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Lena Renae Coleman v. Warden Kert Eichenberger

August 30, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry J. Hatter, Jr. Senior United States District Judge


David Mitchell and Lena Renae Coleman ("Petitioner") began living together in Petitioner's apartment, but then separated a few months later. They reconciled, but never lived together again. However, Petitioner moved some of Mitchell's belongings back into her apartment.

Eventually Mitchell decided to end the relationship and remove his belongings from her apartment. Mitchell asked an old girlfriend, Sherry Johnson, and her son, James Dixon, to help him move out. While Mitchell and Dixon went to Petitioner's apartment, Johnson waited at a nearby store. After Mitchell and Petitioner exchanged angry words in Petitioner's doorway, Mitchell pushed his way past Petitioner, and Dixon left to wait with his mother. Mitchell picked up some clothes, and Petitioner pointed a gun at Mitchell. Petitioner shot Mitchell in the chest after telling him, "If I can't have you, nobody can have you."

Mitchell escaped to the store at which Johnson and Dixon were waiting for him. Johnson called 911.

Twenty minutes later, police arrived at Petitioner's home. No one was present in the apartment, but the lights, television and stereo were on. Ten days later, police knocked on Petitioner's door, identified themselves, and, when no one responded, entered the apartment. Inside, they found and arrested Petitioner.

A jury found Petitioner guilty of attempted murder and assault with a firearm. Petitioner was sentenced to thirty-two years to life in prison. Petitioner, now, seeks a writ of habeas corpus, based on numerous alleged trial defects.

This Court may not grant relief to Petitioner unless prior state court adjudication was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. Lafler v. Cooper, __ U.S. __, __, 132 S. Ct. 1376, 1390, 182 L. Ed. 2d 398, 413 (2012). Having reviewed the record established at trial, the Court now addresses Petitioner's asserted grounds for relief.

First, Petitioner seeks relief based on the trial court's decision to admit Johnson's 911 call. The Sixth Amendment bars the admission of testimonial evidence from witnesses unavailable for cross-examination by defendants. Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 51, 124 S. Ct. 1354, 1364, 158 L. Ed. 2d 177, 192 (2004). However, this bar does not apply to non-testimonial evidence. Johnson's statements were non-testimonial, as they were made in the course of 911 call, under circumstances objectively indicating that the primary purpose of the call was to enable assistance to meet an ongoing emergency. See Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813, 822, 126 S. Ct. 2266, 2273, 165 L. Ed. 2d 224, 237(2006). This is evident from the fact that the 911 call involved only basic information about what had happened and who had committed violence -- two topics about which emergency responders should inquire. Thus, Petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses testifying against her was not violated by the trial court's decision to admit Johnson's 911 call.

Second, Petitioner seeks relief based on the trial court's actions with respect to alleged juror misconduct. Two days before deliberations, Juror number 5 notified the bailiff that he recognized a woman watching the trial as the victim's cousin. The bailiff stated in a declaration that he immediately relayed this information to the judge and both parties. Then, shortly before the jury announced its verdict, the jury foreperson notified the bailiff that Juror number 5 knew this woman and had spoken with her for less than a couple of minutes. Petitioner's attorney claims not to have learned about this until after the verdict was announced. Petitioner moved the court to release juror addresses and telephone numbers to enable the investigation of possible juror misconduct.

Based on subsequent juror interviews and declarations, the trial court concluded that there was only a tenuous connection between Juror number 5 and the victim's cousin, that the two were causal acquaintances. Moreover, the court believed that, at most, the two had exchanged greetings. Thus, the court concluded, Petitioner was not prevented from receiving a fair trial. However, Petitioner asserts that her Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury was violated, and that the trial court erred by denying Petitioner's motion for a new trial and by failing to hold a hearing to question Juror number 5 in person.

While the Sixth Amendment guarantees the criminally accused a fair trial by a panel of impartial jurors, a new trial is not required every time a juror is placed in a potentially compromising situation. Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 217, 102 S. Ct. 940, 946, 71 L. Ed. 2d 78, 86 (1982). Instead, the remedy for allegations of jury partiality is a hearing in which the defense may prove actual bias. Smith, 455 U.S. at 215. Here, the trial court held an adequate hearing. See Dyer v. Calderon, 151 F.3d 970, 975 (9th Cir. 1998). The court, then, issued a detailed ruling explaining why no misconduct had occurred. That finding, that no misconduct occurred, is entitled to a presumption of correctness, See Dyer v. Calderon, 151 F.3d at 975, and no facts have been presented to bring into question this finding's accuracy. Based on this finding, the trial court correctly decided not to grant Petitioner's motion for a new trial. In sum, the trial court did everything constitutionally required in these circumstances, and in no way violated Petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

Third, Petitioner seeks relief based on admission into evidence of a bullet recovered at the crime scene. One bullet was removed from the victim's chest during surgery; a second was found in the wall of Petitioner's apartment. Together, these bullets appeared to corroborate the victim's statement that two shots had been fired.

While Petitioner objects to the trial court's decision to admit the second bullet into evidence, this Court cannot grant relief on such grounds, because no federal issue is alleged, nor was any federal law violated. Federal habeas corpus relief does not usually lie for errors of state law, including allegations that inadmissible evidence was admitted. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68, 112 S. Ct. 475, 479-80, 116 L. Ed. 2d 385, 396 (1991). Further, the Constitution simply ensures that state court criminal proceedings are fundamentally fair and the category of actions which violate this standard is narrow. McGuire, 502 U.S. at 72-73. Because the second bullet did not affect the prosecution's basic argument that defendant shot Mitchell as he attempted to leave, the admittance of the bullet into evidence could not have altered the fairness of the trial, or its outcome. Thus, this court cannot grant relief to Petitioner based on the trial court's decision to admit the second bullet into the record.

Fourth, Petitioner seeks relief based on the trial court's post-trial decision not to authorize funds for ballistic testing of the two bullets. Fundamental fairness entitles indigent defendants to an adequate opportunity to present their claims fairly within the adversarial system. Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68, 77, 105 S. Ct. 1087, 1093, 84 L. Ed. 2d 53 (1985). However, federal habeas relief is not available to redress alleged procedural errors in state post-conviction proceedings. Ortiz v. Stewart, 149 F.3d 923, 939 (9th Cir. 1998). Thus, Petitioner cannot be ...

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