395 F.3d 577 (6th Cir. 2005), 03-1528, Souter v. Jones

Docket Nº:03-1528.
Citation:395 F.3d 577
Party Name:Larry Pat SOUTER, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Kurt JONES, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.
Case Date:January 18, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Page 577

395 F.3d 577 (6th Cir. 2005)

Larry Pat SOUTER, Petitioner-Appellant,

v.

Kurt JONES, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 03-1528.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 18, 2005

Argued: Sept. 14, 2004

Rehearing Denied Feb. 8, 2005.

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ARGUED:

John A. Smietanka, Grandville, Michigan, for Appellant.

Brad H. Beaver, Office of the Attorney General, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

John A. Smietanka, Grandville, Michigan, for Appellant.

Brad H. Beaver, office of the Attorney General, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

Before: MOORE and CLAY, Circuit Judges, HAYNES, District Judge. [*]

OPINION

MOORE, Circuit Judge.

Petitioner-Appellant Larry Pat Souter ("Souter") appeals the district court's dismissal of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Souter, currently incarcerated in a Michigan correctional facility, was convicted in 1992 of the murder of Kristy Ringler. In 2002, Souter filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his conviction. The district court granted the State of Michigan's motion for summary judgment, finding that the petition was barred by the one-year statute of limitations set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d) (1). We granted Souter a certificate of appealability on two issues: (1) whether his petition was timely filed within one year of his discovery of new evidence; and (2) whether he is entitled to equitable tolling because he is actually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Because we find that Souter has demonstrated a credible claim of actual innocence, he is entitled to equitable tolling, and the district court's dismissal of his habeas petition is hereby REVERSED.

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I. BACKGROUND

On August 25, 1979, around 3:00 A.M., Kristy Ringler ("Ringler") was found unconscious, lying on highway M37 in Newaygo County, Michigan. She was lying with her arms by her side, across the roadway, perpendicular to vehicular traffic, with a small pool of blood beneath her head. She died later that morning. Dr. Steven C. Bauserman ("Dr.Bauserman"), a neuropathologist, performed an autopsy on Ringler and discovered a severe five-inch laceration on her forehead and a similar one on the right side of her head. He concluded that the lacerations were caused by two separate blows with a sharp-edged instrument, which caused injury to the brain resulting in death. Dr. Bauserman theorized that Ringler's death could have been either a homicide or the result of being hit by a car.

Souter was the last known person to see Ringler prior to her being discovered unconscious in the road. Ringler and Souter met and became friendly at a bar that evening. When the bar closed around 2:20 A.M., the two left with several others to continue the party at the home of Anna Mae Carpenter, which is located off of M37. Most of the people at the party were drinking heavily, including Souter, who was drinking Canadian Club whiskey out of a pint-sized bottle ("the bottle") that he had bought earlier in the evening. Souter told police that while everyone else was inside, he and Ringler went out into the front yard of the house where they became amorous. According to Souter, at some point Ringler stood up abruptly, stated she was going home and began walking northbound along M37. 1 Souter testified at trial that he followed her for approximately 20-25 feet trying to persuade her to come back to get a ride home, but then ultimately gave up and returned to the party. Joint Appendix ("J.A.") at 335 (Trial Tr.). Upon his return to the Carpenter house, he ran into three people leaving the party. One of the three, Marvin Carpenter, testified at trial that Souter did not appear to be sweating, breathing hard, or acting abnormally. J.A. at 229-30 (Trial Tr.). Moreover, there was no blood visible on Souter's clothing. J.A. at 230 (Trial Tr.).

At trial, two drivers testified that they traveled down M37 around 2:50 A.M. and did not see either Ringler walking down the road or her body in the roadway. J.A. at 235-36, 259 (Trial Tr.). Five minutes later, at approximately 2:55 A.M., two truckers driving southbound on M37 saw a car in the opposite lane blinking its lights and a woman waving her arms to draw attention to the body lying in the road. One of the truckers testified at trial that he was struck by how clean Ringler's clothes were and noted that her shirt was still tucked into her jeans. J.A. at 246 (Trial Tr.). Once word reached the party that Ringler had been hit, Souter and the rest of the partygoers made their way to the location of the body, approximately 900 feet from the Carpenter house. On his walk there, Souter discarded the bottle on the side of the road. At the scene, Deputy Sheriff John Sutton ("Sutton") interviewed Souter and after he finished his initial investigation of the incident, drove Souter back to his friend's house. Sutton testified at trial that Souter was significantly intoxicated and there was no blood on him. J.A. at 310 (Trial Tr.).

The following day, the police recovered the bottle from a ditch along M37 near the Carpenter house. Souter acknowledged that the bottle belonged to him, denied any wrongdoing in Ringler's death, and turned over the boots he was wearing that night to the police. The laboratory analysis of

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the bottle revealed a trace of blood on the label, which turned out to be type A--the same type as Ringler, Souter, and 43% of the American population. The presence of blood on the label could be explained by the fact that Souter had cut his finger earlier that night on a jagged door handle at the Carpenter house. 2 Otherwise, there was no blood or hair on the bottle or on Souter's boots. The only other physical evidence recovered in the investigation was particles of glass found on Ringler's jeans and in the gauze bandages around her wounds. The state police crime laboratory analyzed the particles and found that they were inconsistent with automobile headlight glass. Furthermore, the particles were not brown in color like the bottle. Dr. Lawrence Simpson ("Dr.Simpson"), a forensic pathologist consulted by the police on the matter, stated his belief that Ringler's injuries were consistent with being struck by a car rather than a homicide. Based on the evidence the police collected at the time, the Newaygo County prosecutor declined to press charges against Souter or anyone else.

Despite Dr. Simpson's contrary opinion, Detective Charles Foster ("Foster"), the chief investigating officer, concluded that Ringler could not have been hit by a car because (i) her body appeared to be placed on the roadway; (ii) there was very little blood at the scene; and (iii) there was an absence of blood, debris, or other foreign material found on her clothes. Four years later, in 1983, Foster presented the case to Dr. Ronald Graeser ("Dr.Graeser"), the Newaygo County medical examiner, and suggested that the bottle might be the murder weapon. Reviewing the autopsy slides, Dr. Graeser agreed with Dr. Bauserman's analysis that the lacerations were caused by a sharp-edged instrument which cut the skin but did not fracture the skull. Dr. Graeser projected the autopsy slides to life-size scale onto a wall and compared the wounds with the bottle. Dr. Graeser concluded that the bottle matched the shape of the wounds and issued a report which stated that the injuries "may well have been inflicted by the 'Canadian Club pint Whiskey' bottle." J.A. at 148 (Med.Exam.Rep.). The report also indicated that Dr. Stephen Cohle ("Dr.Cohle"), a forensic pathologist, agreed with this opinion. The county prosecutor reviewed Dr. Graeser's report and the other evidence in the case but declined to bring charges against Souter in 1983.

No further investigation was done on the Ringler case until 1991, when a newly-elected sheriff, who committed his office to reviewing unsolved homicides, revived the effort to solve the case. Though sheriff's deputies re-interviewed many of the original witnesses, no new evidence was discovered. The old evidence was once again presented to Dr. Graeser, who this time wrote a stronger report which concluded that Ringler's injuries were caused by the bottle and that it was "virtually impossible" that a side mirror on a car could have caused the injuries. J.A. at 98 (Mich. Cir. Ct. Remand Op.). An arrest warrant was issued for Souter in November 1991,

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twelve years after Ringler's death. Other than Dr. Graeser's new report, the evidence presented at trial was the same as that which was collected in 1979. Dr. Graeser testified on behalf of the prosecution, along with Dr. Bauserman, who performed the autopsy, and Dr. Cohle, who testified as an expert witness. Critical to the prosecution's argument was the testimony of Dr. Graeser that the bottle had a very sharp edge in 1979, which "[i]f you would take your hand and rub it across it hard, you'd probably cut yourself. That can cause the cutting that I see in the photographs." J.A. at 207 (Prelim.Exam.), 323-24 (Trial Tr.). Dr. Graeser testified that the bottle as it existed at trial in 1992, had lost the sharpness of its edge, which it had back in 1979 and even in November 1991 at the time of the preliminary examination. J.A. at 324 (Trial Tr.). Drs. Bauserman and Cohle, who supervised Dr. Graeser's medical training, opined that Ringler's injuries were consistent with being struck by the bottle. J.A. at 267, 275 (Trial Tr.). Dr. Simpson, the original forensic pathologist consulted by the police, testified for the defense, and stated his opinion that the bottle could not have been the murder weapon because it lacked a sharp edge and reiterated his belief that Ringler was struck by a...

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