Ronald Simpson v. Millicent Warren
OPINION filed: AFFIRMED, decision not for publication pursuant to local rule 206. Eric L. Clay (authoring) and Jane Branstetter Stranch, Circuit Judges and Michael R. Barrett, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of OH.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 12a0388n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
Apr 10, 2012
LEONARD GREEN, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
MILLICENT WARREN, Warden,
CLAY and STRANCH, Circuit Judges; BARRETT, District Judge.*
CLAY, Circuit Judge. Respondent Millicent Warren, Warden at the Thumb Correctional
Facility in Michigan, appeals the district court’s order granting Petitioner Ronald Simpson a writ of
habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the
district court’s decision.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
On October 29, 1985, Petitioner Ronald Simpson and three associates—Charles Hughes,
Jeffrey Sharp, and Shelton Smith (the “co-conspirators”)—were cruising around Flint, Michigan, in
Honorable Michael R. Barrett, United States District Judge for the Southern District of Ohio, sitting by
Petitioner’s maroon Buick Regal (the “Regal”) armed with several firearms, including Petitioner’s
.9 millimeter automatic pistol and sawed-off shotgun.
Around 11 a.m., the co-conspirators stopped at the Oakview apartment complex on Detroit
Street (“Oakview”). Allegedly, the co-conspirators intended to steal cocaine from Oakview resident
Marcus Lane. Petitioner and Hughes entered Oakview armed, while Sharp and Shelton waited in
the Regal. It turned out that Lane was not home and that Petitioner and Hughes did not find any
cocaine, but they stole other items at gunpoint from the three females who were present in the
As the co-conspirators drove away from Oakview, they noticed that they were being
followed. The co-conspirators did not know that the person following them was a plainclothes
police officer, Lieutenant Koger. Lieutenant Koger had observed Petitioner and Hughes enter
Oakview and later return to the Regal, after which the car sped off. Lieutenant Koger had called
another police officer, Officer Weston, for backup. Suspicious of the Regal, Officers Koger and
Weston followed the Regal down several streets in separate vehicles. The co-conspirators then
noticed they were being followed. At one point, both officers lost sight of the Regal.
Officer Weston was the first officer to reestablish contact with the Regal when he found it
parked in a private residential driveway. Officer Weston approached the Regal in his unmarked car.
Petitioner exited the Regal and fled from the scene as someone opened fire on Officer Weston.
Officer Weston, who could not determine whether Petitioner or a passenger in the Regal was firing
on him, returned fire on the Regal. Lieutenant Koger arrived at the scene as Petitioner fled. As the
Regal pulled away, the co-conspirators shot at the officers through the sunroof.
Petitioner was arrested and charged with: (1) assault with intent to commit murder of Officer
Weston, and (2) possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. In a separate case,
Petitioner was charged with armed robbery at Marcus Lane’s apartment. The other co-conspirators
were also charged, but Sharp and Smith entered into plea agreements in which they agreed to testify
against Petitioner and Hughes.
Beginning on June 10, 1986, Petitioner and Hughes were tried together with separate juries.
Because Petitioner’s charges arose from conduct that occurred before he fled the scene, and Hughes’
charges arose from conduct that occurred after Petitioner fled the scene, the trial was organized to
ensure that each jury would hear testimony only relevant to its defendant’s charges. During the
prosecution’s case, Petitioner’s jury was present for witness testimony recounting events until the
point that Petitioner fled the crime scene. When a witness proceeded to recount subsequent events,
Petitioner’s jury left the courtroom, and Hughes’ jury remained. Because there was some temporal
overlap between the facts relevant to Petitioner’s and Hughes’ crimes, both juries were present for
certain witnesses’ testimony. Although the trial court made an effort to allow each jury to hear only
the evidence relevant to the applicable defendant, Petitioner’s jury did hear some evidence relevant
only to Hughes’ case.
At trial, several pieces of inculpatory evidence were presented against Petitioner, including
the testimony of Officer Weston and Lieutenant Koger, as well as that of co-conspirators Smith and
Sharp, who stated that they observed Petitioner shoot at Officer Weston with a .9 millimeter
automatic pistol. The trial judge attempted to exclude evidence and testimony regarding the alleged
robbery of Marcus Lane’s apartments from Petitioner’s trial, since Petitioner was not on trial for that
conduct. However, the trial court permitted presentation of some evidence regarding this uncharged
offense for the narrow purpose of demonstrating Petitioner’s motive and intent to shoot at the police.
The trial court instructed the jury concerning the limited purposes for which the evidence about the
armed robbery could be used.
Petitioner was convicted on both counts of the indictment. The trial court sentenced him to
between 30 and 50 years of incarceration for the assault conviction, along with a consecutive
sentence of two years of incarceration for the firearm conviction. On February 19, 1987, Petitioner
filed a timely motion for a new trial, which was denied. The separate robbery charge against
Petitioner was dismissed.
Petitioner then filed a direct appeal, and the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed his
conviction on June 23, 1988. The Michigan Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence
concerning the armed robbery was properly admitted under Michigan Rule of Evidence (“MRE”)
404(b) or to explain the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Relevant to Petitioner’s claim of
prosecutorial misconduct, the court stated, in pertinent part:
To the extent this issue involves the prosecutor’s questions regarding the later shootout, we have already found that the testimony was not reversible error. . . . To the
extent the argument concerns testimony from the armed robbery victim of
[Petitioner’s] activities, testimony concerning the armed robbery was generally
admissible under . . . MRE 404(b) . . . [or res gestae], and therefore there was no
Furthermore, [Petitioner’s] contention that the prosecutor’s closing argument
contained improper comments and speculation is without merit. Defense counsel did
not object to these comments either during or subsequent to summation. In the
absence of objection, appellate review is foreclosed unless the prejudicial effect was
so great that it could not have been cured by instruction and failure to consider the
issue would result in a miscarriage of justice. . . . A prosecutor is free to relate his
theory of the case and to argue the evidence and any reasonable inferences to be
drawn from it. . . . A review of the entire argument does not indicate that a
miscarriage of justice will result if we decline to review this issue. Any error could
have been cured with an appropriate instruction.
On February 1, 1989, the Michigan Supreme Court denied Petitioner leave to appeal.
Subsequently, Petitioner filed several post-conviction motions in the Michigan state courts.
Petitioner filed a motion for relief from judgment, which was denied on April 6, 1994; a motion for
leave to appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which was denied on June 7, 1996; a motion for
rehearing in the Michigan Court of Appeals on June 21, 1996, which was denied on August 1, 1996;
a delayed application for leave to appeal his motion for relief from judgment to the Michigan
Supreme Court on September 20, 1996, which was denied on May 30, 1997; a motion for
reconsideration of this May 30, 1997 denial on June 9, 1997, which was in turn denied on August
29, 1997; a second motion for relief from judgment in the Michigan trial court on October 28, 1997,
which was denied on December 22, 2003; a motion for reconsideration of the December 22, 2003
denial, and an application for leave to appeal the denial to the Michigan Court of Appeals on
February 9, 2004, which were denied on March 22, 2004, and July 15, 2004, respectively; a motion
for rehearing in the Michigan Court of Appeals on August 1, 2004, which was denied on September
8, 2004; and an application for leave to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court on October 27, 2004,
which was denied on May 31, 2005.
On April 24, 2006, Petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 2254 in the district court. In his habeas petition, Petitioner asserted the following grounds
for relief: (1) that the Michigan courts erred in relying upon Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D) in
denying his motions for relief from judgment; (2) that the trial court erred in failing to sever his trial
from Hughes’ trial; (3) that the prosecution suppressed impeachment evidence in violation of Brady
v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); (4) that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance; (5) that
his appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance; (6) that his sentence violated due process; and
(7) prosecutorial misconduct. The district court granted Petitioner a writ of habeas corpus on his
prosecutorial misconduct claim, and denied Petitioner’s remaining grounds for habeas relief.
Respondent timely appealed.
Standard of Review
“In reviewing the district court’s decision, we review legal conclusions de novo and findings
of fact for clear error.” Haliym v. Mitchell, 492 F.3d 680, 689 (6th Cir. 2007). Petitioner filed his
petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2006, after the April 24, 1996 effective date of the
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) amendments to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Our
review of the district court’s decision is governed by the deferential habeas standard codified in
AEDPA. Section 2254(d) states that:
[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant
to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that
was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of
the claim (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
A decision is “contrary to . . . clearly established federal law” pursuant to § 2254(d)(1) if “the state
court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by the Supreme Court on a question of law or
if the state court decided a case differently than the Supreme Court on a set of materially
indistinguishable facts.” Lundgren v. Mitchell, 440 F.3d 754, 762 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Williams
v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000)). A state court decision “involves an unreasonable application
of clearly established federal law” pursuant to § 2254(d)(1) if “the state court identifies the correct
governing legal principle but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner’s case.
Clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, refers to
the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of the Supreme Court’s decisions as of the time of the relevant
state-court decision.” Id. at 763 (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 412).
The Supreme Court recently decided a series of cases elaborating on the scope of AEDPA
deference. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S. Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011); Walker v. Martin, 131 S. Ct.
1120 (2011); Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 787 (2011); Premo v. Moore, 131 S. Ct. 733
(2011); Renico v. Lett, 130 S. Ct. 1855 (2010). These cases highlight AEDPA’s important role as
“part of the basic structure of federal habeas jurisdiction, designed to confirm that state courts are
the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions.” Harrington, 131
S. Ct. at 787; see also Cullen, 131 S. Ct. at 1398; Walker, 131 S. Ct. at 1120; Premo, 131 S. Ct. at
733; Renico, 130 S. Ct. at 1855. The AEDPA standard “is a difficult to meet, and highly deferential
standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the
benefit of the doubt.” Cullen, 131 S. Ct at 1398 (internal quotations and citations omitted). The
Court thus reiterated that “[a] state court’s determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal
habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court’s
decision.” Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 786 (internal quotation omitted).
Nonetheless, AEDPA does not foreclose federal habeas review of state court convictions and
sentences. As the Supreme Court emphasized, AEDPA “stops short of imposing a complete bar on
federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings.” Id. Rather, federal habeas
review continues to serve the important role of “guard[ing] against extreme malfunctions in the state
criminal justice systems.” Id.
AEDPA “preserves authority to issue the writ in cases where there is no possibility
fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court’s decision conflicts with [the Supreme] Court’s
precedents.” Id. Thus, “[a]s a condition for obtaining habeas corpus relief from a federal court, a
state prisoner 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.” Id. at 786–87. Therefore, in evaluating a habeas claim under AEDPA, a federal
court must “determine what arguments or theories supported, or . . . could have supported, the state
court’s decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that
those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of th[e Supreme]
Court.” Id. at 786.
While AEDPA always requires habeas courts to accord state court decisions significant
deference, the nature of the deference is tailored to the legal rule underlying that habeas claim. See,
e.g. Renico, 130 S. Ct. at 1864.
“Evaluating whether a rule application [by a state court] was
unreasonable requires considering the rule’s specificity. The more general the rule, the more leeway
courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 786.
As this Court has recognized, the AEDPA “deference accorded the state court’s determination” in
ineffective assistance of counsel cases “is even greater in light of the generalized nature of the
Strickland inquiry.” Bray v. Andrews, 640 F.3d 731, 738 (6th Cir. 2011); see also Premo, 131 S. Ct.
at 740 (“The Strickland standard is a general one, so the range of reasonable applications is
substantial.”(quoting Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 788)); Renico, 130 S. Ct. at 1865 (“[T]he standard
applied [to decide] whether the [trial] judge exercised sound discretion [in declaring a mistrial] . .
. is a general one, to which there is no plainly correct or incorrect answer in this case.”).
The recent cases decided by the Supreme Court dealt with application of general rules,
specifically, evaluating whether counsel provided ineffective assistance, see, e.g., Cullen, 131 S. Ct.
at 1403; Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 788; Premo, 131 S. Ct. at 740, and determining whether the trial
court properly declared a mistrial. See Renico, 130 S. Ct. at 1865. A habeas court considering
alleged violations of those generalized rules reviews the decisions of two actors: (1) the actor in the
first instance, such as counsel or the state trial court, and (2) the state court’s evaluation of the
constitutional reasonableness of that conduct.
This case is different from the circumstance evaluated in Cullen, Harrington, Premo, and
Renico in an important respect. Whereas those cases involved general rules that required a habeas
court to accord state decisions additional deference, see Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 786, this case
involves a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, which is governed by a standard that affords a
prosecutor less discretion and thus affords state courts less deference. While it is true that “state
courts have substantial breathing room when considering prosecutorial misconduct claims because
constitutional line drawing . . . is necessarily imprecise,” Slagle v. Bagley, 457 F.3d 501, 516 (6th
Cir. 2006), prosecutorial misconduct claims do not afford states discretion over and above the usual
ability that state courts have to exercise their judgments in determining constitutional questions. Cf.
Renico, 130 S. Ct. at 1865 (stating that because a trial judge has significant discretion in determining
whether to declare a mistrial, a reviewing court must accord significant deference to the trial judge’s
exercise of his “sound discretion”).
Petitioner claims that he is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus because the prosecutor at his
trial engaged in flagrant misconduct. Specifically, Petitioner asserts that the prosecutor committed
misconduct by: (1) eliciting testimony regarding Petitioner’s alleged participation in an armed
robbery of Marcus Lane’s apartment; (2) introducing evidence regarding the shooting after Petitioner
fled the scene; and (3) making inappropriate statements during closing statements.
Respondent argues that Petitioner defaulted his misconduct claim arising from improper
testimony the prosecutor adduced, but that argument is incorrect. We cannot grant habeas relief on
a procedurally defaulted claim. Haliym, 492 F.3d at 690. A petitioner’s federal claim is procedurally
defaulted if the state court’s rejection of that claim “rests on a state-law ground that is both
independent of the merits of the federal claim and an adequate basis for the state court’s decision.”
Stone v. Moore, 644 F.3d 342, 345 (6th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
As an initial matter, we note that Respondent does not argue that Petitioner procedurally
defaulted his claims based on the prosecutor’s closing arguments. “Procedural default is normally
a defense that the State is obligated to raise and preserve if it is not to lose the right to assert the
defense thereafter.” Cristini v. McKee, 526 F.3d 888, 898 (6th Cir. 2008) (internal alterations
omitted). Moreover, in asserting a procedural default defense, Respondent must “identif[y] with
specificity which statements are allegedly defaulted.” Slagle, 457 F.3d at 514. Respondent declines
to argue that Petitioner defaulted his misconduct claims arising from the prosecutor’s closing
argument, and so Respondent has waived that defense.
Respondent also argues that Petitioner defaulted claims based on the prosecutor’s crossexamination of Shirley Williams, but that argument is incorrect. During the prosecution’s
examination of Shirley Williams, an alleged victim of the robbery, the prosecutor elicited testimony
that Petitioner had put a gun to her head during the robbery. Since the trial court instructed the
prosecutor to limit Williams’ testimony, Petitioner argues that the prosecutor committed misconduct
by asking the open-ended question. Respondent argues that Petitioner defaulted this claim arising
from questions adduced from a witness.
To determine whether Petitioner’s claim is procedurally defaulted, we “look to the last
explained state court judgment to determine whether relief is barred on procedural grounds.”
Stone, 644 F.3d at 346 (internal quotation omitted). A claim is procedurally defaulted only if “state
courts actually enforced the state procedural sanction.” Id. (quoting Maupin v. Smith, 785 F.2d 135,
138 (6th Cir. 1986)). Thus, in order for default to bar a petitioner’s prosecutorial claim, it must be
clear to us which statements underlying the petitioner’s claim the state court decided by relying on
a procedural bar. See Slagle, 457 F.3d at 515. For example, in Slagle, we noted that “a prosecutorial
misconduct claim requires evaluation of the cumulative effect of improper comments made during
the course of an entire trial,” and that, as a result, the state court’s failure to identify the sub-claims
the petitioner was procedurally barred from raising prohibited us from concluding any of the
petitioner’s sub-claims were defaulted. Id.
The same reasoning applies to Petitioner’s prosecutorial misconduct claim arising from
Williams’ testimony. Notwithstanding Petitioner’s failure to object to Williams’ testimony at trial,
the Michigan Court of Appeals reviewed in full the propriety of the testimony regarding the armed
robbery. Therefore, to the extent that Petitioner’s trial counsel’s failure to object to the prosecutor’s
statements constitutes grounds for procedural default, this procedural bar was not actually enforced,
and we may review Petitioner’s claim. See id.
We have often repeated the Supreme Court’s admonition from Berger v. United States, 295
U.S. 78 (1935), that a prosecutor
is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty
whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern
at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win
a case, but that justice shall be done. As such, he is in a peculiar and very definite
sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape
or innocence suffer. He may prosecute with earnestness and vigor—indeed, he
should do so. But, while he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul
ones. It is as much his duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce
a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one.
Id. at 88; see, e.g., United States v. Carter, 236 F.3d 777, 786 (6th Cir. 2001).
In reviewing a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, “the relevant question is whether the
prosecutor’s comments so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the conviction a denial of due
process.” Lundgren, 440 F.3d at 778 (quoting Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 181 (1986)).
“When reviewing challenges to a prosecutor’s remarks at trial, this Court examines the prosecutor’s
comments within the context of the trial to determine whether such comments amounted to
prejudicial error.” Girts v. Yanai, 501 F.3d 743, 759 (6th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations and
citations omitted). Thus, “[t]here are instances where a single misstep on the part of the prosecutor
may be so destructive of the right to a fair trial that reversal is mandated.” United States v. Solivan,
937 F.2d 1146, 1150 (6th Cir. 1991).
We engage in a two-step inquiry to determine whether prosecutorial misconduct rises to the
level of unconstitutionality. “To satisfy the standard for prosecutorial misconduct, the conduct must
be both improper and flagrant.” Broom v. Mitchell, 441 F.3d 392, 412 (6th Cir. 2006). This Court
has provided some guidance regarding the nature of improper prosecutorial conduct:
In determining whether the [prosecutor’s] statements . . . were proper, there are
several guidelines available. Advocates have an obligation to put forth only proper
arguments based on the evidence in the record. Also they must obey the cardinal rule
that a prosecutor cannot make statements calculated to incite the passions and
prejudices of the jury.
Id. Regarding the second factor, flagrancy, we have explained that:
[o]nce conduct is held to be improper, there are four factors [to] consider in
determining flagrancy: (1) the likelihood that the remarks of the prosecutor tended
to mislead the jury or prejudice the defendant; (2) whether the remarks were isolated
or extensive; (3) whether the remarks were deliberately or accidentally made; and (4)
the total strength of the evidence against the defendant.
Id. Even if the statements were not flagrant, this Court will nevertheless find prosecutorial
misconduct “if (1) the proof against the defendant was not overwhelming, (2) opposing counsel
objected to the conduct, and (3) the [trial] court failed to give a curative instruction.” United States
v. Abboud, 438 F.3d 554, 584 (6th Cir. 2006).
We evaluate the various bases of Petitioner’s prosecutorial misconduct claim together, since
“a prosecutorial misconduct claim requires evaluation of the cumulative effect of [prosecutorial]
improp[riety] . . . during the course of an entire trial.” Slagle, 457 F.3d at 515.
Petitioner first points to the prosecutor’s improper introduction of prejudicial evidence
regarding Petitioner’s role in the alleged armed robbery of Marcus Lane’s apartment. The trial court
allowed Shirley Williams, an alleged victim of the robbery, to testify briefly about the robbery in
order to provide jurors factual context for the alleged assault. The prosecutor’s colloquy with the
court and the witness prior to the testimony makes it clear that the prosecutor knew that the scope
of Williams’ testimony about the robbery would be small. In a hearing outside the juries’ presence,
the trial court explained that he would “not permit a lengthy discussion” about the robbery but would
“allow background material.” The court emphasized the limited scope of Williams’ testimony,
noting that witnesses “have a tendency to volunteer much information” and that the court “wanted
to prevent that . . . from occurring.”
Before Williams testified, defense counsel requested a hearing without the juries present “to
find out [to] what extent the prosecutor is going to go” and to learn the substance of Williams’
expected testimony about the armed robbery. The prosecutor’s colloquy with Williams during this
hearing demonstrated that he understood the limited scope of Williams’ intended testimony. The
prosecutor asked Williams not to go “into a lot of detail” and more than once to answer “[j]ust yes
or no.” At the conclusion of the proffer, the prosecutor stated: “[T]hat’s basically all I wish to put
before the jury. . . . That’s as brief as I want to be.” The prosecutor did not ask Williams during the
proffer if Petitioner had threatened her with a gun. As the juries were returning to the courtroom,
the prosecutor instructed the witness: “Surely, I’m not going to ask you about the search. They come
up to the door, like I asked you, ‘Did they take anything?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And did they leave?’ Okay? I
don’t want to go into the detail.” The witness responded, “Okay.” The prosecutor then stated:
“Now, if they ask you, answer their question, whatever they ask you, okay?” The witness answered,
When the juries returned, however, the prosecutor did not ask Williams “yes” or “no”
questions as he assured the court, the witness, and defense counsel he would:
How many people did you see when you first looked out
[after someone knocked on the door]?
All right, and after this person asked you about [Marcus
Lane], what happened?
He snatched the door out of my hand, the screen door.
All right. What happened then?
Then he came in.
Okay, and what happened next?
And he put [a] gun to my head, told me to sit down and don’t
Put the gun—
—to my head.
Do you see this person in court today?
Yes. [Describes Petitioner.]
The prosecutor’s open-ended questions opened the door for Williams to volunteer that Petitioner put
his gun to her head. The prosecutor’s line of questioning flagrantly disregarded the court’s
instructions to limit Williams’ testimony, and once that prejudicial statement was before Petitioner’s
jury, the prosecutor did not stop discussing the topic in order to minimize any damage. Instead, the
prosecutor asked Williams to repeat her statement so her testimony would obtain greater emphasis.
Then, during the remainder of trial, the prosecutor repeatedly reminded the jury, over defense
objections to all of the armed robbery evidence, that Petitioner placed a gun to Williams’ head.
The prosecutor also needlessly belabored the robbery during his examination of coconspirator Sheldon Smith.
Specifically, the following line of questioning during Smith’s
examination, to which Petitioner’s counsel objected during trial, was improper and flagrant:
Now did [the alleged armed robbers] say how they were going
to take the cocaine [from Marcus Lane’s apartment]?
* * * * *
Who was going into Marcus[ Lane]’s apartment [to] take the
[Hughes] and [Petitioner].
All right. Did [Hughes] or [Petitioner] say how they were
going to take the cocaine?
They didn’t say how . . . . They got out [of] the car. They had
the guns, so evidently they [were] going to have to use force.
* * *
And when [Petitioner] and Mr. Hughes . . . got out of the car
[to go to Marcus Lane’s apartment], that left not only your
gun in the car but there was a shotgun in the car?
And Jeff Sharp was in the car with you, right?
And you knew that some cocaine was going to be taken [by]
men with guns, didn’t you?
The prosecutor’s improper and flagrant line of questioning continued during his cross
examination of Petitioner, in spite of objections from defense counsel:
You went in [to Oakview] with that .9 millimeter gun, too,
[You d]idn’t go in there with that .9 millimeter? Tell the jury
how you went in[to] the [Oakview] apartments.
I went in[to] the [Oakview] apartment to talk to a guy[,]
[Marcus Lane,] that owed me some money, sir.
* * * * *
Are you telling this jury that you did not go in there knowing
that Marcus Lane was a drug dealer, to rob that place?
I didn’t know Marcus Lane was a drug dealer.
You didn’t know? All right? Why did you have this weapon
Why? I didn’t have it on me.
You had it on you, you testified to—over by the garage.
Well, the gun was in the car from that morning.
You are testifying that you did not take this gun into that
particular apartment and put it to Shirley Williams’s head and
rob her, is that what you are testifying to?
* * * * *
Do you remember Shirley Williams’ testimony that you came
in with a black gun and put it to her head, do you remember
This is a black gun, is it not?
The prosecutor also improperly adduced testimony regarding the shootout in which Petitioner
was not involved. Petitioner was not on trial for the shooting that occurred after he fled, but, in
questioning Lieutenant Koger, the prosecutor elicited testimony in the presence of petitioner’s jury
regarding the subsequent shootings:
Okay. So I take it you started to chase this Regal in your van
and Officer Weston was behind you?
All right, and these other shots that you have described earlier
that were fired?
Two different people?
All right. What did you do in response to those shots?
Well, the second time that the subject shot through the
sunroof, and the passenger shot, the van was struck both
The prosecutor’s closing arguments also included several comments aimed at inflaming the
jury’s passion. In one instance, the prosecutor asked rhetorically, “But if you look at a .9 millimeter,
point it at a person and you shoot it intending to hit that person, don’t you intend to kill him? I mean
just because you miss, do we have to bring in Weston’s dead body and throw it before you to get
assault with intent to murder?” Worse still, the prosecutor warned the jury that “it would be very
sad if we had to come in here and dump a dead body in front of you to get that point across. It’s
assault with intent to murder.” The prosecutor further stated:
[Petitioner] said . . . [he] looked the same as [he] did back on [the date of the crime].
. . . I’ll leave that to your determination. But I suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen,
you are judging the facts. He’s not the same person before you in this trial. He’s not
acting like he’s pointing a gun before you in this trial. You’re not seeing that, are
you? You are not seeing that. You are not seeing [Petitioner’s] evidence that shows
he really was—the type of man who knows about all of this ammunition and guns,
that hangs out with Hughes and Sharp and Smith, the type of man that carries this
gun . . . and points it and shoots it. That’s not the [Petitioner] now you are seeing,
is it? Sometimes it’s hard to visualize, especially when the attorney has him take the
pictures . . . but it allows him to get close to you and it may influence you, because
you might think he’s a nice looking fellow and overlook what he did on [the date of
* * * *
Don’t get hung up about that little aspect of pointing that gun with assault with intent
to murder in that driveway . . . because when you know more about him, the gun, to
rob him, going over to Lisa Key’s, telling her what he had just done and hiding the
guns in the bag, and when you know all the facts you get a better picture of him on
[the date of the crime]. I suggest that total picture, ladies and gentlemen, makes out
a person who, but for a bad aim, could very well be before you as a killer, could very
well be before you as a killer because if a person shoots at another person intending
to hit, aim and kills him and he admits that, does that really make his intent any less?
Does it make his intent any less?
The Michigan Court of Appeals unreasonably applied clearly established federal law by
rejecting Petitioner’s claims of error arising from all of these comments. The appeals court
concluded that the testimony and comments regarding the armed robbery and shootout were
admissible under Michigan law, but it ignored the question of whether the inflammatory questions
and arguments “so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the conviction a denial of due
process.” Lundgren, 440 F.3d at 778. The prosecutor’s questions and comments rendered
Petitioner’s trial unfair, and the appeals court’s determinations to the contrary—that the prosecutor’s
arguments did nothing more than “relate his theory of the case,” and “argue the evidence and any
reasonable inference to be drawn from it”—unreasonably applied due process requirements to
As the state post-conviction court explained, this prosecutor gained “a track record of
reversals and appellate comments” regarding his conduct in five cases. Among those cases was
Washington v. Hofbauer, 228 F.3d 689 (6th Cir. 2000), in which we granted a conditional writ
because this prosecutor “extensively berated [the petitioner’s] character before the jury” and argued
facts not in evidence. Id. at 695–97. And, once again, we are faced with similar conduct by this
The prosecutor’s statements were placed before the jury for precisely the
unconstitutional purposes of “suggest[ing] that the jury could consider [a defendant’s] bad character
as a thumb on the scale in favor of a finding of guilt,” Hodge, 426 F.3d at 385, and “flam[ing] the
passions and prejudices of the jury.” Abboud, 438 F.3d at 584. The prosecutor’s statements were
both improper and flagrant. It was unreasonable for the Michigan Court of Appeals to conclude
In determining whether the prosecutor’s questioning regarding the armed robbery and
shootout exceeded the limited purpose for which this evidence was admissible, it is important to note
that we granted habeas relief in Washington on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct when, although
certain “evidence . . . was admissible for certain limited purposes, the prosecutor went far beyond
the bounds of permitted conduct when presenting that evidence to the jury.” Washington, 228 F.3d
at 699. In this case, evidence of the alleged armed robbery was admissible for the limited purposes
of demonstrating Petitioner’s intent and motive to shoot at Officer Weston. However, instead of
limiting his questioning to the appropriate subject matter, the prosecutor repeatedly elicited and
highlighted evidence that Petitioner put a gun to Shirley Williams’ head during the course of the
alleged armed robbery.
While Petitioner’s participation in the armed robbery may have been relevant for the purpose
of demonstrating his motive to shoot at Officer Weston, this particular inflammatory fact was not,
in itself, demonstrative of Petitioner’s motive. Rather, the prosecutor’s emphasis on Williams’
testimony could only have been “calculated to incite the passions and prejudices of the jury,”
constituting improper prosecutorial behavior. Broom, 441 F.3d at 412. Even the prosecutor
admitted at one point that his questioning exceeded permissible bounds. (R. 21, Trial Tr. 6/20/1986
at 12 (“I admit I shouldn’t have got into that.”).)
The prosecutor’s statements during closing arguments were similarly improper. In assessing
whether a prosecutor’s statements during closing arguments constituted misconduct, this Court
considers the fact that the jury heard these comments shortly before deliberations is a significant
factor. See Carter, 236 F.3d at 788. A prosecutor’s statements have “great potential for misleading
the jury” during its deliberation, “because a jury generally has confidence that a prosecuting attorney
is faithfully observing his obligation as a representative of a sovereignty.” Girts, 501 F.3d at 759
(internal citations and quotations omitted). For this reason, we consider it significant that the
prosecutor compounded his prejudicial questions with prejudicial statements to the jury shortly
before it would begin deliberating.
This Court has explained that “a prosecutor is allowed to argue reasonable inferences from
the evidence.” Macias v. Makowski, 291 F.3d 447, 452 (6th Cir. 2002). This includes asserting,
based on facts and inconsistencies in evidence, that a defendant is lying. See, e.g., United States v.
Francis, 170 F.3d 546, 551 (6th Cir. 1999). However, a prosecutor may not urge the jury to
“consider [a defendant’s] bad character as a thumb on the scale in favor of a finding of guilt.”
Hodge, 426 F.3d at 385. “A fundamental rule of evidence is that a defendant’s bad character cannot
be used to argue that the defendant committed the crime for which he is being tried, or had the
propensity to commit that crime.” Washington, 228 F.3d at 699. Thus, “when a prosecutor dwells
on a defendant’s bad character in this prohibited manner, [this Court] may find prosecutorial
misconduct.” Id. Additionally, a prosecutor may not make statements calculated to “flame the
passions and prejudices of the jury.” Abboud, 438 F.3d at 584; see also Solivan, 937 F.3d at 1151.
The prosecutor twice stated that “dump[ing]” and “throw[ing]” Officer Weston’s “dead
body” before the jury should not be a prerequisite to convicting Petitioner. Because Officer Weston
was not only alive, but testified at Petitioner’s trial, these statements were designed to inflame the
jury’s passions, and neither stated the law nor the facts relevant to Petitioner’s case. Furthermore,
the prosecutor’s attack on Petitioner’s character, as well as his attempt to distinguish Petitioner’s
appearance at trial and his appearance at the time of the crime, were blatant appeals for the jury to
“consider [Petitioner’s] bad character as a thumb on the scale in favor of a finding of guilt.” Hodge,
426 F.3d at 385. These statements were thus clearly improper.
The prosecutor’s statements were also flagrant. First, as previously discussed, “prosecutorial
statements may have great potential for misleading the jury.” Girts, 501 F.3d at 759. Thus, there
is a serious risk that the prosecutor’s improper questioning regarding the armed robbery, the
prosecutor’s statements regarding Petitioner’s character, and the prosecutor’s inflammatory
statements regarding the need to “dump” Officer Weston’s dead body before the jury, did indeed
influence the jury.
Second, the prosecutor’s misconduct was not isolated. Rather, the prosecutor’s questioning
of several witnesses about the armed robbery and shootout exceeded the permissible scope of the
evidence, and improper statements were peppered throughout the prosecutor’s closing argument.
This fact also speaks to the third flagrancy factor, “whether the remarks were deliberately or
accidentally made.” Broom, 441 F.3d at 412. This Court has explained that “repeated comments
demonstrate that the errors were not inadvertent.” Girts, 501 F.3d at 760.
Finally, contrary to the state court’s conclusion, the evidence against Petitioner was not
sufficiently strong to overcome the prejudice that the prosecutor’s comments and questions caused
Petitioner. We have granted a petitioner a writ of habeas corpus based on prosecutorial misconduct
where “the case against [the defendant] was relatively straightforward and strong.” Boyle v. Million,
201 F.3d 711, 717 (6th Cir. 2000). The evidence against Petitioner hardly meets that description:
the testimony of two of Petitioner’s co-defendants, who testified in exchange for the dismissal of
charges, and a co-defendant’s girlfriend formed the main evidence against Petitioner; Officer Weston
fired shots into the Regal because he thought shots were coming from inside the car, though
Petitioner was outside the car; and Officer Weston testified for the first time at trial that Petitioner’s
gun was smoking when he fled the scene, after omitting that fact in his police report and at the
Moreover, the prosecutor’s misconduct undercut Petitioner’s sole defense theory. Petitioner
testified on his own behalf, and his principal defense was his own testimony. This Court has
explained that a “a prosecutor may not make improper comments designed to completely undercut
the defendant’s sole [defense] theory, effectively denying him fair jury consideration.” Broom, 441
F.3d at 412. The prosecutor’s statements impugning Petitioner’s character effectively impeached
him and averted any impulse the jury may have had to believe his testimony. While a prosecutor is
free to impeach a defendant’s testimony on legitimate evidentiary grounds, he may not do so by
impugning a defendant’s character. Here, the prosecutor’s derogation of Petitioner’s character tipped
the balance of evidence in Petitioner’s favor. Our judgment that the evidence against Petitioner was
not “straightforward and strong” and that the prosecutor’s comments improperly weakened a
legitimate theory from Petitioner convinces us that the prosecutor’s improper questions and
comments were flagrant. Boyle, 201 F.3d at 717.
The Michigan Court of Appeals found that the extent to which the prosecutor elicited
testimony regarding the armed robbery was not a violation of Michigan law, and that the prosecutor’s
improper statements during closing arguments did not result in a “miscarriage of justice.” However,
the state court failed to grasp the breadth of the prosecutor’s improper questions and statements, and
no reasonable jurist who considers the prosecutor’s misconduct and the actual weight of the evidence
against Petitioner would conclude that Petitioner’s right to due process was vindicated. Because
these repeated inflammatory and improper statements were largely calculated to incite the jury’s
passions, and undermine Petitioner’s sole proof of innocence, it was unreasonable for the Michigan
Court of Appeals to dismiss Petitioner’s prosecutorial misconduct assignment of error. Petitioner
is thus entitled to a writ of habeas corpus on this ground.
The cumulative effect of the prosecutor’s improper and flagrant questioning regarding the
armed robbery and shootout and his prejudicial comments during closing arguments deprived
Petitioner of a fair trial in violation of his due process rights. Accordingly, we conclude that the state
court’s decision involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law on
prosecutorial misconduct, as determined by the Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); Berger, 295
U.S. at 88; Darden, 447 U.S. at 181. The prosecutor’s misconduct deprived Petitioner of his
constitutional right to due process, and he is entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. See Washington,
228 F.3d at 709.
We AFFIRM the decision of the district court, and grant Petitioner a writ of habeas corpus.
The Petitioner is ordered released from custody unless the State of Michigan commences a retrial
of Petitioner within 180 days in accordance with the requirements of this opinion.
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