United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma
OPINION AND ORDER
E. DOWDELL. CHIEF JUDGE
the Court is Alonzo Cortez Johnson's 28 U.S.C. §
2254 habeas corpus petition (Doc. 1). Petitioner challenges
his convictions for first degree murder and conspiracy in
Tulsa County District Court, No. CF-2009-2738. For the
reasons below, the Court will deny the petition.
case stems from a murder-for-hire scheme involving five
defendants. (Doc. 8 at 10-12). The original conflict began when
victim Neal Sweeney, a fuel supplier, obtained a default
judgment against convenience-store owner Mohammed Aziz.
(Id. at 10-11). Aziz developed an “intense
hatred” toward Sweeney and approached Allen Shields to
locate a hitman. (Id. at 11). Shields referred the
matter to his brother Fred, who set a price of $10, 000 for
the murder. (Doc. 13-27 at 172). Fred Shields also acted as
an intermediary, recruiting Petitioner (his cousin) and a man
named Terrico Bethel. (Id. at 172-184; see
also Doc. 13-2 at 44-46). Petitioner purportedly
obtained the getaway car and helped coordinate with Aziz,
while Bethel shot the victim. (Id.). Fred Shields
was eventually apprehended on a different crime and exposed
the conspiracy in an effort to make a deal. (Doc. 8 at 12).
State charged Petitioner with conspiracy to commit first
degree murder (Count 4) and first-degree murder (Count 10).
(Doc. 13-42 at 100; see also Doc. 8 at 22). The
other men faced similar charges. (Doc. 13-42 at 99-102). A
jury convicted Fred Shields and Terrico Bethel of, inter
alia, first degree murder, and both received life sentences.
(Doc. 8 at 8, n. 2). Allen Shields faced a conspiracy charge
but died by suicide during a pretrial hostage situation.
(Doc. 13-27 at 72). Mohammad Aziz pled guilty to solicitation
of murder and was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. (Doc. 8
at 8, n. 2).
jury trial commenced on December 3, 2012. (Doc. 13-24).
Defense counsel argued his involvement was minimal or
nonexistent, and his co-conspirators' testimony was
unreliable. After a multi-week trial, the jury convicted
Petitioner of all charges. (Doc. 12-4 at 1). The state court
sentenced him to life imprisonment on each count, with the
sentences running consecutively. (Id.).
perfected a direct appeal to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal
Appeals (OCCA). By a summary opinion entered July 17, 2014,
the OCCA affirmed the conviction and sentence. (Doc. 12-4).
Petitioner then sought post-conviction relief, which the OCCA
also denied. (Doc. 12-6; see also Doc. 12-7).
Petitioner filed the instant § 2254 petition (Doc. 1) on
July 5, 2016. He identifies seven grounds of error:
(Ground 1): The prosecutor used peremptory challenges to
exclude racial minorities from the jury; (Ground 2): The use
of recorded statements violated the Confrontation Clause;
(Ground 3): The evidence was insufficient to sustain a
(Ground 4): Gruesome photographs and testimony rendered the
(Ground 5): Juror misconduct rendered the trial unfair;
(Ground 6): The evidentiary rulings violated Petitioner's
right to present a defense; and
(Ground 7): Cumulative error rendered the trial unfair.
(Doc. 8 at 2-4).
filed an answer (Doc. 12), along with relevant portions of
the state court record (Doc. 13). Respondent concedes, and
the Court finds, that Petitioner exhausted his state remedies
and the Petition is timely. See 28 U.S.C.
§§ 2244(d)(1); 2254(b)(1)(A). Petitioner filed a
reply brief (Doc. 17) on January 24, 2017, and the matter is
ready for a merits review.
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) governs
this Court's review of petitioner's habeas claims.
See 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Relief is only available
under the AEDPA where the petitioner “is in custody in
violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the
United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Further,
because the OCCA already adjudicated petitioner's claims,
this Court may not grant habeas relief unless he demonstrates
that the OCCA's ruling: (1) “resulted in a decision
that was contrary to . . . clearly established Federal law as
determined by [the] Supreme Court of the United States,
” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); (2) “resulted in a
decision that . . . involved an unreasonable application of
clearly established Federal law, ” id.; or (3)
“resulted in a decision that was based on an
unreasonable determination of the facts” in light of
the record presented to the state court, id. at
determine whether a particular decision is ‘contrary
to' then-established law, a federal court must consider
whether the decision ‘applies a rule that contradicts
[such] law' and how the decision ‘confronts [the]
set of facts' that were before the state court.”
Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 182 (2011)
(alterations in original) (quotations omitted). When the
state court's decision “identifies the correct
governing legal principle in existence at the time, a federal
court must assess whether the decision ‘unreasonably
applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's
case.” Id. (quotations omitted).
Significantly, an “unreasonable application of”
clearly established federal law under § 2254(d)(1)
“must be objectively unreasonable, not merely
wrong.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702
(2014) (quotations omitted). “[E]ven clear error will
not suffice.” Id. Likewise, under §
2254(d)(2), “a state-court factual determination is not
unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would
have reached a different conclusion in the first
instance.” Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301
(2010). The Court must presume the correctness of the
OCCA's factual findings unless petitioner rebuts that
presumption “by clear and convincing evidence.”
28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
the standards set forth in § 2254 are designed to be
“difficult to meet, ” Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011), and require federal
habeas courts to give state court decisions the
“benefit of the doubt.” Woodford v.
Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002). A state prisoner
ultimately “must show that the state court's ruling
... was so lacking in justification that there was an error
well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any
possibility for fairminded disagreement.”
Richter, 562 U.S. at 103.
Peremptory Challenges (Ground 1)
first argues the prosecutor systematically used the
State's peremptory challenges to exclude racial
minorities from the jury. (Doc. 8 at 13-14). He contends the
prosecutor inappropriately challenged prospective minority
jurors Dickens, De Wassom, Carranza, Martinez, and Tawil.
Petitioner further argues the purported race-neutral
explanations for those challenges were pretextual. As
support, he cites the state court's refusal to excuse
juror Williams, which would have “effectively
eliminate[d] all the African-Americans” from the panel.
(Id. at 14).
raised this argument on direct appeal as an equal protection
claim under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79
(1986). (Doc. 12-1 at 14). “Batson held that
the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause
prohibits the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges
to exclude potential jurors on the basis of their
race.” Saiz v. Ortiz, 392 F.3d 1166, 1171
(10th Cir. 2004). A trial court must apply a three-step
burden-shifting framework to assess a Batson challenge:
First, the trial court must determine whether the defendant
has made a prima facie showing that the prosecutor exercised
a peremptory challenge on the basis of race. Second, if the
showing is made, the burden shifts to the prosecutor to
present a race-neutral explanation for striking the juror in
question. Although the prosecutor must present a
comprehensible reason, the second step of this process does
not demand an explanation that is persuasive, or even
plausible; so long as the reason is not inherently
discriminatory, it suffices. Third, the court must determine
whether the defendant has carried his burden of proving
purposeful discrimination. This final step involves
evaluating the persuasiveness of ...