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Acajabon v. Espinoza

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 21, 2017

JANEL ESPINOZA, Warden Respondent.



         Petitioner is a state prisoner proceeding pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Janel Espinoza, Warden of Central California Women's Facility, is hereby substituted as the proper named respondent pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Respondent is represented by Lewis Albert Martinez of the Office of the California Attorney General. The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction for all purposes pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF Nos. 8, 10.)

         Petitioner alleges her constitutional rights were violated as follows: (1) the trial court excluded a statement against interest given by the shooter; (2) Petitioner's trial counsel was ineffective in failing to secure the shooter as a witness; (3) the trial court failed to instruct the jury sua sponte on the lesser offense of manslaughter based on a theory of imperfect self-defense; and (4) the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the “natural and probable consequence doctrine.” (ECF No. 1.)

         For the reasons stated below, the petition will be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         Petitioner is in the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation pursuant to the May 21, 2013 judgment of the Kings County Superior Court, imposing an indeterminate term of fifteen years to life for second degree murder. (Lodged Doc. 2 at 316-17.)

         Petitioner appealed the judgment, raising the same four claims at issue in the instant petition. (Lodged Doc. 15.) On March 20, 2015, the California Court of Appeal for the Fifth Appellate District affirmed the judgment in a reasoned decision. (Lodged Doc. 18.) Petitioner filed a petition for review in the California Supreme Court (Lodged Doc. 19), which was summarily denied on June 10, 2015 (Lodged Doc. 20).

         Petitioner filed the instant petition on February 10, 2016. (ECF No. 1.) On April 13, 2016, Respondent filed an answer. (ECF No. 14.) On May 27, 2016, Petitioner filed a traverse. (ECF No. 16.) A second traverse filed on May 31, 2016 appears to be a duplicate of the first. (ECF No. 17.) The matter is submitted.

         II. Factual Background

         The following facts are taken from the Fifth District Court of Appeal's March 20, 2015 opinion. They and are presumed correct. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

The salient facts are as follows: On March 5, 2012, Acajabon drove Jason Reyes and Donald Simpson into Hanford from Alameda County. Upon arriving in Hanford, the group met up with Reyes's daughter, Michelle Reyes, and the four spent the afternoon smoking marijuana and consuming methamphetamine. Although Michelle had previously met Simpson, this was her first contact with Acajabon, whom her father referred to as “wifey.” Later in the afternoon, after purchasing a train ticket back to Alameda for Simpson, the four stopped for food at a local McDonalds drive-through. At approximately 5:15 p.m., while the group was parked outside of the McDonald's restaurant, Reyes stated that he had been thinking about “what he wanted to do” to a man named Armando Ramirez who lived in Hanford and had previously been convicted of molesting Michelle.[FN1] Ramirez ended up serving nine years in prison for the offense. Still in the parking lot, Reyes informed the group that he had thought a lot about what Ramirez had done to Michelle and that he wanted to “get that fool” or “[w]e are going [to] get that fool.” [FN1: Tyla Gray, Michelle's mother, met Ramirez in Delano State Prison while visiting Reyes, also an inmate at the time. After Ramirez's release, he and Gray lived together for five months, during which time Michelle was molested.]
After leaving the McDonald's parking lot, Acajabon stopped at a red light, and Michelle noticed that Ramirez was a passenger in an adjacent car. Acajabon and Michelle were in the front seats with Simpson and Jason in the rear. As the car containing Ramirez made a left-hand turn into a nearby Rite- Aid, Reyes pulled out a handgun and told Acajabon to turn into the Rite-Aid as well. Being in the incorrect lane to make a left-hand turn, Acajabon drove her car over the divider to reach the Rite-Aid parking lot and then maneuvered her car into a parking spot facing the exit. Reyes exited the vehicle, approached Ramirez, and fatally shot him.
Afterwards, Reyes climbed back into Acajabon's car and she drove away from the scene, back to Michelle's apartment complex. Upon arriving at the complex, Acajabon, Reyes, and Michelle switched cars, and Simpson disappeared. Acajabon, Reyes, and Michelle spent the evening at a local drug house, and, at some point during the night, Acajabon and Reyes left Hanford. The two were later apprehended by police in Ventura, and Acajabon was subsequently convicted on one count of second degree murder.[FN2]
[FN2: Reyes was found incompetent to stand trial and Simpson, who was arrested shortly after fleeing from Acajabon's car, was tried as a codefendant of Acajabon's and acquitted of all charges. Michelle was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony at Acajabon's trial.]

People v. Acajabon, No. F067381, 2015 WL 1308140, at *1-2 (Cal.Ct.App. Mar. 20, 2015), review denied (June 10, 2015).

         III. Jurisdiction and Venue

          Relief by way of a writ of habeas corpus extends to a prisoner under a judgment of a state court if the custody violates the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); 28 U.S.C. § 2241(c)(3); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 375 n.7 (2000). Petitioner asserts that she suffered a violation of her rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Petitioner was convicted and sentenced in this district. 28 U.S.C. § 2241(d); 2254(a). The Court concludes that it has jurisdiction over the action and that venue is proper.

         IV. Applicable Law

         The petition was filed after April 24, 1996 and is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 326 (1997); Jeffries v. Wood, 114 F.3d 1484, 1499 (9th Cir. 1997). Under AEDPA, federal habeas corpus relief is available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings if 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).

         A. Standard of Review

          A state court decision is “contrary to” federal law if it “applies a rule that contradicts governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases” or “confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from” a Supreme Court case, yet reaches a different result.” Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06). “AEDPA does not require state and federal courts to wait for some nearly identical factual pattern before a legal rule must be applied. . . . The statue recognizes . . . that even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner” Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 953 (2007) (citations and quotation marks omitted). The “clearly established Federal law” requirement “does not demand more than a ‘principle' or ‘general standard.'” Musladin v. Lamarque, 555 F.3d 830, 839 (2009). For a state decision to be an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under § 2254(d)(1), the Supreme Court's prior decisions must provide a governing legal principle (or principles) to the issue before the state court. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 70-71 (2003).

         A state court decision will involve an “unreasonable application of” federal law only if it is “objectively unreasonable.” Id. at 75-76 (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 409-10); Woodford v. Visciotti, 537 U.S. 19, 24-25 (2002). “[A]n unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.” Harrington v. Richter 562 U.S. 86, 101 (2011) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 410) (emphasis in original). “A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as ‘fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision.” Id. (citing Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 653, 664 (2004)). Further, “[t]he more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reading outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” Id.; Renico v. Lett, 130 S.Ct. 1855, 1864 (2010). “It is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by [the Supreme Court].” Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 122 (2009).

         B. Requirement of Prejudicial Error

         In general, habeas relief may only be granted if the constitutional error complained of was prejudicial. That is, it must have had “a substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict.” Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 623 (1993); see also Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 121-22 (2007) (holding that the Brecht standard applies whether or not the state court recognized the error and reviewed it for harmlessness). Some constitutional errors, however, do not require a showing of prejudice. See Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 310 (1991); United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 659 (1984). Furthermore, claims alleging ineffective assistance of counsel are analyzed under the Strickland prejudice standard; courts do not engage in a separate analysis applying the Brecht standard. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984); Avila v. Galaza, 297 F.3d 911, 918, n.7 (2002); Musalin v. Lamarque, 555 F.3d 830, 834 (9th Cir. 2009).

         C. Deference to State Court Decisions

         “[S]tate courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions, ” not merely a “preliminary step for a later federal habeas proceeding.” Richter, 562 U.S. at 103. Whether the state court decision is reasoned and explained, or merely a summary denial, the approach to evaluating unreasonableness under § 2254(d) is the same: “Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or . . . could have supported, the state court's decision; then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of [the Supreme Court].” Id. at 102. In other words:

As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus relief 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.

Id. at 103. Thus, the Court may issue the writ only “in cases where there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [the Supreme Court's] precedents.” Id. at 102.

         “Where there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the claim rest on the same grounds.” See Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991). Thus, the court will “look through” a summary denial to the last reasoned decision of the state court. Id. at 804; Plascencia v. Alameida, 467 F.3d 1190, 1198 (9th Cir. 2006). Furthermore, the district court may review a habeas claim, even where the state court's reasoning is entirely unexplained. Richter, 562 U.S. at 98. “Where a state court's decision is unaccompanied by an explanation, the habeas petitioner's burden still must be met by showing there was no reasonable basis for the state court to deny relief.” Id. (“This Court now holds and reconfirms that § 2254(d) does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been ‘adjudicated on the merits.'”).

         V. Review of Petition

         A. Claim One: Exclusion of Reyes's Statement to Police

         Petitioner argues that she should have been permitted to introduce at trial statements made by Reyes to the police that indicated Petitioner was unaware of Reyes's intent to shoot Ramirez. Petitioner argues that the trial court erred in excluding the statement and that the error violated her constitutional rights.

         1. State ...

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