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Maher v. Allbaugh

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

December 12, 2017

TIMOTHY MAHER, Petitioner,
v.
JOE M. ALLBAUGH, Director, Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Respondent.[1]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROBIN J. CAUTHRON United States District Judge

         Petitioner, Timothy Maher, a state court prisoner, has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus seeking relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Dkt. No. 11).[2] Petitioner challenges the convictions entered against him in Stephens County District Court Case No. CF-2011-5. In that case, a jury found Petitioner guilty of first degree manslaughter and possession of a sawed-off shotgun.[3] Petitioner received consecutive imprisonment sentences of forty-five years and two years, respectively, and fines totaling $11, 000 (O.R. 159, 161, 187-91). Petitioner appealed his convictions to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (hereinafter “OCCA”). The OCCA affirmed in an unpublished opinion, Maher v. State, No. F-2012-597 (Okla. Crim. App. Jan. 22, 2014).[4]

         Petitioner raises seven grounds for relief, all of which were presented to the OCCA in his direct appeal. Respondent has responded to the petition and Petitioner has replied (Dkt. Nos. 17 and 21). In his reply, Petitioner has requested an evidentiary hearing with respect to his Ground Three (Dkt. No. 21 at 3). For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary and that Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief.

         I. Facts.

         On the evening of January 6, 2011, Petitioner met Maurice Wade for the first time at a bar (Tr. 4/24/12, 54; Tr. 4/26/12, 16-19; Tr. 4/27/12, 9-10). After leaving the bar around 1:30 a.m. and hanging out with one of Mr. Wade's friends until about 3 a.m., the two men went to Petitioner's house (Tr. 4/24/12, 48-55, 58-62; Tr. 4/26/12, 18; Tr. 4/27/12, 10-12). Shortly before 6 a.m. on January 7th, Petitioner shot and killed Mr. Wade in his living room. Mr. Wade was shot twenty times (Tr. 4/24/12, 7-9; Tr. 4/25/12, 178; State's Exs. 6 and 88).

         Petitioner claimed that he shot Mr. Wade in self-defense. According to Petitioner, when he and Mr. Wade arrived at the house, they talked, drank beer, and got along just fine. At some point, however, Mr. Wade “began to act very strange.” Petitioner did not know why Mr. Wade's behavior changed, but he started “talking crazy talk, nonsense” and “he was just being weird” (Tr. 4/27/12, 12-14). In response, Petitioner got his pistol and placed it in his back pocket. When Petitioner told Mr. Wade to leave, Mr. Wade “jumped up over the top of [him] off the loveseat and said, ‘What are you going to do if I don't?'” Petitioner then drew his pistol and told Mr. Wade to get out of his house (id. at 14-15). Mr. Wade went outside the house and onto the front porch. At this point, Mr. Wade “was enraged.” He was “yelling and screaming” and “pulling his hair and throwing his hands up” (id. at 15-16). When Mr. Wade came back inside, Petitioner held the pistol on him and told him again to leave. Mr. Wade went back outside, but came back in a second time (id. at 16-17). Mr. Wade wanted his phone (id. at 17). According to Petitioner, it was then that Mr. Wade charged him, and Petitioner shot him because he was scared for himself and his family (id. at 18-20). Petitioner's wife and young daughter were home when the shooting occurred (Tr. 4/24/12, 148-52, 169).

         Petitioner's wife, Ruthann Maher, witnessed some of the interaction between Petitioner and Mr. Wade. Mrs. Maher testified that it was the sound of the two men bickering that woke her up around 5:30 a.m. Although Mrs. Maher got up and was in the living room when the shooting occurred, she did not see the initial shots because she was looking for Mr. Wade's cell phone in the loveseat. Mrs. Maher did see the final shots, the last of which was fired as Mr. Wade lay on the ground. Mrs. Maher did not see Mr. Wade charge her husband (Tr. 4/24/12, 152-70).

         After the shooting, Petitioner, Mrs. Maher, and their daughter went to a neighbor's house to call the police (Tr. 4/24/12, 171). According to Mrs. Maher, on the way to the neighbor's house, Petitioner stopped and went into one of two sheds they had on their property (id. at 171-74). Inside that shed, police later found a sawed-off shotgun, along with marijuana and drug paraphernalia (id. at 68-74, 80-82; State's Exs. 77-80). This was in addition to the two marijuana plants and numerous guns police found inside the house (Tr. 4/23/12, 190-91; Tr. 4/26/12, 52, 58, 59-64; State's Exs. 5-D, 19, 23, 26-29, and 31). At trial, Petitioner admitted ownership of the sawed-off shotgun and the marijuana plants (Tr. 4/27/12, 20-21, 41-44). When police arrived at the neighbor's house, Petitioner told police, “I shot the mother fucker. I killed him. I did it. I'm guilty” (Tr. 4/23/12, 179).

         Additional facts will be referenced herein as they relate to the individual grounds for relief raised by Petitioner.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Because the OCCA addressed the merits of all of Petitioner's grounds for relief, the Court reviews them in accordance with the standard of relief set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Section 2254(d) requires Petitioner to show that the OCCA's adjudication of his claims either

(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.

See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (acknowledging that “[t]he petitioner carries the burden of proof”). The focus of this statutory provision is on the reasonableness of the OCCA's decision. “The question under AEDPA is not whether a federal court believes the state court's determination was incorrect but whether that determination was unreasonable-a substantially higher threshold.” Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007). In other words, “[i]t is not enough that [this] court, in its independent review of the legal question, is left with a firm conviction that the [OCCA] was erroneous.” What is required is a showing that the OCCA's decision is “objectively unreasonable.” Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76 (2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that Section 2254(d) “‘erects a formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners whose claims have been adjudicated in state court, '” and that “[i]f [it] is difficult to meet, that is because it was meant to be.” White v. Wheeler, 577 U.S.__, 136 S.Ct. 456, 460 (2015) (quoting Burt v. Titlow, 571 U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 10, 16 (2013)); Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011). Section 2254(d) “stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal-court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 102. What remains, then, is a very narrow avenue for relief, one that permits relief only “where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the [OCCA's] decision conflicts with [the Supreme] Court's precedents.” Id. (emphasis added).

Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a “guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, ” not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal. As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, 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. at 102-03 (citation omitted).

         III. Analysis.

         A. Ground One: Motion to Sever.

         In his first ground for relief, Petitioner asserts that the trial court erred when it denied his motion to sever. As noted above, in addition to the murder charge (Count 1), Petitioner was also charged with cultivation of a controlled dangerous substance (Count 2) and possession of a sawed-off shotgun (Count 3). Petitioner filed a motion to sever Counts 2 and 3. The trial court granted the motion as to the cultivation charge (O.R. 103-07; Tr. 4/2/12, 10-11; Tr. 4/23/12, 4). Because the trial court did not also sever the shotgun charge, Petitioner claims that he was denied due process. On appeal, the OCCA found that the trial court's ruling on the motion to sever was not an abuse of discretion. Maher, No. F-2012-597, slip op. at 3. Applying AEDPA deference to the OCCA's decision, the Court concludes that Petitioner is not entitled to relief on Ground One.

         In United States v. Lane, 474 U.S. 438, 446 n.8 (1986), the Supreme Court acknowledged that “[i]mproper joinder does not, in itself, violate the Constitution. Rather, misjoinder would rise to the level of a constitutional violation only if it results in prejudice so great as to deny a defendant his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial.” See Cummings v. Sirmons, 506 F.3d 1211, 1239 (10th Cir. 2007) (quoting Lane and requiring a habeas petitioner to show the denial of a fundamentally fair trial in order to obtain relief for misjoinder); Lucero v. Kerby, 133 F.3d 1299, 1313-14 (10th Cir. 1998) (same). “Such prejudice may arise when there is a great disparity in the amount of evidence supporting the charges or when the jury is likely to confuse the evidence or infer a criminal disposition on the part of the defendant.” Webber v. Scott, 390 F.3d 1169, 1178 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing Lucero).

         In support of his request for relief, Petitioner relies on the arguments he made to the OCCA. Focusing on Oklahoma law regarding the joinder of offenses, the sum of Petitioner's argument is that the shotgun charge should have been severed because it was unconnected to the murder, i.e., the shotgun was not the weapon used to kill Mr. Wade and it was found in a shed in the backyard, not in the house where Mr. Wade was killed. Pet'r's Br. at 10-16. The only argument that even hints at prejudice is Petitioner's contention that the jury was not given a limiting instruction regarding its consideration of the evidence presented in support of the shotgun charge. However, even Petitioner acknowledges that the jury was instructed to give separate consideration to the counts. Id. at 11.

         Regarding the two counts for which Petitioner was tried, the jury was instructed as follows:

The defendant is charged with more than one count. Separate consideration must be given to each count since they each constitute separate charges. Whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty of one count should not influence you as to whether or not he is guilty or not guilty of the other count.

(O.R. 151). Given this instruction, the Court cannot conclude that Petitioner was denied a fair trial by inclusion of the shotgun charge. The instruction is simple and clear, and the Court can assume that the jury followed it. See Weeks v. Angelone, 528 U.S. 225, 234 (2000) (“A jury is presumed to follow its instructions.”). In addition, this is not a situation where there was a great evidentiary disparity between the counts. Petitioner admitted to both crimes. His only challenge to the State's case was his claim that he killed Mr. Wade in self-defense. Confusion of the evidence was also not an issue as the crimes were distinct. For these reasons, the Court concludes that Petitioner was not prejudiced by the joinder of offenses and the OCCA was therefore not unreasonable in its denial of relief. Petitioner's Ground One is denied.

         B. Grounds Two, Four, and Five: Evidentiary Challenges.

         In Grounds Two, Four, and Five, Petitioner presents challenges to the trial court's evidentiary rulings. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the OCCA was not unreasonable in denying relief on these claims.

         When a petitioner challenges the admission of evidence, “the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides a mechanism for relief” where the admitted evidence “is so unduly prejudicial that it renders the trial fundamentally unfair.” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 825 (1991). Undefined by specific legal elements, this standard obliges the court to “‘tread gingerly'” and “exercise ‘considerable self-restraint.'” Duckett v. Mullin, 306 F.3d 982, 999 (10th Cir. 2002) (quoting United States v. Rivera, 900 F.2d 1462, 1477 (10th Cir. 1990)). Relief is warranted in only “the most serious cases, which truly shock the conscience as well as the mind.” Rivera, 900 F.2d at 1477 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         An alleged evidentiary error is not viewed in isolation, but is considered in light of the entire proceeding. As acknowledged in Rivera, “a fundamental-fairness analysis is heavily dependent upon the peculiar facts of an individual trial.” Id. Thus, “inquiry into the fundamental fairness of the trial requires an examination of the entire proceedings, including the ...


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