Stafford v. Vandergriff, 4:18-CV-1861 RLW

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Missouri)
PartiesSTEVEN STAFFORD, Petitioner, v. DAVID VANDERGRIFF, [1] Respondent.
Decision Date03 February 2022
Docket Number4:18-CV-1861 RLW


DAVID VANDERGRIFF, [1] Respondent.

No. 4:18-CV-1861 RLW

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

February 3, 2022



This matter is before the Court on Petitioner Steven Stafford's pro se Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody. (ECF No. 1.) Petitioner is incarcerated at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (“ERDCC”). For the following reasons, the Court will deny the Petition.

Procedural History

On February 27, 2013, Petitioner Steven Stafford was convicted of murder in the first degree, two counts of armed criminal action, and the class A felony of assault in the first degree, by a jury in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis. State v. Stafford, No. 1122-CR01324-01 (22nd Jud. Cir., State of Mo.). On April 12, 2013, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to concurrent terms of life in prison without probation or parole on the first-degree murder count, and concurrent terms of life imprisonment on the other counts.


Petitioner appealed his conviction and sentence to the Missouri Court of Appeals. State v. Stafford, No. ED99866 (Mo.Ct.App. 2014). The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence on August 19, 2014. Petitioner sought reconsideration of the decision in the Court of Appeals, but his motion for reconsideration was denied on September 22, 2014. Petitioner's motion for transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court was denied on November 25, 2014. State v. Stafford, No. SC94498 (Mo. S.Ct. 2014). The Missouri Court of Appeals' mandate was issued on December 2, 2014. State v. Stafford, No. ED99866 (Mo.Ct.App. 2014).

Petitioner filed a motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Missouri Supreme Court Rule 29.15 on January 5, 2015, which the motion court denied on October 22, 2015. Stafford v. State, No. 1522-CC00050 (22nd Jud. Cir., State of Mo.). Petitioner filed an appeal on December 3, 2015, and the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed and remanded on February 21, 2017, for findings as to timeliness and the potential issue of abandonment of post-conviction counsel. Stafford v. State, No. ED103721, 510 S.W.3d 906 (Mo.Ct.App. 2017) (per curiam) (unpublished mem.). The mandate was issued on March 29, 2017.

The post-conviction motion court conducted a hearing on the issues of timeliness and abandonment of post-conviction counsel on June 9, 2017. Stafford v. State, No. 1522-CC00050-01 (22nd Jud. Cir., State of Mo.). The motion court found that the post-conviction motion was timely and Petitioner was not abandoned by post-conviction counsel, and once again denied petitioner's motion for post-conviction relief. Id. Petitioner appealed the denial to the Missouri Court of Appeals on July 6, 2017, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief on June 12, 2018. Stafford v. State, No.105768, 528 S.W.3d 926 (Mo.Ct.App. 2018) (per curiam) (unpublished mem.). The mandate was issued on July 6, 2018.


Petitioner filed his application for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 by placing his Petition in the prison mailing system at ERDCC on October 25, 2018.

Grounds Raised

Petitioner filed the instant Petition for habeas relief in federal court on October 29, 2018 (ECF No. 1). The Petition alleges three grounds for relief:

(1) The trial court erred in failing to acquit Petitioner on the first-degree murder charge because there was no evidence Petitioner deliberately and knowingly shot and killed the victim, J.M
(2) The trial court committed plain error in giving Instruction No. 5, the verdict director on the first-degree murder charge in Count I, because it improperly referenced Instruction No. 11, Petitioner's self-defense instruction relating to the assault charge of a different victim, J.S in count III.
(3) Trial counsel was ineffective for failing to use a peremptory challenge to strike juror number 697.

Respondent filed a Response in opposition to the Petition together with exhibits on April 16, 2019. (ECF No. 14.)

On August 5, 2020, Petitioner filed an Amended Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody (ECF No. 43) that raises the following new grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel:

(1) Trial counsel was ineffective for not investigating the allegation that the state's key witness against Petitioner, J.S., was not sentenced in a federal court proceeding until after he testified at Petitioner's trial and received a deal in return for his testimony against Petitioner;
(2) Direct appeal counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate why the state's key witness J.S. received a low sentence in federal court, as Petitioner had instructed her to do; for failing to include an argument on Petitioner's direct appeal that the state's key witness received a deal in a federal court proceeding in return for his testimony against Petitioner; and for failing to obtain J.S.'s sealed federal court records;
(3) Post-conviction counsel was ineffective for failing to “pursue [J.S.'s] lenient federal sentence” and to obtain J.S.'s sealed federal court records as Petitioner asked her to.

(ECF No. 43 at 5, 15-16).


On September 9, 2020, petitioner filed a motion to stay and abey this action (ECF No. 44) pursuant to Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269 (2005), in order to return to state court and exhaust the claims raised in his Amended Petition. Respondent opposed the motion to stay and abey. (ECF No. 46.) The Court concluded that all of Petitioner's claims in the Amended Petition must be deemed exhausted and therefore it was not subject to stay and abeyance under Rhines. See Mem. and Order of Sept. 14, 2021 (ECF No. 50 at 4-7) (denying Petitioner's motion to stay and abey).

A district court may dismiss a habeas petitioner's motion without an evidentiary hearing if “(1) the movant's allegations, accepted as true, would not entitle the movant to relief, or (2) the allegations cannot be accepted as true because they are contradicted by the record, inherently incredible, or conclusions rather than statements of fact.” Buster v. United States, 447 F.3d 1130, 1132 (8th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Sanders v. United States, 341 F.3d 720, 722 (8th Cir. 2003)). Because the Court determines that Petitioner's claims do not warrant habeas relief on their face, it will deny the Petition without an evidentiary hearing.

Factual Background

The Missouri Court of Appeals described the facts of Petitioner's criminal case on direct appeal as follows:

[T]he State adduced the eyewitness testimony of J.S. that on the night of February 23, 2011, he was present in J.M.'s house when he witnessed Defendant shoot the victim, J.M., in the head, as she lay on a couch. J.S. testified that J.M. was a drug user, and various people would come to her house to use drugs. He testified that on the night of February 23, 2011, he stopped by J.M.'s house to check on her at about 1:00 a.m. Defendant, along with two other men, arrived at the house a short time later. J.S. overheard a brief conversation between Defendant and J.M., in which J.M. apologized to Defendant for a prior misunderstanding and Defendant forgave her.
Thereafter, one of the men who arrived with Defendant inquired about cigarettes, and the three men left to visit a nearby gas station.
J.S. testified that after Defendant and the other men left, J.M. was lying on a couch in the living room, across from the front door and “facing [him] and like propped up [with her left hand], ” while he sat on the other end of the couch, near the fireplace and away from the door. Suddenly, the front door burst open and Defendant entered the room. He commanded “shut up, bitch, ” and as he walked into the room, he shot J.M. two times and J.S. once in the face. J.S. testified that he saw Defendant shoot J.M. in the head and arm as she lay on the couch, and that she didn't move after she was shot.
Defendant then walked over to J.S., who reached up and grabbed the gun, a nine millimeter handgun. The two men began to wrestle for control of the gun. Defendant shot J.S. in the shoulder. J.S. then grabbed Defendant, “picked him up and . . . ran him through the house into the kitchen and slammed him on the table.” Defendant and J.S. continued to wrestle over the gun while Defendant fired off the remaining rounds, striking J.S. several more times. Defendant also bit J.S. on the arm.[2]
During the melee, J.S. asked Defendant why he was attacking him, and Defendant responded, “[y]eah you gonna get one, ” and indicated Defendant's roommate “told him to do it.” J.S. testified that he struggled to gain control of the gun as Defendant kept pulling the trigger, and soon he heard the gun begin to click. Realizing there were no bullets left, J.S. jumped up, pushed Defendant off of him, and ran outside to a neighbor's house. While J.S. was knocking on the neighbor's door, the other two men, who had previously left for the gas station, arrived on the porch and asked J.S. what happened. J.S. told them Defendant shot him and asked them to call the police. Soon thereafter, police arrived and J.S., in critical condition, was transported to a hospital.
The State called J.M.'s neighbor, who testified that she was aware of J.M.'s drug use, and that J.M.'s house was frequented by drug users. The neighbor also testified that in the early morning hours, she heard knocking on her door, and discovered J.S. on her front porch, pleading for help, along with another man whom she could not identify. Frightened for her own safety, she shouted at them through the door to call the police if they needed help, and one of the men responded that J.M. was “messed

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