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Relerford v. Rewerts

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

September 26, 2019




         Lorenzo Donnell Relerford, Jr., (“Petitioner”), confined at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner challenges his conviction for first-degree felony murder, M.C.L.A. 750.316(1)(b), armed robbery, M.C.L.A. 75.529, and unlawfully driving away an automobile. M.C.L.A. 750.413.

         For the reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

         I. Background

         A jury convicted Petitioner in Genesee County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts relied upon by the Michigan Court of Appeals, 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 morning of March 10, 2011, Jeanne Hank was found lifeless in her Grand Blanc apartment, strangled to death with the cloth belt of her bathrobe. The cord for Hank’s landline telephone had been ripped from the wall and her cellular telephone was missing. Her home had been ransacked and several items of jewelry and electronics were gone. Hank’s Trailblazer also was not in the parking lot. Later that day, police spotted Hank’s Trailblazer at a local gas station. Officers descended upon the vehicle and arrested Relerford, who was driving the vehicle, as well as his passenger, Dantoine Brown. Inside the vehicle, the officers found Hank’s television, DVD player, laptop, and jewelry. Brown carried Hank’s cell phone in his pocket. The officers also found a BB gun and a knife. Later investigation revealed that Relerford and Brown had travelled to local pawn shops and unsuccessfully attempted to sell the stolen items.
Relerford and Brown shifted blame onto the other for Hank’s death. Relerford claimed that he had known Hank for a week and insisted that she gave him her property to sell so he could buy her drugs. To facilitate this errand, Relerford asserted, Hank loaned him her vehicle. At trial, Relerford’s theory was that Brown acted alone in killing Hank, and that Relerford was merely present.
Brown later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and armed robbery in exchange for a 10–year minimum sentence and his agreement to testify against Relerford. In March 2012, a jury convicted Relerford of felony murder, armed robbery, and UDAA. This Court reversed Relerford’s convictions and remanded for a new trial because Relerford was placed in shackles that were visible to the jury despite that the trial court never considered whether Relerford posed a security risk. People v. Relerford (After Remand), unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued November 19, 2013 (Docket No. 310488). Relerford’s second trial ended with a hung jury. A jury again convicted Relerford of felony murder, armed robbery, and UDAA after his third trial. He now appeals those convictions.
At Relerford’s original trial, Brown testified against him in accordance with his plea agreement. Brown asserted that Relerford picked him up on the morning of March 10, 2011, driving a Trailblazer. Relerford took Brown to Hank’s apartment. Brown described Hank as friendly and corroborated Relerford’s claim that Hank gave him her laptop. Things turned sour, however, and Relerford pushed Hank toward Brown and Brown volleyed her back. Brown accused Relerford of placing Hank in a chokehold and instructing Brown to rip the phone cord from the wall and to steal Hank’s television and DVD player. Brown returned to the Trailblazer ahead of Relerford. Relerford came out three to five minutes later and told Brown, “Bitch is gonna quit pissing me off” and that he “had to choke her out.” Brown believed this meant Relerford had killed Hank.
Brown refused to testify at Relerford’s second and third trials. Brown was brought to court for questioning before Relerford’s second trial and given an attorney for consultation. On the stand, Brown iterated that he would not testify, even if it resulted in vacation of his plea agreement and resentencing under harsher terms. The only reason Brown would give for his refusal was that he had already testified in this matter and the plea agreement did not require him to testify twice. The court deemed Brown unavailable to testify and someone read Brown’s original testimony into the record. Ultimately, however, the jury could not agree on a verdict.
Before Relerford’s third trial, the court assigned an attorney to advise Brown. When Brown was brought to the courtroom, he was uncooperative from the first. In response to the court attempting to place him under oath, Brown indicated that he would tell the truth, “But I ain’t going to be no testimony.” Brown conceded his awareness that his plea agreement could be revoked and he could face a longer prison term if he breached the agreement and refused to testify. Brown declined to give a reason for his decision:
Mr. Brown. ‘Cause I’m not.
[Prosecutor]. Do you have any basis for that?
Mr. Brown. That is my basis, ‘cause I’m not. I don’t owe no explanation to nobody.
The court again deemed Brown unavailable to testify and permitted the prosecutor to have someone read the transcript of Brown's original trial testimony into the record.

         People v. Relerford, No. 327040, 2016 WL 6037623, at *1–2 (Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 13, 2016).

         Petitioner’s conviction was affirmed. Id., lv. den. 500 Mich. 1002, 895 N.W. 2D 179 (2017).

         Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds: (1) the trial court violated Petitioner’s right to confrontation by declaring co-defendant Brown unavailable and admitting his testimony from Petitioner’s first trial, (2) the trial judge violated Petitioner’s right to present a defense by refusing to inform the jury that Brown refused to testify at Petitioner’s third trial and preventing defense counsel from commenting on Brown’s absence and instead instructed the jurors that they were not to consider Brown’s absence in determining his credibility, (3) the trial judge violated Petitioner’s right to present a defense by refusing to instruct on duress as a defense, and (4) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to admit prior testimony from a jailhouse informant that Petitioner denied killing Ms. Hank.

         II. Standard of Review

         28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

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. “[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)). 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.” Id., at 103. Habeas relief should be denied 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. ...

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