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England v. White

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky

September 11, 2018

STEVIE LYN ENGLAND, PETITIONER
v.
RANDY WHITE, WARDEN, RESPONDENT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THOMAS B. RUSSELL, SENIOR JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Petitioner Stevie Lynn England's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, [R. 1], and Amended Petition, [R. 47]. The Magistrate Judge filed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Recommendation. [R. 94.] England filed objections thereto. [R. 95.] Having conducted a de novo review of the portions of the Magistrate Judge's report to which Potter objected, [1] the Court ADOPTS the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law as set forth in the report submitted by the Magistrate Judge, [R. 94]. For the reasons stated herein, England's objections, [R.95], are DENIED. The Court will enter a separate Order and Judgment consistent with this Memorandum Opinion.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 19, 2005, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed the conviction of Stevie Lyn England of complicity to murder Lisa Halvorson. See England v. Commonwealth, No. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *1 (Ky. May 19, 2005). England and his co-defendant, Tyrone McCary, were originally indicted of capital murder and tried separately. [R. 94 at 1 (Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Recommendation).] McCary was Halvorson's ex-boyfriend. [Id. at 2.] At England's trial before the Graves Circuit Court, the Commonwealth introduced evidence showing that Halvorson obtained an emergency protective order (EPO) against McCary shortly before her death, and her affidavit in support of the EPO claimed that McCary threatened to kill her or have someone kill her for him. [Id.] Also, Cori Poindexter, Halvorson's friend and the last person to see her alive, testified at trial that she was present when McCary called Halvorson and heard Halvorson's side of the conversation. [Id.] Poindexter testified that, while Halvorson was on the phone with McCary, Halvorson told Poindexter that McCary said that if he could not have her, nobody would. [Id.]

         During the trial, the Commonwealth's theory of the case was that England was present at the scene and assisted McCary in committing the murder. [Id.] The Magistrate Judge summarized the Commonwealth's theory as follows:

McCary and/or Petitioner devised a plan to make it appear that Lisa was accidentally run over by her own truck while exiting her garage. McCary and/or Petitioner: drove to Lisa's house; knocked her to the ground in or near the garage; beat her severely; accelerated the truck backward out of the garage, causing Lisa's face to be caught in the right bumper and spinning her into the wheel well; got on top of her and broke her windpipe, resulting in death by asphyxia.

[Id. (citing Audio-video of trial, Day 1 (January 8, 2003), 3:13:00).] England and McCary were originally implicated in the crime by the testimony of Karl Woodfork. According to Woodfork, McCary described various plots to him and England for murdering Halvorson and making it appear like an accident. [Id. (citing Audio-video of trial, Day 4 (January 14, 2003), 11:07:00).] Furthermore, Woodfork testified that McCary paid both him and England an initial payment of $1, 000.00, with a promise of an additional payment of $10, 000.00 (each) after the murder. [Id.]

         Before the trial, Woodfork agreed to be wired for sound, and the police secretly recorded conversations between Woodfork and England, in which England complained about McCary owing him money. After informing England of these recordings during an interrogation at the police station, England admitted to being present at the murder scene with McCary but insisted that he only punched Halvorson in the jaw one time-to “soften her up”-causing her to fall to the ground. [Id. at 3.] Furthermore, England claimed that he attempted to dissuade McCary from committing the other terrible acts, and he also claimed Halvorson was alive when he and McCary left the scene. [Id.]

         After the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed England's conviction, England filed a Motion to Vacate pursuant to Kentucky Rules of Criminal Procedure (RCr) 11.42, containing ten claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. [Id.] It was denied by the trial court. [Id.] Upon appeal, the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the rejection of all claims except for one, which was remanded for an evidentiary hearing. [Id.] However, this evidentiary hearing was rendered moot when England agreed to a sentence of life imprisonment. [Id. at 3-4 (citing R. 47-1 at 25).]

         Subsequently, England filed a Habeas Corpus Petition, [R. 1], and an Amended Petition, [R. 47], consisting of twenty-six claims. On March 6, 2017, the Magistrate Judge entered a Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendation, recommending that the Habeas Corpus Petition and the Amended Petition be denied. [R. 94 at 1.] On March 24, 2017, England filed an Objection to the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation, [R. 95], which involved seventeen of the twenty-six previous claims. The matter came before the undersigned when this case was reassigned to this Court on April 25, 2018, [R. 96].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “Under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), federal habeas relief may not be granted unless the state court decision at issue: (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.” Coleman v. Bergh, 804 F.3d 816, 819 n. 1 (6th Cir. 2015).

         “Under the ‘contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ 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 reaches a decision different from that of the Supreme Court on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Trimble v. Bobby, 804 F.3d 767, 773 (6th Cir. 2015). “Under the ‘unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the petitioner's case.” Id. “For factual matters, a district court may not grant a habeas petition unless the state court's adjudication “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.” Id. (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2)).

         “To obtain habeas relief, ‘a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.'” Id. (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011)). This standard is “difficult to meet.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (citation omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         In his Objection, England lists many arguments regarding seventeen of the claims from his Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus and Amended Petition. The Court will address each in turn.

         A. Claims 1-3

         The first ground raised under England's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus was that England's Fifth Amendment right to counsel during custodial interrogation was violated when England's alleged request for an attorney was ignored by police. [R. 95 at 38 (England Objection).] Specifically, England argues that the following statement qualified as an unequivocal request for an attorney: “I guess you'll just have to go on and lock me up then and call my lawyer, ‘cause I don't, I don't know what you're talking about. I'll be honest with you. Like I said, me and Tyrone are friends. I've never seen that woman.” [R. 94 at 5-6 (quoting England, Nos. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *2; R. 95 at 38.] After further questioning, England said, “I don't want to get in no trouble. I mean my lawyer. I don't know.” [R. 94 at 5-6 (quoting England, Nos. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *2).] The Magistrate Judge held that this statement did not invoke the Fifth Amendment right to counsel, citing the finding of the Supreme Court in Davis v. United States, in which the Supreme Court found that the words “maybe I should talk to a lawyer” are equivocal. [Id. at 6 (citing Davis, 512 U.S. 452, 459 (1994).][2] Furthermore, the Magistrate Judge found that the Kentucky Supreme Court's holding that England's statement did not amount to a request for an attorney was not contrary to the United States Supreme Court's precedent. [R. 94 at 6.]

         In his Objection to the Magistrate Judge's findings, England argues that his statement was an “unequivocal request for an attorney” under Supreme Court precedent[3] and questioning by police should have ceased at that time. [R. 95 at 38-39.] Furthermore, England contends that the Kentucky Supreme Court, which the Magistrate Judge quoted in his findings, cited to inapplicable case law in its opinion. [R. Id. at 39.]

         The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings and denies England's objection. First, the Court finds that England's statements did not constitute an unambiguous request for counsel. The Sixth Circuit has succinctly summarized the requirements of the Supreme Court for such a situation as follows:

A suspect subject to custodial interrogation has the right to consult with an attorney and to have counsel present during questioning. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). If the suspect invokes that right, police must stop questioning him until his attorney arrives or the suspect reinitiates discussion. Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 484-85, 101 S.Ct. 1880, 68 L.Ed.2d 378 (1981). In determining whether a suspect has invoked his right to counsel, we apply an objective standard, asking whether a reasonable police officer would have understood the suspect to be asking for an attorney. Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 458-59, 114 S.Ct. 2350, 129 L.Ed.2d 362 (1994). The request must be unequivocal. Id. at 459, 114 S.Ct. 2350.

Perreault v. Smith, 874 F.3d 516, 519-20 (6th Cir. 2017), cert. denied sub nom. Perreault v. Stewart, 138 S.Ct. 1299, 200 L.Ed.2d 473 (2018). In Perreault, the Sixth Circuit found that the state court reasonably interpreted the defendant's statement during the police interview as being a negotiation tactic, not an unequivocal request for counsel. See 874 F.3d at 520. In detail, after the police officer accused his story of being inconsistent, the defendant retorted: “Well, then let's call the lawyer then 'cause I gave what I could.” Id. The Court finds this statement to be extremely similar to England's response of “I guess you'll just have to go on and lock me up then and call my lawyer.” [R. 94 at 5-6 (quoting England, Nos. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *2; R. 95 at 38.] A reasonable police officer could have interpreted this statement as a negotiation tactic, rather than a request for counsel. Therefore, this statement was not an “unequivocal request” for counsel as required by Supreme Court precedent. See Davis, 512 U.S. at 459 (“[I]f a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking the right to counsel, our precedents do not require the cessation of questioning.”) (citing McNeil v. Wisconsin, 501 U.S. 171, 178 (1991); Edwards, 451 U.S. at 485).

         Secondly, the Court finds that the case law cited by the Kentucky Supreme Court is applicable to the case at hand. England claims that the Kentucky Supreme Court should have cited to the Supreme Court's holding in Smith v. Illinois in analyzing his request for counsel, rather than Colorado v. Spring, 479 U.S. 564 (1987). After examining the opinion of the Kentucky Supreme Court, the Court finds that England mischaracterizes its findings. The Kentucky Supreme Court did not cite to Colorado while analyzing England's right to counsel. It cited to Colorado in the section entitled “Coercion, ” which was appropriate because the Supreme Court discusses police coercion of confessions in detail in that case. See England, Nos. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *3 (citing Colorado, 479 U.S. at 574). Moreover, in evaluating England's request for counsel, the court appropriately cited to the Supreme Court's findings in Davis, which references Smith for support. Id. at *2 (citing Davis, 512 U.S. at 459).

         In sum, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings regarding Claim 1, and England's objections as to Claims 1, 2, and 3 are denied.[4]

         B. Claim 4

         Under Claim 4, England argued that his rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated during the trial when the Commonwealth admitted the affidavit of the deceased victim, Lisa Halvorson, into evidence. [R. 81 at 2 (England Partial Reply).] According to the Magistrate Judge, “[t]he affidavit informed the jury that McCrary threatened to kill Lisa or have someone kill her for him.” [R. 94 at 9.] The Magistrate Judge held that the Kentucky Supreme Court correctly acknowledged that the admission of the affidavit violated England's rights under the Confrontation Clause, but the admission amounted to harmless error. [Id. at 11-12.] In detail, the Magistrate Judge found that the erroneous admission of the affidavit was harmless in light of England's police station confession, in which the Magistrate Judge asserted that “he admitted to striking Lisa and knocking her to the ground, ” and in light of the recorded conversation between England and Karl Woodfork, during which Woodwork subsequently testified that England told him that McCrary had not paid him the money owed for the crime. [Id. at 12.]

         England objects to these findings, stating that “[t]hings cannot be looked at in a vacuum.” [R. 95 at 16.] England contends that the Magistrate Judge ignored the effect of the state court's error on several of his other claims, and he states that “the Magistrate circumvents his obligation to review each of these errors in context to the Crawford error as required by Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 684 (1986) and refuses to look at the error as a whole.” [Id. at 17.]

         The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings and denies England's objection. Despite England's contention, the Magistrate Judge recited the factors of Delaware and found the state court's conclusions under the first and second factors to be satisfactory. [R. 94 at 12.] Furthermore, the court's consideration under those factors referenced the Commonwealth's case as a whole, as well as the cumulative nature of other evidence admitted in the case. [Id. at 13.][5] Thus, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings regarding Claim 4, and England's objection is denied.

         C. Claim 6

         In Claim 6, England argued that his due process rights were violated when he was denied sufficient public funds to hire a criminologist who could have testified that Ms. Halvorson's body was moved after her death. [R. 81 at 2; R. 94 at 14; R. 95 at 40.] The Magistrate Judge held that the Supreme Court's holding in Ake v. Oklahoma, which found that states must provide an indigent defendant with a psychiatric expert when the defendant's sanity is a significant factor at trial, does not extend that right to other types of expert witnesses. [R. 94 at 14 (citing Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985)).] Furthermore, the Magistrate Judge observed that “Petitioner admitted to assaulting Lisa, and he and McCary allegedly left while she was still alive. Whether or not the body was moved after death does not change the fact of Petitioner's involvement.” [Id.]

         In his Objection, England contends that “the trial court possessed no discretion to deny England funding to retain an expert for investigation and preparation of his defense.” [R. 95 at 40.] Furthermore, he concludes that the assistance of an expert would have allowed him to “fairly present at least enough forensic information to the jury, in a meaningful manner, as to permit it to have made a sensible determination.” [Id. at 41.] England explains that an expert could have examined the “veracity of the handling of the evidence” and possibly compelled the testing of evidence for DNA before trial. [Id.]

         The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings and denies England's objection. First, the Court finds that England's claim that the trial court did not have discretion to deny funding for an expert is incorrect. In fact, in Kentucky, a trial court has discretion to decide whether funds should be provided under KRS 31.110 based off the “specific information that [the defense counsel] expects the expert to provide at trial.” Davenport v. Commonwealth, 177 S.W.3d 763, 774 (Ky. 2005). Secondly, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's holding that any finding of a criminologist on this specific matter would not change England's admitted involvement in the murder of Halvorson. Testing of the Caucasian hairs in Halvorson's hands and underwear and the sperm in her vagina could have proven or disproven Shannon Jenkins's testimony that he had sexual intercourse with Halvorson before her death. [R. 94 at 14- 15.] However, this evidence would not change the fact that England admitted to police that he was present at the murder scene with McCrary and he punched Halvorson in the jaw, knocking her to the ground. [R. 94 at 3.]

         In sum, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings regarding Claim 6 and denies England's objections.

         D. Claim 9

         Under Claim 9, England argued that his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment were violated when the jurors opposed to the death penalty were excluded from the jury panel. [R. 91 at 18; R. 95 at 42.] The Magistrate Judge held that “[t]he Sixth Amendment allows for-cause exclusion of prospective jurors due to substantial impairment of ability to impose the death penalty.” [R. 94 at 17 (citing White v. Wheeler, 136 S.Ct. 456 (2015).] Thus, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the Kentucky Supreme Court's holding that a juror may be stricken for cause if she is unable to consider the death penalty was not contrary to United States Supreme Court precedent. [Id.]

         In his Objection, England claims that he was denied the right to “life-qualify” the jury because “[n]o where in the Kentucky Supreme Court decision can it be found that it discharged this balancing test as required by Morgan at 728.” [R. 95 at 42.] In Morgan v. Illinois, the Supreme Court reiterated that “the proper standard for determining when a prospective juror may be excluded for cause because of his or her views on capital punishment . . . is whether the juror's views would ‘prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'” 504 U.S. 719, 728 (1992). Furthermore, the Court stated: “Under this standard, . . . a juror who in no case would vote for capital punishment, regardless of his or her instructions, is not an impartial juror and must be removed for cause.” Id. Here, the Kentucky Supreme Court concluded: “It is well-settled law in this Commonwealth that a juror may be stricken for cause if she is unable to consider the death penalty when considering the sentence upon conviction of the defendant. We hold that England's constitutional rights were not violated by excusing jurors who could not consider the death penalty as a sentence upon his conviction.” England, No. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *7. The Court finds that the Kentucky Supreme Court's holding aligns with the United States Supreme Court's holding regarding when an impartial juror must be removed for cause. Thus, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings regarding Claim 9 and denies England's objection.

         E. Claim 11

         In Claim 11, England argued that his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were violated when the attorney for the Commonwealth misstated the law during closing argument. [R. 91 at 23; R. 94 at 18.] At trial, the jury instructions stated that the jury could return a guilty verdict if it believed that England killed Ms. Halvorson by “striking her, running over her with a truck, and causing her death by strangulation.” [R. 94 at 18; R. 95 at 43; England, No. 2003-SC-0328-MR, 2005 WL 1185204, at *8.] However, during its closing argument, the Commonwealth stated that the jury could return a guilty verdict if it found that England engaged in only one of those actions listed in the jury instructions. [Id.] The Magistrate Judge held that the Kentucky Supreme Court's holding that England's claim was procedurally defaulted due to trial counsel's failure to raise a contemporaneous objection barred the Magistrate Judge from considering the constitutional merits of the claim. [R. 94 at 18.][6] In his Objection, England states that by directing the jury to not follow the jury instructions, the Commonwealth violated his rights “under the Fourteenth Amendment as held by In Re Winship.” [R. 95 at 43 (citing In Re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970)).]

         The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's findings and denies England's objection. First, the Court agrees that the state court's finding of procedural default bars this Court from considering the constitutional merits of the claim. “A petitioner procedurally defaults claims for habeas relief if the petitioner has not presented those claims to the state courts in accordance with the state's procedural rules.” Simpson v. Jones, 238 F.3d 399, 406 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing Wainwright v. Sykes,433 U.S. 72, 87 (1977); Coe v. Bell, 161 F.3d 320, 329 (6th Cir. 1998); Couch v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 94, 96 (6th Cir. 1991)). A federal claim brought by a state prisoner in a habeas action may become procedurally defaulted in state court in two different ways. See Williams v. Anderson,460 F.3d 789, 806 (6th Cir. 2006). A prisoner first may procedurally default a given claim by failing to comply with an established state procedural rule when presenting his claim at trial or on appeal in the state courts. See Wainwright, 433 U.S. at 87. Additionally, procedural default can occur when a petitioner completely “fail[s] to ...


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