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United States ex rel Brent v. Jones

August 4, 2008

UNITED STATES EX REL. MICHAEL BRENT (#B-04680), PETITIONER,
v.
EDDIE JONES, ACTING WARDEN, PONTIAC CORRECTIONAL CENTER, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy J. St. Eve United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

AMY J. ST. EVE, District Court Judge

Before the Court is pro se Petitioner Michael Brent's petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). For the following reasons, the Court denies Brent's habeas petition.

BACKGROUND

Brent does not present clear and convincing evidence challenging the statement of facts set forth in the Illinois Appellate Court's opinions affirming the judgments of the Circuit Court of Cook County, and thus the Court presumes those facts are correct for purposes of its habeas review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see also Virsnieks v. Smith, 521 F.3d 707, 714 (7th Cir. 2008). The Court thus adopts the underlying facts as set forth by the Illinois Appellate Court in People v. Brent, 1-04-0805 (Ill.App.Ct. Oct. 1, 2004) (unpublished); People v. Brent, 1-00-3478 & 1-01-0913 (consolidated) (Ill.App.Ct. May 2, 2003) (unpublished). The Court begins with a brief recounting of the facts as determined by the Illinois Appellate Court. See Easley v. Frey, 433 F.3d 969, 970 (7th Cir. 2006).

I. Factual Background

Following simultaneous jury trials in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Petitioner Michael Brent and his co-defendant, Victor Reynolds, were convicted of the first degree murder of Carlos Sanchez. (R. 16-1, Resp.'s Rule 5 Exs., Ex. D, L.) At trial, testimony revealed that Reynolds was driving a car in which Brent was a passenger and that Brent and Reynolds were in a car accident with Sanchez and two other occupants of a Chevrolet Blazer. After the accident, Brent told the police that Reynolds pursued the Blazer for about 15 to 20 minutes claiming that he would "beat their ass." Brent also said that during the chase, he instructed Reynolds where to turn while following the Blazer.

After the Blazer crashed into a pole, Sanchez and the two other occupants of the Blazer fled. Reynolds and Brent pursued them on foot. Upon exiting the car, Brent carried a baseball bat after which he walked around a house and saw Sanchez emerge from hiding. Thereafter, Sanchez attempted to climb a fence, but Brent grabbed Sanchez's jacket, punched him, and pushed him over the fence. Reynolds then approached Sanchez and began hitting him with a "Club" anti-theft device. Sanchez ran away, but Reynolds pursued him and continued to strike him with the Club anti-theft device. Consequently, Sanchez died of multiple blunt force injuries.

II. Procedural Background

After a jury convicted Brent of first degree murder based on the legal theory of accountability, the trial court sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Brent appealed his conviction and sentence to the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, where he raised the following claims:

(1) the Circuit Court erred in limiting the cross-examination and impeachment of eyewitness Wardell Trotter in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense; (2) the Circuit Court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offenses of battery, aggravated battery, and second degree murder; (3) the Circuit Court erred in allowing the State to introduce evidence of two exhibits marked by an individual who testified only before Reynolds' jury; and (4) Brent was denied a fair trial when the State, in its closing argument, improperly misstated the evidence, gave a misleading example of legal responsibility, indicated a change in its theory of the case, improperly stated the prosecutor's opinion, and sought to inflame the passions of the jury. (Ex. A.) On May 2, 2003, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed Brent's conviction and sentence. (Ex. D.) Brent then filed a petition for leave to appeal ("PLA") to the Supreme Court of Illinois raising the same issues that he raised on direct appeal. (Ex. E.) The Supreme Court of Illinois denied Brent's PLA on January 28, 2004. (Ex. F.)

Meanwhile, on September 23, 2003, Brent filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the Circuit Court of Cook County pursuant to the Illinois Post-Conviction Hearing Act, 725 ILCS 5/122--1, et seq. (Ex. G.) Brent raised the following claims in his post-conviction petition: (1) the State failed to prove him guilty of every element necessary to sustain a conviction of accountability; (2) he cannot be held accountable because he stopped assisting his co-defendant Reynolds before the commission of the offense; (3) trial counsel failed to request that a withdrawal instruction be submitted to the jury; and (4) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise claims one, two, and three on direct appeal. (Id.) The Circuit Court dismissed Brent's post-conviction petition. (Ex. H.) Brent then appealed the Circuit Court's dismissal to the Illinois Appellate Court, First District. (Ex. I.) In his post-conviction appeal, Brent raised the following claims: (1) his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the issue of reasonable doubt on the ground that the State's evidence negated his accountability for first degree murder; and (2) appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that trial counsel should have requested that the jury be instructed on withdrawal. (Id.) The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the Circuit Court's dismissal of the post-conviction petition on December 9, 2005. (Ex. L.) Brent then filed a PLA to the Supreme Court of Illinois raising two claims: (1) although withdrawal was the only legally supportable defense, the Illinois Appellate Court wrongly held that trial counsel's failure to request a withdrawal instruction was "objectively reasonable given the arguments presented at trial," ignoring the fact that trial counsel's strategy -- which focused on general lack of accountability -- was doomed to fail and thus not objectively reasonable and (2) appellate counsel's failure to raise the issue that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction on withdrawal constituted ineffective assistance of appellate counsel. (Ex. M.) The Supreme Court of Illinois denied Brent's post-conviction PLA on May 24, 2006. (Ex. N.)

On June 27, 2006, Brent filed the present pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus raising these claims: (1) the Circuit Court erred in limiting the cross-examination and impeachment of witness Wardell Trotter in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense; (2) the Circuit Court erred by not instructing the jury on the lesser-included offenses of battery, aggravated battery, and second-degree murder; (3) the Circuit Court erred in allowing the State to introduce two exhibits marked by a witness who testified before co-defendant Reynold's jury, but not his jury; (4) the State's closing argument constituted prosecutorial misconduct; (5) the cumulative effect of the errors set forth in the prosecutorial misconduct claim denied Brent a fair trial; and (6) appellate counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to raise trial counsel's error concerning the jury instruction on withdrawal.

LEGAL STANDARDS

I. Habeas Standard

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), habeas relief cannot be granted unless the state court's decision was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of federal law clearly established by the Supreme Court. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 402-03, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000); Calloway v. Montgomery, 512 F.3d 940, 943 (7th Cir. 2008). In Williams, the Supreme Court explained that a state court's decision is "contrary to" clearly established Supreme Court law "if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by this Court on a question of law" or "if the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to ours." Id. at 405.

Under the "unreasonable application" prong of the AEDPA standard, a habeas petitioner must demonstrate that although the state court identified the correct legal rule, it unreasonably applied the controlling law to the facts of the case. See id. at 407. "This reasonableness determination is quite deferential, such that a state decision may stand as long as it is objectively reasonable, even if the reviewing court determines it to be substantively incorrect." Barrow v. Uchtman, 398 F.3d 597, 602 (7th Cir. 2005); see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 410 (an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law) (emphasis in original). To be considered objectively unreasonable, a state court's decision must lie "well outside the boundaries of permissible differences of opinion." Gilbert v. Merchant, 488 F.3d 780, 790 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hardaway v. Young, 302 F.3d 757, 762 (7th Cir. 2002)). Put differently, to be reasonable, a state court's decision must be "at least minimally consistent with the facts and circumstances of the case." Simpson v. Battaglia, 458 F.3d 585, 592 (7th Cir. 2006) (citations omitted).

II. Procedural Default

Before bringing a habeas claim in federal court, a petitioner must exhaust all remedies available to him in state court. Lieberman v. Thomas, 505 F.3d 665, 669 (7th Cir. 2007).

More specifically, a habeas petitioner must fully and fairly present his federal claims to the state courts before he files his federal habeas petition. See O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845, 848, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144 L.Ed.2d 1 (1999); Johnson v. Loftus, 518 F.3d 453, 455 (7th Cir. 2008). Moreover, a "habeas petitioner who has exhausted his state court remedies without properly asserting his federal claim at each level of state court review has procedurally defaulted that claim." Lewis v. Sternes, 390 F.3d 1019, 1026 (7th Cir. 2004); see also Lieberman, 505 F.3d at 670-71.

A habeas petitioner may overcome procedural default by demonstrating cause for the default and actual prejudice or by showing that the Court's failure to consider the claim would result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. See House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518, 536, 126 S.Ct. 2064, 165 L.Ed.2d 1 (2006); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640 (1991). The Supreme Court defines cause sufficient to excuse procedural default as "some objective factor external to the defense" which prevents a petitioner from pursuing his constitutional claim in state court. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 492, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 91 L.Ed.2d 397 (1986). A fundamental miscarriage of justice occurs when a petitioner establishes that "a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent." Id. at 496.

ANALYSIS

I. Sixth Amendment Right to Present Defense -- Claim 1

First, Brent maintains that "the trial court erred in limiting both the cross-examination and attempted impeachment of eyewitness Wardell Trotter, thereby denying [] his Sixth Amendment right to present a defense." (R. 1-1, Habeas Pet., at 5.) The clearly established Supreme Court law that applies to Brent's Sixth Amendment right to present a defense claim is set forth in Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 93 S.Ct. 1038, 35 L.Ed.2d 297 (1973). See Horton v. Litscher, 427 F.3d 498, 504 (7th Cir. 2005). In Horton, the Seventh Circuit articulated that "the Supreme Court has held unconstitutional the rigid application of state evidentiary rules when such an application infringes upon the right to present witnesses in one's own defense, particularly when that testimony is critical to the defense's theory of the case." Id. at 504 (citing Chambers, 410 U.S. at 302-03). The Horton court further explained:

This right, however, is not unlimited and may "bow to accommodate other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process." The state is permitted to impose reasonable restrictions on the presentation of a defense, including state and federal rules "designed to assure both fairness and reliability in the ascertainment of guilt and innocence." Such rules do not abridge an accused's right to present a defense so long as they are not arbitrary or disproportionate to the purposes they are designed to serve.

Id. at 504-05 (quoting Chambers, 410 U.S. at 295, 302) (other internal citations and quotations omitted). In short, a trial court's exclusion of evidence in a criminal matter only abridges a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to present a defense if the exclusion is arbitrary or disproportionate to the evidentiary rule's purpose. See Malinowski v. Smith, 509 F.3d 328, 335 (7th Cir. 2007); Horton, 427 F.3d at 505. The Supreme Court has further instructed that "the exclusion of evidence [is] unconstitutionally arbitrary or disproportionate only where it ...


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