United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division
OPINION AND ORDER DENYING THE PETITION FOR WRIT OF
HABEAS CORPUS, DECLINING TO ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF
APPEALABILITY, AND GRANTING PETITIONER LEAVE TO APPEAL IN
HONORABLE VICTORIA A. ROBERTS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
v. Relerford, No. 327040, 2016 WL 6037623, at *1–2
(Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 13, 2016).
conviction was affirmed. Id., lv. den. 500 Mich.
1002, 895 N.W. 2D 179 (2017).
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.
Standard of Review
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;
(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.
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).