Byrd v. Bauman
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING an Evidentiary Hearing on Habeas Petitioner's Claim of Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel. (Evidentiary Hearing set for 12/19/2017 at 10:00 AM before District Judge Laurie J. Michelson). Signed by District Judge Laurie J. Michelson. (KJac)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
CURTIS JEROME BYRD,
Case No. 15-cv-13528
Honorable Laurie J. Michelson
CATHERINE S. BAUMAN,
OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING AN EVIDENTIARY HEARING ON HABEAS
PETITIONER’S CLAIM OF INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF TRIAL COUNSEL
In 2010, Curtis Byrd was charged with helping his then-girlfriend rob someone at an ATM.
Byrd maintains that when the pair approached the victim, Byrd changed his mind about robbing
him. But, according to Byrd, his girlfriend took the gun from him and proceeded with the crime
which ended in the victim’s death. While she accepted a plea deal, a jury convicted Byrd of firstdegree felony murder and he received the statutorily mandated life sentence without possibility of
Byrd petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus. He contends that his sentence is a
result of his trial counsel’s misunderstanding of accomplice liability. In particular, Byrd says that
his counsel advised him not to engage in plea negotiations because his girlfriend’s testimony would
establish that he abandoned the crime—even though she was going to tell the jury that Byrd gave
her the gun. For the reasons set forth below, Byrd has demonstrated that this claim warrants further
exploration. Accordingly, the Court will hold an evidentiary hearing regarding Byrd’s claim that
his trial counsel was ineffective in advising Byrd to forego plea negotiations.
To obtain money to buy drugs, Byrd and his girlfriend, Charletta Atkinson, developed a
plan to rob someone at an ATM. Byrd supplied a handgun and drove the couple to a bank. (R. 811, PID 772–73.) But once in the ATM drive-through lane—behind the eventual victim’s car—
Byrd got cold feet. (R. 8-11, PID 773.) Byrd, then a fifty-one-year-old retired autoworker with no
criminal history outside of a municipal ordinance violation (R. 17, PID 1837), allegedly told
Atkinson “[t]his ain’t me . . . I can’t do this babe” and returned the gun to his waistband. (R. 8-12,
PID 851; R. 8-11, PID 773–74, 783–85.) Byrd claims Atkinson then scuffled with him, took the
gun, and said, “I’ll do it.” (R. 8-11, PID 732–33.)
Byrd’s account squares, at least in part, with a witness at the scene. The witness first saw
Atkinson leave Byrd’s car and turn toward the victim’s car, then watched Atkinson return to Byrd’s
car. (R. 8-11, PID 634–38.) The witness saw Atkinson argue and exchange jabs with Byrd, and
then saw Atkinson again approach the victim’s car armed with a handgun. (R. 8-11, PID 634–38.)
But Atkinson testified to a different version of events at Byrd’s trial. She told the jury that
Byrd gave her the gun, and then waited in the car while she robbed and accidentally shot the victim.
Byrd alleges his lawyer knew—before trial—that Atkinson would testify this way. (R. 17-1, 1896–
97.) Indeed, Atkinson provided a similar account to police after her arrest and at her sentencing
prior to Byrd’s trial. (R. 8-12, PID 808–09, 879–80; see also R. 17-1, PID 1904 (Atkinson
indicating during her plea colloquy that she got the gun from Byrd).)
Relying on an accomplice theory, the state charged Byrd and Atkinson with first-degree
murder, first-degree felony murder, assault with intent to commit armed robbery, and felony
firearm charges.1 (R. 17, PID 1823.) Atkinson pled to a lesser charge in exchange for her testimony
against Byrd. (R. 8-12, PID 807–08.) Upon learning of Atkinson’s deal, and facing a felony murder
charge carrying a mandatory sentence of life without parole, Byrd says he asked his lawyer whether
they should pursue a plea deal. (R. 17-1, PID 1896.)
But, according to Byrd, his lawyer advised that he should not consider a plea because he
would not be convicted at trial. (R. 17-1, PID 1896.) Byrd claims his lawyer
explained that Ms. Atkinson would be testifying that when we [got] to the bank, I
told her I didn’t want to [go] through with the robbery and therefore I abandoned
the crime and was not guilty. He also said even if the jury believed that I handed
her the gun, I was still not guilty based on my statement that I did not want to go
through with it.
(R. 17-1, PID 1896.) In other words, Byrd’s trial counsel allegedly led him to believe that even if
the jury credited Atkinson claim that he gave her the gun, Byrd would still not be guilty because
he did not intend to follow through with the robbery. (R. 17-1, PID 1896–97.) Based on his
lawyer’s advice, therefore, Byrd claims he “chose to proceed to trial without looking into the
possibility of obtaining a plea bargain.” (R. 17-1, PID 1896.)
Byrd also contends his lawyer advised him against testifying at trial. (R. 17-1, PID 1897.)
Byrd says his lawyer thought Atkinson’s testimony about Byrd abandoning any criminal intent
would make irrelevant how Atkinson ended up with Byrd’s gun. (R. 17-1, PID 1897.) Thus, Byrd
opted not to testify in his own defense. (R. 17-1, PID 1897.)
A Wayne County jury found Byrd guilty on three counts, including felony murder, and, in
November 2010, Byrd received the statutorily mandated life sentence. (R. 8-15.)
The trial court would eventually dismiss the first-degree murder count on defense
counsel’s motion for a directed verdict. (R. 17, PID 1823.)
Byrd appealed his convictions to the Michigan Court of Appeals. His new appellate counsel
advanced four claims: 1) ineffective assistance of counsel based on trial counsel’s failure to seek
an accident-theory instruction, 2) insufficient evidence, 3) a due process violation stemming from
the admission of hearsay statements, and 4) prosecutorial misconduct. (R. 17, PID 1824.) The
Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Byrd’s convictions and the Michigan Supreme Court denied
a petition for review. (R. 8-20; R. 8-21.)
Just under one year later, Byrd filed a motion for relief from judgment in the state trial
court. (R. 8-16, PID 1116.) Importantly, this post-conviction motion included—for the first time—
the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims he raises here, i.e., that trial counsel advised
against plea negotiations due to his misunderstanding of the law. (R. 8-16, PID 1118.) Byrd
requested an evidentiary hearing on his claims (R. 8-16, PID 1118), but the state trial court denied
Byrd’s post-conviction motion without holding a hearing. (R. 1-6; R. 8-17.)
Unfortunately, it is difficult to discern the basis of the state trial court’s denial of Byrd’s
post-conviction motion. In one paragraph, the court seems to have denied the motion on preclusion
grounds, under Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D)(2)—believing that Byrd had already raised the
ineffective-assistance claims on direct appeal. (R. 1-6, PID 37.) But in the next paragraph of the
opinion, the court appears to deny the motion for the opposite reason: that pursuant to Michigan
Court Rule 6.508(D)(3), Byrd had failed to raise his ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims
on direct appeal and also failed to show cause and prejudice to excuse this procedural default. (R.
1-6, PID 37–38.) There is no further clarification as both the Michigan Court of Appeals and
Michigan Supreme Court denied Byrd leave to appeal. (R. 17-1, PID 1894, 1895; R. 1-7, PID 39.)
Byrd filed his petition for writ of habeas corpus on October 7, 2015. (R. 1.) Respondent
initially moved to dismiss because Byrd filed his habeas application one day late. (R. 7.) But the
Court granted Byrd’s request for equitable tolling and thus denied the motion to dismiss. (See R.
16.) The petition is now fully briefed. (R. 19, 21.)
Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), habeas corpus relief
may be granted on claims that were adjudicated “on the merits” in state court only if the state-court
adjudication of the claim resulted in a decision that (1) “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) “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.” 28 U.S.C.
But if none of the state courts addressed Byrd’s claims on the merits, AEDPA deference
would not apply and this Court would review Byrd’s claims de novo. See Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S.
449, 472 (2009); See also McKenzie v. Smith, 326 F. 3d 721, 726 (6th Cir. 2003).
As will be discussed, the State concedes that no state court addressed the specific
ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims that were raised on post-conviction review. Thus, if
the claims are not procedurally barred, this Court reviews them de novo.
The Court first addresses Respondent’s claim that Byrd procedurally defaulted the
ineffective-assistance claims. In support of this argument, Respondent cites the state trial court
order dismissing Byrd’s post-conviction petition under Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D)(3). (R. 19,
PID 2105.) Procedural default occurs where a habeas petitioner fails to exhaust all opportunities
for state court review, and cannot show good cause and prejudice for so doing. See Edwards v.
Carpenter, 529 U.S. 446, 451–52 (2000). There is no dispute that on direct appeal, Byrd’s appellate
counsel raised an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. But it is equally clear that appellate
counsel did not include Byrd’s claim about his trial counsel’s misunderstanding of the law. Thus,
the issue is whether Byrd can show cause for failing to raise this specific claim and resulting
Byrd contends that the ineffective assistance of his appellate counsel excuses the failure to
raise on direct appeal a claim based on his trial counsel’s failure to understand accomplice liability.
Byrd must show cause and prejudice to excuse his procedural default, and a meritorious ineffective
assistance of appellate counsel claim may do so. See Edwards, 529 U.S. at 452; McFarland v.
Yukins, 356 F.3d 688, 699 (6th Cir. 2004). This Court reviews de novo Byrd’s argument that his
appellate counsel was ineffective. See Hall v. Vasbinder, 563 F.3d 222, 236–37 (6th Cir. 2009)
(holding that an ineffective-assistance claim raised as cause for a procedural default does not
receive AEDPA deference).
Byrd says his appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to raise on direct
appeal the two claims related to trial counsel’s misinformed legal strategy. To support his claim,
Byrd attached an affidavit from his appellate counsel (which was also attached to his state postconviction motion) explaining why appellate counsel did not raise the two trial counsel claims on
direct review. (R. 17-1, PID 1898); (R. 8-16, PID 1167.) The Court largely agrees with Byrd.
There is another issue lurking. According to the State, “procedural default results where
three elements are satisfied: (1) the petitioner failed to comply with a state procedural rule that is
applicable to the petitioner’s claim; (2) the state courts actually enforced the procedural rule in the
petitioner’s case; and (3) the procedural forfeiture is an ‘adequate and independent’ state ground
foreclosing review of a federal constitutional claim.” (R. 19, PID 2104–05 (citing Willis v. Smith,
351 F.3d 741, 744 (6th Cir. 2003)).) It is difficult to read the state court’s opinion as enforcing
Michigan Court Rule 6.508(D)(3). After finding Byrd had already raised his ineffective-assistanceof-counsel claims on direct appeal, the court summarily concluded that Byrd’s arguments failed to
meet the cause and prejudice standard of 6.508(D)(3). So a fair reading of the state court opinion
is that it denied post-conviction relief based on 6.508(D)(2) and not 6.508(D)(3). But Byrd does
not raise this issue, so the Court will address the State’s procedural default argument.
The Sixth Amendment affords criminal defendants a right to the effective assistance of
counsel at trial and on direct appeal. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984); see also
Whiting v. Burt, 395 F. 3d 602, 617 (6th Cir. 2005). Strickland has long established the two-part
standard to determine whether a habeas petitioner has received ineffective assistance of counsel.
See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; see also Whiting, 395 F. 3d at 617. First, Byrd must prove that
counsel’s performance was constitutionally deficient, meaning that counsel made errors so serious
that he or she was not “functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the criminal defendant by the Sixth
Amendment.” Id. at 687. Second, the petitioner must establish that counsel’s “deficient
performance prejudiced the defense[.]” Id.
To succeed on the performance prong, Byrd must identify acts that were “outside the wide
range of professionally competent assistance.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. The reviewing court
must “indulge a strong presumption” that counsel “rendered adequate assistance and made all
significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.” Id. at 689–90. Byrd
bears the burden of overcoming the presumption that the challenged actions were sound trial
strategy. Id. at 689.
To satisfy the prejudice prong, Byrd must show that “there is a reasonable probability that,
but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. A reasonable probability is one that is “sufficient to undermine
confidence in the outcome.” Id.
As an initial matter, Byrd properly raised ineffective assistance of appellate counsel in his
state post-conviction motion. (R. 8-16, PID 1118.) And the trial court’s denial of that motion
coupled with the subsequent denial of review by the Michigan Supreme Court properly exhausted
the claim in state court. See Edwards, 529 U.S. at 452.
Byrd’s affidavit from appellate counsel establishes deficient performance under the
Strickland standard. (R. 17-1, PID 1898–1900.) Byrd’s appellate counsel admits he should have
raised the ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims that Byrd now brings. (R. 17-1, PID 1900.)
He further admits that these are strong claims, that he did not discuss them with Byrd, that he did
not adequately investigate the factual basis for these claims, and that he did not omit them pursuant
to any strategic or tactical maneuver. (R. 17-1, PID 1900.) He also admits that while he attempted
to contact trial counsel, he could only reach his paralegal, and should have tried harder to reach
trial counsel. (R. 17-1, 1900.)
That leaves prejudice. But Byrd’s ability to show prejudice on his appellate counsel claim
depends entirely on whether he can show that his trial counsel’s deficient performance resulted in
prejudice (for if trial counsel’s error was not prejudicial, it would not have been prejudicial for
appellate counsel to have not raised that error on appeal). The Court will thus move to Byrd’s
ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims to determine whether they have any merit and then
come back to the issue of procedural default.
Byrd says that his trial counsel erroneously advised him against engaging in plea
negotiations. Because no state court ever adjudicated this claim on its merits, AEDPA’s deferential
framework does not apply. Byrd raised this ineffective-assistance claim in his motion for relief
from judgment. (R. 17, PID 1824–25.) But the state trial court mistakenly believed Byrd was
merely raising the same claims he had brought on direct appeal. In other words, the state court did
not appreciate that the ineffective-assistance claims being raised post-conviction were different
from the ineffective-assistance claims raised on direct appeal. The state court dismissed Byrd’s
post-conviction motion without adjudicating Byrd’s ineffective-assistance claims on the merits.
Indeed, the state concedes that no state court ever adjudicated this claim on the merits. (R. 19, PID
2113.) Thus, as the state also concedes, this Court reviews Byrd’s claim de novo. See Torres v.
Bauman, 677 F. App’x. 300, 302 (6th Cir. 2017) (finding no reason to apply AEDPA deference
where the state concedes de novo review).
The Court turns to the merits of Byrd’s ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim,
beginning with deficient performance. To reiterate, Byrd says that his trial counsel believed that if
a jury were persuaded that Byrd had abandoned his criminal intent, it could not find him guilty
under the state’s aiding-and-abetting theory. (R. 17-1 PID 1896–97.) Byrd says that his lawyer
stuck to this strategy despite knowing that Atkinson would testify that Byrd handed her the firearm
used to shoot the robbery victim. (R. 17-1, PID 1896–97.) Trial counsel allegedly did so because
he believed that Atkinson’s testimony about Byrd’s unwillingness to go through with the robbery
rendered irrelevant the manner in which Atkinson got the gun. (R. 17-1 PID 1896–97.)
The record supports Byrd’s claim. Byrd’s trial counsel did not want the court to provide an
accomplice instruction, arguing “I have not heard Ms. Atkinson say anything damaging to the
defendant at all.” (R. 8-13, PID 936–37.) Then, his closing argument revealed a misunderstanding
of accomplice liability. (R. 8-13, 963–1025.) He told the jury, “[a]ll of the evidence supports the
abandonment theory. . . Ms. Atkins [sic] got here on this witness stand and said that the defendant
said he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. That’s it.” (R. 8-13, PID 985–86.) Then he took
the argument a step further: “if [Byrd] gave her the gun, and knew that she was going to commit
the offense, he’s not guilty.” (R. 8-13, PID 1020.)
The problem with trial counsel’s approach is that Michigan law on aiding and abetting is
not as forgiving as Byrd’s counsel believed it to be. Michigan’s aiding-and-abetting statute holds
accomplices and principals equally liable for a criminal offense. Mich. Comp. Laws § 767.39. The
aiding-and-abetting jury instruction provided at Byrd’s trial allowed for a murder conviction if
Byrd either “intended the commission of the crimes alleged or must have known that [Atkinson]
intended their commission at the time of giving the assistance.” (R. 5-13, PID 1063 (emphasis
added).); see also People v. Carines, 597 N.W.2d. 130, 136 (Mich. 1999) (holding in relevant part
that where the state charges first-degree felony murder under an aiding-and-abetting theory, the
defendant must act with malice and know that the principal intends to commit the offense at the
time the defendant renders aid). Numerous cases hold that participation in an armed robbery where
the defendant knows the co-defendant to be armed with a loaded firearm supports the finding of
knowledge necessary to obtain a conviction for felony-murder on an aiding-and-abetting theory.
See Carines, 597 N.W.2d at 136–37; People v. Hart, 411 N.W. 2d 803, 805 (Mich. Ct. App. 1987);
Meade v. Lavigne, 265 F. Supp. 2d 849, 858–59 (E.D. Mich. 2003); Harris v. Stovall, 22 F. Supp.
2d 659, 667 (E.D. Mich. 1998).
In short, trial counsel misunderstood and misstated the Michigan law of accomplice
liability. Trial counsel advanced a theory that Byrd’s change of heart defeated the prosecution’s
aiding-and-abetting theory even if Byrd gave Atkinson the gun. While abandonment is an
affirmative defense under Michigan law, see Hill v. Hofbauer, 195 F. Supp. 2d 871, 886 (E.D.
Mich. 2001), on the facts of this case it is not the trump card defense counsel believed it to be.
Moreover, if trial counsel neglected or refused to pursue a plea based on his
misunderstanding of settled Michigan law on accomplice liability, such performance would fall
below an objectively reasonable standard. See Dando v. Yukins, 461 F.3d 791, 798–99 (6th Cir.
2006) (finding ineffective assistance of counsel on the basis of “flatly incorrect” legal advice);
Maples, 340 F.3d at 439 (holding that erroneous legal advice amounts to deficient performance);
Blackburn v. Foltz, 828 F.2d 1177, 1182 (6th Cir. 1987) (reasoning that counsel’s
misunderstanding of the law fell outside the range of competent assistance); Magana, 263 F.3d at
551–52) (finding counsel ineffective in failing to properly explain the sentencing consequences in
the context of plea negotiations).
As for prejudice, Byrd must show that “but for his counsel’s advice, there is a reasonable
probability that he would have pleaded guilty.” Magana v. Hofbauer, 263 F.3d 542, 547 (6th Cir.
2001) (citing Turner v. Tennessee, 858 F.2d 1201, 1206 (6th Cir. 1988)). Byrd was facing a
mandatory life sentence. He claims that he instructed trial counsel to seek a plea, and had he been
afforded sound legal advice, he never would have opted for trial. (R. 17-1, PID 1896.) Byrd also
claims he would have accepted a plea had one been offered. (R. 17, 1837.) And a plea to seconddegree felony-murder spared Byrd a mandatory life sentence.
The state argues that Byrd cannot show prejudice because Byrd has not unearthed even the
possibility of a plea deal. (R.35, PID 2122.) But Byrd’s petition offers reason to believe there could
have been a plea offer: the prosecutor offered Atkinson a plea to second-degree murder, even
though she pulled the trigger and had a prior criminal record. Presumably, and to avoid a trial, the
prosecutor may have extended at least that deal to Byrd, a retired General Motors employee with
no criminal history who got cold feet at the crime scene. Moreover, the Sixth Circuit does not
require Byrd to bring forth objective evidence of a plea deal. See Magana, 263 F.3d at 547 n.1
(citing Turner, 858 F.2d at 1207).
Thus, in exercising its de novo review of this ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim,
the Court wishes to expand the record. See Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 185 (2011). Section
2254(e)(2) does not prevent such a hearing: Byrd’s lawyer requested an evidentiary hearing in
state court, thereby diligently attempting to develop the factual record in state court. See 28 U.S.C.
§2254(e)(2); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 420, 437 (2000) (“Diligence . . . depends upon whether
the prisoner made a reasonable attempt, in light of the information available at the time, to
investigate and pursue claims in state court.”). And it would help to hear from the prosecutor and
Byrd’s trial counsel regarding any plea considerations, discussions or offers. Therefore, the Court
finds that an evidentiary hearing on Byrd’s claim that trial counsel’s erroneous legal advice
resulted in his foregoing plea negotiations is necessary to assess prejudice.
This brings the Court back to the issue of procedural default. The Court cannot decide
whether appellate counsel’s failure to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim on
direct appeal prejudiced Byrd until it determines whether trial counsel’s errors prejudiced Byrd.
So after the evidentiary hearing, the Court will be in a better position to decide whether Byrd has
a valid excuse for his procedural default. And to the extent that Respondent believes that this Court
cannot expand the record to answer the procedural-default question, there is case law suggesting
otherwise. See Sanders v. White, No. 03-455, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91633 (E.D. Ky. July 15,
2015) (holding an evidentiary hearing to determine in part whether habeas petitioner can overcome
a procedural default).
Byrd’s habeas corpus petition advances three other federal claims that the Michigan Court
of Appeals decided on the merits on direct appeal. The appellate court provided reasoned analysis
rejecting Byrd’s claims that (1) his trial counsel’s failure to instruct the jury on accidental discharge
violated his Sixth Amendment rights, (2) the state lacked sufficient evidence for a felony murder
conviction in violation of due process, and (3) the prosecutor’s closing arguments also denied Byrd
due process of law. (R. 17-1, PID 1881–87.)
Because § 2254(d) applies, Byrd must show that the appellate court’s decision “was based
on an unreasonable determination of the facts” or “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable
application of, clearly established federal law.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). He has failed to do so.
The Michigan Court of Appeals found that the failure of trial counsel to request a jury
instruction on accidental discharge neither fell below an objective standard of reasonableness nor
prejudiced Byrd. It explained:
[A] death that results from a force set in motion by the defendant that is likely to
cause death or great bodily harm cannot be considered accidental. One of the
natural risks when Atkinson pointed a loaded gun at Joiner and cocked the hammer
was that Joiner might attempt to defend himself or struggle to control the gun,
resulting in his death or great bodily harm. Because the mens rea required for
second-degree murder was established, the defense of accident was not tenable . . . .
(R. 8-20, PID 1228). The Court agrees with the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Byrd next asserts that he is entitled to habeas relief because the prosecution failed to present
sufficient evidence of malice to support his first-degree felony murder conviction. (R. 18 at PID
To assess a sufficiency of evidence claim, “the relevant question is whether, after viewing
the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have
found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Davis v. Lafler, 658 F.3d
525, 531 (6th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319, (1979)). “The
Jackson v. Virginia standard ‘gives full play to the responsibility of the trier of fact fairly to resolve
conflicts in the testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic
facts to ultimate facts.’” Id. (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319). The standard “is so demanding
that ‘[a] defendant who challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his conviction faces
a nearly insurmountable hurdle.’” Id. at 534 (quoting United States v. Oros, 578 F.3d 703, 710
(7th Cir. 2009)). “Adding to this extremely high bar are the stringent and limiting standards of
AEDPA,” which allows a federal habeas court to disrupt “a state court’s decision that correctly
identified and applied the controlling Supreme Court precedent only if the application of that
precedent was objectively unreasonable, meaning more than incorrect or erroneous.” Id. (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted).
The Michigan Court of Appeals reasonably found sufficient evidence supported the jury’s
conclusion that Byrd acted with malice. First, the evidence supported a finding that Byrd did not
abandon the crime. Though Atkinson testified to Byrd’s “cold feet,” that testimony contradicted
her earlier statement to police. On that basis, the Michigan Court of Appeals reasoned that a jury
could doubt Atkinson credibility with respect to Byrd’s reluctance. And even if the jury believed
Byrd did not want to go through with the crime, Atkinson testified that Byrd gave her the gun.
Thus, even if the jury credited Byrd’s reluctance, sufficient evidence supported a finding that he
nonetheless wanted Atkinson to carry out the robbery. In sum, the Michigan Court of Appeals
reasoned that the evidence showed Byrd “intended to commit a robbery and obtained a loaded gun
for that purpose.” (R. 18, PID 2022.) He then “gave the gun to Atkinson, knowing that it was
loaded and that she intended to use it to commit the planned robbery.” (R. 18, PID 2022.) The
appellate court found that evidence sufficient to support a finding of malice. Byrd fails to
demonstrate that this ruling is an “unreasonable application of” Jackson.
Byrd next contends that he was denied a fair trial due to prosecutorial misconduct. (R. 18,
PID 2003.) Byrd believes that the prosecutor’s closing argument included unnecessary
commentary on his clothing, an impermissible directive to assess his character, an erroneous
assertion that accident is not a defense to felony murder, and other problematic comments. (R. 18,
“Claims of prosecutorial misconduct are reviewed deferentially on habeas review.”
Millender v. Adams, 376 F.3d 520, 528 (6th Cir. 2004) (citing Bowling v. Parker, 344 F.3d 487,
512 (6th Cir. 2003)). A prosecutor’s improper comments will be held to violate a criminal
defendant’s constitutional rights only if they “‘so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the
resulting conviction a denial of due process.’” Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 181 (1986)
(quoting Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 643 (1974)).
But by placing the prosecutor’s comments in context, the Michigan Court of Appeals
reasonably rejected all of Byrd’s prosecutorial misconduct assertions. The appellate court
concluded that the prosecutor’s attack on character was more an indictment of Byrd’s credibility—
a conclusion supported by the record. (See R. 8-13, PID 1040–41.) The prosecutor’s opinion on
Byrd’s clothing was isolated and not inherently prejudicial. And the prosecutor’s
mischaracterization of an accident defense did not affect Byrd’s rights. Accidental discharge of
the firearm was not a tenable defense. Even taken together, the prosecutor’s alleged misconduct
was not enough to influence the jury’s decision. In other words, the Michigan Court of Appeals’
rejection of the prosecutorial misconduct claim was not “so lacking in justification that there was
an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded
disagreement.” Parker v. Matthews, 567 U.S. 37, 47 (2012) (quoting Harrington, 562 U.S. at 103).
Finally, Byrd contends his trial counsel’s misinformed legal advice led him to forego taking
the stand in his own defense. (R. 17-1, PID 1897.)
Even assuming deficient performance, Byrd cannot establish prejudice. In an attempt to
show prejudice, Byrd relies on Luce v. United, 469 U.S. 38 (1984), and a New York State Bar
bulletin from the 1957. Luce stands for the inapposite proposition that in order to preserve a Federal
Rule Evidence 609(a) objection to improper impeachment, a defendant must testify. Luce, 469
U.S. at 43. The New York state bar bulletin explains how a defendant’s decision not to testify
intersects with the presumption of innocence. See Edward Bennett Williams, The Trial of a
Criminal Case, 29 NY. St. B. Bull. 36 (1957). Neither source demonstrates Strickland prejudice.
Moreover, even if Byrd had testified that he did not give the gun to Atkinson, the evidence
still included that he planned the armed robbery, brought the firearm, drove the pair to and from
the bank, knew his co-defendant planned to carry out an armed robbery, and did nothing to stop
her. Given this other evidence of guilt, Byrd has not shown that with his testimony there exists a
“reasonable probability” of a different result. See Hodge v. Haeberlin, 579 F.3d 627, 639 (6th Cir.
2009) (finding no prejudice where habeas petitioner cannot show his testimony would overcome
the weight of other evidence).
For all of these reasons, the Court GRANTS an evidentiary hearing with respect to Byrd’s
claim that his trial counsel was ineffective in pursuing or advising him about a plea. The Court
dismisses the remainder of Byrd’s claims.
s/Laurie J. Michelson
LAURIE J. MICHELSON
U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated: September 15, 2017
CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE
The undersigned certifies that the foregoing document was served upon counsel of record
and any unrepresented parties via the Court=s ECF System to their respective email or First Class
U.S. mail addresses disclosed on the Notice of Electronic Filing on September 15, 2017.
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