Nicholson v. Haas

Decision Date03 June 2022
Docket Number4:14-CV-10828
PartiesSTEVEN NICHOLSON, Petitioner, v. RANDALL HAAS, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan



Petitioner Steven Nicholson, confined at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his pro se application, Petitioner challenges his convictions for first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp L. § 750.316(1)(a); first-degree felony murder, Mich Comp. L. § 750.316(1)(b); second-degree murder, Mich Comp. L. § 750.317; and first-degree child abuse, Mich Comp. L. § 750.136b(2). For the reasons set forth below, the Court dismisses with prejudice the habeas petition. The Court denies a certificate of appealability, and it grants Petitioner leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal.


Petitioner was convicted following a bench trial in Michigan's Wayne County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts relied upon by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which are presumed correct on habeas review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), see Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009):

Defendant's convictions arise from the October 19, 2010 drowning deaths of his two minor children, 15-month old Ella Grace Stafford, and 13-month-old Jonathan Alan Sanderlin. Ella was born to defendant and Tayler Stafford on July 11, 2009, and Jonathan was born to defendant and Sarah McGee on September 20, 2009. Sometime thereafter, defendant obtained sole custody of Jonathan and both children lived with defendant at his apartment in Allen Park. Tayler would often stay at defendant's apartment with defendant and the two children; Tayler worked and defendant, who was unemployed, cared for the children on a full-time basis. Tayler testified that Ella normally slept through the night and that Jonathan would wake up during the night. Tayler testified that she could normally hear Jonathan when he awoke in the night. Tayler never saw the children climb out of their cribs on their own, play during the night, or turn the bathtub water on by themselves. Tayler testified that defendant never told her that the children could climb out of their cribs on their own.
At trial, several individuals testified concerning defendant's treatment of the children. Tayler testified that defendant called Jonathan a “fat heifer” and that defendant would pick him up by the arm and spank him on the legs and face. She saw defendant pull Jonathan by the arm and smack him in the face. Tayler testified that defendant stated that his conduct amounted to “tough love.” Tayler testified that Jonathan cried constantly from the time he awoke until he went to bed. Tayler observed defendant put his hand over the child's mouth while he was crying and on one occasion defendant put pillows over Jonathan's face while he was crying. Tayler testified that when she tried to pick Jonathan up, he “flinched” in anticipation of physical contact. Tayler stated that on one occasion when she tried to confront defendant about his treatment of Jonathan, defendant “screamed” and “yelled” and “came at [her].” Tayler testified that she called Child Protective Services (CPS) out of concern for Jonathan's safety. Tayler also sent an email to Jonathan's mother to inform her that Jonathan was being abused and neglected.
Windy Moritz, Ella's maternal grandmother, testified that she observed defendant care for Jonathan when defendant occasionally brought the child over to her home. Moritz stated that defendant treated Jonathan different than Ella and would “yank him up by the arm” and call him a “big old crybaby.” Moritz testified that Jonathan did not like water as much as Ella did and on one occasion she saw defendant splash freezing water from a swimming pool onto Jonathan's face while he was crying. Moritz testified that defendant let Jonathan fall out of a chair at her home onto cement without regard and instead stated that Jonathan “had to learn.” Moritz testified that she last saw Jonathan one or two months before his death and at that time he was just starting to crawl; Mortiz never saw Jonathan try to climb into or out of a bathtub.
Several neighbors from defendant's apartment complex testified about defendant's treatment of the children. One neighbor, Lindsey Cook, testified that defendant left the children in his parked vehicle alone for 45 minutes and picked the children up by the wrists and “carr[ied] them around like books.” Cook testified that defendant pushed the children into his apartment with his feet and yelled at the children when they cried and told them to “shut up.” Cook did not see defendant act or talk kindly to the children. Cook testified that she called CPS three or four times out of concern for the children. Similarly, Jennifer Lewindowski testified that defendant left the children alone in his vehicle and she indicated that she telephoned the police two or three times out of concern for the children. Another neighbor, Jeweley Peters, testified that she saw defendant with the children two or three times per week. Peters testified that defendant pulled and pushed the children by the head every time she saw them. Peters explained that defendant told his children to “get the ‘f' in the house or car, ” and picked the children up like a “backpack” and “flung” them in a “very uncaring” way. Peters testified that defendant swore at the kids and she saw the children left alone in defendant's vehicle while it was on with the radio blaring and the children screaming. Peters telephoned the police on that occasion.
On Monday October 18, 2010, the day before the children's deaths, Tayler and defendant had an argument. Two neighbors testified that they heard defendant arguing with a female in the hallway sometime between 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Another neighbor testified that defendant was arguing on a telephone in the hallway at approximately 9:30 p.m. Three other neighbors, including two who lived on the floors directly above defendant's apartment, testified that they heard water start running at sometime between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Testimony indicated that the water continued to run throughout the night and into the early morning hours of October 19, 2010. At 10:00 p.m. on October 18, 2010, Lewindowski, who lived across the hall from defendant, testified that she went out to check her mail and saw defendant “pacing” in the hallway near his door. Lewindowski offered to watch the children for defendant, but defendant declined the offer. Several hours later, at approximately 2:00 a.m. on October 19, Lewindowski awoke to use the restroom and she heard an argument in the parking lot. Lewindowski looked out a window and saw defendant arguing with someone who she thought looked like Tayler.
At approximately 2:04 a.m. on October 19, 2010, defendant called 9-1-1; when dispatch answered the call, the call disconnected. Defendant called 9-1-1 again and again the telephone call disconnected when the operator answered the call. Operators at the dispatch center called defendant's cellular telephone three times, but each call went unanswered. An operator finally left a voicemail on defendant's cell phone. Defendant eventually called 9-1-1 again several minutes later and reported that his two children drowned while he slept. A few minutes later, Allen Park Police Officers Kevin Gersky and Adam Begley were dispatched to defendant's lower-level apartment. Upon entry, Gersky and Begley found that the lower-level of the apartment complex was hot and humid and flooded with water. Standing water pooled at the entryway into defendant's apartment; the door was open. Gersky and Begley heard defendant yell for help and they entered his apartment. Inside, the officers found defendant sitting on the floor in the master bedroom with his two children lying face-up on the ground with their feet facing defendant. The children were motionless and defendant stated that he tried to resuscitate the children. Immediately thereafter, emergency medical services (EMS) personnel arrived and the children were pronounced dead at the scene. Defendant told police that he put the children to bed at about 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. and then went to bed at 10:00 p.m. Defendant stated that he awoke at 2:00 a.m. and found that his floor was wet. Defendant stated that he then went into the bathroom and found Ella lying face-down on the floor next to the sink and Jonathan lying face-down in the bathtub. Defendant told Officer Gersky that the children had just recently started to walk and both were able to climb out of their cribs.
After removing defendant from the scene, several investigators searched defendant's apartment and they testified about their findings at trial. Police observed that Ella was wearing a diaper and socks and Jonathan was dressed in jeans and a shirt. Jonathan appeared badly burned and the top layer of skin on his hand was “degloved” or completely peeled off. Police did not notice debris on either child. Defendant's apartment was saturated with water throughout and there was less than one inch of standing water on the bathroom floor. The bathtub had water inside and both of the drains inside the tub were clogged with toilet paper. There were several items inside the bathtub including a plastic garbage can and there were pieces of wet toilet paper strewn throughout the bathroom. One police officer testified that the bathroom appeared as if a fight had taken place inside. In the children's bedroom, the mattresses in one

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