Ronald Babcock v. Linda Metrish
OPINION filed : AFFIRMED, decision not for publication pursuant to local rule 206. Julia Smith Gibbons, Circuit Judge; Jeffrey S. Sutton, Circuit Judge and John R. Adams, AUTHORING U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio. [10-1041, 10-1104]
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 12a0259n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
RONALD CLARENCE BABCOCK
LINDA M. METRISH
Mar 07, 2012
LEONARD GREEN, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF
Before: GIBBONS and SUTTON, Circuit Judges; ADAMS, District Judge.*
ADAMS, J. Appellant, Linda Metrish, appeals the district court’s grant of Appellee, Ronald
Babcock’s, writ of habeas corpus. In her appeal, Metrish asserts that the district court erred when
it concluded that the admission of Trooper Hare’s testimony in violation of Babcock’s Sixth
Amendment right to confrontation was not harmless error. Babcock filed a cross-appeal, essentially
asserting violations of the Uniform Commercial Code. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM
the judgment of the district court.
On December 8, 2004, Babcock was found guilty by a jury of possession of a firearm by a
felon, in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.224f and possession of a firearm during the
* The Honorable John R. Adams, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio,
sitting by designation.
commission of a felony, in violation of Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.227b. Babcock was sentenced to
46 months to 360 months of imprisonment.
The Michigan Court of Appeals summarized the facts in this case as follows:
Defendant is a convicted felon. He was ineligible to possess a firearm at all
times relevant to this case. Defendant’s former girlfriend, Shawn Lester, testified
that while they were still dating, defendant selected a .22 rifle from Wal-Mart and
gave her money with instructions to purchase it for him. She purchased the gun and
some ammunition and took it to her home, where defendant took the gun and
demonstrated to her how to load it. She insisted that defendant not remove the gun
from her home because she knew he was a felon and ineligible to possess it, but he
nevertheless took it and the ammunition out with him the next day. Cindy Pero, the
sister of one of defendant’s friends testified that defendant took the gun to her house
because he and his friend were going to shoot skeet with it. Lester later retrieved the
gun from Pero’s house after reporting the matter to a police officer. Lester took the
gun to Stella Sherman, who placed it in her husband’s gun safe. Lester admitted that
this was some time after she and defendant had broken up. State Police Officer
Hilary Hare retrieved the gun from Sherman’s house and later interviewed defendant
Subsequent to his arrest, but prior to trial, Hare informed the prosecutor that
she would be unavailable to testify at trial because she would be on her honeymoon.
See MRE 804(b)(5)(A). The prosecutor sought to adjourn the trial. In lieu of an
adjournment, the trial court ordered that the officer’s video deposition be taken.
Defendant objected, but was present at and cross-examined the officer during the
deposition. At the deposition, Hare testified, among other things, that defendant
admitted to her at the jail interview that he had had Lester purchase a .22 rifle, which
he later removed from Lester’s residence and took to Pero’s residence. An edited
transcript of the deposition was read before the jury, again over defendant’s
objection. The videotape itself was not played for the jury, although the record is
unclear whether some portion of it may have been played.
People v. Babcock, 2006 WL 2739328, at *1 (Mich. Ct. App. Sept. 26, 2006) (per curiam).
Babcock appealed his conviction to the Michigan Court of Appeals. He argued that the
reading of Trooper Hare’s testimony in lieu of live appearance at the trial violated his Sixth
Amendment right to confrontation. The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed. It further concluded,
however, that the error was harmless. Id. at *3. In reaching this conclusion, the Michigan Court
of Appeals conducted an examination of the record “to evaluate whether it is clear, beyond a
reasonable doubt, that the jury verdict would have been the same absent the error.” Id. (internal
citations and quotations omitted.) Specifically, the Court concluded that Trooper Hare’s testimony
was “sufficiently redundant that we do not believe defendant suffered any prejudice as a result.” Id.
Babcock filed leave to appeal this decision with the Michigan Supreme Court. In May of 2007, the
Michigan Supreme Court denied Babcock’s application for leave “because we are not persuaded that
the questions presented should be reviewed by this Court.” People v. Babcock, 730 N.W. 2d 474,
474 (Mich. 2007) (Markman, J., concurring).
In July of 2007, Babcock filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus with the United
States District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division. The matter was referred
to a Magistrate Judge. Relevant to the instant appeal, Babcock argued that his right to confrontation
had been violated. Metrish responded. On October 28, 2009, the Magistrate Judge issued a report
and recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that the district court grant Babcock’s petition. The
R&R concluded that the use of Trooper Hare’s deposition testimony at trial violated Babcock's Sixth
Amendment right to confrontation and that the error was not harmless. Metrish filed objections to
the R&R and Babcock responded. On December 11, 2009, the district court overruled Metrish’s
objections, adopted the R&R, and conditionally granted Babcock’s writ. The matter was stayed
Metrish appealed the district court’s decision. Babcock filed a cross-appeal. The matter is
now before this Court. Upon review, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.
II. Standard of Review
This case is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) of
"In reviewing a district court’s decision to grant or deny habeas relief, this
Court reviews questions of fact under a ‘clearly erroneous’ standard and questions
of law de novo.” Johnson v. Sherry, 586 F.3d 439, 443 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation
omitted). Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”),
federal courts may grant habeas relief if the state court’s adjudication of the claim
resulted in a decision contrary to, or unreasonably applying, clearly established
federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Yet
AEDPA’s “highly deferential standard ... demands that state-court decisions be given
the benefit of the doubt.” Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24, 123 S. Ct. 357, 154
L. Ed. 2d 279 (2002) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
“[A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes
in its independent judgment that the state-court decision applied [a Supreme Court
case] incorrectly.” Price v. Vincent, 538 U.S. 634, 641, 123 S. Ct. 1848, 155 L. Ed.
2d 877 (2003) (alterations in original) (internal quotation marks and citation
omitted). “Rather, it is the habeas applicant’s burden to show that the state court
applied [that case] to the facts of his case in an objectively unreasonable manner.”
Woodford, 537 U.S. at 25, 123 S. Ct. 357.
Dittrich v. Woods, 419 F.App'x. 573, 576 (6th Cir. 2011).
The particular issue on appeal is whether the admission of Trooper Hare’s testimony in
violation of Babcock’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was harmless error. “We review
a habeas petitioner’s claim of Confrontation Clause violations for harmless error.” Id. (citing
Delaware v. Van Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 684 (1986)). Accordingly, the appropriate inquiry “is
whether the error ‘had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s
verdict.’” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (quoting Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S.
750, 776 (1946)).
The standard as set forth in Brecht does not require the petitioner to bear the burden of
establishing whether the error was prejudicial. Rather, the United States Supreme Court has
explained that the district court judge should ask him or herself “'Do I, the judge, think that the error
substantially influenced the jury’s decision?'” O’Neal v. McAninch, 513 U.S. 432, 436 (1995). “If
the judge is certain that the error had no or a small effect, the verdict must stand. However, if the
matter is so evenly balanced that the judge has ‘grave doubts’ as to whether the trial error had
substantial or injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict, such that the matter is
so evenly balanced that he feels himself in a ‘virtual equipoise’ as to harmlessness, the judge must
treat the error as if it were harmful and grant the petitioner’s writ.” Jensen v. Romanowski, 590 F.3d
373, 378 (6th Cir. 2009), quoting O’Neal, 513 U.S. at 435 & 445; Stallings v. Bobby, 464 F.3d 576,
582 (6th Cir. 2006).
At oral argument, Metrish argued that the applicable standard of review would be to first do
the AEDPA analysis and then, if successful, conduct the “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt”
standard error analysis as stated in Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). Metrish conceded
that she did not assert this argument below. Accordingly, Metrish’s assertion of a double layer
standard of review has been forfeited. See United States v. Tristan–Madrigal, 601 F.3d 629, 636 n.2
(6th Cir. 2010); Armstrong v. City of Melvindale, 432 F.3d 695, 699–700 (6th Cir. 2006) (“the failure
to present an issue to the district court forfeits the right to have the argument addressed on appeal.”).
a. Metrish’s Assignment of Error
Metrish concedes that the introduction of Trooper Hare’s testimony at trial violated
Babcock’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation. As such, we limit our review to whether the
district court erred in determining that there was more than a “grave doubt” as to whether the
admission of Trooper Hare’s testimony had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury’s verdict.
In determining whether a Confrontation Clause violation is harmless under
Brecht, this Court has repeatedly referred to the factors laid out in Delaware v. Van
Arsdall, 475 U.S. 673, 684, 106 S.Ct. 1431, 89 L.Ed.2d 674 (1986). Those factors
include: (1) the importance of the witness’ testimony in the prosecution’s case; (2)
whether the testimony was cumulative; (3) the presence or absence of evidence
corroborating or contradicting the testimony of the witness on material points; (4) the
extent of cross examination otherwise permitted; and (5) the overall strength of the
prosecution’s case. Id.
Jensen, 590 F.3d at 379.
Accordingly, we assess the prejudicial impact of the admission of Trooper Hare’s testimony
under Brecht’s “substantial and injurious effect” standard by examining the error through application
of the factors set forth in Van Arsdall to the facts in this case. Jensen, 590 F.3d at 379.
i. The Importance of Trooper Hare’s Testimony in the Prosecution’s Case
The Court initially notes that at the outset of trial, the jury was informed the parties stipulated
that Babcock was a felon and ineligible to possess a firearm on the date in question. Thus, the jury
was left with the question of whether Babcock actually possessed the firearm. It is clear that Trooper
Hare’s testimony was very important to the prosecution’s case. Although the prosecution presented
the eyewitness testimony of Babcock’s ex-girlfriend, Shawn Lester, her testimony became much
more credible after the admission of Trooper Hare’s testimony. Trooper Hare explained that
Babcock confessed that he transported the firearm and that his fingerprints would be on the gun. The
prosecution could have easily foreseen that Lester’s credibility as Babcock’s ex-girlfriend would be
called into question, particularly in light of the fact that she reported Babcock to police seemingly
simultaneously with the demise of their relationship.
The prosecution further presented the testimony of Cindy Pero. Pero explained that Babcock
brought the gun to her home. Pero testified that she had been friends with Lester for at least seven
years. She further explained that she and Lester had discussed the case the morning of trial. She
explained that she became reacquainted with Babcock about a year and a half prior to the trial. She
testified that she considered him an acquaintance rather than a friend. Again, the prosecution could
have reasonably foreseen a potential bias issue with Pero’s testimony.
The prosecution presented the testimony of Stella Sherman. She explained that Lester
brought the gun to her at work and asked her to take it to her home so that Babcock could not locate
it. The next day, Sherman turned the gun over to Trooper Hare. Finally, Sherman testified that her
husband is Lester’s cousin. The prosecution could have reasonably foreseen a bias issue with
The jury heard portions of Trooper Hare’s video deposition. Trooper Hare stated that on
August 6, 2003, she interviewed Babcock at the County Jail about possibly possessing a firearm.
She verified that Babcock informed her that he had been living with Lester and that they had been
in a relationship. Babcock informed her that he looked at guns at Wal-Mart for Lester. He explained
that he wanted Lester to have protection. Babcock confirmed Lester’s version of the events; that he
picked the gun out, gave her money and told her what to purchase. Notably, Trooper Hare testified
that she asked Babcock whether he handled the gun, and he indicated that his fingerprints would be
on the rifle because he was showing Lester how to use it. He further confirmed that he removed the
gun from the home because Lester did not feel comfortable with it in her home. After refreshing her
memory with her police report, Trooper Hare testified that Babcock told her that “like a dummy I
took it to Cindy Knowland’s residence, or Cindy Knowland at Sue Churchill’s residence in Akron.”
Trooper Hare stated that Babcock told her that Cindy Knowland was Cindy Pero. Trooper Hare
verified that she retrieved the gun from Stella Sherman’s residence. She retrieved the ammunition
On cross-examination, Trooper Hare stated that she did not personally observe Babcock with
the gun. She explained that she interviewed Lester. Trooper Hare testified that Lester told her that
she had fallen in love with Babcock and he moved into her home shortly thereafter. Lester stated
that she made a big mistake on the date in question and that three days later she and Babcock broke
up. Lester told Trooper Hare that either the day of or the day after she bought the gun, Babcock
moved out of her home.
Accordingly, it is very clear that Trooper Hare’s testimony was extremely important to the
prosecution’s case. It was necessary to overcome the perceived bias of all of the prosecution’s
witnesses. More importantly, it was the only method by which the prosecution could inform the jury
of Babcock’s confession that he had handled the gun and that he had transported the gun from
Lester’s home to Pero’s home. The prosecutor highlighted the importance of this testimony on
rebuttal during closing statements. The prosecutor explained that Trooper Hare testified as to
Babcock’s confession. Specifically, the prosecutor stated:
There’s your verification from the defendant himself. What better
verification could you have? Sure we can go and send this to the lab to get prints off
from it. Why? Take more people’s time, more people’s money, when you have the
evidence that you need already before you? Evidence! The defendant’s own
statement. What would you rather have, what somebody told you happened? And
especially when that person is the person who’s on trial, the defendant, his own
statements, his own statements to Trooper Hilary Hare.
ii. Cumulative Evidence
As explained above, the prosecution presented the live witness testimony of Lester, Pero, and
Sherman. Lester and Pero both testified that they observed Babcock with a gun. Pero testified that
Babcock brought the gun to her house. Coupled with the stipulation that Babcock was ineligible to
possess a firearm on the date in question, the Michigan Appeals Court noted, “[t]his evidence alone
would be sufficient to conclude that the verdict was unaffected by Officer Hare’s testimony,
particularly given that she did not personally witness defendant in possession of the rifle.” Babcock,
2006 WL 2739328, at *3 (Sept. 26, 2006).
That there was sufficient evidence for a conviction without Trooper Hare's testimony,
however, does not prove an absence of prejudice. The evidence became overwhelming with the
addition of Trooper Hare’s testimony. As such, Trooper Hare’s testimony bolsters the credibility
of the other testimony as it corroborates much of the live eye-witness testimony.
Further, Trooper Hare testified to Babcock’s confession. Admission of a confession is not
merely cumulative of other testimony. “A confession is like no other evidence. Indeed, the
defendant’s own confession is probably the most probative and damaging evidence that can be
admitted against him.” Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 296 111 (1991). While it is possible
to believe the jury could have found Babcock guilty without the offending testimony, we have grave
doubts as to whether the unconstitutional admission of his confession via Trooper Hare’s testimony
did not have a substantial effect on the jury's verdict. O'Neal, 513 U.S. at 436.
iii. Corroborating or Conflicting Evidence
Defense counsel attempted to impeach Lester’s testimony by highlighting inconsistencies
with Trooper Hare’s video deposition. These inconsistencies were very minor and do not take away
from the fact that Trooper Hare’s testimony regarding Babcock’s confession was corroborated by
Lester and Pero’s testimony. However, the fact that Lester’s testimony varied slightly from her
previous statements is all the more proof of the importance of Trooper Hare’s testimony. Without
it, the jury was left with the impression after Defense Counsel’s cross-examination that Lester was
not being entirely truthful. Read in conjunction with Trooper Hare’s larger corroborative video
deposition testimony, however, the inconsistencies, in Lester's testimony appear to be very minor
and could be easily overlooked.
The jury submitted a question to the court that clearly indicated that they questioned the
testimony presented. Specifically, the jury asked; “Did Mr. Babcock admit taking the gun from the
house?” The court issued a written response that stated: “Answer, yes.” The jury also asked for the
legal definition of “possessed.”1 As the Magistrate Judge stated in his R&R, these questions when
viewed together “strongly indicate that the jury relied particularly on Hare’s testimony in reaching
its verdict.” The Magistrate Judge noted that the question was a “specific, targeted question-whether
petitioner had confessed to possessing the guns-that was answered only by Hare’s testimony.” We
agree with the Magistrate Judge’s view of these questions. It becomes clear that in light of the
varying testimony, the jury placed weight on Trooper Hare’s statements. Although the Michigan
Court of Appeals declined to infer from these notes that the jury found the live testimony to be
unconvincing, this is not the standard this Court must apply. Rather, this Court must ask itself “Do
I, the judge, think that the error substantially influenced the jury’s decision?” O'Neal, 513 U.S. at
436. The answer is unequivocally “yes.”
iv. Extent of Cross-Examination Otherwise Permitted
While Babcock was given the chance to cross examine Trooper Hare, this cross examination
was not effective. It appears that the video deposition was taken prior to the trial court’s ruling on
1 Although the transcript reflects that the Court and the parties argued over the best way to answer
this question, the answer eventually given to the jury was not read into the record.
Babcock’s motion to suppress his statements to Trooper Hare. Therefore, Babcock’s counsel was
forced to cross examine on the issue of admissibility and to focus energy and time on issues that
were soon thereafter deemed unnecessary. Further, Babcock’s counsel stated on the record that he
believed he was “at a little bit of a disadvantage because we didn’t know what the evidence was
going—how the evidence was going to come out at the trial[.]” As such, it would have been very
difficult for Babcock’s counsel to have been adequately prepared to cross examine Trooper Hare as
if she were testifying live before the jury at trial.
v. Strength of Prosecution’s Case
Without Trooper Hare’s testimony, the prosecution’s case was substantial but not
overwhelming. There was no physical evidence and the remaining witnesses were potentially biased.
As the Michigan Court of Appeals noted, the jury could have found sufficient evidence to convict
Babcock without Trooper Hare’s testimony. But, Trooper Hare’s testimony, in conjunction with the
live witness testimony, created an even stronger case for the prosecution.
After a thorough analysis of the factors set forth in Van Arsdall, this Court concludes that
Babcock suffered a substantial and injurious effect from the inappropriate admission of Trooper
b. Babcock’s Cross Appeal
Much of Babcock’s cross appeal is nonsensical. However, the Court construes that Babcock
has asserted several arguments under the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.). He repeatedly insists
that his case is governed by the U.C.C. This belief is incorrect. As explained above, the instant case
is governed by the AEDPA. “As its title implies, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) governs
commercial transactions. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 440.1102(2) (describing the purposes of
Michigan’s UCC). It is not a source of substantive rights in a criminal action.” Thompson v. Scutt,
2011 WL 2745934 (July 13, 2011, W.D. Mich). Accordingly, Babcock’s arguments in his cross
appeal are rejected.
The Court has reviewed both Metrish’s and Babcock’s arguments on appeal. Finding no
merit in either, for the reasons described above, we AFFIRM the district court’s grant of Babcock’s
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