Strickland v. Goguen, 19-2104

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Writing for the CourtTHOMPSON, Circuit Judge.
Citation3 F.4th 45
Parties Jason STRICKLAND, Petitioner, Appellant, v. Colette GOGUEN, Superintendent, NCCI Gardner, Respondent, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 19-2104,19-2104
Decision Date30 June 2021

Ira L. Gant and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, for the appellant.

Maura Healey, Attorney General of Massachusetts, and Susanne G. Reardon, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee.

Before Lynch, Thompson, and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.

THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

A jury convicted petitioner Jason Strickland of multiple counts of assault and battery on his step-daughter Haleigh Poutre who was eleven years old when the final attack landed her near death in the hospital.1 After Massachusetts' state courts denied Strickland's appeals, he migrated to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, seeking a writ of habeas corpus via 28 U.S.C. § 2254 as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Strickland alleged violations by the trial court of his constitutional rights "to present a complete defense" and to have effective assistance of counsel, and the district court denied his petition. See Strickland v. Goguen, No. 16-cv-11364-ADB, 2019 WL 4675031, *1 (D. Mass. Sept. 25, 2019). Before us, Strickland repeats those claims. After careful consideration and mindful of AEDPA's strict requirements, we affirm.


In scrutinizing a state conviction on habeas review pursuant to AEDPA, we accept the state court's factual findings. See Dorisca v. Marchilli, 941 F.3d 12, 14 (1st Cir. 2019) (quoting Hensley v. Roden, 755 F.3d 724, 727 (1st Cir. 2014) ). If the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the Commonwealth's highest court, has declined to review the conviction, then we can rely upon the " ‘last reasoned decision’ issued by the Massachusetts Appeals Court" (MAC) in crafting the factual and procedural narrative. Id. (quoting King v. MacEachern, 665 F.3d 247, 252 (1st Cir. 2011) ). We do so here, supplementing with facts from the record where appropriate. See Companonio v. O'Brien, 672 F.3d 101, 104 (1st Cir. 2012) (citing Yeboah-Sefah v. Ficco, 556 F.3d 53, 62 (1st Cir. 2009) ). A heads-up to the reader, the details of what unfolded are disturbing.

The Abuse

The MAC starts its recitation of the story at the end: "When ... Haleigh Poutre arrived at the hospital on September 11, 2005, she was unconscious and barely breathing, her pale, emaciated body was covered in bruises and huge burns." Commonwealth v. Strickland, 87 Mass.App.Ct. 46, 23 N.E.3d 135, 138 (2015). Her "face was bloody, bruised, and distorted," and "the back of her head was swollen, lacerated, and bleeding." Id. In trying to save Haleigh's life, doctors described her head as "boggy" because of the amount of blood pooling in her skull. Id. at 139. She could barely breathe, her vital signs hovered around death (her body's core temperature was only eighty-one degrees), and she was both unconscious and unresponsive. See id. Additional signs such as fixed pupils and "postur[ed]" limbs "signal[ed] a traumatic brain injury

." Id. Doctors also discovered evidence of other abuse. Haleigh bore injuries on her wrists consistent with wearing restraints, cigarette burns covered her left foot and left arm, lacerations scarred her buttocks, and "other injuries of varying age [covered her] from her head to her toes." Id. at 139 & n.3.

Haleigh's injuries occurred over the course of years, but we will start with the traumatic head injury

, which brought her to the hospital and which spurred the police to investigate Strickland. At the time she sustained the brain injury Haleigh lived with her adoptive mother Holli Strickland (who also happened to be Haleigh's maternal aunt) and her stepfather Strickland. See

id. at 140.

According to eyewitness testimony from Holli's biological daughter (let's call her J),2 on September 10, 2005, the day before Haleigh's hospitalization, the Stricklands kicked Haleigh down the basement staircase. See id. And this was not the first time. See id. Alicia Weiss -- the Stricklands' neighbor and sometimes babysitter, and Holli's close friend -- testified to observing Holli kick Haleigh down the basement stairs repeatedly in 2005, forcing Haleigh to unfurl herself from the floor at the bottom and return to the top where she suffered the routine over and over. Although, according to Weiss, Strickland was not present for this earlier staircase abuse, J testified that sometime in the afternoon or early evening of September 10 (one of the Commonwealth's experts at trial estimated that the injury occurred around 4 P.M.) Strickland participated in the stair-kicking torment. Id. at 139-40. While Haleigh was sprawled on the basement floor, J remembered Strickland then shaking Haleigh at the bottom of the stairs to rouse her before next carrying her limp body upstairs, initially putting her into an empty bathtub on the first floor and then placing her into bed.3 See id. at 140.4

Instead of getting medical help for Haleigh that evening, Strickland went to the mall with J and J's younger brother around 7 or 8 P.M.5 See id. at 140-41. The following afternoon (September 11) the family went to J's soccer game where they met up with Haleigh's uncle. Id. at 141. While the rest of the family was out, Weiss babysat Haleigh, who remained in bed. Id. Weiss checked on Haleigh three times, seeing "some foam on Haleigh's mouth," but "Haleigh neither moved nor woke up." Id. When the family returned, it was Haleigh's uncle who brought the child down from her room and insisted Holli take Haleigh to the hospital where the doctors assessed her traumatic brain injuries

; by then it was around 2:30 P.M. Id. At trial, whereas the defense put on evidence that Haleigh hurt herself by landing on her head after a failed backflip attempt and that her brain could not have suffered such trauma from falling down the stairs, see

id. at 141-42, the Commonwealth's experts confirmed that stairs could create such harm to a person pushed with "significant external force[ ], such as a [strong] push or kick of the child at the top," id. at 139.

Of course, a fall could not have caused the extensive injuries Haleigh endured, as described by the Commonwealth's expert over the course of "almost one hundred pages of [trial] transcript." Id. at 139 n.3. As for the other injuries, J testified that "she had seen Holli and Strickland hit Haleigh with their hands, a belt, and a baseball bat, and that she saw scabs and bruises all over Haleigh." Id. at 140. During their search of the Stricklands' home, police recovered a "Leatherman tool"6 and a baseball bat from the home; the Leatherman had "brownish material on it ... indicat[ing] a mixture of blood" for "which Haleigh was a potential contributor." The "aluminum bat" had "Haleigh's name on it." Id. Weiss told the jury that Holli beat Haleigh's lower legs with the bat while Strickland aided Holli in interrogating the child about such crimes as hiding candy wrappers. Id. at 141. Weiss and one of J's friends also testified to seeing Strickland: strike Haleigh on the hand with a "plastic tubular wand;" drag Haleigh into the house by the ear and slam her into a chair; take Haleigh into a bathroom with Holli "after which a muffled cry was heard and Haleigh emerged with a bloody lip;" and striking Haleigh "in the head with his hand." Id. at 141.

In July 2006, a Commonwealth grand jury indicted Strickland on multiple counts of assault and battery against a child causing substantial injury.7 The first two counts charged Strickland under Massachusetts General Laws ch. 265, § 13J(b) for the September 10, 2005 stair incident (count 1) and for an unspecified injury or injuries prior to September 11 (count 2). The crime contains two theories of guilt. A conviction can be obtained for a defendant's actual assault and battery causing substantial bodily injury to a child, or, under the second theory, a conviction can be obtained for a defendant "wantonly or recklessly permitting, or wantonly or recklessly permitting another to commit [such] an assault and battery." Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, § 13J(b). Additionally, Strickland faced three counts of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon: bat (count 3); shod foot (count 4); and tubular wand or stick (count 5). See id. at § 15A(b). Finally, the indictment charged Strickland with general assault and battery for striking Haleigh with his hand (count 6). See id. at § 13A.

The Trial

At trial, the defense argued Strickland was oblivious to what he had come to understand was the reality of Holli's abusive behavior. Before September 10, 2005, his wife told him (and he said he believed) that Haleigh was abusing herself. See id. at 141-42. In support of his claim of innocence, Strickland called to the stand Pamela Krzyzek, a health professional who visited the family's home to check on Haleigh on behalf of Massachusetts' Department of Social Services.8 She "testified that Haleigh told [Krzyzek] she heard voices telling her to hurt herself and that [Haleigh] had hit her [own] knees with a hammer." Id. at 141. Another witness aiding Strickland's story of ignorance was a mother, Stephanie Trent Adams, whose children attended daycare at the Stricklands' home (Holli ran a daycare for some time). She testified on several key points: Strickland worked during the day; she had witnessed Haleigh "punching herself, and hitting her[self] against the wall of a cubby;" she saw Haleigh "stair-surfing," which, as best as the record shows, is a game in which children slide down stairs on their behinds step-by-step. Id. Strickland eventually took the stand reiterating his defense theory. He denied any wrongdoing, and stressed he had "believed Holli when she told him that Haleigh was injuring herself and was receiving treatment for this condition" and he put forward that "[o]nly Holli would take Haleigh to these [doctors'] appointments and would speak with the medical providers." I...

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