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Simon F. Ranteesi v. Randy Grounds

March 15, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Timothy J Bommer United States Magistrate Judge


Petitioner, Simon F. Ranteesi, is a state prisoner proceeding, pro se, with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner is currently serving an indeterminate sentence of twenty-six years to life in prison after a jury found him guilty on one count of first degree murder and an associated weapon enhancement. Petitioner raises seven claims in this federal habeas petition; specifically: (1) the trial court's exclusion of the defense's expert testimony regarding Petitioner's mental state violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments ("Claim I"); (2) the trial court erred in failing to give specific jury instructions requested by Petitioner relating to unconsciousness and involuntary intoxication ("Claim II"); (3) Petitioner's rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), were violated when his statements to police were admitted into evidence ("Claim III"); (4) the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from Petitioner in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) ("Claim IV"); (5) Petitioner's trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to investigate various issues ("Claim V"); (6) Petitioner's appellate counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to raise certain claims on appeal ("Claim VI"); and, (7) the cumulative effect of the above errors rendered Petitioner's conviction fundamentally unfair ("Claim VII"). For the reasons stated herein, the federal habeas petition should be denied.


This case comes before the court with a complicated procedural history. Petitioner originally filed his federal petition for habeas corpus on February 2, 2010, raising his first two claims for relief. See Docket No. 1. These claims were properly exhausted because Petitioner raised them on direct appeal in state court. Thereafter, on April 8, 2010, Petitioner filed an amended petition for habeas corpus in which he raised five additional claims for relief. See Docket No. 10. Recognizing that these additional claims were not properly exhausted, Petitioner requested that the court stay the federal proceedings while he exhausted his additional claims in state court through a state petition for habeas corpus. Docket Nos. 4 & 12. The motion to stay was denied and the unexhausted claims were stricken. Docket Nos. 15 & 19. Respondent was ordered to respond to the petition and submitted an answer on November 23, 2010, addressing Petitioners remaining two, properly exhausted, claims. Docket No. 46.

Thereafter, after the California Supreme Court denied Petitioner's state habeas petition, Petitioner was permitted to amend his petition a second time to include his, now properly exhausted, five additional claims. Docket Nos. 59, 62, 68. Respondent was order to submit an additional response addressing the additional claims and filed a supplemental answer on July 13, 2011. Respondent does not maintain that any of Petitioner's claims were not timely filed and, as such, all seven of Petitioner's claims are now properly before the court. See Supplemental Answer (Docket No. 83).


Appellant [Petitioner] Simon Ranteesi brutally killed Milia Ranteesi, his estranged wife, bludgeoning her to death in the presence of their children.

A. Prosecution's Case

In August of 2002, appellant lived at 849 Topaz Circle in Vacaville with his four children: a daughter, 15-year-old R., and three sons, T. (then 17 years old), Je. (then four years old), and Jo. (then two years old). R. did not have a good relationship with appellant. The children's mother, Milia, had separated from their father in June of 2001 and had not lived in the family home for about a year. However, Milia, who worked night shifts at the Yolo County jail, would come to the house after she got off work to sleep and take care of the two younger boys while appellant was at work.

On August 6, 2002, R. came home around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon to an empty house. About a half an hour later, her father and three brothers came home after having been out running errands. Unbeknownst to appellant, R. had made plans for Milia to take her to her maternal aunt's house in Burlingame for a long weekend, so R. could see her aunt and cousins. When appellant arrived home, he learned of R.'s plans and "wasn't happy about it" because he wanted her to stay home and help take care of her younger brothers. R. also testified that appellant did not want her to go because he thought "they [Milia's family] would just put things in [her] head to make [her] go against him."

R. and appellant got into an argument over her plans, with both of them yelling loudly. R. had packed a bag for the trip, and appellant and R. fought over the bag, appellant repeatedly unpacking it and R. repacking it each time he did so. Appellant also told R. four or five times that Milia would "pay for it" if she came and picked her up. According to R., over the past year, perhaps as long as the past two years, appellant had frequently said that Milia would "pay for it" for "going against him."

After the argument had gone on for a while, appellant went downstairs, and R. called Milia because appellant had been pushing her around. Shortly thereafter, Milia arrived at the house, pulling up in front of the driveway and calling R. on her cell phone to tell her she was outside. R. grabbed her bag, ran outside to her mother's car, and put her bag in the trunk. Appellant followed her outside and began arguing with Milia through the open passenger window, telling her that "she would pay if she went against him" and that R. was not going on the trip.

At some point during the argument, appellant reached inside the car through the open passenger window and grabbed Milia's cell phone from the center console, demanding to know, "Who is listening into this conversation" and "Who do you think you are going to call?" He smashed the phone on the back end of one of his work trucks parked in the driveway, breaking it into pieces, prompting Milia to get out of the car and ask for her cell phone back. As the two argued over the phone, R.'s two younger brothers ran out of the house, so she put them in the backseat of the car to prevent them from getting hurt. In the meanwhile, R. was yelling at her mother to get in the car and go because she was scared of appellant.

Appellant then reached into the back of one of his pickup trucks and grabbed a metal jack. As he was doing so, T., who had come outside when he heard yelling and had been observing the argument from a few feet away, attempted to calm appellant and held his hand down, preventing appellant from removing the jack from the truck.

R., realizing she had forgotten to pack a shirt that she wanted to bring on the trip, got out of the car and ran back inside the house to retrieve it. FN3 Appellant again picked up the jack, this time chasing Milia around the car with it in his hand. When he caught up with her, he pushed her down and beat her over the head numerous times with the jack. T. tried to push him off but was unsuccessful, so he ran to get help. From inside the house, R. heard her mother scream and then T. yell, "God, no," so she grabbed a phone and ran back outside.

FN3. The testimony on this point was inconsistent, with R. testifying that she had gotten into the car after putting her bag in the truck and T. testifying that she never got in the car.

By the time R. was outside, appellant was walking up the driveway towards the house, so she hid from him behind the trucks on the driveway. After he passed by, she ran down to the street to where her mother was lying on the ground and called 911. Appellant came back out a short time later, drying his hands on a towel. T., having since run back to where Milia was lying, testified that appellant then "just stood there," while R. described him as "content." T. yelled at his father, "What the hell is wrong with you? You just killed my mom. What is wrong with you?" Appellant, who was "real calm," just responded, "It's over." R. yelled at him, "You killed Mom. You killed Mom," to which appellant responded, "Oh, well."

Vacaville Police Sergeant Richard Elm, responding to a domestic violence call, was the first officer on the scene. When he arrived at the Ranteesi house, he saw appellant standing between two vehicles parked in front of the house. When the officer made eye contact with him, appellant put his hands in the air in a surrender position. When Officer Elm asked if he was the husband, appellant responded, "Yes." He then noticed Milia on the ground and asked, "Did you do this?" Appellant "placid[ly]" responded, "No." According to Officer Elm, appellant did not appear to be overwrought, angry, or upset. Appellant was then handcuffed without incident.

After other officers arrived and took custody of appellant, Officer Elm went over to Milia, who had "massive wounds to her face, and there was blood running down into the gutter." There was a metal object on the ground near Milia's head that had what appeared to be blood on it. Milia was pronounced dead at the scene.

The prosecution called several witnesses who testified about conversations they had had with appellant about his relationship with Milia. Denise Hall, who has friends that live in the Topaz Circle neighborhood, frequented a nearby park. In late 2001 or early 2002, she was at the park with her child and some friends when she encountered appellant, who was there with Je. and Jo.

Ms. Hall was pushing one of appellant's boys and another child on a swing when appellant came over and struck up a conversation with her. He first thanked her for swinging his son and then quickly began talking about his wife leaving him, asking, "How can my wife leave me?" and "Do you think it's okay my wife can leave me?" Appellant repeatedly said, "She has to respect me," and also commented, "I don't know why American women do this. Back in my country, ... I can do whatever I want with a woman. If I want to kill her, I can, and nobody says a thing." When one of appellant's sons hurt himself on a swing and started crying, appellant told him, "Stop crying or I'm going to go home and beat your mother." Ms. Hall found the conversation uncomfortable, so she excused herself and walked away to join her friends.

Similarly, Ashik and Ramona Pavagadhi took their children to the neighborhood park on August 5, 2002, the day before Milia's death. Appellant was there, talking on his cell phone in a somewhat aggressive manner and appearing "a little distraught and upset" after hanging up. As his young sons were playing with the Pavagadhi's daughter, appellant struck up a conversation with them, talking about his wife and saying he was going to kill her. Mr. Pavagadhi asked where his wife was, and appellant responded that he did not know because she was no longer with him, but if he knew where she was, he was going to kill her. Appellant asked Mr. Pavagadhi, who was East Indian, if he was Farsi, and then asked what would happen in his culture if his wife left. Mr. Pavagadhi observed that appellant now lived in America where there are rules; appellant responded that in his country, if his wife did something like that, she would be killed. Stating that he was still upset, appellant reiterated that if he found his wife, he would kill her.

David Levin, who lived on Topaz Circle, offered similar testimony. He had occasional conversations with appellant while they were outside with their respective children. On one occasion during the summer of 2002, they had a longer conversation than usual, and appellant matter-of-factly told him he and Milia were separated and she was no longer living in the house. He quoted a Bible passage about when a wife is not respectful to her husband or leaves him for another man, there was a price to pay. Appellant repeatedly commented, "What's a man supposed to do?"

B. The Defense

Appellant took the stand in his own defense. He testified that he was born in Jerusalem and came to the United States when he was 24 years old. After arriving in the United States, he married Milia and they had four children. For years, appellant worked as a welder to support the family while Milia attended school to study criminal justice. After graduation, she found employment as a correctional officer for the Yolo County Sheriff's Department.

Sometime in 2001, a neighbor informed appellant that he had seen Milia and a man together at a restaurant, "holding hands like lovers." Appellant confronted Milia, who initially denied that she was having an affair, claiming instead that she was helping a fellow employee with paperwork. She later admitted, however, that she had fallen in love with a man named Naseem Al-Harbi and wanted a divorce. She described Al-Harbi as a former Iraqi soldier who once worked as Saddam Hussein's bodyguard but then later worked for the FBI and was now seeking political asylum.

After learning this, appellant was scared because Al-Harbi was a "Muslim terrorist" who was terrorizing his family and wanted to take his wife. Because he was afraid an Iraqi soldier was going to kill his wife and children, he went to the FBI but was told there was nothing they could do if Al-Harbi had no relationship to the events of September 11, 2001. Consequently, appellant "just kept going on with [his] life." He and Milia worked out an arrangement whereby he remained in the home with the four children, and Milia, who worked nights at the jail, came during the day to take care of the younger children while appellant worked.

Appellant met Al-Harbi on one occasion when Milia introduced them to each other at a coffee shop. She told appellant that Al-Harbi had a bigger penis than him and could therefore beat him up.

Because of appellant's fears that Al-Harbi was going to kill his wife and children, he became very emotional, "sad and crying," feelings he shared with a lot of people, such as people at the neighborhood park and work as well as his pastor. One woman in whom he confided at the park suggested he go see a doctor, which he did sometime around July of 2002. Appellant explained to the doctor that he was sad about Milia and was crying a lot, so the doctor prescribed Paxil and told him it would make him happy. He began taking the medication in July of 2002 as prescribed. He would take one pill around 5:00 p.m. and it would make him sleepy.

On the afternoon of August 6, 2002, appellant came home around 3:00 p.m. and found R. in her bedroom packing a suitcase to go to her aunt's house for a few days. Appellant told her she could not go because he needed her around the house. According to appellant's testimony, he was "[k]ind of" angry and frustrated and was just telling her, "You can't go. I need you. You cannot go." As they were having this discussion, appellant kept unpacking R.'s luggage, and she kept packing it back up again. R. called Milia and had appellant talk to her, and it was agreed that R. would not leave. Appellant denied he was upset during the confrontation but claimed he was "very nervous." After he and Milia agreed R. would not leave, he went downstairs, took a Paxil, and fell asleep on the dining room floor.

Some time later appellant was awakened by T., who told him that Milia was there. He went outside and saw R. putting her luggage in the trunk of Milia's car and Milia sitting in the driver's seat. He walked up to the car, took the luggage out, and told R. she was not leaving. R. was "[k]ind of" yelling, saying she was going and putting the luggage back in. After getting out of the car and walking to the trunk, Milia told R. to call the police, so appellant reached into the front seat of the car, grabbed Milia's cell phone, and broke it on the side of one of his work trucks parked in the driveway.

Suddenly, according to appellant, Milia just "came at" him and "fell down on the ground." The next thing he knew, T. was telling him, "Look what you did." He did not know what he had done, but he saw Milia lying on the ground. Because he started feeling scared, he went inside to put water on his face, and then went back outside to look at Milia. He stood there "waiting for the police to explain to [him] what happened."

When a police officer arrived, appellant raised his hands, and the officer handcuffed him and put him on his knees. He was then taken to the police station. While there, appellant felt scared and worried about Milia, "thinking about the boyfriend and how come he's [an] Iraqi soldier...."

On cross-examination appellant acknowledged that he had been arrested in November of 2001, but denied he threatened to kill or punch Milia, threatened to kill R. if she called the police, or threw Jo. at Milia. He claimed that these were all lies told by Milia in order to have him arrested.

Appellant also denied that he was mad at Milia about her leaving him. He testified "I was sad and crying. I wasn't angry." And, he explained, "In the United States, wom[e]n do whatever they want, and she wanted to leave me, and we had agreed on the divorce, and we had agreed I take the house and the kids, and I wasn't mad at her or nothing. I was just sad."

As to the events on August 6, 2002, appellant denied that he got angry with R. over her plan to go to her aunt's house. He claimed instead that he just unpacked her bag and told her she could not go, denying that he ever told her there would be consequences if Milia took her away. And when Milia had arrived to pick R. up, despite telling him on the phone she would not come to the house, he was not angry but simply took her bag out of the car: "It was no yelling, nothing. I just didn't want her to leave. I took the bags back out of the trunk." When asked if he was mad when he took the phone out of Milia's car and broke it, he claimed he was "angry at the phone." He also testified he never argued with Milia before she "came in at" him, and he had no memory of "hitting her or anything." When asked whether he remembered what happened from the time when Milia got out of the car until she was lying on the ground, appellant responded: "I don't remember. I lost it. I became totally insane." He also denied going inside to wash off his bloody hands, saying that he only went inside to put water on his face because he was getting scared "[b]ecause what happened from the effect of the drug." He explained that "[t]he Paxil caused [him] to get scared."

Appellant also denied that he spoke to any neighbor while waiting for the police, denied that he responded, "Oh, well" when T. said, "Look what you did," and denied that he responded, "Well, it's all over now" when R. said, "You killed her." Instead, according to appellant, nobody talked to him and everyone kept quiet while he was waiting for the police to arrive.

Defense counsel also presented testimony from three of appellant's co-workers from the company where he worked as a welder. They consistently testified that he had been a good employee until about a year prior to Milia's death, when his performance changed. He no longer focused on his work, his productivity declined, and he spent his work time talking obsessively about one particular subject, sometimes to himself and other times cornering co-workers who were forced to either ask him to stop talking or simply walk away. Defense counsel also called two of appellant's neighbors. Jeffrey Belt lived down the street from appellant and was passing by appellant's house around 5:00 p.m. on the day of Milia's death when he saw appellant and Milia arguing on the sidewalk in front of their house. As Belt described it, Milia "was pretty much yelling and screaming and waving her arms towards" appellant.

Vernon Gandy, a retired minister, was also a neighbor of appellant's and they talked on many occasions "neighbor to neighbor ." Some time during the year prior to Milia's death, appellant sought out Gandy's counsel about his personal problems, and Gandy would refer to the Bible, often quoting Scripture concerning forgiveness and loving.

Mike McCamey, a pastor at a church in Fairfield who often counseled parishioners in times of personal crisis, also testified. A number of months prior to August of 2002, McCamey met appellant when he started attending worship services and Bible study classes. At some point, McCamey learned appellant was struggling with some family issues and approached appellant and offered to speak to him privately. Appellant was responsive to this suggestion and they later met in McCamey's office at the church. Appellant, whom he described as "very friendly, very open," was concerned about the condition of his family and seemed frightened. McCamey also accompanied appellant to the county courthouse the day before Milia's death. According to McCamey, appellant was aggressively pursuing reconciliation, including, against Milia's wishes, putting his hand on her knee and verbally attempting to convince her to return home. In response, Milia told him something to the effect of, "The children are afraid of you. I'm afraid of you, and I will not consider talking to you about coming home until you get your anger under control."

The defense also called four expert witnesses who offered testimony regarding appellant's mental state. The first was Dr. Carlton Purviance who, as noted above, was a clinical and forensic psychologist retained by the public defender's office in 2002 to assess appellant's competency to stand trial. He met with appellant on five separate occasions, the first interview occurring on August 12, 2002, just six days after Milia's death, and lasting approximately one hour. Dr. Purviance described appellant's behavior during that visit as "frightened," "very anxious," and "pressured." Appellant's speech was "very rapid, very intense," and "rambling": "[T]he topics of his speech often went from one to another without much connectiveness between them. He would begin a speech and then he would just sort of ramble from topic to topic without there being a good link between them." Additionally, he "expressed a number of delusional, paranoid delusional beliefs.... He was very frightened. In fact, terrified would be a better word." According to Dr. Purviance, appellant was "very concerned" about a particular "set of ideas" to which he kept going back.

Dr. Purviance conducted a second interview on September 5, 2002, and found appellant, who had been refusing psychiatric treatment in jail, "even more alarmed and frightened" than during the initial visit. Appellant related an incident in which he found a bar of soap in his cell and expressed to Dr. Purviance that it had been planted there as a sign his life was in danger. His speech was still "pressured" and it was very difficult for Dr. Purviance to get information from him, because he was "completely preoccupied with these delusional ideas that he was, you know, going to be harmed; that he was being persecuted."

After the two meetings, Dr. Purviance concluded that appellant was suffering from persecutory-type delusional disorder. When defense counsel asked Dr. Purviance to describe the specific characteristics of appellant's delusions that led to the diagnosis, the prosecutor objected, which objection the trial court sustained, explaining, "I think you're limited to a description from this mental health professional as to the diagnosis of, in this case, Mr. Ranteesi, but not the information-this jury is not going to hear the information that forms the basis for the opinion by this expert. I don't think that that is appropriate based on the abolition of the diminished capacity defense."

Dr. Purviance's testimony then continued. He met with appellant a third time on November 13, 2002, testifying that his demeanor "was very much the same. Again, he was ... highly agitated, pressured, actively psychotic, speech was rambling. Affect was one of intense fear and anger. He was very convinced of his delusional beliefs. He did not think there was anything wrong with him psychiatrically, and there had been little or no significant change over that 13 weeks." Several clinical signs, including that fact that appellant was denying that he was mentally ill, indicated to Dr. Purviance that appellant was not malingering. According to Dr. Purviance, someone who is malingering attempts to exaggerate a psychiatric disorder, while appellant was "outraged that it was even thought there might be something wrong with him mentally." At the conclusion of the meeting, Dr. Purviance was of the opinion that appellant suffered from delusional disorder with grandiose and persecutory features. Dr. Purviance explained that in someone suffering from such a disorder, "areas of a person's functioning can be fairly intact, but certainly within that set of delusional ideas, cognitive processes are greatly distorted" and could affect the person's mental state on a continuing basis. Delusional disorder usually grows in scope and can affect an individual's judgment.

On cross-examination, Dr. Purviance acknowledged that he was aware of an alleged domestic violence incident of November 11, 2001, and that appellant had not been prescribed Paxil until July of 2002. Dr. Purviance conceded, therefore, that Paxil could not have been an excuse for the 2001 domestic violence incident. He also agreed that the 2001 incident reflected a lot of anger by appellant against Milia and R.

As to his diagnosis of appellant, Dr. Purviance conceded that controversy exists concerning the practice of rendering a retrospective diagnosis, or diagnosing what someone's mental state was on a date in the past, admitting "You can reliably diagnose what you see at the moment. It's difficult to diagnose a person for some distant date". He also agreed that a diagnosis is increasingly controversial the further back in time it goes. When the prosecutor asked, "[Y]ou weren't back there in time like on August 6th of the year 2002 when he killed his wife to see what he looked like, what he was saying, how he was acting?", Dr. Purviance answered, "That's correct." He also ...

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