Wood v. Nagy

Decision Date03 August 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 4:18-cv-12673
PartiesALAN C. WOOD, Petitioner, v. NOAH NAGY, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan

Hon. Matthew F. Leitman

OPINION AND ORDER (1) DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS (ECF No. 1), (2) DENYING A CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY, AND (3) DENYING LEAVE TO APPEAL IN FORMA PAUPERIS

Petitioner Alan C. Wood is a state prisoner in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections. On January 17, 2013, a jury in the Oakland County Circuit Court convicted Wood of first-degree murder and several lesser offenses. The state trial court then sentenced Wood to a mandatory life sentence on the murder conviction and lesser terms for the other offenses.

On August 27, 2018, Wood filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (See Pet., ECF No. 1.) The petition raises twenty claims. The Court has carefully reviewed those claims, and for the reasons explained below, it concludes that none of them merit federal habeas relief. The Court therefore DENIES the petition.

I

The charges against Wood arose from the robbery-murder of an elderly woman in her home. At Wood's jury trial, Tonia Watson, a woman with whom Wood lived, testified that during the period preceding the murder, she and Wood were homeless and living out of motels as they struggled to obtain money for food and drugs. Watson testified that she and Wood had committed a series of thefts prior to the instant offense to support their drug habits.

Wood and Watson met the eighty-year-old victim, Nancy Dailey, in November of 2011, when Dailey paid them $40 to rake leaves in her yard. According to Watson, the two decided to rob Dailey on November 20, 2011, after they checked out of a motel because they were out of money.

That night they broke into Dailey's house. Watson testified that Wood brutally beat Dailey while Watson gathered some of her valuables. During the robbery, Watson saw Wood drag Dailey into her bedroom while holding a knife. After he emerged, he told Watson that he had never slit someone's throat before. Dailey's body was found in her house days later with her throat slashed.

Watson then testified that after she and Wood left Dailey's home, they attempted to use Dailey's credit cards. Watson also described their movements and where they disposed of Daily's property. With Watson's assistance, police officers were able to recover the items described by Watson and find other evidencecorroborating her account. Among the items recovered was a knife that Watson said Wood had attempted to conceal in the median of a local highway. Watson believed that the knife was the murder weapon.

Several of Dailey's neighbors also testified at trial. One neighbor testified that she saw Wood raking Daily's leaves earlier in November. A second neighbor testified that, on the night of the murder, she saw an unfamiliar man walking past Dailey's house wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and dark pants. Watson confirmed that Wood was wearing clothes consistent with that description on the night of the murder. Finally, a third neighbor testified that he saw Wood in an alley near Dailey's house on the evening of the murder.

In addition, the prosecutor introduced Y-STR DNA evidence. That evidence showed that Y-STR DNA taken from under Dailey's fingernails and on her scarf had the same haplotype as Wood's DNA. A haplotype match is too broad to identify a particular individual, but the prosecutor's expert testified at trial that only 1 in 1,923 Caucasian males shared that haplotype.

The prosecutor also offered other-acts evidence to show Wood's common plan or scheme of stealing from homes in which he worked. For example, Wood's former landlady testified that Wood stole her purse in October of 2011. Further testimony was presented indicating that when Wood worked in the home of two disabled women in October of 2010, he stole from them. Finally, evidence wasoffered to show that Wood stole marijuana, knives, and a gun from another home in which he worked in September of 2011.1 The jury ultimately convicted Wood of first-degree murder and several lesser charges.

Following sentencing, Wood filed a claim of appeal in the Michigan Court of Appeals. His first appointed appellate attorney filed a brief on appeal that raised what now form Wood's first four habeas claims. Wood moved for the appointment of a second attorney, and that attorney filed a supplemental brief that raised what now form Wood's fifth and sixth habeas claims. Wood also filed his own brief that raised what now form his seventh through tenth habeas claims. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected all of the claims and affirmed Wood's convictions in a published decision. See People v. Wood, 862 N.W.2d 7 (Mich. Ct. App. 2014). Wood then filed a pro se application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court, raising the same claims that were raised in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. See People v. Wood, 871 N.W.2d 154 (Mich. 2015) (Table).

Wood thereafter returned to the state trial court and filed a motion for relief from judgment. In that motion, Wood raised what now form his eleventh through twentieth habeas claims. The trial court denied the motion for relief from judgmenton the basis that Wood had failed to demonstrate "good cause" or "actual prejudice" under Mich. Ct. R. 6.508(D)(3) for failing to have raised the claims on direct review. (See State Ct. Order, ECF No. 9-20.) Wood then filed an application for leave to appeal trial court's decision in the Michigan Court of Appeals. That court denied the application "for failure to establish that the trial court erred in denying the motion for relief from judgment." (ECF No. 9-21.) Wood applied for leave to appeal that decision in the Michigan Supreme Court, but that court denied relief with a citation to Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D). See People v. Wood, 915 N.W.2d 364 (Mich. 2018) (Table).

II

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") requires federal courts to uphold state court adjudications on the merits unless the state court's decision (1) "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) "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). "The question under AEDPA is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable—a substantially higher threshold." Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007).

III
A

Several of Wood's claims arise out of the state trial court's alleged erroneous admission of evidence under state law. More specifically, Wood argues that the trial court erroneously admitted:

• The Y-STR DNA evidence (habeas claims one and four);
"Other acts" evidence under Michigan Rule of Evidence 404(b) (habeas claim two);
• Lay testimony from a police officer under Michigan Rule of Evidence 701 that the knife found partially stuck into a highway median was the murder weapon (habeas claim seven); and
• Certain evidence that lacked a sufficient chain of custody (habeas claim nine).

Each of these claims raise questions of state law, and none are cognizable on federal habeas review. Simply put, "federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law." Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1990). "In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 68 (1991). Thus, because Wood challenges the admission of this evidence under Michigan law, he is not entitled to federal habeas relief on these claims. Nor has Wood shown that that the trial court's evidentiary rulings were "so egregious" that they violated his federal due process rights and rendered his trial fundamentallyunfair. McAdoo v. Elo, 365 F.3d 487, 494 (6th Cir. 2004) (explaining that only when an evidentiary ruling is "so egregious that it results in a denial of fundamental fairness" may it violate federal due process rights and warrant federal habeas relief).

For all of these reasons, Wood is not entitled to federal habeas relief on these evidentiary claims because they are not cognizable in this action. See, e.g., Byrd v. Collins, 209 F.3d 486, 528 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 438 n. 6 (1983) ("[T]he Due Process Clause does not permit the federal courts to engage in a finely tuned review of the wisdom of state evidentiary rules.")).

B

Wood next claims that the prosecutor committed misconduct when the prosecutor allegedly vouched for the credibility of Watson during the prosecutor's opening statement. Wood raised this claim on direct review, and the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected it:

Defendant next argues that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct in her opening statement by vouching for the credibility of Watson and that the trial court erred by not granting his motion for a mistrial. We disagree. This Court "review[s] claims of prosecutorial misconduct case by case ... to determine whether the defendant received a fair and impartial trial." People v. Watson, 245 Mich.App. 572, 586, 629 N.W.2d 411 (2001). We review for an abuse of discretion a trial court's decision regarding a motion for a mistrial. People v. Schaw, 288 Mich.App. 231, 236, 791 N.W.2d 743 (2010).
A prosecutor may not vouch for the credibility of his or her witnesses "to the effect that [the prosecutor] has some special knowledge concerning a witness'[s] truthfulness." People v. Bahoda, 448 Mich. 261, 276, 531 N.W.2d 659 (1995). However, merely " '[b]y calling a witness who testifies pursuant to an agreement requiring him to testify truthfully, the Government does not insinuate possession of information
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