocks. He then used his fingers to separate her labia in an attempt to digitally penetrate her. DT finally got away from him, ran to her apartment, and called 911.
DT told responding police officers that they could find the perpetrator in the basement. The police went to the basement and found Bennett sleeping on a mattress. He smelled of intoxicants and matched the description given by DT. Bennett told the officers that he had conversed with a woman who identified herself as “T, ” but initially denied having any physical contact with her. He later told an officer that he had massaged T's shoulders and that his hand might have brushed against her buttocks when she slipped as he helped her with the laundry.
DT attended a corporal [sic] lineup, but selected a differed [sic] individual. At trial, Bennett's lawyer attacked DT's credibility, noting her failure to identify Bennett in the lineup and inconsistencies in recounting what occurred. Bennett's lawyer also argued that DT had various motives, including financial, for falsely accusing Bennett.
The jury, however, found DT credible and found Bennett guilty. Bennett now appeals.

People v. Bennett, No. 311903, 2014 WL 2218711, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. May 27, 2014).

         Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id., lv. den. 497 Mich. 948 (2014).

         Petitioner filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which was held in abeyance to permit Petitioner to return to the state courts to exhaust additional claims. Bennett v. Trierweiler, No. 4:16-CV-11253, 2016 WL 1699536 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 28, 2016).

         Petitioner filed a post-conviction motion for relief from judgment pursuant to M.C.R. 6.500, et. seq. which the trial court denied. People v. Bennett, No. 2012-239748-FH (Oakland Cty. Cir. Ct. Dec. 7, 2016). The Michigan appellate courts denied Petitioner leave to appeal. People v. Bennett, No. 338668 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 8, 2017); lv. den. 915 N.W.2d 364 (2018).

         On November 26, 2018, this Court granted Petitioner's motion to reopen the case to the Court's active docket and permitted him to file an amended habeas petition. ECF No. 13. Petitioner seeks habeas relief on the following grounds:

I. Petitioner was deprived of his state and federal constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel, when his attorney failed to admit evidence as to Petitioner's accuser's motive to fabricate the allegations against him.
II. Petitioner was deprived of his state and federal constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel when his attorney failed to move for suppression of the statements he made before he received a Miranda warning.
III. Petitioner was deprived of his state and federal constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel where his attorney failed to object to the prosecutor arguing that Petitioner's post-arrest, post-Miranda silence was substantive evidence of guilt in violation of Petitioner's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.
IV. Petitioner was deprived of his state and federal constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel when his attorney introduced the testimonial hearsay statement of a non-testifying witness accusing Petitioner of prior bad acts into evidence in violation of Petitioner's Sixth Amendment right under the Confrontational Clause.
V. Petitioner was deprived of his state and federal constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel when his attorney failed to move for suppression of complainant's in-court identification of Petitioner at trial following an unduly suggestive pre-trial confrontation, where no independent basis was established.
VI. Petitioner was deprived of his Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination and his Sixth Amendment right to counsel (1) where before and after signing a Miranda rights form, police repeatedly denied Petitioner's unequivocal request to have his attorney present during a custodial interrogation; (2) after Petitioner re-invoked his right to counsel, police continued to question Petitioner, thus, the Miranda waiver form was invalid; and (3) admission of Petitioner's statements into evidence by the trial court was not harmless error.
VII. Petitioner was deprived of his state and federal constitutional right to effective assistance of appellate counsel where counsel failed to raise on appeal or timely inform Petitioner to raise in his Standard 4 brief on direct appeal (1) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failure to object to a Brady violation; and (2) prosecution's inflammatory closing remarks on improperly admitted character evidence.

         II. Standard

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) provides that:

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.

         The Supreme Court explained that “[A] federal court's collateral review of a state-court decision must be consistent with the respect due state courts in our federal system.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). The “AEDPA thus imposes a ‘highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings,' and ‘demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) ((quoting Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333, n. 7 (1997); Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam)). “[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)). Therefore, in order 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.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103. A habeas Petitioner should be denied relief 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. Analysis

         a. Ineffective assistance of counsel

         In his first five claims, Petitioner argues that he was denied the effective assistance of trial counsel.

         To show that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel under federal constitutional standards, a defendant must satisfy a two- prong test. First, the defendant must demonstrate that counsel's performance was so deficient that the attorney did not function as the “counsel” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). In so doing, the defendant must overcome a strong presumption that counsel's behavior lies within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance. Id. In other words, the defendant is required to overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be sound trial strategy. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689.

         Second, the defendant must show that such performance prejudiced his or her defense. Id. To demonstrate prejudice, the defendant must show that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. “Strickland's test for prejudice is a demanding one. ‘The likelihood of a different result must be substantial, not just conceivable.'” Storey v. Vasbinder, 657 F.3d 372, 379 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Harrington, 562 U.S. at 112). The Supreme Court's holding in Strickland places the burden on the defendant who raises a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel to show a reasonable probability that the result of the proceeding would have been different but for counsel's allegedly deficient performance. See Wong v. Belmontes, 558 U.S. 15, 27 (2009).

         On habeas review, “the question ‘is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination' under the Strickland standard ‘was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.'” Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2009) (quoting Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007)). “The pivotal question is whether the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable. This is different from asking whether defense counsel's performance fell below Strickland's standard.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. at 101. Indeed, “because the Strickland standard is a general standard, a state court has even more latitude to reasonably determine that a defendant has not satisfied that standard.” Knowles, 556 U.S. at 123 (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. at 664). Pursuant to the § 2254(d)(1) standard, a “doubly deferential judicial review” applies to a Strickland claim brought by a habeas Petitioner. Id. This means that on habeas review of a state court conviction, “[A] state court must be granted a deference and latitude that are not in operation when the case involves review under the Strickland standard itself.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 101.

         Because of this doubly deferential standard, the Supreme Court has indicated that:

Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under § 2254(d). When § 2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel's actions were reasonable. The question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland's deferential standard.

Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. at 105.

         In addition, a reviewing court must not merely give defense counsel the benefit of the doubt but must also affirmatively entertain the range of possible reasons that counsel may have had for proceeding as he or she did. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 196 (2011).

         Petitioner argues that this Court should not employ AEDPA's deferential standard with respect to several of his ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims because the Michigan Court of Appeals did not reach the prejudice prong of the Strickland standard in rejecting those claims. ECF No. 9 Page.ID 498.

         The Sixth Circuit has found that when a state court only addresses one prong of the Strickland test in rejecting a habeas Petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the federal habeas court should review that prong under the AEDPA's deferential standard of review but apply de novo review to the other prong. See, e.g., Rayner v. Mills, 685 F.3d 631, 636-39 (6th Cir. 2012). This is a “peculiar rule” that is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of § 2254(d), and consequently one that the Sixth Circuit subsequently questioned. See Hodges v. Colson, 727 F.3d 517, 537, n. 5 (6th Cir. 2013). The Sixth Circuit in Hodges believed that the panel in Rayner had ignored the Supreme Court's language in Harrington which indicated:

Where a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. This is so whether or not the state court reveals which of the elements in a multipart claim it found insufficient, for § 2254(d) applies when a “claim, ” not a component of one, has been adjudicated.

Id. (quoting Harrington, 562 at 98) (emphasis original).

         The Sixth Circuit also noted in Hodges that their prior holding in Rayner created a “peculiar rule” by which “the more information the state court provides, the less deference we grant it. This is contrary not only to the language of the statute, which speaks of “claims, ” not components of claims, but also contrary to the spirit of § 2254(d), which is designed to give more deference to a state court judgment on the merits.” Id.

         Pursuant to Harrington, AEDPA's deferential standard of review applies, even if the Michigan Court of Appeals did not explicitly address the prejudice prong of some of the ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Moreover, as discussed below, the Michigan Court of Appeals found that trial counsel was not deficient. Such a finding “implicitly, but unequivocally, encompasses a finding that the performance did not prejudice the defendant.” Hodges, 727 F.3d at 537, n.5.[1]

         In his first claim, Petitioner argues that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to introduce a letter from a law firm who represented the victim, DT, to establish that she had a financial incentive to falsely accuse Petitioner of sexual assault.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the claim:

Bennett first argues that his lawyer should have introduced a letter from a law firm notifying the apartment complex that DT hired a lawyer regarding allegations of injuries, which included rape. Bennett's lawyer questioned DT about the letter at trial, but did not seek its admission. Bennett contends that the letter would have impeached DT's credibility by showing that she had a financial motive to falsely accuse him of sexual assault.
In the letter, the writer indicates that the law office had been retained to represent DT in connection with “injuries suffered in an accident, which occurred . . . on March 11, 2011. The injuries include, but are not limited to rape.” At trial, DT admitted that she hired a lawyer, but denied that it was in relation to the November 3, ...

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