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Edwards v. Semple

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 19, 2018



          Robert N. Chatigny United States District Judge

         Michael Edwards, a Connecticut inmate, brings this action for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A jury convicted Edwards of murdering George Wright, who died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head. The gun went off during a confrontation between Edwards and Wright outside a store in Hartford during the evening of February 18, 1995. The bullet entered the left side of the back of Wright's head and lodged near his right eye. He died the next day.

         Edwards was charged with murder, criminal possession of a firearm and criminal possession of a pistol. Prior to trial, he rejected a plea offer that would have capped his sentence at thirty-seven years and allowed him to argue for less. At the trial, eyewitnesses testified that Edwards grabbed Wright's clothing, held a gun to his head, and shoved him backwards along the sidewalk in front of the store. Wright did not resist but said, “no, no, no.” Edwards then pushed Wright's head down and shot him. Edwards testified that the gun went off as he tried to disarm Wright. The jury convicted Edwards of murder but acquitted him on the weapons charges. Edwards was sentenced to fifty years in prison.

         Following an unsuccessful appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, Edwards filed a series of state habeas petitions, which resulted in two evidentiary hearings and additional appeals. This is his fourth federal habeas petition. The first (filed in 1999) and second (filed in 2004) were denied without prejudice for failure to exhaust state remedies. The third (filed in 2005) was dismissed without prejudice because it contained both exhausted and unexhausted claims. Edwards v. Choinski, No. 3:05-cv-444(MKR), 2005 WL 3334442 (D. Conn. Dec. 5, 2005). The present petition (filed in 2009) was stayed pending the outcome of state proceedings.

         In the present petition, Edwards reasserts claims that have been rejected on the merits in state court. He has not shown that the state courts' decisions are contrary to or involve an unreasonable application federal law or an unreasonable determination of facts. In addition, he reasserts claims that he raised in state court but did not pursue in accordance with state procedural rules. He has not shown that these claims should be adjudicated on the merits notwithstanding his procedural default. Accordingly, his petition is denied.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a person in state custody pursuant to a state court conviction may challenge the conviction in federal court by applying for a writ of habeas corpus. Section 2254(b) authorizes a federal court to grant habeas relief based on claims adjudicated on the merits in state court only when the state court's decision is (1) contrary to, or involves an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, or (2) based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence before the state court.

         Federal habeas relief is generally not available to a person in state custody unless he has exhausted remedies available in state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(c). To satisfy the exhaustion requirement, a state prisoner must raise his claim in state court and properly pursue the claim through the entire appellate process. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 844 (1999); Aparicio v. Artuz, 269 F.3d 79, 89-90 (2d Cir. 2001).

         If a state prisoner fails to present a federal claim in state court in accordance with the state's procedural rules, he generally will be precluded from obtaining habeas relief. Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 86-87 (1977). The procedural default doctrine applies when a state court actually imposes a procedural bar, see Caldwell v. Mississippi, 472 U.S. 320, 327 (1985), and when state court remedies are no longer available because the prisoner failed to comply with the deadline for seeking state court review, see Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 93 (2006). In the latter case, because no state court has actually ruled that the claim is barred, the existence of the procedcural bar must be “clear.” See Gray v. Netherland, 518 U.S. 152, 161 (1996).[1]

         A prisoner can overcome a procedural default in two ways. Demonstrating “cause and prejudice” requires a showing that the procedural default was caused by something external to the prisoner that impeded his efforts to comply with the state's procedural rules and, in addition, that actual prejudice to the prisoner will result if the default is not excused. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). If cause and prejudice are not shown, the prisoner must demonstrate that failure to review the claim will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Id. at 750. This exception applies when “a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent.” Murray v. Carrier, 501 U.S. 478, 496 (1986); see Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327 (2007).

         To use the actual innocence “gateway, ” Rivas v. Fischer, 687 F.3d 514, 539 (2d Cir. 2012), a habeas petitioner must present “a claim of actual innocence [that is] both ‘credible' and ‘compelling, '” id. at 541 (quoting House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518, 521, 538 (2006)). “For the claim to be ‘credible, ' it must be supported by ‘new reliable evidence - whether it be exculpatory scientific evidence, trustworthy eyewitness accounts, or critical physical evidence - that was not presented at trial.'” Id. (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324). “For the claim to be ‘compelling, ' the petitioner must demonstrate that ‘more likely than not, in light of the new evidence, no reasonable juror would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt-or to remove the double negative, that more likely than not any reasonable juror would have reasonable doubt.'” Id. (quoting House, 547 U.S. at 538).

         For purposes of the actual innocence exception, “‘actual innocence' means factual innocence, not mere legal insufficiency.” Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 623 (1998); Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333, 339 (“The miscarriage of justice exception is concerned with actual as compared to legal innocence.”); see also Murden v. Artuz, 497 F.3d 178, 194 (2d Cir. 2007) (“Actual innocence requires ‘not legal innocence but factual innocence.'” (quoting Doe v. Menefee, 391 F.3d 147, 162 (2d Cir. 2004))). “Because credible claims of actual innocence are ‘extremely rare, ' federal court adjudication of constitutional challenges by petitioners who may be actually innocent prevents miscarriages of justice, but does not threaten state interests in finality.” Menefee, 391 F.3d at 161 (quoting Schlup, 513 U.S. at 321-22).

         II. Discussion

         All the claims Edwards asserts here were raised on direct appeal, in a 1999 state habeas petition, or in a 2006 state habeas petition.[2]

         A. Claims Raised on Direct Appeal

         On the appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, Edwards presented four arguments: (1) the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to kill Wright; (2) the trial court improperly denied his post-verdict motion for a new trial, in which he claimed that the evidence, although insufficient to support the murder conviction, was sufficient to support a conviction of an unspecified lesser included offense; (3) the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the element of intent to kill by failing to reiterate in a supplemental instruction that “intentional conduct is purposeful conduct rather than conduct that is accidental or inadvertent”; and (4) the trial court improperly instructed the jury on reasonable doubt. The Connecticut Supreme Court rejected all four arguments on the merits. State v. Edwards, 247 Conn. 318, 320 (1998). Edwards has not shown that the Connecticut Supreme Court's decision is contrary to or involves an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law or is based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented at trial.

         Edwards claims that the Connecticut Supreme Court erred in rejecting his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence on the issue of his intent to cause Wright's death. Evidence is sufficient to support a conviction if, viewed fully and most favorably to sustaining the jury's verdict, it could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). Applying this standard, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the cumulative effect of the evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Edwards had the specific intent to cause Wright's death. 247 Conn. at 320-22. Edwards argues that the eyewitness testimony was biased and conflicting. The Connecticut Supreme Court addressed this argument. The Court correctly explained that it had to defer to the jury's assessment of the credibility of the witnesses and could not substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Edwards further argues that the jury's verdict convicting him of murder cannot be sustained in view of the verdicts acquitting him on the weapons charges. The Connecticut Supreme Court addressed this argument as well stating, “We disagree with the defendant that a lack of specific intent to cause death must follow a jury finding that the defendant did not possess or arrive at the scene with a weapon.” Edwards, 247 Conn. at 322. The Court correctly concluded that the jury could credit the eyewitness testimony and find that Edwards had control of the gun when the fatal shot was fired regardless of whether he possessed the gun before his confrontation with Wright.

         Edwards next claims that the Connecticut Supreme Court erred in affirming the denial of his motion for a new trial. The Court upheld the denial of the motion on the ground that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's verdict. Id. at 326. As just discussed, the Court correctly concluded that the evidence was legally sufficient. Thus, the Court's decision affirming the denial of the motion for a new trial does not provide a basis for federal habeas relief.[3]

         Edwards claims that the Connecticut Supreme Court erred in rejecting his challenges to the jury instructions. A jury instruction violates due process if it fails to give effect to the requirement that the state must prove every element of the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt. Middleton v. McNeil, 541 U.S. 433, 437 (2004) (per curiam). "Nonetheless, not every ambiguity, inconsistency, or deficiency in a jury instruction rises to the level of a due process violation.” Id. The question is whether the challenged instruction, considered in the context of the charge as a whole, so infected the trial that the conviction violates due process. Id. “If the charge as a whole is ambiguous, the question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury has applied the challenged instruction in a way that violates the Constitution.” Id. (quotations omitted).

         In Middleton, a defendant convicted of second-degree murder appealed on the basis of an erroneous jury instruction on the imperfect self-defense component of voluntary manslaughter under California law. The trial court gave the jury three correct instructions that one who kills another in the actual but unreasonable belief that doing so is necessary to defend against imminent peril is guilty of voluntary manslaughter but not murder. 541 U.S. at 435. In defining “imminent peril, ” however, the court erroneously stated that an imminent peril “is one that is apparent, present and immediate at the time to the slayer as a reasonable person.” Id. The California Court of Appeals acknowledged that the words “as a reasonable person” were included in error but concluded it was not reasonably likely the jury was misled in view of the jury instructions in their entirety. The Ninth Circuit overturned a denial of federal habeas relief and the Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that “[g]iven three correct instructions and one contrary one, the state court did not unreasonably apply federal law when it found that there was no reasonable likelihood the jury was misled.” Id. at 438.

         The Connecticut Supreme Court's decision in this case aligns with the reasoning and result in Middleton. Edwards argues that he was deprived of a fair trial as a result of the trial court's supplemental instruction on intent.[4] On the direct appeal, the state argued that it is not reasonably possible the supplemental instruction caused the jury to mistakenly think it could convict Edwards of murder even if it believed the shooting was accidental. The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the state. State v. Edwards, 247 Conn. at 328. The Court stated:

Upon examining the entire charge, we conclude that the trial court properly instructed the jury on specific intent. Twice in its initial charge, the trial court told the jury that conduct could not be intentional if it was accidental or inadvertent. The trial court did not contradict its earlier instructions in the supplemental charge. Furthermore, the jury's question concerned the defendant's mental or emotional state, not the issue of accident or inadvertence. We conclude that the defendant ...

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