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Jamal Easterling v. Rick Hill

August 25, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James K. Singleton, Jr. United States District Judge


Jamal Easterling, a state prisoner appearing pro se, filed a Petition for Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Easterling is currently in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, incarcerated at the Folsom State Prison. Respondent has answered. Easterling has not replied.


Following a jury trial in November 2004 Easterling was convicted in the Solano County Superior Court of one count of one home invasion in concert with others (Cal. Penal Code §§ 212.5, 213(b)). In a bifurcated trial, the trial court sitting without jury, found true allegations that Easterling had suffered a serious prior felony conviction (Cal. Penal Code § 667(a)(1)), two prior strike convictions (Cal. Penal Code § 667(b)(1)), and a prior prison term (Cal. Penal Code § 667.5(b)). The trial court sentenced Easterling to an aggregate, indeterminate prison term of 30 years to life. The California Court of Appeal affirmed Easterling's conviction and sentence in an unpublished decision,*fn2 and the California Supreme Court denied review on April 1, 2009.

Easterling timely filed his Petition in this Court on June 17, 2009.

The factual basis underlying Easterling's conviction is well known to the parties and is not repeated here except to the extent necessary to understand this decision.


In his Petition, Easterling raises four grounds: (1) the trial court improperly limited cross- examination of the prosecution's DNA expert; (2) the trial court improperly admitted evidence of Easterling's prior robbery conviction; (3) the trial court's questioning of a prosecution witness improperly vouched for the testimony of the witness; and (4) the prosecution improperly commented on Easterling's refusal to testify. Respondent does not assert any affirmative defense.*fn3


Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), this Court cannot grant relief unless the decision of the state court was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" at the time the state court renders its decision or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding."*fn4 The Supreme Court has explained that "clearly established Federal law" in § 2254(d)(1) "refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court] as of the time of the relevant state-court decision."*fn5 The holding must also be intended to be binding upon the states; that is, the decision must be based upon constitutional grounds, not on the supervisory power of the Supreme Court over federal courts.*fn6

Thus, where holdings of the Supreme Court regarding the issue presented on habeas review are lacking, "it cannot be said that the state court 'unreasonabl[y] appli[ed] clearly established Federal law.'"*fn7 When a claim falls under the "unreasonable application" prong, a state court's application of Supreme Court precedent must be objectively unreasonable, not just incorrect or erroneous.*fn8 The Supreme Court has made clear that the objectively unreasonable standard is a substantially higher threshold than simply believing that the state court determination was incorrect.*fn9 "[A]bsent a specific constitutional violation, federal habeas corpus review of trial error is limited to whether the error 'so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.'"*fn10 In a federal habeas proceeding, the standard under which this Court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial is whether the error had a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the outcome.*fn11 Because state-court judgments of conviction and sentence carry a presumption of finality and legality, the petitioner has the burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she merits habeas relief.*fn12

The Supreme Court recently underscored the magnitude of the deference required:

As amended by AEDPA, § 2254(d) stops short of imposing a complete bar on federal court relitigation of claims already rejected in state proceedings. Cf. Felker v. Turpin, 518 U.S. 651, 664, 116 S.Ct. 2333, 135 L.Ed.2d 827 (1996) (discussing AEDPA's "modified res judicata rule" under § 2244). It 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 this Court's precedents. It goes no farther. Section 2254(d) reflects the view that habeas corpus is a "guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems," not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n. 5, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment). As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus from a federal court, a state prisoner 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.*fn13

In applying this standard, this Court reviews the last reasoned decision by the state court.*fn14 State appellate court decisions that summarily affirm a lower court's opinion without explanation are presumed to have adopted the reasoning of the lower court.*fn15 This Court gives the presumed decision of the state court the same AEDPA deference that it would give a reasoned decision of the state court.*fn16


Ground 1: Limitation on Cross-examination Easterling contends that the trial court improperly limited his right to cross-examine the prosecution's DNA expert regarding the reliability of her lab work. The facts underlying this claim, as summarized by the California Court of Appeal, are:

During his cross-examination of criminalist Melissa Wilhelm, who had prepared the samples for DNA testing, defense counsel asked whether, as part of being an accredited lab, "do you do anything to track your rate of error, if any?" Wilhelm asked, "Could you explain what you mean by 'tracking my rate of error'?" Counsel then asked, "Well, do you, um, do you keep-well, as part of the proficiency, at any point, do you keep a running-well, have you ever made an error in the lab, as far as you know?" The prosecutor objected on relevance grounds and the court sustained the objection.*fn17

In rejecting Easterling's argument, the California Court of Appeal held:

Relevant evidence is defined in Evidence Code section 210 as evidence "having any tendency in reason to prove or disprove any disputed fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action." The trial court has broad discretion in determining the relevance of evidence. (People v. Scheid (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1, 13-14.) The trial court does not abuse its discretion when it sustains an objection to a "broadly framed" question that might get an answer that goes beyond the scope of relevant evidence related to the material issues at trial. (See People v. Cash (2002) 28 Cal.4th 703, 727.)

In the present case, defense counsel's question to Wilhelm regarding whether she had "ever made an error in the lab" was extremely broad and went beyond not only the possibility of error in this case, but also went beyond any errors in DNA sample collection and processing to any possible lab-related error. Without anything linking the question to the DNA analysis in question, the court did not abuse its discretion in sustaining the prosecutor's relevance objection. (See People v. Cash, supra, 28 Cal.4th at p. 727.)

In addition, [Easterling] is incorrect when he claims the trial court, in sustaining the prosecutor's objection, foreclosed further inquiry into Wilhelm's error rate in DNA sample collection and processing. It was counsel who moved on to a new line of questioning at that point, raising questions about the possibility of sample contamination or collection irregularities.FN4 Defense counsel also extensively questioned criminalist David Stockwell, who performed the actual testing on the samples, regarding possible sources of error and contamination.

FN4. Indeed, the trial court overruled the prosecutor's relevance objection to counsel's question about how Wilhelm can determine who else, if anyone, might have access to sealed items submitted for testing.

In sum, the court's ruling was well within its discretion and did not preclude counsel from asking additional, more specific-and therefore relevant questions about Wilhelm's rate of error in DNA collection and processing. Accordingly, [Easterling's] claim that his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was violated cannot succeed. (See People v. Cudjo (1993) 6 Cal.4th 585, 611; People v. Greenberger (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 298, 349-350.) FN5

FN5. This case is thus distinguishable from Smith v. Illinois (1968) 390 U.S. 129, 130-131 and Alford v. United States (1931) 282 U.S. 687, 692, cited by [Easterling], in each of which the United States Supreme Court held that the trial court's ruling amounted to a summary denial and effective emasculation of the defendant's right to cross-examination.*fn18

It is clearly established Supreme Court law that the right of a criminal defendant to cross- examine witnesses against him is at the core of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.*fn19 This right is made ...

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