Taylor v. Dunn

Decision Date25 January 2018
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION 14-0439-WS-N
PartiesJARROD TAYLOR, Petitioner, v. JEFFERSON S. DUNN, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Alabama

This death-penalty habeas action comes before the Court on petitioner's "Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus by Prisoner in State Custody under Death Sentence" (doc. 25). The respondent has filed a comprehensive Answer (doc. 33), and both sides have submitted additional detailed briefs (docs. 38, 39, 43, 46, 47, 48) setting forth their respective legal positions as to the dozens of grounds for relief presented in the petitioner's § 2254 motion. After careful review of these materials, as well as relevant portions of the 59-volume record of state-court proceedings, the Court finds that the § 2254 Petition is ripe for disposition, without an evidentiary hearing.

I. Background.
A. The Offense Conduct.1

On the morning of December 12, 1997, Jarrod Taylor and his friend, Kenyatta McMillan, went to Steve Dyas Motors, a used car dealership in Mobile, Alabama, for the purpose ofrobbing it. As part of their scheme, Taylor feigned interest in purchasing a Ford Mustang. Over the course of several hours, spanning multiple visits to the dealership, Taylor test-drove the vehicle, negotiated a purchase price with Steve Dyas Motors employee Sherry Gaston, and completed paperwork for the sale. Taylor falsely explained to Steve Dyas Motors that his father-in-law in Louisiana was going to pay for the Mustang as an early Christmas gift to him.

Later in the day, most Steve Dyas Motors employees left the dealership to attend the company's annual Christmas party that evening. Sherry Gaston remained at the office, awaiting Taylor's return in order to complete the sale of the Mustang. The only other people on the premises were Sherry Gaston's husband, Bruce Gaston, and the owner and namesake of the business, Steve Dyas. When Taylor and McMillan entered the dealership for the last time, Taylor immediately shot Bruce Gaston in the chest with a .380 caliber pistol. Sherry Gaston and Steve Dyas ran for their lives in a desperate attempt to escape. McMillan stopped Dyas at gunpoint and forced him back to the office, where Taylor and McMillan demanded that he tell them where the money and the safe were. Dyas's answers were not to their liking, so Taylor put the .380 pistol to Dyas's head and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly. As for Sherry Gaston, she had locked herself in a bathroom. Taylor ordered her to come out and she complied, begging for her life; however, Taylor shot her in the head, killing her instantly.

Taylor and McMillan proceeded to take Sherry Gaston's purse and the wallets of Bruce Gaston and Steve Dyas. They also took the paperwork that Sherry Gaston had prepared for the sale of the Mustang, leaving copies on her desk in an effort to make it appear that Taylor had actually completed the purchase of the vehicle. As they prepared to leave the dealership, Taylor noticed Bruce Gaston move, so he walked over to Gaston and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. Taylor and McMillan left the premises, taking the Ford Mustang with them, and fled Mobile that night. They were apprehended in the stolen Mustang the following morning in Selma, Alabama, more than 150 miles away from the scene of the crime.

B. Indictment, Trial and Death Sentence.

Four months later, on April 17, 1998, Taylor was indicted in Mobile County Circuit Court for four counts of capital murder, one for each of the deaths of Sherry Gaston, Bruce Gaston and Steve Dyas during a first-degree robbery, in violation of Alabama Code § 13A-5-40(a)(2), with the fourth count charging murder of two or more persons pursuant to one scheme or course of conduct, in violation of § 13A-5-40(a)(10). Taylor's counsel of record was RichardHorne, with Arthur Powell being appointed as co-counsel six days before the trial commenced for the primary purpose of assisting with the penalty phase.

The jury trial commenced on August 3, 1998, with Judge Douglas L. Johnstone presiding. The State presented its case-in-chief beginning on August 5, 1998. Taylor's accomplice, Kenyatta McMillan, was the star witness for the State, testifying to details of the murders and robberies, including that Taylor was the trigger man; however, the State also offered considerable corroborating evidence from multiple independent witnesses, Taylor's own statement, and forensic evidence. After five days of testimony, on August 11, 1998, the jury returned a unanimous verdict finding Taylor guilty of all four charged counts of capital murder. During the ensuing penalty phase conducted on August 11, 1998, the State called no witnesses. The defense put Taylor on the stand to express remorse, and called several other witnesses (including two of Taylor's sisters, his mother, and his minister) to testify in mitigation. The trial court charged the jury on two aggravating circumstances, to-wit: (i) the capital offense was committed in the course of a robbery, pursuant to Ala. Code § 13A-5-49(4); and (ii) the capital offense was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, pursuant to Ala. Code § 13A-5-49(8). Upon deliberation, the jury recommended, by a vote of 7-5 as to each count, that Taylor be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

After a sentencing hearing, Judge Johnstone entered a 12-page Judgment and Sentence on August 25, 1998. The trial judge opined that even if accomplice McMillan's testimony were discounted entirely, the corroborating and forensic evidence was sufficient to support Taylor's capital murder convictions. (Vol. 53, R-113, at 4.) Judge Johnstone further concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the murders of Sherry Gaston, Bruce Gaston and Steve Dyas were heinous, atrocious and cruel, in that (i) "none of the victims offered any resistance whatsoever," (ii) "two of them pleaded for their lives and offered Taylor and McMillan all of the victims' money and property available," and (iii) "Taylor and McMillan deliberately and methodically murdered all three victims in the most certain way imaginable" (i.e., by pressing the .380 pistol against their heads and pulling the trigger). (Id. at 5.) The trial court likewise found beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance of capital murder committed in the course of a robbery had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, given that (i) "the performance of the robbery scheme began before all three murders and continued during and after all three murders," (ii) "Taylor and McMillan consummated the robberies of the victims' money and belongings and theFord Mustang immediately after the murders," and (iii) the murders were committed "to exert unauthorized control over the property and to overcome the victims' physical power of resistance to the taking of the property." (Id.) As to mitigating circumstances, the trial court considered numerous statutory and non-statutory mitigating circumstances advanced by Taylor's attorneys, and deemed them all to be either non-existent or entitled to little weight. (Id. at 6-10.)

Upon weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, and also giving "great respect" to the jury's sentencing recommendation, the trial court concluded as follows:

"The Court finds that the crime proved against the defendant Jarrod Taylor pursuant to each count of the indictment ... was abominably aggravated and, at best, only faintly mitigated. Nothing in the evidence in this case or the demeanor of the defendant could reasonably be construed to warrant sparing the defendant's life under Alabama law as it is written. In terms of the legal test, the Court finds that the aggravating circumstances so outweigh the mitigating circumstances that death by electrocution is the only appropriate sentence. Therefore, this Court declines to follow the recommendation of the jury."

(Id. at 11.) Judge Johnstone proceeded to sentence Taylor to death on each of the four counts of capital murder charged in the indictment. (Id. at 11-12.)

On September 24, 1998, Taylor, by and through his trial counsel of record, filed a Motion for New Trial, raising as grounds for relief the following: (i) insufficient corroboration of McMillan's testimony that Taylor was the trigger man; (ii) alleged error in allowing jailhouse witness Bryann Scott Clark to recant his trial testimony that McMillan had confessed to Clark that he had murdered the Gastons and Steve Dyas; (iii) McMillan's testimony was "incredible as a matter of law" because his trial testimony purportedly contradicted his previous statement under oath; (iv) alleged error in refusing to allow the State Medical Examiner to testify that the forensic evidence was consistent with victim Dyas lying on the floor when he was murdered, as opposed to "kneeling in prayer" while begging for his life as McMillan had testified; (v) alleged error in allowing Warden Rick Gaston to testify for the State as to jail communications despite having been present in the courtroom (in violation of "The Rule") during the testimony of jailhouse witnesses Clark and Robert Nolin; (vi) objections to certain specific findings in the Judgment and Sentence as relating to corroboration of McMillan's narrative; (vii) objection to the Judgment and Sentence's finding that Taylor was the leader, or at least a full partner, in the robberies and murders because such finding was based solely on McMillan's testimony; (viii) alleged error in the trial court's treatment of nonstatutory mitigating factors; (ix) alleged error by the trial court in rejecting the "lingering doubt" mitigating factor based solely on "rankspeculation" and McMillan's testimony; and (x) alleged error for the trial court to substitute its opinion on penalty for that of the jury, thereby reducing the jury's role in the penalty phase "to a mere sham." (Vol. 1, R-2, at 166-84.) After an evidentiary...

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