Webster v. Horton, Civil No. 2:18-CV-11941

Decision Date12 April 2019
Docket NumberCivil No. 2:18-CV-11941
PartiesSTEVEN JAMES WEBSTER, Petitioner, v. CONNIE HORTON, Respondent
CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Michigan)


Civil No. 2:18-CV-11941


April 12, 2019



Steven James Webster, ("petitioner"), confined at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, in which he challenges his conviction for two counts of first-degree premeditated murder, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.316(1)(a); felon in possession of a firearm, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.224f; and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. For the reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED.

I. Background

Petitioner was convicted following a jury trial in the Genesee County Circuit Court. This Court recites verbatim the relevant facts regarding petitioner's conviction from the Michigan Court of Appeals's opinion, which are presumed correct on habeas review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). See e.g., Wagner v. Smith, 581 F.3d 410, 413 (6th Cir. 2009):

On January 19, 2012, Flint Police Officers discovered the bodies of Amyre Aikins and Oscar Knuckles, Jr. in an unlit parking lot. In addition to the bodies, the police also discovered a burning Oldsmobile Alero. Aikins's body was found approximately 25 feet north of the Alero. She was lying on her back with her arms above her head. Her shirt was pulled up, exposing her breasts. There was

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blood around her neck and mouth. An autopsy showed that she had been shot six times and had gunshot wounds on her abdomen, chest, forearm, upper back, middle back, and shoulder. The police recovered some bullet fragments and seven spent shell casings from the scene. A firearm examiner testified that several shell casings recovered from the scene were fired by a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol. The gun was recovered several days later, when defendant fired it at the police while trying to avoid being detained. Defendant admitted that the gun recovered by the police was the same gun he discharged seven or eight times into the passenger door of a vehicle Aikins was apparently sitting inside of.

Knuckles, Jr.'s body was found approximately 40 feet north of the Alero. His pants and underwear were missing, and he had a very large wound on his left temple. There was shotgun wadding around his body. An autopsy of Knuckles, Jr. established that he had been shot three times by a shotgun. He had shotgun wounds on his chest, abdomen, and head. The shotgun that fired the slugs that killed Knuckles, Jr. was recovered from codefendant William Evans's home, and DNA testing established that codefendant was a major donor of the DNA on the shotgun. Further, a firearm examiner testified that the shells recovered from the scene were fired from defendant's shotgun.

After waiving his Miranda rights, defendant gave a statement to the police. In the statement, defendant indicated that he was in the parking lot where Knuckles, Jr. and Aikins's bodies were discovered. He explained that he saw a blue Avalanche truck that appeared to be the same vehicle someone had shot at him from in November of 2011. He said that he "thought the person who shot [him] was there on the passenger side, so [he] shot in there." He also said that the first person he came across was the driver. Defendant then candidly admitted to using a .380 caliber pistol to fire seven or eight shots into the passenger side of the Avalanche. He said that afterward he ran back to his girlfriend's house. Defendant also admitted that he wrote codefendant a letter from jail, advising codefendant to hide the shotgun that codefendant was holding the night of the shooting. At trial, defendant conceded that he was responsible for the shooting, but argued that the evidence only supported convictions for voluntary manslaughter.

People v. Webster, No. 319731, 2014 WL 6679524, at * 1 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 25, 2014)(internal footnotes omitted).

Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on appeal. Id., lv. den. 498 Mich. 853, 865 N.W. 2d 13 (2015).

Petitioner filed a post-conviction motion for relief from judgment pursuant to M.C.R. 6.500, et. seq., which the trial court denied. People v. Webster, No. 12-03062-FC (Genesee

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Cty.Cir. Ct. July 11, 2016). The Michigan appellate courts denied petitioner leave to appeal. People v. Webster, No. 336484 (Mich.Ct.App. May 12, 2017); lv. den. 501 Mich. 1036, 908 N.W. 2d 903 (2018).

Petitioner seeks a writ of habeas corpus on the following grounds:

I. Did the trial court err in reversing its order granting a new trial where the jury heard inadmissible evidence that Mr. Webster wanted to have a police officer murdered?

II. The trial court erred in admitting evidence that Mr. Webster shot at the police in a separate incident.

III. Defendant was denied due process and should be granted a new trial where critical evidence related to intent was based on a recorded statement that was mischaracterized by the Sergeant Herfert. In the alternative, the prosecution committed prosecutorial misconduct by eliciting and failing to correct the testimony.

IV. Defendant's conviction for first-degree murder should be reversed due to the prosecution's presentation of constitutionally insufficient evidence of the requisite premeditation and deliberation.

V. The trial court's errors resulted in cumulative error requiring reversal.

VI. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failure to cross-examine Oscar Knuckles, Sr., regarding his visual impairment.

VII. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to move to strike Officer Terry Lewis' hearsay statement.

VIII. The trial court erred in denying defendant's motion for a new trial without conducting an evidentiary hearing

IX. The circuit court abused its discretion in admitting the prejudicial testimony of Officer Rodney Hall, in violation of the defendant's due process.

II. Standard of Review

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), imposes the following standard of review for habeas cases:

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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 proceeding.

A decision of a state court is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than the Supreme Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). An "unreasonable application" occurs when "a state court decision unreasonably applies the law of [the Supreme Court] to the facts of a prisoner's case." Id. at 409. A federal habeas court may not "issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly." Id. at 410-11. "[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, 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011)(citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). Therefore, in order to obtain habeas relief in federal court, a state prisoner is required to show that 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." Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103. A habeas petitioner should be denied relief as long as it is within the "realm of possibility" that fairminded jurists could find the state court decision to be reasonable. See Woods v. Etherton, 136 S. Ct. 1149, 1152 (2016).

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III. Discussion

A. Claim # 1. The extraneous evidence claim.

Petitioner first claims that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury after the jurors were inadvertently exposed to extraneous evidence. The information came from a portion of petitioner's recorded interview with police in which he indicated that he wanted to have a police officer killed. This portion of the recording was supposed to have been redacted from the tape given to jurors during deliberations, but it wasn't. Petitioner discovered, after the verdict, that the unredacted tape had been admitted when one juror mentioned that petitioner was a "bad man" because he wanted to kill a police officer.

Petitioner moved for a new trial, which the state trial court initially granted. But the prosecution moved the trial court to reconsider, arguing that the trial judge failed to consider whether the information affected the verdict. The judge interviewed the jurors individually in chambers, after which the judge vacated its earlier ruling and denied petitioner's motion for a new trial.

The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected petitioner's claim on his direct appeal:

Here, while there is no dispute that the jury was exposed to extraneous information, defendant has failed to show that there is a "real and substantial possibility" that such information could have affected the jury's

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