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Hollis v. Magnusson

United States District Court, D. Maine

December 6, 2019

MALIK HOLLIS, Petitioner,
v.
MATTHEW MAGNUSSON, Respondent

          RECOMMENDED DECISION ON 28 U.S.C. § 2254 PETITION

          John C. Nivison U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Petitioner contests the state court's denial of his post-conviction claim. (Petition, ECF No. 1.) Petitioner contends the state court erred in its application of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) to Petitioner's challenge to the jury selection process. The State contends that the record supports the state court's findings and reasoning.

         After a review of the section 2254 petition, the State's response, and the record, I recommend the Court deny Petitioner's request for relief.

         Factual Background and Procedural History

         In July 2017, following a two-day jury trial, Petitioner was convicted in state court of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, 17-A M.R.S. § 211(1), and criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, 17-A M.R.S. § 209(1). (State v. Hollis, Me. Sup. Ct., And. Cty., No. CR-2016-01677, Docket Record at 8, Judgment and Commitment at 1.) The state court sentenced Petitioner to three years in prison on each count, to be served concurrently. (Id.)

         According to the record, in May 2016, Petitioner, who is African American, was involved in an altercation with several white men outside an apartment building in Lewiston. State v. Hollis, 2018 ME 94, ¶ 2, 189 A.3d 244. The cause of the altercation and how it escalated were disputed at trial. Id. One of the men involved testified at trial that he hit Petitioner with a metal handlebar and called Petitioner a racial epithet. Id. at ¶ 2, n.2. The man admitted that he told Petitioner that he was going to kill him. Id. He also testified that one of the other men had an aluminum baseball bat and another had a baton. Id. Petitioner ran around the corner to his own apartment and returned with a handgun, which Petitioner fired into a dirt pile located near him. Id. at ¶ 2. Petitioner was arrested and charged; a jury trial was scheduled for July 2017. Id. at ¶ 3.

         Jury selection occurred on July 6, 2017. Only one of the thirty-two randomly selected jurors in the pool (Juror 71 or the Juror) was a person of color.[1] Although neither the prosecution nor the defense challenged the Juror for cause, the prosecution used one of its peremptory challenges (the sixth of nine, including alternates) to remove the Juror from the jury. Petitioner's counsel objected to the State's use of a peremptory challenge to remove Juror 71. The State maintained the Juror's “ethnicity had no bearing” on the challenge and cited the Juror's “level of education and other various factors that were provided in the list from the court” as the bases for the challenge. The trial court noted it could not make a finding of systemic exclusion. Juror 71 was removed from the jury. (State v. Hollis, Me. Sup. Ct., And. Cty., No. CR-2016-01677, Jury Selection Transcript, 59:7-61:3.)

         The trial proceeded on July 13 and 14, 2017; Petitioner was convicted. Post-trial, Petitioner moved for a judgment of acquittal or, in the alternative, for a new trial, arguing that the State used a peremptory challenge to remove Juror 71 from the jury in violation of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). In Batson, the Supreme Court established a three-step process for a court to determine whether a preemptory challenge is the product of purposeful discrimination: “First, a defendant must make a prima facie showing that a peremptory challenge has been exercised on the basis of race; second, if that showing has been made, the prosecution must offer a race-neutral basis for striking the juror in question; and third, in light of the parties' submissions, the trial court must determine whether the defendant has shown purposeful discrimination.” Foster v. Chatman, 136 S.Ct. 1737, 1747 (2016) (quoting Snyder v. Louisiana, 552 U.S. 472, 476-77 (2008)).

         The State argued that its peremptory challenge of Juror 71 was based on Juror 71's level of education.[2] Juror 71's level of education was listed as 11th grade. The State anticipated that Petitioner would raise the affirmative defense of self-defense at his trial and argued that self-defense is a “complicated concept” with complicated “instructions that would follow should self-defense be (and was) generated at trial ….” (State's Response at ¶ 6.) The State also argued that while the underlying facts of the case “were not necessarily complicated, ” self-defense is a “fairly complicated issue.” (State v. Hollis, Me. Sup. Ct., And. Cty., No. CR-2016-01677, Post-trial Hearing Transcript at 18:17-19:1.)

         The trial court requested that Petitioner submit additional information, and in response Petitioner filed with the court “An analysis of the state's peremptory challenges” and “An analysis of the ultimate makeup of the jury.” The submissions and the record demonstrate that of the State's nine peremptory challenges, five were used to remove jurors with a 12th grade education and one to remove Juror 71, who had an 11th grade education.[3]The empaneled jury of fourteen jurors (including alternates) consisted of six jurors with a 12th grade education and eight jurors with education levels from 13 to 18 years.

         In its Decision and Order denying Petitioner's post-trial motion, the trial court acknowledged that at trial it had not conducted a complete Batson analysis. (State v. Hollis, Me. Sup. Ct., And. Cty., No. CR-2016-01677, Decision and Order at 6.) Specifically, the court noted that it had not applied Batson's three-step analysis. (Id.) In its decision on the post-trial motion, the trial court assessed the challenge under the Batson analysis. The court found that Petitioner had made a prima facie showing regarding the challenge of Juror 71 and that the State had offered a race-neutral explanation - “namely, [Juror 71's] relatively low level of education.” (Id. at 7.) At step three of the analysis, the trial court found that the prosecution's challenge of Juror 71 “was not exercised with a discriminatory intent or purpose.” (Id. at 8.) The court found the prosecution's explanation to be “credible and believable.” (Id.) The court, in assessing all the State's peremptory challenges and the composition of the empaneled jury, also determined that the State's conduct was consistent with its stated strategy of empaneling a jury of individuals with higher education levels. (Id. at 8-9.)

         On appeal, Petitioner argued the trial court erred in its Batson analysis. The Law Court affirmed the trial court's decision. State v. Hollis, 2018 ME 94; 189 A.3d 244. The Law Court noted that although it “may be skeptical of a proffered explanation for striking a juror based on low education level without individual voir dire on intelligence or education, ” the trial court's finding of fact regarding “ʻthe ultimate question of discriminatory intent represents a finding of fact of the sort accorded great deference on appeal.” Id. at ¶ 14 (quoting Hernandez v. New York, 500 U.S. 352, 364 (1991) (plurality opinion)). The Law Court reasoned that Petitioner had not established “that the record compelled the court to find that the prosecutor's explanation was a pretext for discrimination.” Id. at ¶ 15. The Law Court thus concluded that “the trial court did not err when it determined that the prosecutor did not engage in purposeful discrimination.” Id.

         Discussion

         A. Legal Standards

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a state court may apply to a federal district court for writ of habeas corpus “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”

         A petitioner is generally required to exhaust available state court remedies before he seeks federal habeas review. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b), (c).[4] “Before seeking a federal writ of habeas corpus, a state prisoner must exhaust available state remedies, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1), thereby giving the State the ‘opportunity to pass upon and correct' alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights.” Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004) (quoting Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365 (1995) (per curiam)) (quotation marks omitted). In Baldwin, the Court noted that “[t]o provide the State with the necessary ‘opportunity,' the prisoner must ‘fairly present' his claim in each appropriate state court (including a state supreme court with powers of discretionary review), thereby alerting that court to the federal nature of the claim.” Id. (quoting Duncan, 513 U.S. at 365-66). To exhaust a claim fully in state court in Maine, a petitioner must request discretionary review by the Law Court. See 15 M.R.S. § 2131. The State did not raise an exhaustion challenge in this case.

         With respect to federal habeas claims that were adjudicated on the merits in state court, a federal court may not grant relief unless (1) the state court decision was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); or (2) the decision ...


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