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Abraitis v. Horton

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

November 12, 2019

MARK ABRAITIS, Petitioner,
CONNIE HORTON, Respondent.



         Following a jury trial in Saginaw County Circuit Court, Mark Abraitis was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and a number of firearms-related crimes for the killing of his girlfriend. Abraitis filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging his convictions on six separate grounds. For the reasons that follow, the petition is DENIED.


         This Court recites 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):

This case involves the April 24, 2011 shooting death of [Abraitis'] girlfriend. On the night of the incident, [Abraitis] and his girlfriend had an argument through text messages while the victim was at a bar with coworkers. [Abraitis'] coworkers saw him in an agitated state, with two guns in his car, claiming that he needed to shoot his guns to blow off steam. The victim's friends last saw her at the bar that night.
The next day, the victim's normally immaculate apartment was found in disarray. Police officers found [Abraitis] in his home with a note admitting that he had shot his girlfriend. The victim's body was found in a rural ditch, covered by cardboard. She had a gunshot wound to the head. Police recovered the murder weapon and another handgun, which were eventually determined to be stolen.

People v. Abraitis, No. 309955, 2013 WL 951134, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 21, 2013).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Abraitis' conviction, id., and the Michigan Supreme Court denied his application for leave to appeal, People v. Abraitis, 836 N.W.2d 170 (Mich. 2013) (mem.).

         Abraitis filed a habeas petition with this Court, which was held in abeyance to permit him to return to the state courts to exhaust additional claims. Abraitis v. Woods, No. 14-CV-14434, 2015 WL 1541871 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 7, 2015). This included a post-conviction motion for relief from judgment in the Michigan state trial court, which was denied. People v Abraitis, No. 11-036618-FC (Saginaw Cty. Cir. Ct., Feb. 8, 2016). The Michigan appellate courts denied Abraitis leave to appeal. People v. Abraitis, No. 332108 (Mich. Ct. App. Jul 25, 2016); People v. Abraitis, 888 N.W.2d 102 (Mich. 2017) (mem.).

         Abraitis now seeks habeas relief on six grounds: (1) there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Abraitis was guilty of first-degree premeditated murder, (2) it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to admit gruesome autopsy photographs, (3) Abraitis was denied effective assistance of counsel, (4) his state and federal constitutional rights were violated when the trial court denied two motions, (5) his state and federal constitutional rights were violated when the trial court denied him an independent psychological evaluation and expert, and (6) juror misconduct resulted in a structural error. (ECF No. 12, PageID.165).[1]


         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), which governs this case, “circumscribe[s]” the standard of review that federal courts apply when considering an application for a writ of habeas corpus raising constitutional claims. See Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003). Under the statute, a federal court may not grant habeas relief to a state prisoner with respect to any claim that has been “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings” unless the state-court adjudication “(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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         A state court's decision 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).

         A state court decision unreasonably applies federal law “if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts.” Slaughter v. Parker, 450 F.3d 224, 232 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 407-08). The Supreme Court has emphasized that “‘an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.'” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 410). Therefore, “[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.” Id. (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)).



         Abraitis first argues that there was insufficient evidence of premeditation or deliberation to support his conviction for first-degree murder.

         The Michigan Court of Appeals decided this issue on direct appeal, finding “[a] review of the entire record reveals that there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find premeditation.” People v. Abraitis, 2013 WL 951134, at *2. The Court of Appeals detailed the evidence of guilt:

The prosecution presented evidence that defendant had acquired stolen guns the day prior to the incident. On the night of the incident, he expressed that he was so angry that he needed to fire his weapons. The same night, the victim received numerous nasty and belligerent texts from defendant. The day after the incident, the victim's normally immaculate bedroom was found in disarray. Police found the victim in pajama-type clothing without shoes, a jacket, or her cellphone. A rational jury could determine that defendant forced the victim from the apartment or that she was forced to leave in a hurry. Furthermore, defendant took the victim to a very rural setting. Also, the victim had two contusions on her upper chest from which the jury could infer that defendant held her down by pressing his knees into her chest. The evidence indicated that the gun was loosely touching the victim's face when fired, creating a contact wound, and that defendant shot straight down through the victim's face and into the ground. Defendant then moved her body 100 feet into a ditch filled with water and covered her with cardboard. This was sufficient evidence for a rational jury to infer that defendant planned the crime. Therefore, there was sufficient evidence for a rational jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant's killing of the victim was premeditated.

Id. (internal citation omitted).

         Because the Michigan Court of Appeals adjudicated the sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim on the merits, § 2254(d) applies. A federal habeas court may not overturn a state-court decision that rejects a sufficiency-of-the-evidence claim simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court's adjudication of that claim. Instead, a federal court may grant habeas relief only if the state-court decision was an objectively unreasonable application of the Jackson v. Virginia standard. See Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1, 2 (2011). Under Jackson, “the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979) (internal citation and footnote omitted). Thus, for a federal habeas court reviewing a state-court conviction, “the only question under Jackson is whether that finding was so insupportable as to fall below the threshold of bare rationality.” Coleman v. Johnson, 566 U.S. 650, 656 (2012). A state court's determination that the evidence does not fall below that threshold is entitled to “considerable deference under AEDPA.” Id.

         To convict a defendant of first-degree murder in Michigan, the state must prove that a defendant's intentional killing of another was deliberate and premeditated. See Scott v. Elo, 302 F.3d 598, 602 (6th Cir. 2002) (citing People v. Schollaert, 486 N.W.2d 312, 318 (Mich. Ct. App. 1992)). The elements of premeditation and deliberation may be inferred from the circumstances surrounding the killing. See Johnson v. Hofbauer, 159 F.Supp.2d 582, 596 (E.D. Mich. 2001) (citing People v. Anderson, 531 N.W.2d 780, 786 (Mich. Ct. App. 1995)). Premeditation may be established through evidence of the following factors: (1) the prior relationship of the parties, (2) the defendant's actions before the killing, (3) the circumstances of the killing itself, and (4) the defendant's conduct after the homicide. Cyars v. Hofbauer, 383 F.3d 485, 491 (6th Cir. 2004); Anderson, 531 N.W.2d at 786.

         Although the minimum time required under Michigan law to premeditate “is incapable of exact determination, the interval between initial thought and ultimate action should be long enough to afford a reasonable man time to subject the nature of his response to a ‘second look.'” Williams v. Jones, 231 F.Supp.2d 586, 594-95 (E.D. Mich. 2002) (quoting People v. Vail, 227 N.W.2d 535, 538 (Mich. 1975)). “[A]n opportunity for a ‘second look' may occur in a matter of seconds, minutes, or hours, depending upon the totality of the circumstances surrounding the killing.” Johnson, 159 F.Supp.2d at 596 (quoting People v. Berthiaume, 229 N.W.2d 497, 500 (1975)). Premeditation and deliberation may be inferred from the type of weapon used, the location of the wounds inflicted, and circumstantial evidence. See People v. Berry, 497 N.W.2d 202, 204 (Mich. Ct. App. 1993); Johnson, 159 F.Supp.2d at 596 (citing People v. Turner, 233 N.W.2d 617, 619 (Mich. Ct. App. 1975)); DeLisle v. Rivers, 161 F.3d 370, 389 (6th Cir. 1998).

         Here, it was reasonable for the Michigan Court of Appeals to conclude that there was sufficient evidence for a rational trier of fact to find that Abraitis acted with premeditation and deliberation when he shot the victim. The evidence established that Abraitis had been engaged in an argument with the victim on the evening of the shooting. Evidence that Abraitis had a prior dispute with the victim supports a reasonable inference that the subsequent shooting was premeditated. See Scott, 302 F.3d at 603. The evidence also showed that Abraitis shot the victim in the head at close range. Under Michigan law, premeditation may be logically inferred from wounds inflicted on vital parts of the victim's body. See Lundberg v. Buchkoe, 338 F.2d 62, 69 (6th Cir. 1964). Evidence that the victim was shot in the head at close range supports a finding of premeditation and deliberation. See Thomas v. McKee, 571 Fed.Appx. 403, 407 (6th Cir. 2014); Crenshaw v. Renico, 261 F.Supp.2d 826, 833 (E.D. Mich. 2003). Evidence that Abraitis moved the victim's body to a more secluded area following the shooting in an attempt to hide it also supports an inference of premeditation and deliberation. See People v. Johnson, 597 N.W.2d 73, 79 (Mich. 1999). Abraitis fled the scene afterwards, which also supports a finding of premeditation. See, e.g., Marsack v. Howes, 300 F.Supp.2d 483, 492 (E.D. Mich. 2004). The fact that Abraitis did not attempt to seek medical help for the victim after the shooting could also lead a rational trier of fact to conclude that Abraitis acted with premeditation and deliberation when he killed the victim. See Delisle, 161 F.3d at 389 (finding that circumstantial evidence of premeditation was established by petitioner's failure to help victims after car was driven into lake).

         This Court cannot say that the Michigan Court of Appeals' rejection of Abraitis' insufficiency of evidence claim resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, Jackson. See Durr v. Mitchell, 487 F.3d 423, 448 (6th Cir. 2007); Titus v. Jackson, 452 Fed.Appx. 647, 650 (6th Cir. 2011). So Abraitis is not entitled to relief on his first claim.


         Abraitis next contends that his right to a fair trial was violated by the admission of two autopsy photographs, which he claims were “gruesome” and unduly prejudicial. This claim was considered and rejected by the Michigan Court of Appeals. See Abraitis, 2013 WL 951134, at *2.

         A federal court is limited in federal habeas review to deciding whether a state court conviction violates the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). It is “not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-court questions.” Id. Thus, errors in the application of state law, especially rulings regarding the admissibility of evidence, are usually not questioned by a federal habeas court. See Seymour v. Walker, 224 F.3d 542, 552 (6th Cir. 2000) (“Generally, state-court evidentiary rulings cannot rise to the level of due process violations unless they ‘offend[ ] some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.'” (quoting Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37, 43 (1996))).

         The Michigan Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court's decision to admit the photographs for a clear abuse of discretion. Abraitis, 2013 WL 951134, at *2. The Court of Appeals found, “Despite any gruesomeness, the photographs were admitted for a proper purpose.” Id. (citing People v. Unger, 749 N.W.2d 272, 303 (Mich. Ct. App. 2008)). The photographs were used to “establish that defendant was on top of the plaintiff, holding her down with his knees, when he held the gun to her face and shot straight through her head.” Id.

         Abraitis' claim that the trial court erred in admitting photographs of the murder victim fails to state a claim upon which habeas relief can be granted. See, e.g., Franklin v. Bradshaw, 695 F.3d 439, 456-57 (6th Cir. 2012) (holding that state court's determination that petitioner's right to fair trial was not denied by admission of 18 gruesome autopsy photographs of his victims that were shown to jurors on large projector screen during trial was not contrary to clearly established federal law). In particular, the introduction of graphic or gruesome photographs of a murder victim does not entitle Abraitis to habeas relief where there is some legitimate evidentiary purpose for the photographs' admission. See, e.g., Biros v. Bagley, 422 F.3d 379, 391 (6th Cir. 2005) (upholding the admission of photographs depicting a victim's severed head, severed breast, and severed body parts placed near the victim's torso because the photos were highly probative of the prosecutor's claim that the petitioner beat the victim severely and meticulously dissected her body); Frazier v. Huffman, 343 F.3d 780, 789 (6th Cir. 2003) (finding acceptable the admission of multiple photographs of the victim used by the coroner to illustrate the nature of the encounter preceding the victim's death); Cooey v. Coyle, 289 F.3d 882, 893 (6th Cir. 2002) (observing that “although the photographs were gruesome, they were highly probative”).

         The trial court's decision to admit the autopsy photographs cannot be said to “offend[ ] some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Egelhoff, 518 U.S. at 43. As the Michigan Court of Appeals held, the autopsy photographs were highly probative in determining Abraitis' intent and showing that Abraitis acted with premeditation. Because the photographs served a proper evidentiary purpose, ...

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