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Sean Louis Rowell v. Ken Clark

February 25, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge


I. Introduction

Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding without counsel with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Both petitioner and respondent have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned. (Dkt. Nos. 5, 14.)

This action is proceeding on the amended petition filed September 8, 2009. (Dkt. No. 9.) Petitioner challenges his conviction for arson of an inhabited structure (Cal. Penal Code § 451(b)), explosion of a device with intent to injure or intimidate (Cal. Penal Code § 12303.3), and use of a device designed to accelerate a fire (Cal. Penal Code § 451.1(a)(5)). Petitioner is serving a sentence of 13 years.

Petitioner raises the following claims: 1) jury instruction error (2 claims); 2) violation of the Confrontation Clause; and 3) prosecutorial misconduct. After carefully reviewing the record, the undersigned orders the petition denied.

II. Standards for a Writ of Habeas Corpus

An application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under a judgment of a state court can be granted only for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). A federal writ is not available for alleged error in the interpretation or application of state law. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); Park v. California, 202 F.3d 1146, 1149 (9th Cir. 2000).

Federal habeas corpus relief is not available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings unless the state court's 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 proceeding. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

Under section 2254(d)(1), a state court decision is "contrary to" clearly established United States Supreme Court precedents if it applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in Supreme Court cases, or if it confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of the Supreme Court and nevertheless arrives at different result. Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 7 (2002) (citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)).

Under the "unreasonable application" clause of section 2254(d)(1), 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 prisoner's case. Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. A federal habeas court "may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable." Id. at 412; see also Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003) (internal citations omitted) (it is "not enough that a federal habeas court, in its independent review of the legal question, is left with a 'firm conviction' that the state court was 'erroneous.'"). "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 v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011).

The court looks to the last reasoned state court decision as the basis for the state court judgment. Avila v. Galaza, 297 F.3d 911, 918 (9th Cir. 2002). If there is no reasoned decision, "and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary." Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 784-85 (2011). That presumption may be overcome by a showing that "there is reason to think some other explanation for the state court's decision is more likely." Id. at 785 (citing Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991)).

Where the state court reaches a decision on the merits but provides no reasoning to support its conclusion, the federal court conducts an independent review of the record. "Independent review of the record is not de novo review of the constitutional issue, but rather, the only method by which we can determine whether a silent state court decision is objectively unreasonable." Himes v. Thompson, 336 F.3d 848, 853 (9th Cir. 2003). Where no reasoned decision is available, the habeas petitioner has the burden of "showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief. Harrington, 131 S. Ct. at 784. "[A] habeas 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 this Court. Id. at 131 S.Ct. at 786.

III. Factual Background

The opinion of the California Court of Appeal contains a factual summary of petitioner's offenses. After independently reviewing the record, the undersigned finds this summary to be accurate and adopts it herein:

On April 30, 2006, at around 3:20 a.m., a fire broke out at Richard Casity's house in Jackson. Ceecee Florez was in the garage of the house across the street and heard a sound like fire igniting. She went outside and saw four-foot high flames across Casity's roof. Florez ran across the street and tried to wake Casity before going to the side of Casity's house, where she found another fire. Florez used a water hose to douse the fire and returned to the front of the house, where she handed the hose to Casity, who climbed a ladder to the roof.

Casity lived in his home with his two daughters, one of whom was at a friend's house. The other daughter, R.C., age 11, was severely autistic and asleep in the house. Casity was awakened by Florez and went outside, obtained a ladder, and climbed to the roof, using the hose to put out the fire. R.C. remained asleep throughout the fire.

Casity met defendant's girlfriend, Carletta Johnson, in January 2006. Johnson recently had a baby born with disabilities and was introduced to Casity through a friend. Johnson stayed at Casity's house several times in early 2006 when either of them needed help. Defendant worked on a ranch owned by Richard and Jonie Woolstrum, where he lived in a trailer with Johnson. On Valentine's Day, defendant forcibly removed Johnson from Casity's house and took her back to the trailer where she remained. Johnson was trying to stop using drugs, so Casity helped her get into a drug treatment center in March 2006. On Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006, Johnson invited defendant and the Woolstrums to dinner at the facility. When they arrived, a large bouquet of flowers and card from Casity were visible. Upon seeing this, defendant's face "darkened" and "he became very angry." He whispered into Johnson's ear, "Why would I send you flowers, bitch? You lost our kid."

Johnson's relationship with defendant worsened after their baby was born in December 2005. Testifying, Johnson confirmed defendant had physically abused her during their relationship, including one incident in which he beat her with a hammer. Jonie Woolstrum related that defendant and Johnson had a "confused" relationship, as Johnson loved but feared defendant. Both Woolstrums testified to frequently seeing Johnson with physical injuries, and in their belief defendant physically and mentally abused her. Jessie Rameriez, who also worked at the ranch, observed defendant's verbal abuse of Johnson, who was "pretty well banged up all the time, crying."

Ann Marie Francis, who was introduced to Johnson by a friend, once saw a bruise on Johnson's arm, which she said came from defendant grabbing her. Francis stayed at the ranch during May and June 2006 and once heard yelling and screaming from defendant's trailer. She visited defendant's trailer and observed Johnson had a black eye and bruises on her back. Johnson told Francis defendant had hit her.

Johnson completed the rehabilitation program in late April and returned to live with defendant. On April 30, 2006, defendant locked Johnson inside the trailer after he thought she had called Casity. Defendant entered the trailer at 3:00 a.m. and told her to get into the car. A small round ice chest was in the car, and defendant drove them to a spot near Casity's home. Inside the chest were two light bulbs with paper hanging out of the base. When they got there, defendant ordered Johnson to get out and they walked to the side of Casity's house.

According to Johnson, once they reached a neighbor's driveway, defendant took one of the light bulbs, lit it, and threw the device at Casity's house. Defendant, who had told Johnson to put on a pair of red gloves, then placed the other Molotov cocktail in her hand. He raised Johnson's hand and told her to throw the device, and, according to Johnson, defendant "coerced it" so the incendiary device was thrown at Casity's house. Before he handed the Molotov cocktail to her, defendant told Johnson this was the way to make her loyal to him.

When defendant handed the device to Johnson, the gas started to leak onto her hand and set it on fire, which caused her to remove the glove. The pair went to defendant's car, and during the drive home defendant told Johnson he loved her and knew she loved him.

Johnson testified that defendant then stopped by Rameriez's trailer at the ranch, where they met Rameriez, Francis, and another friend. Defendant told them he and Johnson did not go anywhere that night, and Rameriez was to be their alibi if anyone asked.

In May, Johnson went to her family's house because of defendant's abuse. She told her mother she and defendant had done something wrong, but could not say what happened because defendant was dangerous. Johnson returned to defendant in June, but went back to her mother after more abuse, this time confiding to her cousin Rebecca Ward that she and defendant had firebombed Casity's place. Ward, testifying, confirmed Johnson's testimony.

On August 8, 2006, Johnson told Casity about the incident. In addition to implicating defendant and herself, Johnson also falsely implicated her cousin Travis Grow as well as Casity's ex-wife and a friend of the ex-wife. She talked to the police the next day and told the same story she had told Casity. According to ...

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