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Johnson v. Brewer

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

September 25, 2013

JOHN E. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DWAIN BREWER, Defendant,

PROPOSED FINDING OF FACT AND RECOMMENDATION

ROBERT H. WALKER, Magistrate Judge.

Before the Court is John E. Johnson's Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus [1] filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2254. Johnson is in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections following his conviction for murder which was later reversed and remanded by the Mississippi Court of Appeals for re-sentencing on the lesser included offense of manslaughter. Plaintiff alleges in his petition that (1) the evidence presented in his trial was insufficient to support the verdict; (2) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence; (3) his Sixth Amendment right to a trial was violated when the Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed and remanded his conviction for murder and directed that he be sentenced for the lesser included charge of manslaughter; and (4) the trial court violated his due process rights when it did not provide Johnson with a trial transcript for the purpose of filing a pro se appeal.

Law and Analysis

This Court must consider Johnson's claims in light of the provisions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (d) provides

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.

A state court's decision unreasonably applies Supreme Court precedent if it identifies the correct legal rule but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the case, or if it unreasonably extends, or unreasonably refuses to extend, a legal principle from existing Supreme Court precedent to the facts of the case. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 407 (2000). Deference is critical because federal courts have no authority to grant habeas corpus relief simply because "we conclude, in our independent judgment, that a state supreme court's application of [federal] law is erroneous or incorrect." Catalan v. Cockrell, 315 F.3d 491, 493 (5th Cir. 2002). Additionally, the factual findings underlying a state court's decision are presumed to be correct unless the petitioner rebuts that presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see also Valdez v. Cockrell, 274 F.3d 941, 947 (5th Cir.2001). The AEDPA's second prong requires that federal courts defer to a state court's factual determinations unless it is based on an "unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." Hill v. Johnson, 210 F.3d 481, 485 (5th Cir. 2000).

Issue (1): Sufficiency of the Evidence

Petitioner contends that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient to support the verdict. More specifically, he asserts that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict as to his self-defense claim. A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supports a claim for habeas relief only if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the State, is such that no reasonable fact finder "could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979). The Jackson standard allows the trier of fact to find the evidence sufficient to support a conviction even if "the facts also support one or more reasonable hypotheses consistent with the defendant's claim of innocence." Gilley v. Collins, 968 F.2d 465, 468 (5th Cir.1992) (citation omitted).

Johnson appealed his conviction for murder, contending that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The Mississippi Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence presented at trial and determined that all of the elements of murder were not met. However, the court determined that the elements of manslaughter, a lesser-included charge, were sufficiently met and used the "direct-remand" rule to direct that Johnson be resentenced for manslaughter. Johnson v. State, 52 So.3d 384, 396 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). There were multiple eyewitnesses who testified to the fact that Johnson shot and killed Keith Franklin. Id. at 388-89. In fact, Johnson even testified to the fact that he shot Franklin. Id. at 388. However, the court determined that "Johnson lacked malice aforethought or wanton recklessness when shooting Franklin during the altercation." Id. at 396. Rather, "the killing was more appropriately a killing in the heat of passion or a situation of imperfect self defense." Id.

The state appellate court also considered the issue of Johnson's self-defense claim. The court noted that the trial court gave a self-defense instruction but that the jury rejected Johnson's claim to self-defense. Id. at 398. The evidence and testimony at trial indicated that Franklin and Johnson engaged in an argument just prior to the shooting. Id. at 388-89. During the argument, Johnson remained seated in his truck while Franklin was standing at the side of the truck in possession of a beer bottle. Id. Johnson then began slowly to drive away, at which point Johnson shot Franklin. Id.

In his petition, Johnson argues that he was in his vehicle attempting to leave the scene when Franklin came through the window with a beer bottle and attacked him; therefore, he was acting in self-defense. See doc. [1] at 5. The appellate court considered the self-defense claim and concluded that "Johnson's claim of necessary self-defense has one glaring flaw: He occupied a vehicle that obviously had the capability to provide him a means of escape from Franklin's presence." Johnson, 52 So.3d at 398. The undisputed testimony indicated that Johnson was in the driver's seat during the incident and that Johnson never took off his seat belt. Id. at 388. Other witnesses testified that the shooting occurred only after Johnson began to drive away. Id. at 388-89. The appellate court held that "a reasonable juror of average prudence could have determined from the evidence that Johnson had a reasonable mode of escape' from the situation." Id. at 398.

Johnson has not presented evidence in his habeas petition that overcomes the deference due to the state appellate court's decision with respect to sufficiency of the evidence. Nor has Johnson explained how the state court's decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. He also has not explained how the state court's decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. Although Johnson presented an alternate interpretation of the evidence regarding his self-defense claim, the jury was free to accept or reject that claim and weigh the evidence as ...


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