Thomas v. Tribley, CASE NO. 2:13-CV-11877

Decision Date11 June 2015
Docket NumberCASE NO. 2:13-CV-11877
PartiesDAMON ALLEN THOMAS, #779551, Petitioner, v. KEN TRIBLEY, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan

DAMON ALLEN THOMAS, #779551, Petitioner,
KEN TRIBLEY, Respondent.

CASE NO. 2:13-CV-11877


June 11, 2015



I. Introduction

Michigan prisoner Damon Allen Thomas ("petitioner") has filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 asserting that he is being held in violation of his constitutional rights. The petitioner was convicted of first-degree premeditated murder, MICH. COMP. LAWS § 750.316, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony ("felony firearm"), MICH. COMP. LAWS § 750.227b, following a jury trial in the Wayne County Circuit Court. He was sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and two years imprisonment on those convictions in 2010.

In his pleadings, the petitioner raises claims concerning the sufficiency of the evidence, the conduct of the prosecutor, the jury instructions, and the effectiveness of trial counsel. For the reasons set forth herein, the court finds that the petitioner is not entitled

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to relief and denies the habeas petition. The court also denies a certificate of appealability and denies leave to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal.

II. Facts and Procedural History

The petitioner's convictions arise from his decision to shoot another man over an unpaid debt at the man's home in Detroit, Michigan on April 30, 2010. The Michigan Court of Appeals described the relevant facts as follows:

Defendant's convictions arise from the April 30, 2010, shooting death of Marcelius Mitchell in Detroit. Evidence indicated that defendant knew Mitchell, who owed defendant money. On the night of the shooting, defendant went to Mitchell's apartment with a loaded handgun. As the two socialized, defendant requested his money and became impatient when Mitchell persisted in refusing to repay the debt. Defendant admitted in a statement to the police that he ultimately shot Mitchell five times, including once in the center chest area, before fleeing the scene and disposing of his gun and clothing.FN1

FN1. A video recording of defendant's statement was played for the jury. Defendant also signed a written statement that was admitted at trial.

People v. Thomas, No. 300525, 2012 WL 933602, *1 (Mich. Ct. App. March 20, 2012) (unpublished).

Following his convictions and sentencing, the petitioner filed an appeal of right with the Michigan Court of Appeals raising the same claims presented on habeas review. The court denied relief and affirmed the petitioner's convictions. Id. The petitioner then filed an application for leave to appeal with the Michigan Supreme Court, which was denied in a standard order. People v. Thomas, 492 Mich. 869, 819 N.W.2d 909 (2012).

The petitioner thereafter filed his federal habeas petition raising the following claims:

I. There was insufficient evidence as a matter of law to establish his conviction for premeditated murder in the first-degree as required by the due process clause.

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II. He was denied a fair trial by the prosecutor's misconduct at trial which violated his right to due process.

III. He was denied his right to a properly instructed jury and fair trial where the jury was not given the opportunity to return a general verdict of not guilty or not guilty of murder in the second-degree.

IV. He was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel at trial.

The respondent has filed an answer to the petition contending that it should be denied because the claims lack merit and/or are barred by procedural default.

III. Standard of Review

Federal law imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim -

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceedings.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

"A state court's decision is 'contrary to' . . . clearly established law if it 'applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court cases]' or if it 'confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [that] precedent.'" Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 15-16 (2003) (per curiam) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)); see also Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002).

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"[T]he 'unreasonable application' prong of § 2254(d)(1) permits a federal habeas court to 'grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of petitioner's case." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 520 (2003) (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 413); see also Bell, 535 U.S. at 694. However, "[i]n order for a federal court find a state court's application of [Supreme Court] precedent 'unreasonable,' the state court's decision must have been more than incorrect or erroneous. The state court's application must have been 'objectively unreasonable.'" Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 520-21 (citations omitted); see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 409. "AEDPA thus imposes a 'highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings,' and 'demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.'" Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (quoting Lindh, 521 U.S. at 333, n. 7; Woodford v. Viscotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam)).

The United States Supreme Court has held that "a state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as 'fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision." Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). The Supreme Court emphasized "that even a strong case for relief does not mean the state court's contrary conclusion was unreasonable." Id. (citing Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)). Pursuant to § 2254(d), "a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision" of the Supreme Court. Id. Thus, in order to obtain federal habeas relief, a state prisoner must show that

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the state court's rejection of his claim "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." Id.

Section 2254(d)(1) limits a federal habeas court's review to a determination of whether the state court's decision comports with clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision. Williams, 529 U.S. at 412; see also Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009) (noting that the Supreme Court "has held on numerous occasions that it is not 'an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law' for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by this Court") (quoting Wright v. Van Patten, 552 U.S. 120, 125-26 (2008) (per curiam)); Lockyer, 538 U.S. at 71-72. Section 2254(d) "does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been 'adjudicated on the merits.'" Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 785. Furthermore, it "does not require citation of [Supreme Court] cases-indeed, it does not even require awareness of [Supreme Court] cases, so long as neither the reasoning nor the result of the state-court decision contradicts them." Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002); see also Mitchell, 540 U.S. at 16. While the requirements of "clearly established law" are to be determined solely by Supreme Court precedent, the decisions of lower federal courts may be useful in assessing the reasonableness of the state court's resolution of an issue. Stewart v. Erwin, 503 F.3d 488, 493 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Williams v. Bowersox, 340 F.3d 667, 671 (8th Cir. 2003)); Dickens v. Jones, 203 F. Supp. 354, 359 (E.D. Mich. 2002).

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Lastly, a state court's factual determinations are presumed correct on federal habeas review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). A petitioner may rebut this presumption with clear and convincing evidence. Warren v. Smith, 161 F.3d 358, 360-61 (6th Cir. 1998). Moreover, habeas review is "limited to the record that was before the state court." Cullen v. Pinholster, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S. Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011).

IV. Analysis

A. Sufficiency of the Evidence Claim

The petitioner first asserts that he is entitled to habeas relief because the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation to support his first-degree murder conviction. The respondent contends that this claim lacks merit.

The federal due process clause "protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged." In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). The question on a sufficiency of the evidence claim is "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential...

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