King v. Mintzes

Decision Date14 March 1983
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 82-72189.
Citation559 F. Supp. 409
PartiesThomas Phillip KING, Petitioner, v. Barry MINTZES, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan

Thomas Phillip King, in pro per.

A. George Best, II, Detroit, Mich., for respondent.


JULIAN ABELE COOK, Jr., District Judge.

Petitioner, Thomas Phillip King King, a prisoner at the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, Michigan, has filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. King challenges his May 17, 1977 conviction for first degree felony murder. Following a jury verdict in the Recorder's Court of the City of Detroit, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and given credit for the one hundred eighty one days that had been previously served (Docket No. 76-05989). King filed a Claim of Appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals which, upon review, reversed the trial court, 94 Mich.App. 50 (December 5, 1979), Docket No. 77-3055. An Application for Leave to Appeal was thereupon filed by the prosecution with the Michigan Supreme Court which held the Application in abeyance until such time as a final adjudication could be rendered in then-pending People v. Aaron, People v. Thompson, and People v. Wright.

On November 24, 1980, the Michigan Supreme Court rendered an Opinion in the Aaron, Wright and Thompson cases. See People v. Aaron, et al, 409 Mich. 672, 299 N.W.2d 304 (1980).1 On the basis of the Aaron decision, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an Order which reversed the ruling of the Michigan Court of Appeals in the case at bar, and reinstated King's conviction. He filed an Application for Rehearing, which was denied on August 26, 1981 (Docket No. 64325).

As grounds for habeas relief, King alleges, inter alia, the following:

The Michigan Supreme Court's decision in People v. Aaron, 409 Mich. 672 299 N.W.2d 304 (1980) abrogating the common-law felony murder doctrine in Michigan should be applied retroactively to Petitioner's case where the Michigan Court of Appeals specifically found the instructions of the trial court in violation of the holding announced in Aaron.

Respondent argues that King has failed to state a constitutional claim and, as such, his Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus should be denied.

In People v. Aaron, supra, the Michigan Supreme Court analyzed Michigan statutory and common law concerning murder, and concluded that Michigan's first degree murder statute, M.C.L.A. § 750.3162, does not make all homicides, which were committed in the course of the statutory enumerated felonies, first degree murder. Rather, the statute provides that murders, which are committed in the course of specified felonies, are elevated from second to first degree murder, People v. Aaron, supra, 409 Mich. at 717-721, 299 N.W.2d 304. The Court also held that (1) malice has always been an essential element of both first and second degree murder in Michigan, id.; (2) under the common law felony-murder doctrine, the intent to commit a felony constitutes one of four alternative forms of malice, id. at 721-723, 299 N.W.2d 304; and (3) since the common law prevails in Michigan unless modified by the Michigan Constitution, Legislature, or Michigan Supreme Court, none of which had yet abolished the felony-murder doctrine, "the common law (felony murder) doctrine remains the law in Michigan," id. at 723, 299 N.W.2d 304.

The Michigan Supreme Court then proceeded, in Aaron, to "abolish the common law felony-murder rule which defines malice as the intent to commit the underlying crime," id. at 727, 299 N.W.2d 304. That decision was applied to the claim of Stephen Aaron, Jr., as well as to the respective appeals of Robert G. Thompson and Jesse Wright, whose convictions were also involved in Aaron, and "to all trials in progress and those occurring after the date of the opinion," id. at 734, 299 N.W.2d 304.

Several months later, the Michigan Supreme Court disposed of a number of criminal cases (including King), which had been held in abeyance pending the Aaron decision. See People v. Lonchar, 411 Mich. 923, 925, 308 N.W.2d 103 (1981) (Levin, J., dissenting). In those cases where the Michigan Court of Appeals decision had upheld first-degree murder convictions against challenges which had been based on the felony-murder rule, the Michigan Supreme Court denied the Defendants' Applications for Leave to Appeal, see, e.g., People v. Lonchar, supra. In King's case and at least two other cases where the Michigan Court of Appeals had reversed first degree murder convictions because the jury instructions erroneously embodied the felony-murder rule, the Michigan Supreme Court peremptorily reversed and reinstated the convictions, People v. King, 411 Mich. 939, 308 N.W.2d 425 (1981); People v. Ashley, 411 Mich. 953 (1981); People v. Wilson, 411 Mich. 990, 308 N.W.2d 97 (1981); see also People v. Cole, 412 Mich. 904, 315 N.W.2d 123 (1982). Justice Levin dissented in each of these cases, stating that he would grant leave to appeal for plenary consideration of the retroactivity of Aaron.

King contends that the refusal of the Michigan Supreme Court to apply the holding in Aaron, supra, retroactively to his conviction denied him equal protection and due process of law. He argues in favor of at least a limited retroactive application for Aaron's abrogation of the felony-murder rule to his case where (1) the trial occurred after People v. Fountain, 71 Mich.App. 491, 248 N.W.2d 589 (1976); (2) the issue was raised in the trial and appellate courts, and (3) the conviction was not final (i.e., the case was pending on direct review) at the time of the Aaron decision. In support of that argument, King relies primarily on a three-factor analysis which was employed by the United States Supreme Court in determining whether to retroactively apply constitutional criminal procedure rulings, see e.g., Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 85 S.Ct. 1731, 14 L.Ed.2d 601 (1965), and asserts that (1) the purpose of the Aaron rule, (2) the reliance on the old rule, and (3) the effect of the administration of justice all favor limited retroactive application of Aaron's holding to the class which Petitioner describes.

It is not the function of this Court to substitute its policy judgments on a difficult question of state law for those of the Michigan Supreme Court under the guise of a federal habeas corpus review. "Federal courts hold no supervisory authority over state judicial proceedings and may intervene only to correct wrongs of constitutional dimension. Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 102 S.Ct. 940, 948, 71 L.Ed.2d 78 (1982); 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). It is well established that a State's highest court is the ultimate expositor of state law, and the interpretation of state law, including the definition of a crime by that Court, is binding upon federal courts. Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 691, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 1886, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975); United States ex rel. Kirchner v. Johnstone, 454 F.Supp. 14, 15 (E.D.Pa. 1978). The question before this Court is whether the decision by the Michigan Supreme Court not to retroactively apply the Aaron rule to the case at bar violated the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.


The Due Process Clause does not limit the authority of a State court to fashion rules regarding the retroactivity or prospectivity of its decisions construing state law. In Great Northern Railway Co. v. Sunburst Oil and Refining Co., 287 U.S. 358, 365, 53 S.Ct. 145, 148, 77 L.Ed. 360 (1932), the United States Supreme Court rejected a due process challenge to the prospective application of a decision by the Montana Supreme Court:

This is a case where a court has refused to make its ruling retroactive, and the novel stand is taken that the constitution of the United States is infringed by the refusal.
We think the federal constitution has no voice upon the subject. A state in defining the limits of adherence to precedent may make a choice for itself between the principle of forward operation and that of relation backward ... The choice for any state may be determined by the juristic philosophy of the judges of her courts, their conceptions of law, its origin and nature. We review not the wisdom of their philosophies, but the legality of their acts.

While Sunburst, supra, was a civil case, the United States Supreme Court has consistently applied its holding in the context of criminal law and procedure. In Linkletter v. Walker, supra, the Court cited Sunburst with approval and stated that "the Constitution neither prohibits nor requires retrospective effect" of the decisions announcing new constitutional rules of criminal procedure.

In Wainwright v. Stone, 414 U.S. 21, 94 S.Ct. 190, 38 L.Ed.2d 179 (1973), the Florida Court, in declining to retroactively apply its decision to the Petitioner's conviction in another case, voided the criminal statute under which he had been convicted because of vagueness. Relying on Sunburst, the United States Supreme Court stated that the State Supreme Court was not "constitutionally compelled ... to make retroactive its new construction of the Florida statute ..." 414 U.S. at 23-24, 94 S.Ct. at 192-193.

Most recently, in United States v. Johnson, ___ U.S. ___, 102 S.Ct. 2579, 73 L.Ed.2d 202 (1982), the Court began an extensive analysis of its retroactivity precedents by reiterating that "`The federal constitution has no voice on the subject' of retrospectivity." Id., 102 S.Ct. at 2583, quoting Sunburst, supra, 287 U.S. at 364, 53 S.Ct. at 148. Although the United States Supreme Court in Johnson concluded that the general issue of retroactivity "must be rethought," 102 S.Ct. at 2586, and ultimately adopted, at least in the Fourteenth Amendment area,3 which is an approach that is similar to the retroactivity argument by King,4 the decision of the Johnson Court was based on judicial policy considerations rather than constitutional requirements.

The lower ...

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