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Edwards v. McCollum

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

February 12, 2018

TRACY MCCOLLUM, Warden, Respondent.



         Petitioner, Michael Lee Edwards, a state court prisoner appearing pro se, has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus seeking relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. 1). Petitioner challenges the convictions entered against him in Oklahoma County District Court Case No. CF-2012-2836. In that case, Petitioner was found guilty by jury of two counts of lewd acts with a child under sixteen. Petitioner received a life sentence on each count, and the trial court ordered the sentences to be served concurrently (O.R. I, 50-52; O.R. II, 258-59, 276-78; J. Tr. IV, 142; S. Tr. 19). Petitioner appealed his convictions to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (hereinafter “OCCA”). The OCCA affirmed in an unpublished summary opinion, Edwards v. State, No. F-2014-1022 (Okla. Crim. App. Dec. 15, 2015).

         Petitioner raises eight[1] grounds for relief, all of which were presented to the OCCA in his direct appeal. Respondent has responded to the petition (Doc. 7). No reply has been filed.[2] For the reasons set forth herein, the Court finds that Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief.[3]

         I. Facts.

         On April 25, 2012, four-year-old A.S. approached her mother, Bethany Sing, and said, “Hey, guess what? . . . Papa can make snot come out of his bottom.” A.S. was very calm and nonchalant, obviously too young to realize the import of her statement (J. Tr. II, 143, 151-52). The conversation, as told by Mrs. Sing, continued as follows:

I [Mrs. Sing] said, Really? That's weird. And she [A.S.] said, Yeah, he's silly. He's silly sometimes. And I said, Oh, really, why would he do that? And she goes, I don't know, . . . he was just making snot come out of his bottom. And I said, Well, did you try to go the bathroom with him? . . . And she said, no, that we were outside in the trees. It was when we were on the tractor. And I said, So was he peeing outside? She goes, No. Was he pooping outside? No. And then I asked her then, Was he, you know, peeing? Was he pooping? She said, No. And she specifically said, Poop is brown and pee is yellow. And I said, So what was it? What color was it? And she said, White. And I was kind of startled and I kind of walked away and she followed me and she said it was when he was kissing and licking all over me - - all over my body. And I was, like, Oh, okay.
So I sat there for another minute and I said, Well, when you say that he was doing that, when you say that he was kissing and licking all over your body, where was that? And she said - - she pulled down her pants and touched her vagina and she said, Right here and, when he puts his tongue in there, it hurts and I have to tell him to stop and he did. And I asked her if she touched him and she said, I just held his bottom.

(id. at 152-53). The “Papa” A.S. was referring to was Petitioner, her step grandfather (id. at 143-44, 153-54).

         Shortly after A.S. made this disclosure, her parents took her to Children's Hospital (id. at 155-57). Lauren Donaldson, a physician's assistant at the hospital, conducted a forensic examination of A.S. (id. at 88, 91). Ms. Donaldson made a finding of “probable sexual abuse by history”[4] and referred the matter to the Department of Human Services (id. at 99, 102). When Ms. Donaldson asked A.S. why she was at the hospital, A.S. told her:

He licked my bottom, he spit snot out of his bottom, it went into the grass. It was white. He started to do it on my knee. I touched him on his bottom. He licked my bottom way inside it and it hurt. And he told me not to tell anybody.

(id. at 96).

         While at the hospital, A.S. was interviewed by Sheliah Melfah, a social service specialist. The interview was videotaped and played for the jury (J. Tr. III, 168, 172, 175; State's Exhibit 5). In the interview, A.S. once again relayed what happened to her when she was riding the tractor with Petitioner. Using two drawings, A.S. identified the private parts of a boy and a girl. A.S. used the word “butt” or “bottom” to describe her lower private parts (State's Ex. 5 at 9:00) and “bottom” to describe a male's penis or butt (id. at 10:28). In the thirty-five minute interview, A.S. made the following statements:

• “If we tell her [Nana, A.S.'s grandmother and Petitioner's ex-wife] what we did, she won't let us ride the tractor” (id. at 4:51);
• When asked if she had seen a boy's bottom before, A.S. said, “Papa let me touch his” (id. at 14:33);
• When asked to tell about Papa's bottom, A.S. said, “Well, it feels like it's soft, but it doesn't . . . and it spits out snot when I wiggle it” (id. at 14:40);
• “We stopped it [the tractor] and then we started the touching . . .” (id. at 16:40);
• When shown the anatomically correct male doll and asked to show what happened on the tractor, A.S. pulled down the pants on the doll, pulled out the penis, and said, “I touched his bottom.” When asked to show how she touched it, she put both hands on the doll's penis and moved her hands around it (id. at 19:20);
• When asked what color the snot was, A.S. said, “It was white.” A.S. said the snot went in the grass. She also said that the snot came from his bottom, and when asked to show on the doll where the snot came from, she pointed to the doll's penis (id. at 20:00);
• A.S. said, “He started to lick my bottom. . . . He licked it.” When asked to show how he licked it, A.S. lifted up the dress on the girl doll, pointed to the doll's vaginal area, and said, “He licked right there.” She added, “And he went into my bottom and it hurted.” She said he licked her with his tongue (id. at 20:35); and
• “He told me not to tell nobody. . . . If I told Nana, she wouldn't let us do it” (id. at 27:20).[5]

         A.S. testified at preliminary hearing via closed circuit television.[6] A.S. testified that Petitioner licked her “pee-pee” in the field when they were driving the tractor (P.H. Tr. 5/10/13, 11-13). She also testified that she touched Petitioner's “pee-pee” and that it “spit snot out” (id. at 15-16). A.S. said the snot was “nasty, ” that it went on the ground, and that it was brown and green (id. at 16-17, 23). A.S. testified that Petitioner “told [her] not to tell” (id. at 18).

         Although A.S. took the witness stand at trial, she was unable to testify (J. Tr. II, 140-42). As described by the trial court, “when [A.S.] was called [as a witness], she immediately began to cry. She shook her head a couple of times to [the prosecutor's] questions. Anyway, she just clammed up, bottom line, with tears in her eyes” (id. at 212). Arrangements were made to take A.S.'s testimony by video deposition in chambers; however, A.S. was unable to testify in that setting either. A.S. was subsequently declared unavailable and her preliminary hearing testimony was read to the jury (J. Tr. II, 212-27; J. Tr. III, 5-30; Court's Ex. 1).

         In addition to A.S.'s statements and testimony about what Petitioner did to her, A.S. exhibited changes in her behavior after the disclosure.[7] Mrs. Sing testified that A.S. is “afraid of everything, ” has trouble sleeping, cries sometimes at bedtime, and “wishes she could be the girl down the street . . . because they didn't have bad things happen to them.” When A.S. plays with her dolls, she takes their clothes off and licks their private parts and she has taught her sister to do the same. Once Mrs. Sing saw A.S. try to lick her sister (J. Tr. II, 162-63). A.S. is afraid of tractors. In the fall following the disclosure, A.S. was very upset and did not want to attend her school field trip to the Orr Family Farm. Her mother learned that A.S.'s emotions were fueled by her fear that a tractor would be there and she would have to ride it (id. at 163-64). A.S.'s relationship with her grandmother, Petitioner's ex-wife, is almost nonexistent. A.S. refuses to see her grandmother and she is in fear for her sister's safety when she goes to see her (id. at 164-65).[8] A.S. has been diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and has been in counseling since June 2012 (J. Tr. II, 167; J. Tr. III, 159-160).

         Petitioner testified at trial and denied that he did any of the things A.S. said he did.[9]Petitioner implied that A.S.'s disclosure may have been the result of her coming in on him while he was going to the bathroom. Petitioner testified that on the day prior to the disclosure, he was preparing for a colonoscopy and A.S. walked into the bathroom three times while he was sitting on the toilet (J. Tr. IV, 32-38). On cross-examination, however, Petitioner admitted that his penis was not exposed when A.S. came into the bathroom (id. at 70).

         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. Grounds One and Two: Evidentiary Rulings.

         In his Grounds One and Two, Petitioner presents challenges to the trial court's evidentiary rulings. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the OCCA was not objectively 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 strength of the evidence against the defendant.” Hanson v. Sherrod, 797 F.3d 810, 843 (10th Cir. 2015).

         Ground ...

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