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Johnson v. Estes

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

February 12, 2017

DEWAYNE ESTES, Respondent.



         Michael Earl Johnson, a state inmate in the custody of Respondent Dewayne Estes, [1] has petitioned this Court for federal habeas corpus relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Johnson challenges the validity of his 2007 conviction for first-degree domestic violence in the Circuit Court of Marengo County, Alabama. (Doc. 1 at 2). This action was referred for report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), S.D. Ala. GenLR 72(a)(2)(R), and Rule 8 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases. Following a thorough review of the petition and record, the undersigned finds that an evidentiary hearing is not warranted.[2]

         Having carefully considered Johnson's petition, Respondent's answer, and Johnson's reply, the undersigned finds that Johnson's petition is due to be denied. Accordingly, it is recommended that Johnson's habeas petition be denied in its entirety, that judgment be entered in favor of Respondent and against Petitioner, Michael Earl Johnson, and that if Johnson seeks the issuance of a certificate of appealability, his request be denied, along with any request to appeal in forma pauperis.

         I. Background and Facts.

         On November 14, 2006, the Marengo County, Alabama grand jury returned an indictment charging Johnson with first-degree domestic violence for an assault on Barbara Little in violation of Ala. Code § 13A-6-130. (Doc. 6-1 at 8-9). Johnson was convicted of the indicted charge following a jury trial (Doc. 1 at 2; Doc. 6-4 at 47, 49), where the following facts were presented:[3]

         "AEDPA expressly limits the extent to which hearings are permissible, not merely the extent to which they are required." Kelley v. Sec'y for the Dep't of Corr., 377 F.3d 1317, 1337 (11th Cir. 2004). Johnson has failed to establish that an evidentiary hearing is warranted in this case. Birt v. Montgomery, 725 F.2d 587, 591 (11th Cir. 1984) (en banc) ("The burden is on the petitioner . . . to establish the need for an evidentiary hearing.").

“The State presented testimony that Johnson and [Barbara] Little had been involved in an intimate relationship for approximately three months; that Little had terminated the relationship; and that Johnson had continued to contact Little. On the morning of May 17, 2006, Little opened the door to leave her house and she saw Johnson. Johnson asked her why she had not returned his telephone call, and he hit Little in the face with his fist, knocking her down. Johnson struck Little repeatedly in the face with his fists; he kicked Little after she fell to the ground; he choked Little with the cord from an electric iron; he struck Little with a stool and a radio; and he bit Little on the face. Little testified that she tried to escape from the house and that when she did, Johnson got a knife from the kitchen. Little said that when she saw that Johnson had a knife, her ‘body went numb, ' and she did not remember anything after that until she awoke in a pool of blood and saw the knife, with a bent blade, beside her on the floor. She had suffered a stab wound to her side while she was ‘blacked out.' Little picked up the knife and straightened the blade, and she attempted to leave the house several times, but Johnson blocked her exit. Little was finally able to go out the side door and she ran into the street.”
“Little testified that the blows Johnson inflicted to the left side of her head damaged her left eye so severely that the eye had to be surgically replaced with a prosthesis. The stab wound damaged Little's liver, requiring surgical repair. The right side of Little's face was damaged, Little said, because Johnson bit her and removed a ‘piece of meat out of the side' of her face.”
“Johnson testified that he went to Little's house to get information from her about medicine for his high blood pressure. Johnson asked Little why she had not answered his telephone calls. Johnson testified that Little pulled on his shoulder and he ‘turned around and punched her as hard as [he] could.' Johnson said that Little then approached him carrying a knife in one hand and a rubber mallet in the other hand, Johnson said, so he grabbed her arms and pinned her against a wall. Johnson stated that Little was pressing toward him while she was restrained and as a result, ‘I felt like I had to bite her.' Johnson sustained knife wounds to his arm and head during the incident.”

Johnson v. State, (CR-06-2014, June 20, 2008), 26 So.3d 508 (Ala.Crim.App.2008). (Doc. 6-14 at 3-4). On August 9, 2007, after a guilty conviction, Johnson was sentenced to 25 years in the state penitentiary for the first-degree domestic violence. (Doc. 6-4 at 69).

         Through representation of counsel, Johnson directly appealed his conviction. He argued that the trial court erred when it allowed the admission into evidence of a police report documenting previous allegations against Johnson of rape and physical violence against a minor victim. Specifically, he argued (1) that the police report was not a business record under Rule 803(6) of the Alabama Rules of Evidence and was, therefore, not an exception to the rule against hearsay, and (2) that the trial court erred when it refused to give jury instructions on self-defense. (Doc. 6-6 at 4). On June 20, 2008, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals issued an unpublished memorandum decision affirming Johnson's conviction. The court reasoned the police report had been admitted into evidence at trial without objection and, therefore, had not been preserved for appellate review, and that the allegation of error regarding the jury instructions was meritless because the trial transcript reflected the jury was in fact instructed on self-defense. (Doc. 6-7 at 2-5). Johnson's petition for writ of certiorari in the Alabama Supreme Court was denied and a certificate of judgment issued on September 12, 2008. (Doc. 6-9 at 2).

         On November 14, 2008, Johnson executed a post-conviction Rule 32 petition and submitted the same, along with an In Forma Pauperis declaration. (Doc. 6-10 at 2-23).[4] The circuit court granted Johnson indigency status, and on June 4, 2013, entered an order denying and summarily dismissing Johnson's Rule 32 petition. (Doc. 6-12 at 9-11). Johnson then appealed the denial of his Rule 32 petition to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. (Doc. 6-14 at 2-14). He reasserted the same claims he raised in the trial court, namely that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request that the circuit court instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of second degree domestic violence and for failing to object to the "admission of a police report as hearsay”; and that his appellate counsel was ineffective for filing a “frivolous meritless brief.” (Doc. 6-14 at 4-5). The Criminal Appeals Court denied all three claims on the merits and affirmed the circuit court's judgment. (Doc. 6-14 at 2-14). Johnson's application for rehearing was denied on July 11, 2014 (Doc. 6 at 12), as was his petition for writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court of Alabama. A certificate of judgment issued on September 12, 2014. (Doc. 6-16 at 2).

         Johnson timely filed the instant petition for federal habeas relief on September 26, 2014, challenging his 2007 conviction for first-degree domestic violence. (Doc. 1 at 12). In his petition for habeas relief, Johnson raises the same three claims of ineffective assistance of counsel as raised in his Rule 32 petition. (Doc. 1 at 6-8; Doc. 6-14 at 2-14)). The habeas petition has been fully briefed and is ripe for consideration. The Court will consider each of Johnson's claims in turn.

         II. Standard of Review.

         This Court's review of Johnson's petition is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Under AEDPA, "the role of the federal court . . . is strictly limited." Jones v. Walker, 496 F.3d 1216, 1226 (11th Cir. 2007). Specifically, § 2254(d) provides:

(d) 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 facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.
(e) (1) In a proceeding instituted by an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court, a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct. The applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.

28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         Thus, a federal court may grant habeas relief only if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the United States Supreme Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently from the way the United States Supreme Court did on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-405, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed. 2D 389 (2000); Price v. Vincent, 538 U.S. 634, 641, 123 S.Ct.1848, 155 L.Ed.2d 877 (2003)(a federal court will disturb a state habeas court's decision on the merits only if the petitioner shows that the decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established constitutional law as determined by the United States or if the decision rested upon an unreasonable factual determination.).

         "[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 fair-minded disagreement." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786-87, 178 L.Ed.2d 624 (2011). In other words, "if some fair-minded jurists could agree with the state court's decision, although others might disagree, federal habeas relief must be denied. . .[T]he deference due is heavy and purposely presents a daunting hurdle for a habeas petitioner to clear." Loggins v. Thomas, 654 F.3d 1204, 1220 (11th Cir. 2011); see also Greene v. Fisher, 565 U.S. 34, 132 S.Ct. 38, 181 L.Ed.2d 336 (2011) (AEDPA standard is purposely onerous because "federal habeas relief functions as a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice system, and not as a means of error correction") (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398, 179 L.Ed.2d 557 (2011) (AEDPA standard "is a difficult to meet ... and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt")(citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Accordingly, in evaluating Johnson's § 2254 petition, the Court takes great care to abide by the stricture that "[a] federal court may not grant habeas relief on a claim a state court has rejected on the merits simply because the state court held a view different from its own." Hill v. Humphrey, 662 F.3d 1335, 1355 (11th Cir. 2011); see also Reese v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 675 F.3d 1277, 1286, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 6501 (11th Cir. 2012) ("This inquiry is different from determining whether we would decide de novo that the petitioner's claim ...

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