Conner-Washington v. Howard
OPINION and ORDER DENYING 1 Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus and DENYING a Certificate of Appealability Signed by District Judge Robert H. Cleland. (LWag)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
Case No. 22-cv-11931
OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS AND
DENYING CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY
On August 18, 2022, Petitioner Brianna Conner-Washington, a prisoner
incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”), filed a petition for
writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 1.) On February 14, 2020, she
was convicted after a jury trial in the Macomb Circuit Court of second-degree murder,
MICH. COMP. LAWS § 750.317. (ECF No. 6-9, PageID.1090–92.) On September 17,
2020, the trial court subsequently sentenced Petitioner to an 18-year minimum to 50year maximum term of imprisonment. (ECF No. 6-11, PageID.1101, 1114.)
The habeas petition raises three claims challenging Petitioner’s state court
conviction: (1) the trial court erred in denying Petitioner’s request to admit her entire 3½hour video recorded statement to police; (2) the prosecutor presented insufficient
evidence to negate Petitioner’s self-defense theory; and (3) a statement made by the
trial court during defense counsel’s closing argument removed an element of the
offense from the jury’s consideration. Because none of the claims merit habeas relief,
the court will deny the petition and further deny a certificate of appealability.
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The Michigan Court of Appeals thoroughly summarized the facts of Petitioner’s
trial in its opinion affirming her conviction. See People v. Conner-Washington, No.
354941, 2021 WL 6066789, at *1–5 (Mich. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2021); ECF No. 6-12. In
brief outline, the charges against Petitioner arose from the stabbing death of her former
boyfriend, Maurice Carpenter. (ECF No. 6-12, PageID.1121.)
Social media posts and text messages between Petitioner and Carpenter on the
date of the incident were admitted into evidence at trial. (ECF Nos. 6-6, 6-7, 6-8.) During
the evening of March 8, 2019, Carpenter posted a video on social media depicting
himself with another female companion. (ECF No. 6-12, PageID.1121.) This resulted in
an angry exchange of texts between Petitioner and Carpenter, ending with Petitioner
telling Carpenter that she was on her way to his residence, and that she “wasn’t playin’.”
(Id. at PageID.1122.) Petitioner also called Carpenter’s roommate, Daviyon Gordon.
(Id.) Gordon testified that Petitioner told him that she was coming over “with all the
smoke,” which he understood to mean that she was planning to hurt or kill Carpenter.
(ECF No. 6-7, PageID.666–67.)
About ten minutes later, at around 11:00 p.m., Petitioner arrived and met
Carpenter outside his residence. (ECF No. 6-12, PageID.1122.) Carpenter’s other
roommate, Ryan Pitts, heard the two arguing outside. (Id.) Gordon, who also stayed
inside, thought it sounded like things had calmed down until he heard someone gasping
for air. (Id.) Gordon looked out of the window and saw Petitioner’s car speed off. (Id.)
Minutes later, Petitioner arrived with Carpenter at a nearby hospital. (ECF No. 612, PageID.1123.) She first told employees at the hospital that Carpenter attacked her
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and that someone else must have stabbed him between the time she briefly left and
returned. (Id.) She later said that maybe Carpenter had been cut by the sharp edge of
her car door. (Id.) Petitioner left the hospital shortly before Carpenter died from a single
penetrating stab wound to the abdomen. (Id.) The puncture severed veins located in
front of Carpenter’s spine, causing him to bleed-out into his abdominal cavity. (Id.)
Police officers quickly identified Petitioner, who was arrested and agreed to make
a statement. (ECF No. 6-12, PageID.1123.) The 3½-hour interview was videotaped.
(Id.) Petitioner initially claimed that Carpenter attacked her, she left the scene, and then
she returned to find that he had been stabbed. (Id. at PageID.1124.) Over the course of
further questioning, Petitioner altered her account several times. (Id. at PageID.1124–
25.) By the end of the interview, she admitted to stabbing Carpenter with a folding knife
when he grabbed her by the hair and pushed her towards her car. (Id. at PageID.1125.)
A physical examination at the police station revealed that Petitioner had a small bruise
above her right eye and another one on the left side of her neck. (Id.)
De’aries Conner testified for the defense that in February of 2019, she saw
Carpenter attack Petitioner, and it looked like he was trying to hit her. (ECF No. 6-8,
PageID.989–90.) Another defense witness, Jayda Dukes, saw Carpenter smack
Petitioner on the face and pull her hair in January of 2019. (Id. at PageID.998–1000.)
Finally, Carpenter’s two roommates testified that Petitioner and Carpenter had a toxic
relationship, but they did not witness any physical violence. (ECF No. 6-7, PageID.661,
687–88, 697–98, 737–38, 754–55, 759–60.) The defense theory was that the
prosecutor had not disproven self-defense or alternatively that the homicide was at most
manslaughter because it was performed in the heat of passion. (ECF No. 6-6,
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PageID.636; ECF No. 6-8, PageID.1034–54.) The jury rejected the arguments and
found Petitioner guilty of second-degree murder. (ECF No. 6-9, PageID.1088–92.)
Following her conviction and sentencing, Petitioner filed an appeal of right. (ECF
No. 6-12, PageID.1139–41.) Her appellate attorney filed a brief on appeal that raised
I. Trial court’s erroneous evidentiary rulings denied the Defendant-Appellant
a fair trial.
II. Verdict of guilty based upon insufficient evidence constituted the denial
of the due process of law.
(Id. at PageID.1205–57.) Petitioner also filed her own supplemental pro se brief that
raised an additional claim:
III. Ms. Conner-Washington was denied her state and federal constitutional
rights to a jury trial where the court removed the issue of which mens rea
the defendant possessed from the jury’s consideration.
(Id. at PageID.1164–1176.) The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. ConnerWashington, 2021 WL 6066789. Petitioner filed an application for leave to appeal in the
Michigan Supreme Court, raising the same three claims. (ECF No. 6-13, PageID.1340–
76.) The Michigan Supreme Court denied the application by standard form order.
People v. Conner-Washington, 975 N.W.2d 465 (Mich. 2022) (Table).
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) a federal district court “shall not [ ] grant[ ] [a habeas
petition] 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 . . . ; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based
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on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the
State court proceedings.”
“Under the ‘contrary to’ clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ 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 decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court]
has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362,
412–13 (2000). “Under the ‘unreasonable application’ clause, a federal habeas court
may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from
[the Supreme Court’s] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of
the [petitioner’s] case.” Id. at 413. “As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a
federal court, [the petitioner] must show that the state court’s ruling on the claim being
presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well
understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded
disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).
Section 2254(d) is a “purposefully demanding standard,” Montgomery v. Bobby,
654 F.3d 668, 676 (6th Cir. 2011) (en banc), and it requires that state court
determinations “be given the benefit of the doubt,” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170,
181 (2011) (quoting Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24 (2002) (per curiam)).
A. Alleged Evidentiary Rule Violations
Petitioner’s first claim asserts that the trial court erred when it refused defense
counsel’s request to admit Petitioner’s entire videotaped statement into evidence after
the prosecutor elicited testimony from the interviewing police officer as to specific
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admissions Petitioner made during the interview. (ECF No. 1, PageID.14–15, 51–64.) In
both state court and here, Petitioner asserts that the ruling violated Michigan’s rule of
completeness, MICH. R. EVID. 1002, and the best-evidence rule, MICH. R. EVID. 106. (Id.)
She also asserts that the ruling rendered her trial fundamentally unfair in violation of due
With respect to the alleged violations of state evidentiary law, the claim is not
cognizable. A contention that a state trial court violated Michigan’s evidentiary rules is
not a cognizable claim on federal habeas review, Hall v. Vasbinder, 563 F.3d 222, 239
(6th Cir. 2009), because “federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state
law.” Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1990). Even if cognizable, the state court
determined as a matter of state law that Petitioner’s proffered evidence was not
admissible under the rule of completeness or the best evidence rule. ConnerWashington, 2021 WL 6066789, at *5-8. The state court’s interpretation of state law
binds this Court on habeas review. Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S. 74, 76 (2005).
Turing to the due process claim, “the Constitution guarantees criminal
defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” Holmes v. South
Carolina, 547 U.S. 319, 324 (2006) (quoting Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683, 690
(1986)). A defendant still must comply, however, with the state’s established rules of
procedure and evidence that are designed to assure both fairness and reliability.
Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 302 (1973). A trial court’s decision to exclude
evidence violates a defendant’s right to present a defense where the exclusion denies
the defendant a fundamentally fair trial. Boggs v. Collins, 226 F.3d 728, 743 (6th Cir.
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Petitioner cites no clearly established Supreme Court law holding that, as a
matter of fundamental fairness, if a prosecutor offers part of defendant’s statement to
police, the defendant is entitled to admission of the entire statement. “[I]f there is no
‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court’ that supports a
habeas petitioner’s legal argument, the argument must fail.” Miskel v. Karnes, 397 F.3d
446, 453 (6th Cir. 2005) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)).
Moreover, this is not a case where the defendant was prevented by an
evidentiary ruling from offering her own version of events to the jury by testifying on her
own behalf. See Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44, 49 (1987). While the ruling prohibited
her from presenting her out-of-court exculpatory versions of the incident while not being
subject to cross-examination, Petitioner was still afforded the right to offer her version of
events by taking the stand. Petitioner, however, chose to waive her right to testify in her
own defense. (ECF No. 6-8, PageID.1007). The trial court’s ruling did render Petitioner’s
trial fundamentally unfair. Thus, Petitioner’s first claim is without merit.
B. Sufficiency of the Evidence Negating Self-Defense
Petitioner’s second claim asserts that the prosecutor failed to prove beyond a
reasonable doubt that she did not act with lawful self-defense when she stabbed
Carpenter. (ECF No. 1, PageID.15–16, 64–71.) The Michigan Court of Appeals found
that, when viewed most favorably to the prosecutor, sufficient evidence was presented
to negate self-defense. Conner-Washington, 2021 WL 6066789, at *8-11. Though the
state court rejected the claim on the merits, Petitioner cannot demonstrate entitlement
to habeas relief as a matter of law because her claim cannot be supported by clearly
established Supreme Court precedent.
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Under Michigan law, a person may use deadly force to protect herself or others.
See People v. Dupree, 788 N.W.2d 399, 407 (Mich. 2010). The prosecution need not
disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt until the defendant establishes a
prima facie case at trial. Id. at 410. Nevertheless, self-defense is an affirmative defense
under Michigan law, and it “does not negate specific elements of the crime.” People v.
Reese, 815 N.W.2d 85, 101 n.76 (Mich. 2012) (quoting Dupree, 788 N.W.2d at 405
Because self-defense is not the negation of an element of the offense, whatever
the requirements under state law, “the Constitution does not require that the prosecution
disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.” Gilmore v. Taylor, 508 U.S. 333,
359 (1993) (Blackmun, J., dissenting) (citing Martin, 480 U.S. at 233, 234); see also
Allen v. Redman, 858 F.2d 1194, 1197 (6th Cir. 1988) (explaining that habeas review of
sufficiency-of-the-evidence claims is limited to “elements of the crimes as defined by the
state.” (citing Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107 (1982)). Accordingly, the due process
guarantee of sufficient evidence is not implicated by Petitioner’s claim because proof
supportive of an affirmative defense cannot detract from proof beyond a reasonable
doubt that the accused committed the requisite elements of the crime. Richardson v.
Lebanon, 384 F. App’x 479, 482 (6th Cir. 2010) (quoting Caldwell v. Russell, 181 F.3d
731, 740 (6th Cir. 1999)). Therefore, Petitioner’s second claim fails as a matter of law.
However, even if Petitioner’s claim were cognizable, she would not be entitled to
relief. Under section 2254(d), a habeas court’s “review of a state-court conviction for
sufficiency of the evidence is very limited,” Thomas v. Stephenson, 898 F.3d 693, 698
(6th Cir. 2018)(citing Brown v. Konteh, 567 F.3d 191, 204 (6th Cir. 2009)), as the
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“federal court may . . . overturn a state court decision . . . only if the state court decision
was objectively unreasonable,” Tackett, 956 F.3d at 367. See also Smith v. Nagy, 962
F.3d 192, 205 (2020) (explaining that the habeas court may not “reweigh the evidence
or reassess the credibility of witnesses” (citing Brown, 567 F.3d at 205)).
The Michigan Court of Appeals’ decision was not objectively unreasonable.
When viewed most favorably to the prosecution, the evidence indicated that Petitioner
was angered by Carpenter’s posting of a video showing himself with another woman.
Petitioner reacted by warning Carpenter that she was coming over to his residence, and
she indicated to his roommate that she intended to harm or kill him. Though the
evidence suggested that there was some form of physical confrontation at the scene,
Petitioner’s final statement to the police indicated that she swung the folding knife at
Carpenter when he was pushing her towards her car or was pulling on her hair. Were it
to view the evidence presented in a light most favorable to the prosecution, as it
ultimately did here, the jury easily could have found that Petitioner was not in fear for
her life or great bodily harm when she intended to use deadly force against the victim.
The rejection of this claim by the Michigan Court of Appeals was not objectively
unreasonable. Thus, even if cognizable, Petitioner’s second claim still fails.
C. Trial Court’s Ruling During Defense Counsel’s Closing Argument
Petitioner’s third claim asserts that she was denied her Sixth Amendment right to
have the jury determine her guilt by virtue of a ruling made by the trial court during
defense counsel’s closing argument. (ECF No. 1, PageID.16–17, 72–81.) Petitioner
claims that the ruling removed the mens rea element of second-degree murder from
consideration by the jury. (Id.) The claim is based on the following exchange:
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[Defense counsel]: But, if for some reason, we all being human, you just
don’t feel comfortable with self-defense, I think the only other option would
be to find her guilty of manslaughter. Because, that’s ... when something
happens in a heated – then, you’re going to get instructions about that.
That’s exactly what manslaughter is, [l]adies and [g]entlemen, is in the heat
of emotion, in the heat of anger or something, you do something and like
wow, that’s not what you intended to do, and so forth. There’s not one thing
here that points that [sic] [defendant] intended to seriously hurt [the victim],
or put his life in jeopardy. Because, if you think so, she could’ve sliced him
across his neck.
She could’ve tried to hit him in the heart. As I indicated earlier, she
could’ve hit him in his privates, because she was mad about his allegedly
stepping out or whatever. This is probably one of the most benign places
that she could’ve hit anybody. Still should not have done it, and whatever
happened. But, that’s basically where we’re at.
Keep one other thing in mind. In this very, very same courthouse, not
this particular courtroom, there was a gentleman that chopped up his wife,
cut off her head, took her body parts, went out –
[The prosecutor]: Your Honor, I’m going to have to object. This is improper
The court: Sustained.
[Defense counsel]: May I just conclude the legal point?
The court: Yes.
[Defense counsel]: He was found guilty of second-degree murder –
The court: Well – no.
[Defense counsel]: – you (inaudible).
The court: [Defense counsel], I thought you meant
your legal point, not someone else’s.
[Defense counsel]: Okay. All right. Well, I’m going to back off of that.
The court: Disregard any other case.
(ECF No. 6-8, PageID.1051–52.)
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Under clearly established Supreme Court law, a claim that a trial court gave an
improper jury instruction is not cognizable on habeas review. Instead, Petitioner must
show that the erroneous instruction so infected the entire trial that the resulting
conviction violates due process. Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 155 (1977). See
also Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 75 (1992) (erroneous jury instructions may not
serve as the basis for habeas relief unless they have so infused the trial with unfairness
as to deny due process of law); Rashad v. Lafler, 675 F.3d 564, 569 (6th Cir. 2012)
(same). If Petitioner fails to meet this burden, she fails to show that the jury instructions
were contrary to federal law. Id.
Here, Petitioner argues that by prohibiting defense counsel from comparing her
case to another murder case tried in the same courthouse, the court effectively
prevented defense counsel from arguing that she did not exhibit the mens rea for
murder, removing the issue from the jury’s consideration. The Michigan Court of
Appeals did not accept this characterization of the record by Petitioner:
We do not share defendant’s reading of this exchange. The only
argument that the trial court directed the jury to disregard was defense
counsel’s comparison to an unrelated murder case, not defense counsel’s
argument related to why the jury should return a verdict of manslaughter if
it did not accept defendant’s self-defense claim.
Moreover, the trial court clearly instructed the jury that the lawyers’
arguments were not evidence, but were “only meant to help [it] understand
the evidence and each side’s legal theories.” The trial court also instructed
the jury that it was the trial court’s job, not the lawyers’ job, to instruct the
jury on the law, stating: “If a lawyer says something different about the law,
follow what I say.” Once again, the trial court’s instructions clearly
distinguished second-degree murder and manslaughter. And, even if
defendant had actually presented us with a concrete example of the
prosecutor’s alleged confusion of mens rea and actus reus, that confusion
would ultimately be harmless in light of the trial court’s instructions to the
jury, which the jury is presumed to have followed. People v. Lane, 308 Mich.
App. 38, 57 (2014).
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Conner-Washington, 2021 WL 6066789, at *14.
This decision was reasonable. Nothing in the exchange constituted an instruction
to the jury that the prosecutor was not required to prove the intent element for murder.
Counsel was free to argue from the facts of the case that the prosecutor did not prove
that Petitioner possessed the mental state for murder or that she only possessed the
mental state for manslaughter. Instead, defense counsel attempted to minimize
Petitioner’s conduct by comparing it to some other extraordinarily depraved and
gruesome murder case. Effectively, the comparison was meant to make the point that
the two incidents should not constitute the same crime. The argument was merely
rhetorical, though, and not analytical because there was no basis for arguing that the
other case constituted an ordinary or paradigmatic example of second-degree murder,
let alone the floor for what constitutes second-degree murder. It fell well within the
court’s discretion to disallow an argument comparing Petitioner’s case to another case,
the facts of which were unknown to the jury and had no relevance to Petitioner’s own
Disallowing the comparison did not infringe on Petitioner’s jury trial rights. By
sustaining the prosecutor’s objection, the trial court did not prevent the defense from
otherwise arguing based on the evidence presented at trial that Petitioner did not
possess the mental state for murder, nor did it suggest in any way that the jury was not
to consider Petitioner’s mental state at the time of the crime. Rather, the jury was
properly instructed on the mens rea element of second-degree murder, the difference
between that crime and manslaughter, and the prosecutor’s burden to demonstrate the
existence of all the elements of either crime beyond a reasonable doubt. (ECF No. 6-8,
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PageID.1068–70.) Petitioner’s claim is without merit because it is based on a strained
interpretation of the record that was reasonably rejected by the state court. Therefore,
her third claim again fails.
As none of Petitioner’s claims merit habeas relief, the petition must be denied.
IV. CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY
Before Petitioner may appeal this decision, the Court must determine whether to
issue a certificate of appealability. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(A); Fed. R. App. P. 22(b).
A certificate of appealability may issue “only if the applicant has made a substantial
showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). To satisfy §
2253(c)(2), Petitioner must show “that reasonable jurists could debate whether (or, for
that matter, agree that) the petition should have been resolved in a different manner or
that the issues presented were adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed
further.” Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484 (2000) (citation and internal quotation
marks omitted). The court finds that reasonable jurists would not debate the resolution
of any of Petitioner’s claims. The court will therefore deny a certificate of appealability.
IT IS ORDERED that Petitioner’s petition for writ of habeas corpus (ECF No. 1) is
DENIED WITH PREJUDICE.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that a certificate of appealability is DENEID.
s/Robert H. Cleland
ROBERT H. CLELAND
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated: May 22, 2023
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I hereby certify that a copy of the foregoing document was mailed to counsel of record
on this date, May 22, 2023, by electronic and/or ordinary mail.
Case Manager and Deputy Clerk
S:\Cleland\Cleland\EKL\Opinions & Orders\Habeas\22-11931.CONNER_WASHINGTON.HabeasPetition.EKL.docx
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