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Spruill v. Braggs

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

December 27, 2019

ETHAN JOHNSON SPRUILL, Petitioner,
v.
JEORLD BRAGGS, JR., Warden, Respondent.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation [Doc. No. 16] issued by United States Magistrate Judge Gary M. Purcell pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and (C). Judge Purcell recommends that the Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 be denied. Petitioner, who is represented by counsel, has filed a timely Objection [Doc. No. 17]. Thus, the Court must make a de novo determination of any part of the Report to which a specific objection is made, and may accept, reject, or modify the recommended decision. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         Petitioner, a state prisoner, seeks relief from a 2016 conviction of first-degree manslaughter and a 23-year prison sentence.[1] The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (“OCCA”) affirmed Petitioner's conviction. See Spruill v. State, 425 P.3d 753 (Okla. Crim. App. 2018). Petitioner timely filed his original Petition on May 14, 2019, and filed the Amended Petition pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1). He asserts three claims: 1) denial of his constitutional right against self-incrimination under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); 2) failure to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not acting in self-defense; and 3) denial of his constitutional right to present a defense by excluding proposed testimony from his use-of-force expert.

         In a 22-page Report, Judge Purcell conducts a careful examination of Petitioner's claims and supporting arguments in light of Respondent's answer, the relevant state court record, and governing legal standards. Judge Purcell concludes that all of Petitioner's claims lack merit. Judge Purcell finds that Petitioner has not shown the state court's determinations were either based on unreasonable findings of fact or unreasonable applications of clearly established federal law. Petitioner objects to all of Judge Purcell's findings and conclusions.[2]

         Claim 1: Self-Incrimination

         The death of the victim, Aaron McCray, occurred in the apartment where he and his family lived. Petitioner resided in an apartment directly above them. After shooting and killing Mr. McCray, Petitioner returned to his own apartment, and police officers who responded to the shooting found him there. Petitioner surrendered without incident and immediately stated he wanted an attorney. However, Petitioner (who was intoxicated) proceeded to talk while being transported to the police department, and volunteered his version of events. Also, when Petitioner was taken to an interview room, he asked the transporting officer to remain in the room with him. Without Petitioner's knowledge, the officer took a tape recorder into the room and recorded what Petitioner said.

         The detectives assigned to investigate Petitioner's case also recorded what transpired in the interview room. Soon after the detectives entered the room, Petitioner requested an attorney, but the officers did not terminate the interview. Petitioner proceeded to talk about the incident and describe what happened. Although the detectives did not ask direct questions, one made a comment to the effect that if he were involved in a self-defense situation, he personally would want to talk about it. Both before and during the interview, Petitioner repeatedly made incriminating statements about the shooting.

         The OCCA summarized the relevant factual findings as follows:

The record shows that [Petitioner] was in custody at the time of his various recorded statements; that [Petitioner] requested the presence of counsel repeatedly starting at the moment he was arrested in front of his apartment; that [Petitioner]'s statements were unwarned - that is, authorities never read him the warning mandated by Miranda . . .; and that [Petitioner] refused to sign any waiver indicating that he understood his rights. However, the record also shows that [Petitioner]'s statements were not made in response to interrogation from authorities. Rather, [Petitioner]'s statements were volunteered to virtually anyone who would listen while he was at the police department. Volunteered statements of any kind are not barred by the Fifth Amendment.
“Once a suspect in custody has asserted his right to speak only through counsel, all attempts at interrogation must cease. A suspect can, however, change his mind and decide to speak to police without counsel.” Here, the State met its burden to prove that [Petitioner]'s statements were the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice by [Petitioner]. . . .

Spruill, 425 P.3d at 755 (citations omitted).

         Framed by the deferential standard of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), Petitioner mounts a twofold attack on the OCCA's disposition of his first claim. He challenges both the reasonableness of the state court's determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented, and the reasonableness of the state court's application of Miranda and other Supreme Court cases. See Obj. at 7-8, 10-15 (discussing Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981); Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452 (1994); and Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291 (1980)). Upon de novo consideration, the Court fully concurs in Judge Purcell's analysis of this claim.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct. The applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” The Tenth Circuit has held that “[t]he presumption of correctness also applies to factual findings made by a state court of review based on the trial record.” Al-Yousif v. Trani, 779 F.3d 1173, 1181 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation omitted). The OCCA's critical findings in this case are that Petitioner's incriminating statements were not made in response to interrogation but were volunteered, and that he changed his mind each time he requested counsel and voluntarily decided to speak.

         After careful consideration of the record, the Court finds that Petitioner has failed to overcome the presumption of correctness of the OCCA's findings. Petitioner concedes “there were some volunteered statements, ” and argues in a conclusory manner “there were numerous incriminating statements that were obtained over objection, contrary to Supreme Court precedents.” See Obj. at 13. Petitioner does not point to clear and convincing evidence that any particular statement was not volunteered or any particular request for counsel was not abandoned. Petitioner instead contends the police officers “strategically engaged in conduct specifically designed to cause [him] to make incriminating statements in their presence” and this “calculated scheme . . . [was] the functional equivalent of questioning” as defined by the Supreme Court in Innis. Id. at 2, 14. However, the OCCA unequivocally rejected Petitioner's view of the evidence; the OCCA expressly found that his incriminating statements “were not made in response to interrogation” and, in so doing, specifically referenced Innis and ...


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