State Ex Rel. Michael Anthony Taylor v. Steele

Decision Date19 July 2011
Docket NumberNo. SC 90925.,SC 90925.
PartiesSTATE ex rel. Michael Anthony TAYLOR, Petitioner,v.Troy STEELE, Warden, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court


Robert W. Lundt, Public Defender's Office, St. Louis, Matthew B. Larsen, Federal Public Defender's Office, Los Angeles, Robert P. LoBue, Adam Blumenkrantz and Muhammad Faridi, Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler LLP, New York, for Taylor.Stephen D. Hawke, Attorney General's Office, Jefferson City, for the State.Mark G. Arnold, Husch Blackwell LLP, St. Louis, for Group of Retired Judges and Prosecutors, who filed a brief as a friend of the Court.MARY R. RUSSELL, Judge.

Michael Anthony Taylor pleaded guilty to the 1989 kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young girl. He twice was sentenced to death for the murder. 1 After multiple unsuccessful attempts to have his sentence overturned, he now seeks a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that his death sentence should be vacated. He contends that his death sentence was imposed unlawfully by a judge, rather than by a jury, and he asserts that his sentence violates his constitutional rights.

This Court finds that habeas relief is not warranted and refuses to vacate Taylor's death sentence.2

I. Background

Ann Harrison was 15 years old when she died of stab wounds in the trunk of a car in 1989. In 1991, Taylor admitted under oath to kidnapping Ann from her bus stop, raping her, and stabbing her repeatedly with a kitchen knife. 3 He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, armed criminal action, kidnapping, and forcible rape. During plea proceedings, he testified that he did not receive or expect a plea bargain and understood that the State would seek the death penalty against him for Ann's murder.

Taylor sought to be sentenced by the trial judge, rather than by a jury, because he believed that the trial judge was less likely to sentence him to death. But the judge, Judge Randall, sentenced Taylor to death after finding that the statutory factors necessary for that sentence had been established.

Taylor challenged his sentence in a Rule 24.035 post-conviction motion alleging that the judge was under the influence of alcohol during the sentencing proceedings. A special judge, Judge Dierker, was assigned to decide Taylor's post-conviction motion. Judge Dierker denied Taylor post-conviction relief after a hearing, issuing lengthy findings in 1992 that discussed the propriety of Taylor's plea and sentences.

Taylor appealed to this Court. In a summary order in 1993, this Court vacated his sentences and remanded his case for a “new penalty hearing, imposition of sentence, and entry of judgment.” State v. Taylor, SC74220, Order (June 29, 1993); see also State v. Taylor, 929 S.W.2d 209, 215 (Mo. banc 1996) ( Taylor I ) (explaining the procedural history of Taylor's case).

On remand, Taylor's case was assigned to a new judge, Judge Coburn. Taylor filed a Rule 29.07(d) motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Taylor I, 929 S.W.2d at 215. Included in his arguments was that he had consented only to be sentenced by Judge Randall, not the new judge. Id. at 215–16. He was not permitted to withdraw his guilty plea, nor was he given permission to be sentenced by a jury rather than the new judge. Id. at 215. His 1991 plea and jury waiver remained in full force on remand. See id. at 215–16 (“Although it is preferable if the judge to whom a plea is made sentences the defendant, sentencing by a different judge if the original judge proves unavailable for sentencing does not create manifest injustice ... [where] the sentencing judge has the familiarity with the prior proceedings to make an informed ruling on sentencing.”).

Five days of sentencing hearings were held in 1994. Id. at 215. The state presented evidence of Ann's kidnapping, rape, and murder as well as evidence showing an escape by Taylor. Taylor presented mitigation evidence through 13 witnesses. See id. at 224. Ultimately, Judge Coburn found beyond a reasonable doubt six statutory aggravating circumstances and three non-statutory aggravating circumstances in support of the death penalty, and he found only one mitigating circumstance. Id. at 215, 222. Judge Coburn imposed the death sentence after concluding that the mitigating circumstance did not outweigh the aggravating circumstances.4 Id. at 215.

Taylor sought Rule 24.035 post-conviction relief from the judgment entered after remand. A two-day hearing was held on this motion in front of Judge Messina. The scope of this Rule 24.035 hearing related “not [to Taylor's] previous plea, but rather the second sentencing procedure.” Judge Messina overruled Taylor's post-conviction motion.

Taylor again appealed to this Court. His appeal sought mandatory proportionality review under section 565.035.5, RSMo 1994, and review of the decisions overruling his motion to withdraw his plea and his post-conviction motion. Taylor I addressed collectively the propriety of Taylor's death sentence imposed on remand and the denial of his subsequent post-conviction motion.

Taylor I established that Taylor was sufficiently “informed of the consequences of his plea” in 1991 and that he “understood the consequences and voluntarily entered [his] plea.” Id. at 216. Taylor I also established that there was no error in the refusal to allow him to later withdraw his plea after his case was remanded.5 Id. at 215–18. Taylor I concluded that there were no reversible errors in his case and affirmed his death sentence. Taylor I became final when the mandate in the case issued on September 17, 1996. At that time, Taylor's execution was set for January 3, 1997, but that execution date was stayed when he sought relief in the federal courts. A later execution date scheduled for February 2006 also was halted by ongoing litigation.

Taylor has filed numerous unsuccessful requests for relief in his case. A request for habeas corpus relief from the federal courts was denied in Taylor v. Bowersox, 329 F.3d 963, 968–69 (8th Cir.2003) (finding that Taylor's guilty plea remained valid after this Court's remand in Taylor I because he had no substantial and legitimate expectation of being sentenced by the judge who received his plea in 1991, nor did he have a right to be sentenced by the same judge after remand). Taylor also unsuccessfully twice moved this Court to withdraw the mandate in his case, and he has failed to gain relief in other post-conviction and habeas corpus proceedings. See Taylor v. State, 254 S.W.3d 856 (Mo. banc 2008).

Now, 20 years after Taylor admitted to kidnapping, raping, and murdering Ann, he is again before this Court seeking relief from his death sentence.

II. Taylor's Arguments for Habeas Relief

Taylor claims that he is entitled to habeas relief reducing his death sentence to life imprisonment for two reasons.

First, he maintains that habeas relief should issue because, after this Court affirmed his death sentence in Taylor I, subsequent case law indicated that a death sentence could not be imposed by a judge, rather than by a jury. He highlights that the United States Supreme Court in Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 589, 122 S.Ct. 2428, 153 L.Ed.2d 556 (2002), provided that the jury must find any facts that are not admitted by a defendant and that are necessary for imposition of the death penalty.6 He also notes that State v. Whitfield, 107 S.W.3d 253, 256 (Mo. banc 2003), applied Ring to vacate a judge-imposed death sentence that had been affirmed before Ring.

Taylor argues that the holdings in Ring, Whitfield, and their progeny apply retroactively to his case and demonstrate that he is entitled to Sixth Amendment jury sentencing. He contends that he never waived his Sixth Amendment right to jury sentencing when he pleaded guilty and waived jury sentencing in 1991.

Second, he argues that he is entitled to habeas relief because his death sentence violates equal protection and due process because similarly situated defendants have been sentenced to life imprisonment rather than sentenced to death.

III. Standards for Review

“Habeas corpus is the last judicial inquiry into the validity of a criminal conviction and serves as ‘a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness.’ Amrine v. Roper, 102 S.W.3d 541, 545 (Mo. banc 2003) (quoting Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 126, 102 S.Ct. 1558, 71 L.Ed.2d 783 (1982)). Habeas proceedings, authorized under Rule 91, are limited to determining the facial validity of a petitioner's confinement. State ex rel. Simmons v. White, 866 S.W.2d 443, 445 (Mo. banc 1993). [A] writ of habeas corpus may be issued when a person is restrained of his or her liberty in violation of the constitution or laws of the state or federal government.” Amrine, 102 S.W.3d at 545.

Because habeas review guards against unauthorized sentences, this Court considers Taylor's habeas claims asserting that his death sentence exceeds the sentence that is legally authorized. See State ex rel. Zinna v. Steele, 301 S.W.3d 510, 516–17 (Mo. banc 2010) (providing that a claim that the sentence exceeded what was permitted by law is a claim cognizable in a habeas proceedings even if the argument was raised, or should have been raised, in an earlier proceeding). But Taylor, as the habeas corpus petitioner, has the burden of proof to show that he is entitled to relief. State ex rel. Nixon v. Jaynes, 73 S.W.3d 623, 624 (Mo. banc 2002).

IV. Case Law Subsequent To Taylor I
A. Apprendi & Ring

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the United States Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment does not permit a defendant to be “expose[d] ... to a penalty exceeding the maximum he would receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone.” 530 U.S. 466, 483, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000). Under Apprendi, [o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a...

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