Maison v. Brewer

Decision Date16 November 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 2:19-CV-12046
PartiesHILERY NOEL MAISON, Petitioner, v. SHAWN BREWER, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE GERSHWIN A. DRAIN

OPINION AND ORDER DENYING THE PETITION FOR A WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS; AND DECLINING TO ISSUE A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY OR LEAVE TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS
I. INTRODUCTION

Hilery Noel Maison ("Petitioner"), confined at the Huron Valley Women's Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. ECF No. 1. Petitioner challenges her convictions for first-degree felony murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(b), two counts of torture, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.85, and two counts of first-degree child abuse, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.136b(2). Id. For the reasons that follow, the petition for a writ of habeas corpus is DENIED WITH PREJUDICE.

II. BACKGROUND

Petitioner and her husband were convicted following a jury trial in the St. Clair County Circuit Court. The Court recites verbatim the relevant facts regarding Petitioner's conviction from the Michigan Court of Appeals' opinion, which are presumed correct on habeas review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), see e.g. Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009):

Defendants, husband and wife, were charged with and convicted of torture, first-degree child abuse, and felony-murder with respect to the husband's five-year-old daughter from a prior relationship and of torture and first-degree child abuse with respect to the husband's three-year-old daughter from a prior relationship. Essentially, both girls were deprived of food, water and medical attention, and suffered from malnutrition and dehydration which, in the five-year old's case, also led to severe pneumonia and caused her death. Two other children in the household, the wife's 10-yeard-old (sic) son from a prior relationship, and the parties' eighteen-month-old child together, were healthy and unharmed.

People v. Maison, No. 332162, 2017 WL 5162310, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 7, 2017).

Petitioner's conviction was affirmed. Id.; leave den. 501 Mich. 1062, 910 N.W.2d 275 (2018). Petitioner then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was held in abeyance because it contained an unexhausted claim. See Maison v. Brewer, No. 2:19-CV-10057, 2019 WL 2433503 (E.D. Mich. June 11, 2019).

In July 2019, Petitioner filed the present habeas petition, in which she deleted the unexhausted claim. Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds:

I. Defendant's constitutional right to due process of law, U.S. CONST. amend. XIV; CONST. 1963, art. I, § 17 was violated when the evidence of the two counts of 1st degree child abuse regarding MM5 and MM31 was legally insufficient to convict her of that offense at trial and the trial court abused its discretion when it denied the motion for a directed verdict.
II. Defendant was denied the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions (U.S. CONST., AM VI; CONST. 1963, art. I, § 2) where trial counsel failed to call the 10-year old sibling who lived in the home and reported to police that nothing was amiss, failed to investigate or cross examine the experts as to MM3's health issues that could have been caused by lead poisoning, failed to impeach Dr. Spitz on what MM5's weight would have been if she hadn't been severely dehydrated at her time of death due to pneumonia, and failed to move for a Daubert hearing to determine the appropriate methodology to determine starvation and how dehydration affects that analysis.
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim-
(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 on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

A decision of a state court is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law, or if the state court decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). An "unreasonable application" occurs when "a state-court decision unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the facts of a prisoner's case." Id. at 409. A federal habeas court may not "issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly." Id. at 411. "[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." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). To obtain habeas relief in federal court, a state prisoner is required to show that the state court's rejection of his or her claim "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Id. at 103. A habeas petitioner should be denied relief as long as it is within the "realm of possibility" that fairminded jurists could find the state court decision to be reasonable. See Woods v. Etherton, 136 S. Ct. 1149, 1152 (2016).

IV. ANALYSIS
A. Claim # 1: Sufficiency of evidence claim

Petitioner first argues that there was insufficient evidence to support her conviction of felony murder, two counts of first-degree child abuse, and two counts of torture in the death of her 5-year-old step-daughter, MM5, and the near death of 3-year-old MM3. Petitioner argues that food and water were not withheld from either child and that the expert medical testimony could not scientifically establish that either child was "malnourished." ECF No. 1, PageID.8-16. Petitioner also claims that there was no evidence to show she intended to harm either child. Id. at PageID.18-19.

The Supreme Court has indicated that "the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged." In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). But the crucial question on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction is, "whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318 (1979). This inquiry does not require a court to "ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Instead, the relevant question is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 318-19 (internal citation and footnote omitted) (emphasis in the original).

When addressing a sufficiency of evidence challenge, the reviewing court must give circumstantial evidence the same weight as direct evidence. See United States v. Farley, 2 F.3d 645, 650 (6th Cir. 1993). "Circumstantial evidence alone is sufficient to sustain a conviction and such evidence need not remove every reasonable hypothesis except that of guilt." United States v. Kelley, 461 F.3d 817, 825 (6th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation omitted); see also Saxton v. Sheets, 547 F.3d 597, 606 (6th Cir. 2008) ("A conviction may be sustained based on nothing more than circumstantial evidence."). Moreover, "[c]ircumstantial evidence is not only sufficient, but may also be more certain, satisfying and persuasive than direct evidence." Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 100 (2003) (quoting Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 508 n.17 (1957)); see also Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 140 (1954) (circumstantial evidence is "intrinsically no different from testimonial evidence," and "[i]f the jury is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, we can require no more").

A federal habeas court may not overturn a state court decision that rejects a sufficiency of the evidence claim simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court's adjudication of that claim. Instead, a federal court may grant habeas relief only if the state court decision was an objectively unreasonable application of the Jackson standard. See Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1, 2 (2011). "Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold." Id. For a federal habeas court reviewing a state court conviction, "the only question under Jackson is whether that finding was so insupportable as to fall below the threshold of bare rationality." Coleman v. Johnson, 566 U.S. 650, 656 (2012). A state court's determination that the evidence does not fall below that threshold is entitled to "considerable deference under [the] AEDPA." Id.

Under Michigan law, the elements of first-degree felony murder are:

(1) the killing of a human being;
(2) with an intent to kill, to do great bodily harm, or to create a high risk of death or great bodily harm with
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