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Fort v. Hatton

United States District Court, E.D. California

October 28, 2019

CECIL LAMAR FORT, Petitioner,
v.
SHAWN HATTON, Respondent.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          EDMUND F. BRENNAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Petitioner is a California state prisoner who, proceeding with counsel, brings an application for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He was convicted in the Solano County Superior Court of: (1) arson (Pen. Code § 451(b)); (2) possession of flammable material (§ 453(a)); (3) battery (§ 243(e)(1)); (4) vandalism (§ 594 (b)(2)(A)); and (5) battery on a police officer (§ 243(b)). The immediate habeas petition raises two claims. First, petitioner claims that the trial court violated his due process rights when it permitted expert testimony on fire accelerants from an individual who lacked the requisite expert qualifications. Second, petitioner argues that the state court erred in concluding that the prosecutor's misconduct did not render his trial fundamentally unfair.

         For the reasons stated below, his petition should must be denied in its entirety.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         October 22, 2012

         In October of 2012, petitioner was temporarily living with his girlfriend, Latoya Anderson, in a townhouse in Benicia. On October 22, petitioner and Anderson fell to arguing about the former's possible infidelity. The argument became physical and Anderson's mother - who also lived in the townhouse - called the police. The police arrived and forced petitioner to leave. Anderson's mother testified that petitioner said, as he was removed, “I know how to get back at you.”

         Approximately one hour later, Anderson heard a noise on her patio and investigated. She found a rock which had evidently damaged some of the wooden patio railing. Petitioner was in her driveway. Police returned and arrested petitioner.

         October 23, 2012

         Petitioner was in the vicinity of Anderson's home the next day. He saw Elizabeth Coney, who lived nearby and with whom petitioner would sometimes “hang out.” That afternoon, Coney walked with petitioner to a local convenience store and purchased beer for him. At approximately three or three-thirty, the two walked back to Coney's home. Petitioner went to Coney's downstairs couch, while she went upstairs to do dishes. At about four, one of Coney's sons came by the house and told her that Anderson's home was on fire. She went downstairs and observed petitioner on the couch, though she could not say whether he had been there the entire time between their return from the convenience store and the news of the fire.

         Benicia Police Officer Mark Simonson arrived at Anderson's house at approximately 4:10 p.m. He observed smoke coming from an upstairs window and heard fire crackling. The front door was open and there was damage to the handle and strike plate. Also notable, was a large shoe print that had been imprinted on a decorative Halloween skeleton which hung on the door. Inside, Simonson observed a bottle of lighter fluid on the carpeted floor. The area surrounding the bottle had burned and a credenza along the far wall was also on fire.

         Benicia Fire Captain Gregory Petersen arrived at Anderson's house at about the same time as Officer Simonson. He entered the home and extinguished the credenza and was careful not to disturb the bottle of lighter fluid. He noted that there was burnt paper at the top of the bottle.

         A technician subsequently photographed the shoe print on the Halloween decoration. She also collected a beer can that was on top of a dog crate outside the front door of Anderson's home. A police sergeant noticed petitioner in a nearby parking lot shortly after the outbreak of the fire. The officer collected petitioner's shoes after noticing that their pattern was similar to the print on the door.

         Petitioner was arrested shortly after the fire was extinguished. He appeared intoxicated and a field screening test produced a blood alcohol reading more than twice the legal driving limit.

         Subsequent Arson Investigation

         Boyd Lasater, a criminalist with the California Department of Justice, received petitioner's clothes after his arrest and tested a sample for fumes. He determined that the sample contained a high concentration of “medium petroleum distillates.” Lasater testified that three common product categories containing such distillates include charcoal lighter fluids, dry-cleaning solvents, and paint thinners.

         Benicia firefighter engineer Scott Hansen investigated the scene of the fire. Based on his observations, he concluded that the fire had two points of origin - one on the floor and one on top of a piece of furniture. He also concluded that the fire was the result of arson. He opined that there were no potential sources for an accidental fire outbreak. He also determined that the paper next to the lighter bottle was likely a “delay device” employed to allow the arsonist to start the fire and escape before it flared.

         Investigators collected DNA from the beer can found outside Anderson's front door. They compared that DNA with a separate sample taken from petitioner by buccal swab. The markers were consistent and indicated, with a very high degree of likelihood, that the DNA on the can belonged to petitioner.

         STANDARDS GOVERNING HABEAS RELIEF UNDER THE AEDPA

         I. Applicable Statutory Provisions

         28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), provides in relevant part as follows:

(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the 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.

         Section 2254(d) constitutes a “constraint on the power of a federal habeas court to grant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus.” (Terry) Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). It does not, however, “imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review, ” or “by definition preclude relief.” Miller El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). If either prong (d)(1) or (d)(2) is satisfied, the federal court may grant relief based on a de novo finding of constitutional error. See Frantz v. Hazey, 533 F.3d 724, 736 (9th Cir. 2008) (en banc).

         The statute applies whenever the state court has denied a federal claim on its merits, whether or not the state court explained its reasons. Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99-100 (2011). State court rejection of a federal claim will be presumed to have been on the merits absent any indication or state law procedural principles to the contrary. Id. at 784-785 (citing Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 265 (1989) (presumption of a merits determination when it is unclear whether a decision appearing to rest on federal grounds was decided on another basis)). ...


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