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Steele v. Holland

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

May 12, 2017

KIM HOLLAND, Defendant.


          BETH LABSON FREEMAN, United States District Judge

         Petitioner Jacob Charles Steele has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his state conviction. Pet., ECF 1. Respondent filed an answer on the merits. Mem. P. & A. ISO Answer (“Ans.”), ECF 17-1. Petitioner filed a traverse. Traverse, ECF 21. For the reasons set forth below, the Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 14, 2012, a jury in Humboldt County Superior Court found Petitioner guilty of second degree murder and making criminal threats, and found true an enhancement for discharge of a firearm causing great bodily injury and death. Ans. 1; Ex. 1, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, Clerk's Transcript (“CT”) 591-96, ECF 19-5. On April 10, 2012, Petitioner was sentenced to 42 years to life in prison. Ans. 1; Ex. 1, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, CT 631-32, 635-36.

         On October 8, 2013, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of conviction. Ex. C to Pet., ECF 1-3. The California Supreme Court denied review on December 11, 2013. Exs. A & B to Pet., ECF 1-1, 1-2.

         Petitioner filed the instant habeas petition on March 9, 2015.


         The following background facts describing the crime and evidence presented at trial are from the opinion of the California Court of Appeal on direct appeal[1]:

Appellant, 23 years old in early 2012, was a native of Eureka who supported himself by selling drugs, and was a friend of the victim, Jerry George, who lived a few blocks away and also dealt drugs and bought cocaine from appellant. After an argument in front of several acquaintances on the night of January 21, 2010, appellant pulled out a .40 caliber gun and shot and killed George in appellant's home. The versions of how that shooting occurred and what happened thereafter varied somewhat, and we will summarize those versions.
According to Hauna Kim, the victim's girlfriend and the mother of their child, George went over to appellant's apartment on Reasor Road in McKinleyville at about 7:30 p.m. on the evening in question, January 21. At about 11 p.m. on that evening, George called Kim from appellant's phone, and told her he and appellant were arguing about a number of things, including how many people drove Mercedes (as George did), and asked her if she knew any other young people who did so; Kim responded in the negative. When George had not returned to their home several hours later, Kim called appellant at around 1:30 a.m., but appellant told her George had left 30 minutes earlier, although he was allegedly drunk. When George never appeared at their home, Kim called some of his family members and drove neighboring roads to try to find him, but could not. Later on January 22, she filed a missing person's report with the police department. She also called appellant several more times over the ensuing days asking him if he knew anything about George's whereabouts.
On the evening in question, appellant's cousin, Richard Steele, was at appellant's apartment when George arrived. Also there were Shawn Hof, appellant's wife Lindsey, and a minor named Trey. Richard Steele also recalled the debate between appellant and George about young people driving Mercedes. He also recalled appellant asking George to leave, but the latter did not. According to Richard Steele, George stood up and said: “You are going to have to fucking move me from here.” The two men then got face to face with appellant appearing “kind of ... irritated” and George said to him: “What are you going to do? Pull your fucking pistol out?” And, according to the cousin, appellant who regularly carried a pistol on his right hip at that point in time, did so, cocked it, and then moved backward from George. Richard Steele and appellant's wife Lindsey, left the room at that point, but the former heard a gunshot and came back into the room to find George lying on the floor “with a hole in his head.”
Richard Steele asked what had happened, and appellant replied that George had “rushed” him. Richard Steele told him he “should have called the police [but appellant] said no. He wasn't going to lose his son.” The two decided to work to “get rid of Jerry's body.” They commenced to do so by getting a tarp and wrapping George's body in it. Appellant then called Hof, who had apparently also left appellant's house a few minutes before. They then put the body, wrapped in the tarp, in the trunk of appellant's car, and drove away and buried it at a location unspecified by appellant's cousin. In the process, and while driving along Highway 101, Richard Steele threw the barrel of appellant's gun out of the window of the car.
Hof also testified for the prosecution about some of the events of the night in question. He was a methamphetamine addict who worked on appellant's several cars and also apparently lived close by. On the night in question, he was working on one of appellant's cars, but was also in and out of the house and heard the debate between appellant and George about young people driving Mercedes. This debate “escalated into an argument” according to Hof, and appellant asked George “to leave several times.” Appellant then “told everybody to get out” but Hof did not, and “tried to get [appellant] to calm down.” That effort failed and Hof saw appellant shoot George, and then walk out behind Hof saying “I don't have to deal with that nigger no more. I killed him.”
Hof went over to his girlfriend's house, but appellant kept calling him, insisting that he come back, and said if he did not Hof “could end up just like him.” Hof then returned and helped bury George's body in a ditch; he also made arrangements with several other friends to clean up appellant's apartment, i.e., the bloody part of the carpet, etc.
At some unspecified time later, appellant, his cousin Richard, and his father, Donny Steele, met a mutual friend named Brian Dulac at a boat landing off of an exit from Highway 101. Appellant told Dulac that a “big black guy” had stolen some of his property earlier, and that when they were “drinking together” later “things got out of hand” and the “black guy rushed him and he shot him.” Appellant and his family sought Dulac's advice regarding “getting rid of a body, ” and Dulac advised them (1) where and when at the mouth of the Eel River was the best place to dispose of a body and (2) “they were going to have to open him up so he wouldn't pop up out on the ocean and wash up on the beach.”
Several days later, according to the testimony of Nathaniel Willis, he, appellant, and appellant's father transported George's body to the Eel River and put it into the water. Willis later “burned everybody's clothes” that had been worn that day.
In the same month all this occurred, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department began an investigation into the disappearance of George. In the course of that investigation, both appellant and his cousin, Richard Steele, stated that George had left appellant's house at 10:45 p.m. on the evening in question, after he “and several friends had been drinking throughout the evening.” Appellant did not tell the sheriffs investigator anything about a quarrel between them. In the course of the same investigation, appellant was interviewed by the sheriff s office, and a recording made of it and later played for the jury. In the course of that interview, appellant again said nothing about his having a quarrel with George.
A technician in the Humboldt County Sheriffs office then went to appellant's Reasor Road apartment and examined various devices there, as well as some of his vehicles. She found blood stains on both a carpet cleaner and a vacuum cleaner as well as on a speaker cover. The bed of appellant's truck and a bloody spare tire cover were taken into evidence. The same technician obtained two toothbrushes in order to secure the DNA of George, and also got a sample of the DNA of his sister, April George. A senior criminologist for the Department of Justice's office in Eureka testified that the DNA obtained from several of the Reasor Road sources matched the DNA of the victim, Jerry George, i.e., the DNA obtained from his toothbrushes.
Apparently, Shawn Hof began cooperating with the investigators because, in early August 2010, he took an investigator from the Humboldt County District Attorney's office to a location in McKinleyville, where George's body had first been buried. They found pieces of tarp, duct tape, and two shoes identified as belonging to the victim.
After the close of the prosecution's case, appellant was called as a witness by his attorney. He conceded that, on the night in question, he had indeed shot and killed George. He explained that, on that evening, he, George, Hof, and his wife Lindsey, were all drinking at his home, in the course of which they started arguing about cars, including whether (1) a Cadillac El Dorado was a two-door or four-door car and (2) any other “young people” in the area drove Mercedes, besides appellant. This led to further arguments between appellant and George and the former's request that George leave, which, with his fists allegedly clenched, the latter declined to do. Appellant reiterated his request that George leave his apartment, to which George responded: “You are going to have to fucking move me from here.” Appellant “kept asking him to leave politely over and over again and he just kept refusing” but then yelled at appellant: “You better go get your fucking gun” and took a step toward appellant. Appellant then stood up from the couch where he had been sitting, pulled out his gun, cocked it, and asked the other people to leave the room, which they did. Then, when George started moving toward appellant, the latter raised his gun and fired it, killing George.
Appellant then left the house, but returned shortly thereafter with his cousin, Richard Steele. The two of them decided to “cover this up.” There followed, as related above, the various “cover ups, ” including appellant and Hof first burying George's body, throwing away the barrel of the gun, cutting off the bloody portions of the carpet and putting them into garbage bags. Later they met with two persons who advised them how to dispose of the body permanently in the Eel River, which appellant, his father and cousin, and Nathaniel Willis then did, after which they burned the clothes ...

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