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Griffin v. Arnold

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 9, 2017

JAMES EDWARD GRIFFIN, Petitioner,
v.
ERIC ARNOLD, Respondent.

          ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS; DENYING REQUESTS FOR EVIDENTIARY HEARING AND FOR APPOINTMENT OF COUNSEL; DENYING CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY

          VINCE CHHABRIA United States District Judge

         James Edward Griffin filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging the validity of his state criminal conviction. He also requests an evidentiary hearing and appointment of counsel. Because Griffin's claims lack merit, the petition and requests for an evidentiary hearing and appointment of counsel are denied.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In 2012, a jury convicted Griffin of second degree murder with personal use of a deadly weapon (a knife). Griffin was sentenced to 15 years for murder and an additional year for the weapon enhancement. Griffin appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which affirmed the judgment in a written unpublished opinion. See People v. Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990 (Cal.Ct.App. May 15, 2014) (unpublished). On August 27, 2014, the California Supreme Court summarily denied his petition for review. On July 1, 2015, Griffin filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the California Superior Court, which was denied on October 2, 2015. Griffin's petitions for a writ of habeas corpus were denied by the Court of Appeal on November 25, 2015, and by the California Supreme Court on April 13, 2016.

         On May 23, 2016, Griffin filed this timely federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus alleging the following claims: (1) the trial court wrongly admitted evidence of Griffin's connection to the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club; (2) erroneous jury instruction on voluntary manslaughter; (3) prosecutorial misconduct; (4) violation of due process when the trial court discharged a juror during deliberations; (5) ineffective assistance of trial counsel; (6) ineffective assistance of appellate counsel; and (7) failure to instruct on self-defense in mutual combat. The California Court of Appeal rejected Griffin's first four claims in its written opinion. There is no written opinion on the last three claims.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A federal court may entertain a habeas petition from a state prisoner “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, (“AEDPA”), a district court may not grant habeas relief 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); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). This is a highly deferential standard for evaluating state court rulings: “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.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). Additionally, habeas relief is warranted only if the constitutional error at issue “‘had substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.'” Penry v. Johnson, 532 U.S. 782, 795 (2001) (quoting Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993)).

         DISCUSSION

         The trial proceedings and the evidence presented against Griffin are described thoroughly by the California Court of Appeal in its opinion affirming the judgment on direct appeal. See Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, *1-4. This Court now rules as follows on the claims presented by the habeas petition:

• On habeas review, “only if there is no permissible inferences that the jury may draw from the evidence can its admission violate due process.” Jammal v. Van de Kamp, 926 F.2d 918, 920 (9th Cir. 1991). It was not wholly unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to conclude that the evidence of Griffin's connection to the Hell's Angels was relevant to refute Griffin's claim of self-defense because it put into question whether the victim, who was much smaller than Griffin, was likely to have attacked and wrestled with Griffin when he believed that Griffin was a member of the Hell's Angels. See Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, *5. And even if constitutional error occurred, the admission of the evidence did not have a “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict” see Brecht, 507 U.S. at 637. Griffin admitted that he stabbed the victim, but he claimed he acted in self-defense. As explained by the Court of Appeal, there was compelling evidence that Griffin did not act in self-defense. Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, at *5. Because the jury heard this inculpatory evidence, the omission of the Hell's Angels evidence would not have affected the verdict. Furthermore, the jury was given a limiting instruction about the Hell's Angels evidence, and it is presumed to have followed that instruction. Id; Aguilar v. Alexander, 125 F.3d 815, 820 (9th Cir. 1997).
• Even if Griffin's claim of instructional error on voluntary manslaughter is not procedurally defaulted, see Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, at *6, it is not cognizable on federal habeas review because it requires an interpretation of state law. See Bradshaw v. Richey, 546 U.S. 74, 76 (2005) (state court's interpretation of state law binds a federal court sitting in habeas corpus).
• The prosecutor's comments during closing argument did not render the trial unfair. See Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 181 (1986) (defendant's due process rights only violated when a prosecutor's misconduct renders a trial “fundamentally unfair”). The prosecutor's comments on provocation, judged as a whole, were a correct statement of state law and, even if the law was misstated, any misstatement was slight, quickly corrected and unlikely to mislead the jury. See Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, at *7. Furthermore, any prejudice from a misstatement of the law was mitigated by the correct instruction on provocation and by the instruction that counsel may argue their view of the law, but the jury must follow the court's instructions. See Aguilar, 125 F.3d at 820; Darden, 477 U.S. at 183.
• Even if Griffin's claim about the prosecutor's comments on self-defense and imperfect self-defense is not procedurally defaulted, see see Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, at *8, it is not cognizable on federal habeas review; the Court of Appeal found that the prosecutor correctly stated the law and a state court's interpretation of its own law cannot be reviewed in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. See Bradshaw, 546 U.S. at 76.
• Griffin's claim that the prosecutor improperly referred to an exhibit that had not been admitted into evidence fails because the Court of Appeal, in reviewing the record, found that the document was admitted. See Griffin, 2014 WL 1931990, at *9. A state court's finding of fact is accorded deference on habeas review. See Lambert v. Blodgett,393 F.3d 943, 978 (9th Cir. 2004) (the question on habeas review of purely factual questions under 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254(d)(2) is whether an appellate ...

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