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Johnson v. Martin

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

September 17, 2019

ALONZO CORTEZ JOHNSON, Petitioner,
v.
JIMMY MARTIN, Warden, [1] Respondent.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN E. DOWDELL. CHIEF JUDGE

         Before 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.

         I. Background

         This case stems from a murder-for-hire scheme involving five defendants. (Doc. 8 at 10-12).[2] 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).

         The 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).

         Petitioner's 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.).

         Petitioner 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 conviction;
(Ground 4): Gruesome photographs and testimony rendered the trial unfair;
(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).

         Respondent 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.

         II. Discussion

         The 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);[3] (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 § 2254(d)(2).

         “To 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).

         Essentially, 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.

         A. Peremptory Challenges (Ground 1)

         Petitioner 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).

         Petitioner 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 ...

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