343 F.3d 780 (6th Cir. 2003), 01-3122, Frazier v. Huffman

Docket Nº:01-3122
Citation:343 F.3d 780
Party Name:Frazier v. Huffman
Case Date:September 08, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

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343 F.3d 780 (6th Cir. 2003)

Richard M. FRAZIER, Petitioner-Appellant,


Stephen J. HUFFMAN, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 01-3122.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 8, 2003

Argued: Oct. 15, 2002.

Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc Denied Nov. 28, 2003.

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James V. Schuster (briefed), John B. Nalbandian (argued and briefed), Daniel F. Oberklein (briefed), Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP, Cincinnati, OH, David Paul Bradley (briefed), Gallagher, Sharp, Fulton & Norman, Cleveland, OH, for Petitioner-Appellant.

Michael L. Collyer (argued and briefed), Office of the Attorney General of Ohio, Cleveland, OH, Henry G. Appel (briefed), Attorney's General's Office of Ohio, Capital Crimes Section, Columbus, OH, for Respondent-Appellee.

Before: BATCHELDER, CLAY, and GILMAN, Circuit Judges.

GILMAN, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which CLAY, J., joined. BATCHELDER, J., (pp. 802-807), delivered a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.


GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

Tiffany Skiba was stabbed to death on November 8, 1990. The grand jury in Cuyahoga County, Ohio indicted Richard

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M. Frazier on two counts of aggravated murder for the death of Skiba, each with three death-penalty specifications, and on one count of aggravated burglary. Frazier proceeded to trial in state court on August 5, 1991. The jury convicted him on all counts and subsequently recommended that he be sentenced to death. That recommendation was adopted by the trial judge.

After exhausting his direct appeals and state postconviction remedies, Frazier sought a writ of habeas corpus in federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He raised multiple grounds for relief, but primarily focused on claims of evidentiary error, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied Frazier's petition, but granted him a certificate of appealability on all issues. For the reasons set forth below, we REVERSE in part the judgment of the district court, GRANT Frazier a conditional writ of habeas corpus that will result in the vacation of his death sentence unless the state of Ohio commences a new penalty-phase trial against him within 180 days from the date that the judgment in this matter becomes final, and REMAND the case for further proceedings consistent herewith.


A. Factual background

Frazier married Susan Bednarski in 1980, thereby becoming the stepfather of Bednarski's eight-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Tiffany Skiba. In February of 1988, Bednarski discovered that Skiba was pregnant. Both women believed that Skiba's pregnancy was the result of sexual abuse by Frazier. Bednarski sought a divorce. Skiba spoke to the local authorities in Medina County, Ohio. In October of 1988, Frazier was indicted in state court on two counts of rape and two counts involving other sex crimes. One month earlier Skiba had given birth to a son.

The state criminal court ordered Frazier to submit to a blood test to determine the paternity of Skiba's child. He appealed that order to the intermediate state appellate court and to the Ohio Supreme Court. After the Ohio Supreme Court denied Frazier relief, he petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. Frazier remained free on bond during the pendency of these proceedings. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear Frazier's case on October 1, 1990. Dates for the blood test and the trial were then set by the state criminal court.

Throughout 1989 and 1990, Skiba was terrified of Frazier. She was visibly disturbed any time that she was in his presence. Skiba confided in one friend her fear that Frazier was going to kill her. She moved into her grandparents' home and started sleeping with a knife under her pillow.

Skiba's grandfather, Robert Skiba, followed his usual practice on November 8, 1990 when, at 5:00 a.m., he drove his wife to work at a nearby hospital and returned home fifteen minutes later. Upon his arrival home, his dog was barking and looking excitedly at the back door. Robert Skiba apparently thought little of this unusual behavior at the time. After calling upstairs for his granddaughter at 10:00 a.m. and receiving no response, however, he went upstairs to check on her. Upon entering Tiffany Skiba's bedroom to rouse her, Robert Skiba was met with the ghastly sight of his granddaughter's corpse lying in bed, covered in blood and full of puncture wounds.

Police officers who arrived at the scene discovered a broken steak knife next to Skiba's body. The knife was part of a set belonging to her grandparents. There was blood on the knife, in the surrounding

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area, on the stairway heading down from the second-floor bedroom, and on the first-floor living room's door frame. The police discovered that the screen on a basement window had been removed and that one of the panes of glass had been shattered. Although it was normally kept closed, the door leading from the basement into the rest of the house was open. One of Skiba's uncles had once shown Frazier how to gain access to the house through the basement window when they had been accidentally locked out. The neighboring yard contained footprints that pointed away from the Skiba residence. A study of the footprints revealed that they were made by someone wearing size nine or ten boots in a style sold exclusively by K-Mart.

Also on the morning of November 8, 1990, Frazier visited a medical clinic to get treatment for a one-inch cut on his wrist. The cut was consistent with a stab wound. That night, Frazier drove to the home of his friends, the Shamons, in a car that he had rented at the airport two days earlier. The police arrested him at the Shamons' home on November 12, 1990. At the time of his arrest, Frazier had with him a letter from the United States Supreme Court informing him that his petition for certiorari had been denied. In Frazier's apartment the police discovered a receipt from K-Mart for a size-nine boot of the same style found imprinted in the neighboring yard near the Skiba residence.

Frazier was taken to the Medina County jail. He was transported the next day from the jail to a clinic, where the long-ordered paternity test was administered. The test confirmed that Frazier had fathered Skiba's son.

On November 14, 1990, Frazier telephoned Officer James Svekric from the jail. Frazier had known Svekric for many years, and Svekric was one of the police detectives who had transported Frazier the previous day. Frazier asked Svekric to bring him Frazier's telephone book and prescription medication. Svekric, accompanied by another police officer, visited Frazier that day. According to Svekric, Frazier waived his right not to incriminate himself and asked the officers "what [they] could do for him, if [they] could get him a definite sentence in Cleveland as to a flat time, how much time he was going to do if he was to plead guilty." The police officers told Frazier that although they could tell the prosecutor and the judge that Frazier had cooperated, they had no authority to negotiate a plea agreement. Frazier then returned to his cell.

A short time later, however, the police officers conducted a second interview with Frazier, this time in the presence of the local prosecutor, Tim McGinty, who had been waiting in an adjacent building. McGinty informed Frazier that he was about to bring the matter of Skiba's death before a grand jury and that he intended to have Frazier indicted for murder. Frazier offered to provide information about other crimes in exchange for an agreement to allow him to plead guilty. McGinty replied, however, that in order to establish his credibility, Frazier would need to provide the details of Skiba's murder. Frazier was then asked whether he intended to kill Skiba when he went to her grandparents' home on November 8, 1990. In Svekric's recounting, "he shook his head no, but he did not give us a verbal answer or explain what his intent was that morning." Svekric related the remainder of the interview as follows:

And I asked him a question, "Do you want to tell us exactly what happened on November 8th with Tiffany Skiba, yes or no," and his answer was, "Yes, I will tell you everything you want to know." But at that time he also stated that he thinks his attorney should be present....

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Frazier's jailhouse interview was then terminated.

B. Procedural background

The Cuyahoga County grand jury returned a three-count indictment against Frazier. Count One charged him with the murder of Skiba. The first count contained three death-penalty specifications--for felony murder, the murder of a witness, and murder to escape accounting for another crime. Count Two charged Frazier with the murder of Skiba during the commission of a burglary. It also contained the three identical death-penalty specifications enumerated in Count One. The third count charged Frazier with burglary.

On August 21, 1991, the jury convicted Frazier on all counts. The next phase of the trial concerned the appropriate penalty, at the conclusion of which the jury recommended that Frazier be sentenced to death. On August 29, 1991, the trial court adopted that recommendation.

Frazier appealed his conviction and sentence without success through the Ohio state courts, both on direct appeal and through a petition for postconviction relief. He then initiated federal proceedings for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in September of 1998. The district court denied his petition, but granted him a...

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