Graham v. Skipper

Decision Date06 October 2021
Docket Number1:21-cv-755
PartiesJoseph Jerome Graham, Petitioner, v. Gregory Skipper, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan

Joseph Jerome Graham, Petitioner,
v.

Gregory Skipper, Respondent.

No. 1:21-cv-755

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

October 6, 2021


OPINION

ROBERT J. JONKER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This is a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Promptly after the filing of a petition for habeas corpus, the Court must undertake a preliminary review of the petition to determine whether “it plainly appears from the face of the petition and any exhibits annexed to it that the petitioner is not entitled to relief in the district court.” Rule 4, Rules Governing § 2254 Cases; see 28 U.S.C. § 2243. If so, the petition must be summarily dismissed. Rule 4; see Allen v. Perini, 424 F.2d 134, 141 (6th Cir. 1970) (district court has the duty to “screen out” petitions that lack merit on their face). A dismissal under Rule 4 includes those petitions which raise legally frivolous claims, as well as those containing factual allegations that are palpably incredible or false. Carson v. Burke, 178 F.3d 434, 436-37 (6th Cir. 1999). After undertaking the review required by Rule 4, the Court concludes that the petition must be dismissed because it fails to raise a meritorious federal claim.

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Discussion

I. Factual allegations

Petitioner Joseph Jerome Graham is incarcerated with the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Michigan Reformatory (RMI) in Ionia, Ionia County, Michigan. Following a one-day bench trial in the Wayne County Circuit Court, Petitioner was convicted of armed robbery, in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.529. On August 29, 2017, the court sentenced Petitioner to a prison term of 15 to 30 years.

The Michigan Court of Appeals described the facts underlying Petitioner's conviction as follows:

This case arises out of defendant's commission of armed robbery at a Rite Aid store on September 23, 2016. Bessie Watkins, a Rite Aid employee, testified at the preliminary examination that defendant came into the store and used a box cutter to try to remove antitheft devices from some razor packages in the store. Watkins tried to push the razors away from defendant. Defendant pointed the box cutter toward Watkins's chest area and stated that she could not stop him and that he was going to get what he came for. Watkins testified that she felt threatened. Defendant then grabbed four packages of razors off the shelf and left the store without paying for them. Watkins later identified defendant in a photographic array and at the preliminary examination as the person who committed the crime
At trial, the trial court admitted Watkins's preliminary examination testimony into evidence after determining that she was unavailable at the time of trial due to a physical illness. The trial court also admitted into evidence Rite Aid video surveillance footage of the incident and two letters defendant had written to the trial court. Defendant chose not to testify and did not present any evidence or witnesses. In closing argument, defense counsel conceded that defendant had stolen the razors and had used the box cutter to bypass antitheft devices but disputed that defendant had threatened Watkins with the box cutter. The trial court found defendant guilty of armed robbery and sentenced him, as a second habitual offender, to 15 to 30 years' imprisonment

(Mich. Ct. App. Op., ECF No. 2-1, PageID.43-44.)

Petitioner, with the assistance of counsel, appealed his conviction and sentence to the Michigan Court of Appeals raising the same issues he raises in his habeas corpus petition. By opinion issued October 22, 2019, the court of appeal denied relief and affirmed the trial court.

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(Mich. Ct. App. Op., ECF No. 2-1, PageID.43-52.) Petitioner then filed a pro per application for leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. That court denied leave initially by order entered September 8, 2020, (Mich. Order, ECF No. 2-2, PageID.87), and upon reconsideration by order entered November 24, 2020, (Mich. Order, ECF No. 2-3, PageID.89).

During August of 2021, Petitioner timely filed his habeas corpus petition raising four grounds for relief, as follows:

I. The state court decisions were contrary to, or involved an objectionably unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, and/or an objectionably unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the trial court, when it denied that Mr. Graham's trial lawyers denied Mr. Graham Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel when both of his trial lawyers failed to investigate if he had any prior non-threatening contacts with the complaining witness.
II. The state court decisions were contrary to, or involved an objectionably unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, and/or an objectionably unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the trial court, when it denied that, the trial court erred by finding that an uncharged alleged crime counted as a felony and as a crime against a person for purposes of scoring OV 13 at 25 points.
III. The state court decisions were contrary to, or involved an objectionably unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, and/or an objectionably unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the trial court, when it denied that, the trial court erred in sentencing Mr. Graham to 15 to 30 years in the MDOC, a minimum sentence of 15 years is not [a] reasonable or proportionate sentence.
IV. The state court decisions were contrary to, or involved an objectionably unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, and/or an objectionably unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the trial court, when it denied that, the trial court erred and violated Mr. Graham's Sixth amendment right to confront witnesses against him in finding that the complaining witness was an unavailable witness pursuant to MRE 804(a)(4) on the day of trial and erred in allowing the complaining witness's testimony from the preliminary exam to be admitted into evidence at trial.

(Pet., ECF No. 1, PageID.4-7.)

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II. AEDPA standard

The AEDPA “prevent[s] federal habeas ‘retrials'” and ensures that state court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under the law. Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693- 94 (2002). An application for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person who is incarcerated pursuant to a state conviction cannot be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court unless the 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 upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). “Under these rules, [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.” Stermer v. Warren, 959 F.3d 704, 721 (6th Cir. 2020) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)) (internal quotation marks omitted)). This standard is “intentionally difficult to meet.” Woods v. Donald, 575 U.S. 312, 316 (2015) (internal quotation omitted).

The AEDPA limits the source of law to cases decided by the United States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). In determining whether federal law is clearly established, the Court may not consider the decisions of lower federal courts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 381-82 (2000); Miller v. Straub, 299 F.3d 570, 578-79 (6th Cir. 2002). Moreover, “clearly established Federal law” does not include decisions of the Supreme Court announced after the last adjudication of the merits in state court. Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 37-38 (2011). Thus, the inquiry is limited to an examination of the legal landscape as it would have appeared to the Michigan state courts in light of Supreme Court precedent at the time of the state-court adjudication on the merits. Miller v. Stovall, 742 F.3d 642, 644 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Greene, 565 U.S. at 38).

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A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the “contrary to” clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in the Supreme Court's cases, or if it decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Bell, 535 U.S. at 694 (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06). “To satisfy this high bar, a habeas petitioner is required to ‘show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'” Woods, 575 U.S. at 316 (quoting Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103).

Determining whether a rule application was unreasonable depends on the rule's specificity. Stermer, 959 F.3d at 721. “The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” Yarborough, 541 U.S. at 664. “[W]here the precise contours of the right remain unclear, state courts enjoy broad discretion in their adjudication of a prisoner's claims.” White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 424 (2014) (internal quotations omitted).

The AEDPA requires heightened respect for state factual findings. Herbert v. Billy, 160 F.3d 1131, 1134 (6th Cir. 1998). A determination of a factual issue made by a state court is presumed to be correct, and the petitioner has the burden of rebutting the presumption by...

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