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Follansbee v. Ryan

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 22, 2017

Clifford Allen Follansbee, Petitioner,
v.
Charles L. Ryan, et al., Respondents.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE G. MURRAY SNOW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court are Petitioner Clifford Allen Follansbee's (“Petitioner”) Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (“Petition”), (Doc. 1), and Motion for Evidentiary Hearing, (Doc. 21); and United States Magistrate Judge Deborah M. Fine's Report and Recommendation (“R & R”), (Doc. 22). The R & R recommends that the Court deny and dismiss the Petition with prejudice, and deny the Motion for Evidentiary Hearing as moot. (Doc. 22 at 23.) Petitioner filed a timely objection (“Objection”) to the R & R. (Doc. 25.) Thus, the Court will make a de novo determination of those portions of the R & R to which an objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). For the following reasons, the Court accepts the R & R and denies and dismisses the Petition with prejudice, and denies the Motion for Evidentiary Hearing as moot.

         BACKGROUND

         The R & R sets forth a detailed factual and procedural background of this case, to which neither party objected. The Court therefore adopts this background as an accurate recital, but will provide a brief summary here.

         In January 2008, Petitioner was convicted in Coconino County Superior Court of sexual assault, sexual conduct with a minor, sexual exploitation of a minor, kidnapping, and obstructing a criminal investigation. These charges arose out of two incidents where Petitioner forced his fifteen-year-old stepdaughter to engage in sexual conduct with him. Petitioner was sentenced to 256 years in prison. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal by the Arizona Court of Appeals. Petitioner then filed a petition for review in the Arizona Supreme Court, which was denied.

         Petitioner then filed for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) in Coconino County Superior Court. His appointed PCR counsel filed a notice of review and of no colorable claims, and was appointed to act as advisory counsel. The PCR petition was denied by the trial court and denied by the Arizona Court of Appeals; and again, the Arizona Supreme Court declined review.

         Petitioner filed the instant Petition in this Court on May 13, 2015. He alleges six grounds for relief: (1) judicial bias as evidenced by the trial judge's failure to announce certain evidentiary rulings to the jury, (2) prosecutorial misconduct in alluding to the victim's chastity, (3) the admission of expert testimony that improperly vouched for the victim's credibility, (4) prosecutorial misconduct in insinuating that Petitioner had drugged the victim, (5) actions of the victim, her mother, and her friends in the gallery that improperly swayed the jury's sympathies, and (6) double jeopardy.

         The magistrate judge submitted an R & R to this Court. The R & R recommends that Grounds 2, 3 and 5 be denied as procedurally defaulted, and that Grounds 1, 4 and 6 be denied as failing to demonstrate that the Arizona Court of Appeals' decision affirming Petitioner's conviction was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, or based on an unreasonable determination of the facts.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Legal Standard

         This Court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). It is “clear that the district judge must review the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise.” United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). District courts are not required to conduct “any review at all . . . of any issue that is not the subject of an objection.” Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985).

         Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Court may not grant habeas relief unless it concludes that the state'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).

         II. Analysis

         A. Grounds 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6

         The magistrate judge found that Petitioner's Grounds 2, 3 and 5 were unexhausted and procedurally barred. (Doc. 22 at 7-12.) Petitioner made no objection to this finding. (Doc. 25 at 3.) This relieves the Court of its obligation to review this portion of the R & R. Nevertheless, the Court has reviewed the magistrate judge's finding as to Grounds 2, 3 and 5 and finds that it is well-taken. The Court therefore adopts the magistrate judge's finding and recommendation as to Grounds 2, 3 and 5.

         The magistrate judge found that Petitioner's Grounds 1, 4 and 6 were exhausted, but that Petitioner failed to demonstrate an entitlement to habeas relief on these Grounds. (Doc. 22 at 19-23.) As to these Grounds 4 and 6, the Objection states “Petitioner rests on the argument of his argument.” (Doc. 25 at 23.) Simply reasserting the grounds of the Petition is not an effective objection necessitating de novo review. See, e.g., Bryant v. Ryan, No. CV-08-831-PHX-DGC (JJM), 2009 WL 1856603, at *1 (D. Ariz. June 29, 2009) (“Merely reasserting the grounds of the petition as an objection provides this Court with no guidance as to what portions of the R & R Petitioner considers to be incorrect.”); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2) (requiring “specific written objections to the proposed findings and recommendations”). This relieves the Court of its obligation to review this portion of the R & R. Nevertheless, the Court has reviewed the magistrate judge's finding as to Grounds 4 and 6 and finds that it is well-taken. The Court therefore adopts the magistrate judge's finding and recommendation as to Grounds 4 and 6.

         B. Ground 1

         To understand Petitioner's objections to the magistrate judge's findings on Ground 1, it is necessary to understand the precise argument Petitioner makes in Ground 1. Ground 1 is a claim of judicial bias on the part of the trial court judge who presided over Petitioner's trial. Specifically, Petitioner argues that “[t]he trial court deliberately tipped the scales of justice in favor of the State of Arizona [by] fail[ing] to properly disclose bench conference decisions that favored the Defendant to the t[r]ier-of-fact.” (Doc. 1 at 11.) Petitioner lists nine sidebar conferences; six occurring after a defense objection, and three after a State objection. (Id. at 16.) He argues that “the trial court established a distinct pattern” by failing to announce the judge's sustaining of defense objections and issuing no curative instructions, but announcing the sustaining of State objections and/or issuing curative instructions. (Id.) The problem, as Petitioner sees it, is that while the jury was instructed that “[i]f the Court sustained an objection to a lawyer's question, you must disregard it and any answer given, ” (Doc. 15-15 at 45, Ex. I [R.T. 01/17/08] at 44), the jurors would not know to disregard the answer that had been given if they did not know that the objection had been sustained.

         Petitioner asserts that the trial judge's “conscious act” of failing to convey his rulings on these defense objections constituted “egregious violations of due process and fair trial” which could only be the product of incompetence or bias. (Doc. 25 at 21-23.) Because of the trial judge's “numerous years” on the bench, Petitioner reasons, he could not be incompetent and must therefore be biased. (Id. at 22-23.)

         The bulk of Petitioner's objection, liberally construed, is that the magistrate judge dismissed Ground 1 on the basis that the jurors were instructed not to speculate on what the answers to objected-to questions might have been, when the heart of Petitioner's Ground 1 argument addresses the answers that jurors actually heard. He makes several ancillary objections regarding the magistrate judge's reasoning and citations to the record.

         1. Preliminary matters

         a. Review of state court decisions

         Petitioner's Objection, and indeed all of his filings, express frustration that the various courts reviewing his claims have allegedly misunderstood or simply failed to address his judicial bias argument. The magistrate judge noted that the “absence of explicit rulings” on Petitioner's judicial bias claims in PCR proceedings may have been due to waiver under Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.2(a)(3). (Doc. 22 at 15.) The state courts did not, however, make an explicit finding of waiver. (Id.) Thus, as the magistrate judge explained, this Court may still address the merits of Petitioner's claim under the rule of Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 261-62 (1989).

         Petitioner argues that it makes no sense to find that the state court decisions upholding his convictions against claims of judicial bias were not contrary to clearly established federal law when those decisions did not explicitly discuss the merits of the judicial bias argument. (Doc. 25 at 17-18.) But “[w]hen a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 99 (2011). Section 2254(d) “does not require a state court to give reasons before its decision can be deemed to have been ‘adjudicated on the merits.'” Id. at 100. Therefore, it is proper to consider whether the Arizona Court of Appeals decision denying Petitioner relief on his judicial bias claim was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, ” or was “based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” 28. U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         b. The magistrate judge's citations to the record

         Petitioner also asserts that several of the magistrate judge's record citations point to irrelevant portions of the record and therefore do not support the magistrate judge's decision. This assertion appears to be based on some unfortunate confusion on Petitioner's part, rather than any error on the part of the magistrate judge. The paper copy of the record filed by the State is separated into Exhibits, A through U, with each Exhibit paginated beginning at 1. The electronic docket further separates some of the Exhibits into multiple PDF files, which are each individually paginated beginning at 1. For example, Exhibit H comprises electronic Documents 15-12, 15-13, and 15-14. Page 1 of Document 15-14 is page 210 of Exhibit H. On the occasions Petitioner argues that the magistrate judge's record citations do not support the magistrate judge's assertions, this appears to be because the magistrate judge used the electronic PDF page numbers, while the Petitioner thought these were the paper copy Exhibit page numbers. All of the magistrate judge's record citations do, in fact, support the assertion for which they are cited. To the extent that Petitioner did not raise further arguments about the citations he could not find, [1] the Court will nevertheless discuss each in full in its de novo analysis. For sake of clarity, parallel citations using each format will be used when referencing this record, along with the accompanying trial date.

         2. The merits of the judicial bias argument

         a. Case law

         Moving to the merits of the judicial bias claim, as an initial matter, Petitioner cites no cases where a judge's failure to announce evidentiary rulings made at sidebar has been held to be either error in its own right or evidence of judicial bias. The Court has likewise found none. This is not surprising. “[J]udicial rulings alone almost never constitute a valid basis” for finding bias or partiality. Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540, 555 (1994). Thus, had the trial judge here simply overruled the defense objections, a claim of bias would be difficult if not impossible to make. In such a factual context, it would not be logical to say that an unfavorable ruling cannot serve for a basis for a finding of bias while a favorable ruling can.

         This is especially so given the high bar for demonstrating judicial bias. There is a “presumption of honesty and integrity” accorded to adjudicators. Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47 (1975). Overcoming this presumption on federal habeas review of a state court decision is particularly difficult. A federal court on direct review will only lose this presumption when the judge demonstrates “an ‘extremely high level of interference' by the trial judge which creates ‘a pervasive climate of partiality and unfairness.'” Duckett v. Godinez, 67 F.3d 734, 740 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting United States v. DeLuca, 692 F.3d 1277, 1282 (9th Cir. 1982)). But even that stringent showing falls short of demonstrating the required Due Process violation to justify habeas relief from a state court judgment. Id. Various Ninth Circuit cases illustrate just how high this bar is. See, e.g., id. at 740- 41 (no Due Process violation where trial court judge “expressed clear frustration and hostility” toward one defense witness and, during examination of another, “told the prosecution to ‘once in a while throw in an objection for the heck of it'”); United States v. Martin, 278 F.3d 988, 996-97 (9th Cir. 2002) (no Due Process violation where trial judge at sentencing called defendant's testimony a “crock of baloney”); United States v. Wilkerson, 208 F.3d 794, 798-99 (9th Cir. 2000) (no Due Process violation where trial judge suggested the prosecution add a charge against defendant and commented that the community was “tired” of the charged crime).

         Petitioner's argument falls short of demonstrating any kind of judicial bias, let alone bias that goes beyond even a “pervasive climate of partiality and unfairness” to rise to the level of a Due Process violation. This becomes abundantly clear ...


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