Coe v. Bell

Decision Date23 February 1999
Docket NumberNos. 97-5148,97-5503,s. 97-5148
Citation161 F.3d 320
PartiesRobert Glen COE, Petitioner-Appellee/Cross-Appellant, v. Ricky BELL, Warden, Respondent-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Gordon W. Smith, Asst. Attorney General (argued and briefed), John Knox Walkup, Attorney General, and Glenn R. Pruden (briefed), John H. Baker, III (briefed), Michael E. Moore (briefed), Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Justice Division, Nashville, Tennessee, for Respondent-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

James H. Walker, Waller, Lansden, Dortch & Davis, Nashville, TN, Henry A. Martin, Fed. Public Defender (argued and briefed), Paul R. Bottei (briefed), Federal Public Defender's Office, Nashville, Tennessee, for Petitioner-Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Before: BOGGS, NORRIS, and MOORE, Circuit Judges.

BOGGS, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which ALAN E. NORRIS, J., joined. MOORE, J. (pp. 356-357), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.


BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

Ricky Bell, a warden for the State of Tennessee, appeals from the district court's grant to Robert Coe of a writ of habeas corpus, which vacated his murder conviction and death sentence. Coe cross-appeals from the district court's denial of habeas corpus on several other grounds he raised below. On the state's appeal, we reverse on all counts. On Coe's cross-appeal, we affirm on all counts.


Cary Medlin, an eight-year-old girl, was murdered in 1979. She disappeared at around 5:30 p.m. on September 1 while riding bicycles with her eight-year-old step-brother, Michael. She was seen talking to a man in a brown car, and then getting into the car. At trial, Michael identified the driver of the car as Coe.

Medlin's body was discovered the next day at about 2:00 p.m. She had been raped, sodomized, strangled, and stabbed in the neck, in that order. The list of suspects was initially quite long, and at least one other suspect was taken into custody, though he was released for lack of evidence. The search for the killer soon focused on Coe, who was arrested on September 4th while waiting to take a bus to Georgia under an assumed name.

Shortly after arriving at the police station, Coe confessed. He was interrogated, and he offered details of the crime. On the 5th, Coe led officers on a trek to retrace his steps in committing the murder. He pointed out a house where a witness had seen him and his victim, though the witness could identify only the victim, Medlin, as having been in a car that drove by.

On the 7th, Coe gave a statement in which he gave the following account of the events leading to Medlin's death. Coe said that he took Medlin to the spot where her body was eventually found. He exposed himself to her, fondled her, masturbated in front of her, and got on top of her, though he was vague as to what the latter action entailed. At that point, Medlin told Coe that Jesus loved him, a statement that he said caused him to snap. He tried to choke her, and when that did not work, he stabbed her and watched her bleed to death. He then disposed of her body, her shoes, and the knife.

Other evidence incriminated Coe. He apparently came home the night of the 1st and told his family that he had stabbed a state trooper in the throat. He had his wife dye his hair a darker color. The day he was arrested, Coe had traded in his silver and brown car for a blue one.

There was relatively little physical evidence. Coe's car yielded no evidence of a sexual assault. No hairs or fingerprints were found and used against Coe. However, the police did find fecal matter beneath his foreskin, and stains on the front inside of his pants that matched stains found on Medlin's underpants (both were reddish-brown and contained potato starch).

Coe had a history of mental illness. His childhood, according to one expert witness, was "like something out of Erskine Caldwell." His father sexually abused Coe, and forced him to watch while he also sexually abused Coe's sisters. Although several experts testified that Coe was not legally insane at the time of the murder, others testified that he was psychotic, schizophrenic, intoxicated, and under the influence of drugs. In 1975, Coe had been found incompetent to stand trial in Florida after he attempted to rape and then stab a forty-year-old woman.


In 1981, a Tennessee jury convicted Coe of first-degree murder, aggravated rape, and aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to death on the first charge, and life imprisonment on the other two. The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence, State v. Coe, 655 S.W.2d 903 (Tenn.1983), and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari, Coe v. Tennessee, 464 U.S. 1063, 104 S.Ct. 745, 79 L.Ed.2d 203 (1984).

Coe first applied for post-conviction relief in state court in 1984. The trial court denied relief after an evidentiary hearing in 1986, and the court of appeals affirmed. Coe v. State, No. C.C.A. 15, 1986 WL 14453 (Tenn.Crim.App. Dec.23, 1986). The Tennessee Supreme Court denied Coe's request for permission to appeal because he did not timely file for it (JA 227).

In 1987, Coe filed his first petition for habeas corpus relief in federal court. The court dismissed the petition without prejudice in 1989, because Coe had not exhausted his state remedies.

Coe filed his second motion for state post-conviction relief in 1989. It was dismissed and the court of appeals again affirmed. Coe v. State, No. 138, 1991 WL 2873 (Tenn.Crim.App. Jan. 16, 1991). The Tennessee Supreme Court denied permission to appeal, this time on the merits (JA 316).

Coe filed the present federal habeas petition in 1992. During the pendency of this case, he filed a third motion for state post-conviction relief, which was denied. The court of appeals affirmed. Coe v. State, No. 02C01-9606-CR-00200, 1997 WL 88917 (Tenn.Crim.App. Mar. 4, 1997). The Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission to appeal in December 1997. Ibid.

Coe amended his federal petition in 1995 and 1996. The latter amendment included only part of what Coe wanted to add, as discussed further below, see infra, at 340-342. The district court disposed of some of Coe's claims in April 1996, when it granted partial summary judgment in favor of the state. It disposed of the rest in December when, after an evidentiary hearing, it granted Coe relief on five of his claims, and denied relief on all of the others. Both parties timely appealed.


All of the grounds on which the district court granted habeas relief had to do with jury instructions. To warrant habeas relief, the jury instructions must have been so infirm that they rendered the entire trial fundamentally unfair. An ambiguous, potentially erroneous instruction violates the Constitution only if there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the instruction improperly. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 72, 112 S.Ct. 475, 116 L.Ed.2d 385 (1991); Austin v. Bell, 126 F.3d 843, 846 (6th Cir.1997), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 118 S.Ct. 1547, 140 L.Ed.2d 695 (1998). For capital sentencing factors, there are additional considerations, which we discuss below.

A. Guilt Phase Instructions

The district court granted habeas and vacated Coe's conviction on two grounds from the guilt phase: reasonable doubt instructions and malice instructions.

1. Reasonable doubt

The district court ruled that the following instruction on reasonable doubt at the guilt phase was impermissible, and reversed all of Coe's convictions:

Reasonable doubt is that doubt engendered by an investigation of all the proof in the case and an inability, after such investigation, to let the mind rest easily upon the certainty of guilt. Reasonable doubt does not mean a doubt that may arise from possibility. Absolute certainty of guilt is not demanded by the law to convict of any criminal charge, but moral certainty is required and this certainty is required as to every proposition of proof requisite to constitute the offense.

(emphasis added). A functionally equivalent instruction was given at the sentencing stage.

Subsequent to the district court's decision, we approved the identical instruction in Austin, 126 F.3d at 846-47. Coe concedes this and offers no reason why we should overrule ourselves, and we shall not.

2. Malice

The district court found that two parts of the jury instructions on malice were constitutionally flawed, and vacated Coe's murder conviction.

We do not reach the merits of these challenges, because Coe's claim is procedurally barred from being considered here. Procedural bar applies when a state prisoner defaults his federal claims in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule. Simpson v. Sparkman, 94 F.3d 199, 202 (6th Cir.1996). There are exceptions to this rule when the prisoner can demonstrate cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or can demonstrate that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Ibid. When a state-court judgment rested primarily on federal law or was interwoven with federal law, the bar applies only if the state court clearly and expressly stated that its judgment rested on a state procedural bar. Ibid.

Coe did not raise his malice instruction argument at trial, on direct appeal, or in his first state post-conviction motion. He did so in his second effort at state post-conviction relief, but the state trial court held that the claim was procedurally barred because it had not been raised before. The court of appeals agreed, holding that Coe's failure to raise the claim was not excusable based on the argument that its basis was new. The claim was based on Yates v. Aiken, 484 U.S. 211, 108 S.Ct. 534, 98 L.Ed.2d 546 (1988), but that case held only that Francis v. Franklin, 471 U.S. 307, 105 S.Ct....

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