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Ruffin v. Castello

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 11, 2019

AARON RUFFIN, Petitioner,
v.
J. CASTELLO, Warden, Respondent.

          ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS ORDER DIRECTING CLERK OF COURT TO ENTER JUDGMENT AND CLOSE CASE ORDER DECLINING ISSUANCE OF CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY

          JENNIFER L. THURSTON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The petitioner was convicted of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with great bodily injury, second degree robbery and misdemeanor delaying a peace officer. Because his petition for writ of habeas corpus fails to raise a meritorious claim challenging his conviction, the Court DENIES the petition.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A jury convicted Petitioner of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with great bodily injury, second degree robbery and misdemeanor delaying a peace officer. People v. Ruffin, No. F069406, 2017 WL 527486, at *1 (Cal.Ct.App. Feb. 8, 2017). The jury found true that Petitioner personally inflicted great bodily injury, and that Petitioner personally used a deadly or dangerous weapon (a knife). (Id.) The trial court sentenced him to an aggregated prison term of 13 years. (Id.)

         The Fifth District Court of Appeal conditionally reversed the judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court with directions to conduct a Marsden[1] hearing limited to addressing Petitioner's concerns regarding the DNA results. (Id. at *10.) On remand, on August 31, 2017, the trial court denied Petitioner's motion to appoint substitute counsel. (Doc. 36-14.) The trial court also reinstated the judgment. (Id.)

         Petitioner filed the instant federal habeas petition, on July 5, 2018, raising two instructional error claims. (Doc. 1.) The Court conducted a preliminary review of the petition and directed Respondent to file a response to the petition. (Doc. 5.) The next day, Petitioner filed a state habeas petition in the Fifth District Court of Appeal alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. (Doc. 36-15.)

         Petitioner then filed a motion to amend this action to add additional claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. (Doc. 11.) He lodged an amended petition setting forth those grounds. (Doc. 12.) The Court struck the lodged amended petition because it failed to set forth all grounds for relief. (Doc. 13.) The Court granted Petitioner leave to file a first amended petition that set forth all grounds for relief. (Id.) In the meantime, the Court suspended the briefing schedule. (Id.)

         Soon thereafter, the Fifth District Court of Appeal denied Petitioner's state habeas petition without prejudice. (Doc. 36-16.) Undettered, Petitioner filed a second state habeas petition in the Fifth District Court of Appeal. (Doc. 36-17.)

         Petitioner then filed a first amended federal habeas petition which set forth a claim of trial court error that allegedly occurred during a Marsden hearing, and a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to present favorable lab evidence to the jury. (Doc. 17.) Petitioner stated that the two claims were unexhausted, and he moved for a stay and abeyance of the proceedings pending exhaustion of those two claims. (Doc. 16.) The Court granted the stay of the proceedings and directed Petitioner to file a motion to lift the stay once exhaustion was complete (Doc. 19.).

         On October 23, 2018, Petitioner filed a motion entitled “Request to Lift the Stay and Abeyance.” (Doc. 20.) He stated: “Lift the stay. I had a direct appeal for my case. The California Supreme Court denied the Petition of Review that my appellate attorney. . . . There is [sic] no state remedies to be exhausted.” (Doc. 20 at 2.) The Court construed this statement to mean Petitioner had completed exhaustion of his additional claims. The Court granted Petitioner's motion to lift the stay and directed Petitioner to file a second amended federal habeas petition setting forth all exhausted grounds for relief. (Doc. 21.)

         Nevertheless, within a week, Petitioner filed a third state habeas petition in the Fifth District Court of Appeal (Doc. 36-19) and two weeks later, filed a second amended federal habeas petition in this Court. (Doc. 22.) Once again, the Court directed Respondent to file a response. (Doc. 23.)

         Instead, Respondent moved to vacate the order directing Respondent to file a response. (Doc. 24.) Respondent noted that Petitioner had not exhausted his state remedies with respect to the claims he raised in the second amended petition. (Id.) Respondent also noted that the two claims raised in the second amended petition were currently being considered in the state habeas courts. (Id.)

         The Fifth District Court of Appeal denied Petitioner's second state habeas petition without prejudice. (Doc. 36-18.) Petitioner also filed a request in the California Supreme Court to withdraw his state habeas petition (Doc. 36-22), which the court granted. (Doc. 36-23.)

         This Court vacated the order directing Respondent to file a response to the second amended habeas petition on January 22, 2019. (Doc. 27.) The Court directed Petitioner to advise the Court whether he chose to proceed with the unexhausted claim or if he would rather have the proceedings stayed pending exhaustion of the two claims in the state courts. (Id.) Petitioner filed a notice stating that he “choose[s] to proceed only with the exhausted claim.” (Doc. 33.)[2]

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court adopts the Statement of Facts in the Fifth District Court of Appeal's unpublished decision[3]:

Appellant did not present any trial evidence. Below is a relevant summary of the prosecution's case.
A. The victim.
In the early morning hours of September 4, 2013, Bryan Ponsen was found unconscious on the sidewalk next to the federal courthouse in Bakersfield, California. He had been beaten. He was transported to a local medical center with head trauma, blood coming out of his mouth, and three puncture wounds. The three puncture wounds were bleeding and located on his upper back near the shoulder blades. Two of the punctures were two inches deep and the other was three inches deep. Some of the puncture wounds had extended into a lung, collapsing it. He had some undefined injury to his right knuckles. He had a significant amount of bleeding in his brain. He was placed on life support.
Neither medical personnel nor law enforcement found a knife with Ponsen. Police reviewed video footage from the courthouse and a nearby restaurant. A female, later identified as Tashina Hughey, appeared in both videos. Police believed she might frequent that area, and they searched for her. On the same morning as Ponsen's attack, police located Hughey and brought her in for questioning.
B. Hughey's statements to police.
An interviewing detective observed a small cut above Hughey's hairline. Prior to the incident at the federal courthouse, she said she had an altercation with Ponsen near a taco stand. He had propositioned her for sex and had taken items from her. She claimed he injured her on her forehead. After the altercation with Ponsen, Hughey made contact with Wilbert Robinson and appellant. She described Robinson as her boyfriend and fiancé. She described appellant as "her protector." The three of them encountered Ponsen at the courthouse. Robinson did the initial confrontation. Appellant and Robinson yelled they were going to "Whoop his" and then they started fighting. She said appellant joined the fight after Robinson slipped. She took two of Ponsen's bags.
Without confirming it was a knife, Hughey believed Ponsen had held something in his hand during the fight. She thought Robinson had held a knife. Robinson was hitting and kicking Ponsen. At the beginning of the interview, she said Robinson had stabbed Ponsen. At some point during the interview, she said she did not want "to put a case on" her boyfriend. At another point she said she did not "want to put a case on her friends." Towards the end of the interview, she said it was appellant who did the stabbing. After the incident ended, she claimed appellant told Robinson that Robinson "should not have slit [Ponsen's] throat."
C. Appellant and Robinson are arrested.
Law enforcement located and arrested Robinson later on the same day of the assault. He had a "utility knife" in his possession, which was seized. The blade was about three inches long and almost an inch wide. Approximately the next day, police took photographs of Robinson's legs and bare torso, which were shown to the jury. Other than a "rash or abrasion" on the "inner elbow portion" of his right arm, he did not appear to have any injuries.
Appellant was located the day after the attack. He was arrested after giving a false name to police. An officer found and seized a knife inside a sheath which was attached to appellant's belt. Black gloves were found in his pocket. In the video from the nearby restaurant, it appeared that appellant may have been wearing gloves on his hands immediately after Ponsen's assault. A stain was seen on appellant's pants and shirt. Subsequent testing showed it was human blood. Although law enforcement requested DNA analysis in this case, no DNA results were introduced into evidence. Appellant was photographed while he wore only boxer shorts. He did not appear to have any cuts or abrasions.
D. Hughey's trial testimony.
Hughey testified at trial pursuant to a plea agreement. She pled to an unspecified felony conviction, which she understood was a strike offense, and she received "substantially less time" than she was originally facing as a codefendant in the present matter. She admitted she was convicted of an unspecified felony offense almost a year prior to her trial testimony.
Hughey told the jury that Ponsen attacked her on a street early in the morning of September 4, 2013. He tried to drag her to a dark secluded alley. She ran away but he pursued her. He punched her and she fought back, but he stabbed her in the forehead with an unknown object. She suffered a gash. ...

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