Armfield v. Nicklaus, 011121 FED7, 18-3702

Docket Nº:18-3702
Opinion Judge:Manion, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Russell Armfield, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Sonja Nicklaus, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before Manion, Rovner, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:January 11, 2021
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Russell Armfield, Petitioner-Appellant,


Sonja Nicklaus, Warden, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 18-3702

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 11, 2021

Argued October 30, 2020

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:17-cv-03331 - Thomas M. Durkin, Judge.

Before Manion, Rovner, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

Manion, Circuit Judge.

Russell Armfield, along with Kimo-thy Randall and Tyrene Nelson, was charged with first-degree murder in Illinois state court for the 2004 shooting death of Al Copeland in southwest Chicago.

The jury convicted Armfield. He appealed the conviction on the grounds that a transcript disclosed inadvertently to the jury violated his constitutional rights under the Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause. He lost. He then pursued a collateral attack in state court alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. He lost again. He then filed for federal habeas relief via 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied relief and Armfield appeals.

Although Armfield's positions have been well briefed and argued by appointed counsel, we affirm denial of habeas relief on Armfield's Confrontation Clause claim because the state's strong case against him renders any constitutional error harmless. We also reject Armfield's ineffective assistance claim; he cannot show trial counsel's shortcomings resulted in prejudice.

I. Background

Around 6:00 pm on August 17, 2004, Kimothy Randall opened fire on Al Copeland's vehicle while Copeland drove by. Copeland's car was struck by gunfire, as was a bystander's vehicle. No one was injured. Russell Armfield and Tyrene Nelson were present.

Later that evening, between 8:00 and 9:00 pm, while riding with Armfield and Nelson in a car driven by Randall's girlfriend, Randall spotted Copeland again. Randall told his girlfriend to drive to his residence, where Armfield and Nelson armed themselves. They tracked down Copeland as he drove away from his own girlfriend's home. As Copeland approached an intersection, Randall gave the signal: shoot Copeland. Armfield and Nelson sprang from their car, ran toward Copeland, and fired multiple shots into his vehicle, killing him.

The state charged Armfield, Randall, and Nelson with first-degree murder. Armfield and his codefendants proceeded to trial before two juries-one jury for Armfield and Randall, the other for Nelson. The two trials, though separate, occurred simultaneously before the same judge, with the juries and defendants shuffling in and out depending on the evidence presented.1

No doubt this arrangement contributed to the mishap at the center of this habeas petition. During deliberations, the Armfield/Randall jury requested a transcript of certain witnesses' testimony. The court, by mistake, tendered a trial transcript containing the prosecutor's opening statements from Nelson's case. The Armfield/Randall jury had not heard this version. Therein, the prosecutor referenced a videotaped statement from Nelson that purported to implicate all three defendants in the murder: And, ladies and gentlemen, you're also going to see a statement given to a Cook County assistant state's attorney that was videotaped of [Nelson] confessing to shooting Al Copeland and laying out essentially the same facts that I just told you. You will see him tell you how he and his partners murdered Al Copeland in his own words.

Supp. App'x at 164.

Neither this snippet nor Nelson's confession were presented as evidence of Armfield's involvement. For that, the state leaned primarily on eyewitness testimony rather than physical evidence.

Two witnesses placed Armfield, Nelson, and Randall at the 6:00 pm shooting scene. One of those witnesses actually saw Randall pull the trigger and believed Armfield acted as a lookout.

Grand jury testimony and a police statement from Randall's sister revealed how the defendants obtained guns just before they killed Copeland, though she recanted that story at trial.

Three more witnesses detailed the defendants' involvement in the fatal 9:00 pm shooting. Copeland's girlfriend and a bystander watched Armfield and Nelson shoot Copeland. The latter positively identified Armfield and Nelson as the shooters; he knew them from the neighborhood. Randall's girlfriend (the driver) told police and the grand jury Randall instructed Armfield and Nelson to shoot Copeland, and that when Armfield returned to the car, he admitted to firing his weapon. Like Randall's sister, she recanted this account on the stand.

Finally, the state introduced evidence regarding a subsequent shooting in March 2005 involving Nelson, following which police confiscated one of the firearms used in Copeland's murder. Armfield played no part in this shooting.

Neither Armfield nor Randall put on a defense, and none of the three defendants testified before the Armfield/Randall jury.

The jury convicted Armfield of first-degree murder.[2] He received a sentence of 33 years' imprisonment. Armfield appealed on grounds that disclosing the reference to Nelson's confession deprived him of a fair trial, along the lines of Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). The state appellate court acknowledged the error in allowing Armfield's jury access to opening statements from a separate trial. It nonetheless held this error non-reversible and further determined it to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Illinois Supreme Court denied review.

Armfield next launched a state collateral attack on the conviction. The basis: his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in multiple respects, including by failing to move to exclude testimony about the March 2005 shooting that did not involve Armfield. The state appellate court rejected his claim for failure to satisfy prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The Illinois Supreme Court denied review.

Armfield filed for federal habeas relief. The district court concluded the state appellate court did not unreasonably apply Supreme Court precedent to Armfield's Confrontation Clause claim or the related harmlessness analysis. Nor did the state court's prejudice determination unreasonably apply Strickland. We granted Armfield's request for a certificate of appealability on these two issues.

II. Discussion

We review the district court's denial of federal habeas relief de novo, "but our inquiry is an otherwise narrow one." Schmidt v. Foster, 911 F.3d 469, 476 (7th Cir. 2018) (en banc).

A federal court may grant habeas relief following an adjudication on the merits in state court only if that decision (1) "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) "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)(1)-(2); Schmidt, 911 F.3d at 476-77.

This standard is difficult to meet. "Unreasonable means more than incorrect." Winfield v. Dorethy, 956 F.3d 442, 451 (7th Cir. 2020). The inquiry is "whether the decision was unreasonably wrong under an objective standard." Dassey v. Dittmann, 877 F.3d 297, 302 (7th Cir. 2017) (en banc).

On both Armfield's claims, the Illinois Appellate Court issued the "last reasoned decision on the merits," so we afford its analysis deference so long as that analysis is reasonable. Gage v. Richardson, 978 F.3d 522, 529 (7th Cir. 2020). Habeas relief is warranted only if Armfield shows the state court's determinations were "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). Given this demanding standard of review, we cannot award Armfield the relief he seeks.

A. Confrontation Clause

The Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause guarantees a criminal defendant the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him, so that he may cross-examine their testimony and allow the jury to weigh their credibility. Douglas v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 415, 418-19 (1965).

Armfield's jury received information that Nelson made a videotaped statement implicating Armfield in the murder. Yet Nelson did not testify at Armfield's trial. This information reached the jury as would an ex parte affidavit or deposition, thus depriving Armfield of the opportunity to rebut Nelson through cross-examination. Armfield argues the disclosure amounted to a violation of his constitutional rights and should result in habeas relief.

The state appellate court acknowledged the "unquestionable] ... error by the trial court." Short App'x at 35. But it held the error did not create a constitutional violation contemplated by Bruton v. United States, 391 U.S. 123 (1968). Armfield claims this ruling was contrary to and unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent, and that it rested on unreasonable determinations of fact.

i. Constitutional violation?

In Bruton, at a joint trial for armed robbery, an investigator testified to a codefendant's confession that implicated petitioner. 391 U.S. at 124. The codefendant did not testify. The Court held the admission violated petitioner's constitutional right to cross-examine his codefendant. Id. at 126. This, despite jury instructions prohibiting the confession's consideration toward determining petitioner's guilt. The jury could not reasonably be expected to ignore the confession, which added substantial strength to the prosecution's case.

The Bruton Court also placed great emphasis on the confession being admitted into evidence; it was not merely paraphrased through attorney statements or argument. Rather, the jury...

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