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Dantzler v. Rewerts

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

October 30, 2019

RANDEE REWERTS, [1] Respondent.



         Following a jury trial in state court, Samuel Dantzler was convicted of first degree murder. His appeals were unsuccessful. He now seeks a writ of habeas corpus in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. His petition raises 10 claims for relief.

         Because the Michigan state courts' findings are not contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, or based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, the Court cannot grant Dantzler's application for a writ. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The Court will, however, grant Dantzler a certificate of appealability for his fifth and eighth claims.


         The Michigan Court of Appeals found, presumably correctly, Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009), the following facts:

This case arises from the January 2006, savage beating and murder of Bernard Hill. That night, Hill “jumped on” his ex-girlfriend, Quiana Turner, with whom he had a child. After assaulting Turner, Hill went to Nikitta McKenzie's apartment; McKenzie was Hill's current girlfriend. Sometime after 12:45 a.m., Hill looked out a window and saw shadows moving about. He hid in the living room closet and someone kicked in the front door. Six black men wearing black clothing, including black hats, rushed into McKenzie's apartment. One of the men shoved a gun in McKenzie's face and demanded to know if Hill lived there. McKenzie told the men that Hill lived in the apartment, but was not home. The man with the gun again demanded to know if Hill lived there and she repeated her response. Hill then emerged from the closet. McKenzie retreated to the bathroom and waited for the men to leave. She heard loud crashes, furniture falling, and the men fighting. Finally, she heard Hill scream, followed by gunshots. The room fell silent. She discovered Hill's body nearby; he died from a single gunshot wound to the back of his head. A jury convicted defendant of first-degree felony murder on the theory that he either killed Hill or aided and abetted in Hill's murder while participating in breaking and entering McKenzie's apartment.

People v. Dantzler, No. 303252, 2012 WL 2335913, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. June 19, 2012).

         During the trial, the crucial piece of evidence against Dantzler was a black knit cap left at the crime scene. Testing on the hat showed that Dantzler's DNA profile matched a DNA profile found on the interior rim of that hat. (ECF No. 7-13, PageID.638; ECF No. 7-14, PageID.772- 773.) The state's DNA expert found multiple additional DNA samples on the hat that could not be positively identified. (ECF No. 7-14, PageID.775-778, 785.) The state's expert did not compare these profiles to the DNA of the other suspects charged in the murder. (ECF No. 7-14, PageID.826- 831.) Before trial, the trial judge awarded funds for the defense to hire an independent expert to analyze the DNA evidence. (ECF 7-18, PageID.1159.) Defense counsel attempted to hire two experts. The first had a conflict of interest and the second had a retainer fee of $2, 500, which the court refused to authorize. (Id.) Defense counsel “did not seek another expert and did not enter any evidence to establish that other experts were unavailable.” (Id.) At trial, the defense did not call an expert witness to address the DNA evidence.

         Following his conviction, Dantzler filed an appeal of right. His appellate counsel raised three claims: (1) the trial court's modification of a requested adverse-inference jury instruction violated Dantzler's constitutional rights, (2) the evidence presented at trial was so insufficient as to render Dantzler's conviction a violation of due process, and (3) the trial court's denial of necessary funds for a DNA expert denied Dantzler due process. (ECF No. 7-18, PageID.1169- 1206.)

         The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Dantzler's conviction (ECF No. 7-18, PageID.1156-1159) and the Michigan Supreme Court denied his application for leave to appeal because it was “not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed.” People v. Dantzler, 823 N.W.2d 595 (Mich. 2012) (mem.).

         Dantzler then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in this Court. (ECF No. 1.) He raised the claims he presented on direct appeal as well as a claim that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

         Dantzler subsequently filed a motion to stay the case so that he could return to state court and pursue relief with respect to his ineffective assistance of counsel claims. This Court granted the motion. (ECF No. 10.)[2]

         Dantzler's motion for relief from judgment raised seven claims, including that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to hire an independent DNA expert after funds were granted by the court, and appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this issue on direct appeal. (ECF No. 20-3, PageID.1672-1673.)

         Dantzler's motion for relief from judgment was denied by the state trial court. (ECF No. 20-4.) Dantzler filed an application for leave to appeal the denial in both the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court. Both were denied.

         Dantzler then returned to this Court and filed a supplemental brief raising 10 claims for relief. These claims include the three claims raised on direct appeal, five of the claims raised in the motion for relief from judgment, and two additional claims. (ECF No. 11, PageID.1556-1561.) Warden Rewerts has filed a response. (ECF No. 19.)


         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) (and 28 U.S.C. §2254 in particular) “confirm[s] that state courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011), see also Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 182 (2011). If a claim was “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings, ” this Court cannot grant habeas corpus relief on the basis of that claim “unless the adjudication of the claim . . . resulted in a decision” (1) “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) “that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). A state court's application of federal law is unreasonable only if the petitioner can demonstrate that it is “objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong[.]” Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015). The court's reasoning must be “so lacking in justification” that the error is “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). The standard is “intentionally difficult to meet.” Woods, 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (citation and internal quotations marks omitted).


         Dantzler's first three habeas claims were raised on direct appeal and adjudicated on the merits by the Michigan Court of Appeals. See Dantzler, 2012 WL 2335913. Thus, when evaluating these claims the Court must apply the framework of § 2254(d).


         Dantzler's first habeas claim asserts that the jury was erroneously instructed regarding the destruction of the victim's fingernail clippings by the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office. Defense counsel argued at trial that because there was evidence that the victim fought with his attackers, DNA could have been recovered from his nail clippings proving that someone other than Dantzler murdered the victim. Defense counsel requested an adverse inference instruction, directing the jury to assume that analysis of the clippings would have been unfavorable to the prosecution's case. Dantzler asserts that the trial court instead erroneously instructed the jury that they “may consider”-rather than “may infer”-“whether this evidence would have been unfavorable to the prosecutor's case and favorable to the defendant's case.” (ECF No. 11, PageID.1511-1514.)

         The Warden asserts that review of the claim is barred by Dantzler's approval of the instruction as read to the jury and that the claim is nevertheless without merit.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals denied the claim during Dantzler's appeal of right as follows:

By affirmatively approving the instruction, defendant's lawyer waived any claim that the instruction was erroneous. People v. Carter, 462 Mich. 206, 215-216; 612 N.W.2d 144 (2000). Hence, there is no error to review. Id. at 216.
Even if defendant's trial lawyer had not waived this claim of error, we would nevertheless conclude that the trial court did not plainly err in giving this instruction. See People v. Carines, 460 Mich. 750, 763; 597 N.W.2d 130 (1999). . . .
In general, a defendant is not entitled to an adverse jury instruction unless he can demonstrate that the police destroyed evidence in bad faith. People v. Davis, 199 Mich.App. 502, 515; 503 N.W.2d 457 (1993). Defendant failed to introduce any evidence of bad faith, and the prosecution offered evidence indicating that the destruction resulted from a mishap or standard procedures for discarding evidence in unsolved cases, rather than bad faith. The medical examiner maintained the evidence for over three years before its inadvertent destruction, and defendant failed to show any indication that the medical examiner colluded with police to destroy the evidence. The law did not require the trial court to grant defendant any instruction regarding the fingernails, and because defendant benefited from the instruction, the trial court's refusal to include the defendant's preferred language did not amount to error, let alone error that affected the outcome. Carines, 460 Mich. at 763.

Dantzler, 2012 WL 2335913 at *2.

         The Warden first contends that review of this claim is barred because Dantzler's counsel approved of the jury instructions after they were read to the jury. Under the procedural default doctrine, a federal habeas court will not review a question of federal law if a state court's decision rests on a substantive or procedural state law ground that is independent of the federal question and is adequate to support the judgment. See Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729 (1991). However, “federal courts are not required to address a procedural-default issue before deciding against the petitioner on the merits.” Hudson v. Jones, 351 F.3d 212, 215 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Lambrix v. Singletary, 520 U.S. 518, 525 (1997)). It may be more economical for the habeas court to simply review the merits of the Dantzler's claims, “for example, if it were easily resolvable against the habeas petitioner, whereas the procedural-bar issue involved complicated issues of state law.” Lambrix, 520 U.S. at 525. In the present case, the Court deems it more efficient to proceed directly to the merits, especially because the claim can be easily resolved based on the record.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals' analysis of the claim under plain-error review must be given deference under § 2254(d). See Stewart v. Trierweiler, 867 F.3d 633, 638 (6th Cir. 2017). That means that Dantzler must show the state appellate court's decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law” or “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). “To warrant habeas relief, jury instructions must not only have been erroneous, but also, taken as a whole, so infirm that they rendered the entire trial fundamentally unfair.” Doan v. Carter, 548 F.3d 449, 455 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Austin v. Bell, 126 F.3d 843, 846-47 (6th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Further, an instruction “may not be judged in artificial isolation, but must be viewed in the context of the overall charge.” Id. at 147.

         In Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988), the Supreme Court articulated the test for analyzing the constitutionality of police destruction of “evidentiary material of which no more can be said than that it could have been subjected to tests, the results of which might have exonerated the defendant.” 488 U.S. at 57. This “potentially useful evidence” only violates due process when a defendant “show[s] bad faith on the part of the police.” Id. at 58. “The presence or absence of bad faith by the [government] for purposes of the Due Process Clause must necessarily turn on the [government's] knowledge of the exculpatory value of the evidence at the time it was lost or destroyed.” Id. at 56 n.*. Further, “where the government is negligent, even grossly negligent, in failing to preserve potential exculpatory evidence, the bad faith requirement is not satisfied.” United States v. Wright, 260 F.3d 568, 570 (6th Cir. 2001) (internal citations omitted).

         Dantzler has not shown that the Michigan Court of Appeals' finding that the police did not act in bad faith was unreasonable. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). During trial it was revealed that the Wayne County Medical Examiner initially preserved clippings taken from the victim's fingernails. (ECF No. 7-12, PageID.474.). The clippings were collected because of the possibility that DNA from one or more of the attackers may have transferred to the victim if he scratched his attacker. (Id.) Police officers retrieved a sample of the victim's blood for analysis, but they failed to retrieve the clippings, and they remained at the Medical Examiner's Office until they were destroyed in 2009. (Id. at PageID.498.) Given the fact that the clippings were initially retained in order to aid the identification of the victim's attackers, and in the absence of any indication that the police or prosecution thought that an analysis of the clippings would have aided Dantzler's defense, it was reasonable for the Michigan Court of Appeals to find that the destruction was not a product of bad faith. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254(d)(2). Dantzler was therefore not entitled to an ...

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