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Davis v. Sellers

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

October 10, 2019

SCOTT WINFIELD DAVIS, Petitioner-Appellant,
ERIC SELLERS, WARDEN, Respondent-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:13-cv-01434-AT

          Before MARCUS and HULL, Circuit Judges, and WRIGHT, [*] District Judge.


         Scott Winfield Davis ("Davis"), a Georgia prisoner serving a life sentence for malice murder, appeals the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court granted a certificate of appealability on two issues: (1) whether Davis's due process claims are procedurally defaulted and, if not, whether the claims fail on the merits; and (2) whether the district court abused its discretion in denying Davis's request to employ the stay and abeyance procedure set forth in Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269, 125 S.Ct. 1528, 161 L.Ed.2d 440 (2005). After careful review and oral argument, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         We begin by reviewing the evidence presented at Davis's criminal trial and procedural history.

         A. Murder, Arson, Alibi, and Initial Arrest

         On Friday, December 6, 1996, a private detective gave Davis the home address of David Coffin, Jr., who was dating Davis's estranged wife, Megan. After two years of marriage, Megan had filed for divorce and left the couple's Atlanta home. Davis, who desperately hoped for a reconciliation, hired the detective to follow Megan, and told an acquaintance that he would kill anyone who had a sexual relationship with his wife. With the address in hand, Davis told the detective that he planned to drive by Coffin's house that weekend.

         On Saturday, December 7, 1996, while Coffin was spending the night at Megan's apartment, his home was burglarized and vandalized, and a phone call was placed from his home phone to Davis's. Later that night, Davis left multiple, emotional messages on Megan's phone, begging her to answer and asking if she were sleeping with Coffin. Coffin returned to his house the next morning and discovered his television set destroyed and entertainment room in disarray. Missing from the residence were Coffin's Porsche automobile, Beretta handgun, two shotguns, caller identification box, and two watches.

         On Monday, December 9, 1996, Davis called in sick to work. That evening, Davis exchanged vehicles with his neighbor, Greg Gatley, telling Gatley that he needed his Jeep Cherokee, which was white, to return a table and chairs borrowed for a Christmas party. Coffin also owned and drove, in addition to the Porsche, a white Jeep Cherokee. After Gatley and Davis exchanged cars, Gatley drove Davis's car to a nearby gym called Australian Body Works, and the next time he saw Davis was later that night, when Davis returned the Jeep.

         On Tuesday, December 10, 1996, a morning 911 call took Dekalb County Fire Department personnel to a road near Coffin's home, where Coffin's stolen Porsche sat unoccupied and on fire. That evening, Coffin's neighbor observed flames coming from Coffin's house and called 911. Firefighters later discovered Coffin's charred body in what remained of his incinerated home.

         The same evening, Davis made several calls to the police. Before the discovery of the house fire and Coffin's body, Davis reported that an intruder had entered his home and sprayed him with mace. Davis told the responding officer that his attacker put a gun to his head and warned him to "leave Megan alone" and that after a failed attempt to steal his car, the attacker fled on foot and jumped over his backyard fence. Davis called police a second time to report that a gas can, tools, and clothing were missing from his home after the alleged attack, and made a third emergency call a few hours after firefighters were dispatched to the fire at Coffin's house. With his last call, Davis reported that he had awakened to find flames on his back patio and a person in a ski mask with a handgun. Davis told the responding officers that he had fired a shotgun at the masked person, who had shot back and fled over the back fence, and that Davis had extinguished the fire with a garden hose.

         After firefighters discovered Coffin's body, homicide detectives Rick Chambers and Marchal Walker went to the scene and learned about Davis's emergency calls and his connection to Megan and Coffin. The detectives went to Davis's residence, a short distance away, where Davis repeated the information he had reported earlier. Given similarities between the events at Davis's house and Coffin's, and the assailant's reference to Megan, the detectives requested that Davis provide a written statement, and he agreed. Davis voluntarily allowed officers at the scene to transport him to the homicide office to give his statement.

         At the homicide office, Davis dictated a statement to Chambers, and Chambers asked him some questions. At first, Chambers viewed Davis as a victim, but as his story progressed, he became suspicious and provided Davis Miranda warnings. Davis waived his Miranda rights and continuing with the interview, said that he had learned that Coffin's house was on fire and that Coffin had been shot. At that time, law enforcement had no information about the cause of death, as Coffin's body had been severely burned. Only later would an autopsy reveal that Coffin died from a gunshot wound to the head. When asked how he had learned that Coffin had been shot, Davis said that he thought that Megan or her friend, Craig Foster, had told him during a phone conversation. Chambers left the interview room and called Megan and Foster, who both denied that they knew how Coffin died or that they had told Davis that Coffin had been shot. Chambers, assisted by Walker, continued the remainder of Davis's interview on audiotape. Davis was free to go when the interview concluded, and Chambers and Walker drove him home. Before Chambers left Davis's residence, he scanned the back fence for evidence of a fleeing intruder but found nothing.

         On Thursday, December 12, 1996, Davis told Gatley that they needed to "get their stories straight," and asked Gatley to tell police that he had seen him at the Australian Body Works Gym on December 9, the night the two had exchanged vehicles. Gatley told Davis that he was just going to tell the truth.

         On Friday, December 13, 1996, officers arrested Davis on charges of Coffin's murder, the burglary and arson of Coffin's home, and the theft of Coffin's Porsche. Davis was eventually released, and the Fulton County District Attorney dismissed the charges in mid-1998, but Davis remained a suspect.

         B. Indictment and Pretrial Motion to Dismiss Based on Lost and Destroyed Evidence

         In November 2005, a Fulton County grand jury charged Davis with felony and malice murder, alleging that between December 9 and 10, 1996, he shot Coffin and set his body on fire. Davis urged the trial court that the State's loss or destruction of evidence during the nine-year period between his initial arrest and eventual indictment violated his right to due process. Before trial, he filed a motion to dismiss the indictment based on the loss or destruction of evidence and reported that the State's attorney had notified defense counsel that much of the physical evidence in the case had been lost or destroyed. In his written motion, Davis alleged that the State lost or destroyed the following evidence:

• a Beretta handgun (the alleged murder weapon) recovered from the murder scene, near Coffin's body
• a bullet and a bullet casing removed from Coffin's body
• a hat tassel found in the Jeep Cherokee that Davis borrowed from Gatley
• a gasoline can recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• remnants of a 1996 Atlanta Olympics plastic bag recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• a shotgun recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• a knife recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• a flashlight recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• a key recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• a caller identification unit recovered from Coffin's torched Porsche
• a second gasoline can found December 26, 1996 on a road close to Coffin's home

         Davis argued that the foregoing items were potentially exculpatory and that law enforcement personnel had acted in bad faith by destroying or losing them. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion, finding that the missing evidence was material but that without a showing of bad faith on the part of the State, the loss or destruction of the evidence did not amount to a denial of due process.

         C. Trial, Conviction, and Posttrial Motion for a New Trial Based on Lost and Destroyed Evidence

         At trial, over defense counsel's continued objection, witnesses referred to multiple articles of lost or destroyed evidence. For example, Megan identified a photograph of the gas can surrounded by a plastic bag remnant that firefighters recovered from Coffin's Porsche. She testified that the gas can, which had the word "gasoline" printed on the diagonal, looked like one that had been present in the home she had shared with Davis. Megan also testified that the plastic bag remnant looked like a drawstring bag with a sports insignia that Davis had brought home after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but she acknowledged that she did not know whether the gas can and bag were the same items that she had observed in her marital home. Also notable was testimony that the Beretta handgun that Coffin owned and had reported stolen was discovered under his head.

         Several witnesses testified about forensic tests attempted or performed before physical evidence was lost or destroyed. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation ("GBI") firearms examiner testified that the bullet removed from Coffin and Beretta and shell casings from the crime scene were untestable due to fire and water damage. Although the examiner could not verify that the bullet had been fired from the ...

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