White v. McDowell, Case No. 1:14-cv-01214 LJO MJS (HC)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
Decision Date14 April 2017
Docket NumberCase No. 1:14-cv-01214 LJO MJS (HC)
PartiesJAMES E. WHITE, Petitioner, v. NEIL MCDOWELL, Warden, Respondent.

JAMES E. WHITE, Petitioner,
NEIL MCDOWELL, Warden, Respondent.

Case No. 1:14-cv-01214 LJO MJS (HC)


April 14, 2017


Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Respondent, Neil McDowell, warden of Ironwood State Prison, is hereby substituted as the proper named respondent pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Respondent is represented by Tami M. Krenzin of the office of the Attorney General.

I. Procedural Background

Petitioner is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections pursuant to a judgment of the Superior Court of California, County of Merced, following his conviction by jury trial on May 31, 2011, for first degree murder, felon in possession

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of a firearm, and felon in possession of a prohibited weapon. (Clerk's Tr. at 628-31.) On August 16, 2011, Petitioner was sentenced to an indeterminate term of twenty-five (25) years to life. (Id.)

Petitioner filed a direct appeal with the California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, which affirmed the judgment on April 16, 2013. (Lodged Docs. 1-4.) Petitioner sought review from the California Supreme Court. (Lodged Docs. 5-6.) The California Supreme Court denied review on July 17, 2013.

Petitioner did not file any collateral challenges to his conviction.

On August 4, 2014 Petitioner filed the instant federal habeas petition. (Pet., ECF No. 1.) On May 31, 2016, Petitioner filed a second amended petition. (ECF No. 30.) Petitioner presents three claims in the second amended petition: (1) that evidence of vandalism of the victim's home should not have been admitted; (2) that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Petitioner's domestic violence prior offense; and (3) that the prosecution committed misconduct by improperly arguing facts outside of evidence during closing statements. (Id.)

Respondent filed an answer to the petition on March 30, 2016. (ECF No. 21.) As the second amended petition was filed after Respondent's answer, Respondent was provided an opportunity to amend his answer. Respondent notified the Court that amendment of the answer was not necessary. (ECF No. 33.) The matter stands ready for adjudication.

II. Statement of the Facts1


In 2002, Mauree Lashe Castle (Castle) met defendant, and they started dating. In 2003, they moved into a house together in Merced.

In 2003 or 2004, Castle introduced defendant to Stephen Jackson. Jackson and Castle were long-time family friends. Jackson was a former college football player and worked as a carpenter and handyman. He was described as a stout, muscular man.[fn2] Jackson had a son, Khalil, who

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had lived with Jackson since he was four years old, and they were very close.

FN2: The coroner testified that Jackson was five feet eight inches tall and weighed 226 pounds. Jackson's driver's license stated that he was six feet one inch tall and weighed 245 pounds.

Defendant and Jackson became friends. Defendant, known as "Pedro," occasionally worked for Jackson. Jackson and Khalil often saw defendant and Castle at family gatherings. Defendant and Jackson socialized, and Castle and Khalil testified they never saw any problems between them.[fn3]

FN3: By the time of trial, Khalil described defendant as his father's "ex-friend." Khalil was 11 years old when he saw defendant kill his father, and he was 16 years old when he testified. Khalil admitted he had been arrested for theft and the sale of marijuana. These incidents occurred after Jackson had been killed. Khalil testified he probably would not have committed those acts if his father had not been killed.

Defendant's relationship with Castle

Castle testified that in 2002, at the beginning of her relationship with defendant, they had a lot of fun together. However, the relationship subsequently became physically abusive. Castle testified that between 2003 and 2006, defendant was physically abusive toward her on four or five occasions. "It wasn't a constant thing. It didn't happen every day."[fn4]

FN4: In issue II, post, we will address defendant's contentions that the court improperly admitted the domestic violence evidence as relevant to motive, and that it should have excluded Castle's testimony as improper character evidence.

Castle testified that the first incident occurred in November 2003, after they had been at a friend's house and argued. As they walked to their car, defendant hit Castle. Castle hit him back, and defendant "continued to hit" her. He used an open hand, a closed fist, and also kicked her. Defendant slammed her hand into the car door. Castle did not call the police. Defendant later apologized, and Castle forgave him.

Castle testified the second incident occurred about a year later, and the third incident was six months after that. Defendant usually hit her in the face with a closed fist. She never called the police because she was afraid "he'd be much more upset and come after me even harder than the time before ...." Defendant threatened Castle, and told her that "wherever I went he would find me ...." Castle was afraid for herself and her daughter.

Castle testified about another incident when defendant was intoxicated, produced a gun, and placed it on her chest. Defendant said he loved her and he was not going to let her go. Castle left defendant three or four times, but she always returned.

Castle breaks up with defendant

Castle testified that she did not tell Jackson about defendant's physical abuse until late in 2006, just before she left defendant. Jackson

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was concerned about her safety.

Castle testified that in November 2006, defendant was intoxicated and wanted to drive his car. Castle told him not to drive. Defendant became upset and hit Castle in her daughter's presence. That was "the last straw" for Castle, and she decided to leave defendant.

Castle testified that she waited to leave defendant until he was out of town, because she knew defendant would never let her leave. On that particular day, defendant went to Oakland with Jackson. Castle left Jackson a phone message about what she was going to do and asked him to let her know when they were going to return. Castle packed up her belongings, and her mother picked her up from defendant's house. Castle left a note for defendant, saying that she was leaving him. Later that day, Jackson sent Castle a text message that they were driving back from Oakland.

After Castle left Jackson, she lived with her mother in Merced. Defendant contacted her and was very upset. He wanted to reconcile, but Castle refused. Castle testified that defendant "wasn't trying to hear it" and insisted they could work things out. Defendant repeatedly called Castle and tried to reconcile.

Castle moves in with Jackson

In December 2006, Khalil was eleven years old and in the fourth grade. Jackson and Khalil lived in a mobile home in Merced. At that time, Jackson and Castle realized they had feelings for each other, and they began a dating relationship. Soon afterwards, Jackson proposed to Castle.

At some point in January 2007, Castle and her child moved into Jackson's mobile home. Khalil testified that Jackson and defendant were no longer friends once Jackson and Castle began their relationship.

Castle testified about an incident which occurred after she moved in with Jackson. Jackson and Castle were at the home of Jackson's mother in Merced. Defendant arrived and again asked to reconcile with Castle. Defendant asked Castle if she was sleeping with Jackson, and he became angry.

The gathering at defendant's house

Joseph Coney, Jr., was married to Jackson's sister. Coney knew defendant, Jackson and Castle. He also knew that Castle had left defendant and moved in with Jackson.

Coney testified that he attended a gathering at defendant's house when everyone was drinking beer.[fn5] Defendant was angry about Jackson. Defendant said that he felt like he wanted to kill Jackson. Defendant said he felt "like hiding by his mom's house and shooting him or something of that sort."

FN5: Coney testified this incident occurred before the vandalism at Jackson's mobile home, and before Jackson obtained the restraining order against defendant.

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Coney did not take defendant's comment seriously. However, Coney told his wife (Jackson's sister) about defendant's comment.

Defendant's call; vandalism at Jackson's mobile home

On January 13, 2007, Jackson, Castle, and Khalil were in the San Francisco area. Castle testified that while they were out of town, she received a telephone call from defendant. Defendant was very angry and said his landlord had given him an eviction notice. Defendant blamed Castle and said it was her fault that he was being evicted. Defendant said that she "would pay for it."

When Jackson, Castle, and Khalil returned to the mobile home that night, they discovered that it had been vandalized. The windows were broken, the interior was "trashed," the television was broken, and several things were missing. Jackson's car had been parked there, and the windows were also broken.

Castle testified that she immediately felt defendant was responsible because Jackson and Castle did not have any enemies, and "[t]here was no one else who I could even think about that, you know, would have done that." Castle had previously heard that defendant "talked about vandalizing [Jackson's] car because I was using one of his cars ...."[fn6]

FN6: In issue I, post, we will address defendant's contentions that the court improperly allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence about the vandalism of the mobile home as relevant to motive.

Castle and Jackson filed a police report about the vandalism. Castle told the police that she thought defendant was responsible, because she had ended their relationship and defendant had made telephone threats about the eviction

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