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Bryant v. Lawrence

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

August 26, 2016

JAMES BRYANT Petitioner,
SCOTT LAWRENCE, [1] Respondent.



         This case is before the undersigned on a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, filed by Petitioner James Bryant. (Doc. 1). Petitioner is represented by counsel. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). (Doc. 14). For the reasons stated below, the petition will be denied.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 17, 1975, Petitioner was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Resp't Ex. A, Doc. 8-1, at p. 3. After two parole releases and two revocations, Petitioner was again released on parole on March 3, 2005. Id. at p. 2. As a condition of release, Petitioner agreed to numerous conditions, including obeying all federal and state laws and not consuming intoxicating beverages. Resp't Ex. C, Doc. 8-1, at p. 6.

         On January 19, 2011, Sgt. Troy Thurman of the Cole County Sheriff's Department responded to a domestic disturbance call from Petitioner's wife at the time, Joyce Bryant (“Mrs. Bryant”). Pet'r Ex. A, Doc. 1-2, at p. 20. According to the police report, Mrs. Bryant called from the neighbors' house, where she was hiding from her spouse. Id. Mrs. Bryant told Sgt. Thurman that she and Petitioner had been sitting in the living room drinking beer and talking. Id. At some point, they began to disagree, and Petitioner jumped up and started choking her with both hands. Id. at 20-21. Mrs. Bryant told Sgt. Thurman that she thought he was going to kill her, and then he suddenly stopped. Id. at 21. She said she was afraid for her life and was scared of Petitioner. Id. She said that she had called from the neighbors' house because Petitioner had taken all the phones in the house so that she could not call 911. Id. Sgt. Thurman observed that Mrs. Bryant was visibly upset and crying. Id. He also saw that her eyes had what appeared to be petechial hemorrhaging from being choked. Id. He saw that her left eye was swelling and turning black and blue and looked like she had been struck (though she denied remembering being struck). Id. The only marks present on her neck were what appeared to be fingernail scratches on one side. Id. Sgt. Thurman went to Petitioner's home and asked Petitioner what had happened, and Petitioner told him nothing had happened. Id. Sgt. Thurman explained that because Petitioner did not wish to explain what had happened, Sgt. Thurman was going to arrest him for domestic assault 2nd based on what his wife had stated. Id. He arrested Petitioner. Id.

         On January 24, 2011, as a result of Petitioner's arrest and Sgt. Thurman's report, Missouri Board of Probation and Parole (“Board” or “Parole Board”) Officer Rhonda Muenks issued a Field Violation Report for Petitioner. Pet'r. Ex. A-1. This report listed Petitioner's alleged parole violations: a violation of the condition that he would obey all federal and state laws, and a violation of the condition that he would not consume any intoxicating beverages. Pet'r Ex. A-1, Doc. 1-2, at p. 1. The Field Violation Report described the January 19 incident in some detail, including the alleged choking and the alleged alcohol consumption. Id. at pp. 1-3. Officer Muenks recommended revocation because Petitioner had “engaged in actions that have his wife fearing for her life.” Id. at p. 3.

         On February 16, 2011, Petitioner signed a document stating that a preliminary hearing would be held on February 17, 2011, that the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether probable cause or reasonable grounds existed to refer Petitioner's case to the Parole Board, and that Petitioner was being charged with two violations: “Violation of Condition of #1-LAWS, by being arrested on 1/19/11 in Cole County for the Class C Felony of Domestic Assault 2nd (case number 11AC-CR00270), ” and “Violation of Condition #10.1-SPECIAL CONDITIONS, by allegedly consuming alcohol on 1/19/11.” Pet'r Ex. A-1, Doc. 1-2, at p. 6. Also on February 16, 2011, parole officers created a second Field Violation Report noting that a preliminary hearing would be held on February 17, 2011, with the hearing officer being Sara Lemberger and the witnesses (by speakerphone) to be Sgt. Thurman and Parole Officer Rhonda Muenks. Pet'r Ex. A-2, Doc. 1-2, at pp. 4-5. It was noted that Petitioner had requested no witnesses. Id. This report stated the conditions Petitioner was alleged to have violated and referred back to the January 24, 2011 Field Violation Report for additional details. Id.

         The February 17, 2011 preliminary hearing is summarized in a third Field Violation Report prepared the same day. Pet'r Ex. A-4, Doc. 1-2, at pp. 6-8. It was noted that Petitioner had acknowledged receipt of the Field Violation Reports dated January 24 and February 16, 2011, and had received notice of the hearing. Id. In his briefing, Petitioner states that he received “the field violation report” (it is unclear which one) only minutes before the hearing began. Traverse, Doc. 12, at p. 6. Petitioner testified, and Sgt. Thurman participated by telephone. Pet'r Ex. A-3, Doc. 1-2, at pp. 7-8. Sgt. Thurman testified to the information in the police report and also testified that he had detected a faint odor of intoxicants emanating from Petitioner (a detail not in the police report). Id. at p. 8. Petitioner denied choking or striking Mrs. Bryant and denied consuming intoxicants. Id. Petitioner testified that he and his wife had had a conversation about Petitioner's frustration with Mrs. Bryant's lack of employment and the possibility that he was “putting her out” of the house. Id. Petitioner also testified that as Mrs. Bryant was leaving, she stated, “You will regret this.” Id. He further testified that Mrs. Bryant left the house for about 30 to 35 minutes before returning and asking if she could stay the night; this was several minutes before officers knocked on the door and arrested him. Id. When provided with photos of Mrs. Bryant depicting a black eye, Petitioner indicated that she must have injured herself during the time she left the residence and then called law enforcement with the made-up story about an assault. Id. Petitioner also pointed out that law enforcement had not administered a breathalyzer to ascertain whether he had been drinking. Id. at p. 9. Upon questioning by Petitioner, Sgt. Thurman testified that when they spoke, Petitioner's speech was not slurred, his gait was not staggered, and he was not behaving irrationally. Mem. Supp. Pet'n, Doc. 1-1, at p. 6. The hearing officer found that there was probable cause to believe that the alleged violations had occurred based on the offense report and the photos of the victim. Pet'r Ex. A-3, Doc. 1-2, at p. 9.

         On March 31, 2011, Petitioner was advised that his revocation hearing would be held on April 14, 2011. Resp't Ex. E, Doc. 8-1, at p. 9. On April 14, 2011, a revocation hearing was held. Resp't Ex. D, Doc. 8-1, at p. 7. Mrs. Bryant was not produced as a witness, and Petitioner indicates that the hearing officer commented that “the [Parole Board] had no subpoena power to get her there.” Mem. Supp. Pet'n, Doc. 1-1, at p. 7; see also Pet'r Ex. A-11, Doc. 1-2, at p. 29. The record contains no additional details regarding her absence. Petitioner testified at the hearing, as did Sgt. Thurman. Resp't Ex. D, Doc. 8-1, at p. 7. On May 3, 2011, the Board issued a notice stating that it found, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that Petitioner had knowingly violated Condition #1 of his parole conditions “in that on 1-19-2011 that Joyce Bryant reported to Deputy Thurman of the Cole County Sherriff Department that you assaulted her and caused physical injury. You were arrested and charged with Assault 1st degree and this charge is still pending.” Id. It also stated that, independent of the preceding finding, “the Board finds that you knowingly violated Condition #10 Alcohol, of the Conditions and Orders of (Parole Release), in that on 1-19-2011 your wife reported to Deputy Thurman that you had been drinking alcohol and Deputy Thurman testified at your revocation hearing that he smelled alcohol on your person at the time of your arrest.” Id. The Board stated that it had decided to revoke Petitioner's parole release. Id.

         On July 20, 2011, Petitioner appealed the Board's decision. Pet'r Ex. A-7, Doc. 1-2, at pp. 14-18. The appeal was apparently denied. On September 26, 2011, Mrs. Bryant informed Petitioner's attorney that she would no longer participate in the domestic assault trial and that if she were forced to testify, she would only do so on his behalf. Pet'r Ex. A-8, Doc. 1-2, at p. 19. On December 14, 2011, the domestic assault charges against Petitioner were dropped pursuant to a nolle prosequi. Pet'r Ex. A-4, Doc. 1-2, at p. 10. On September 20, 2012, Mrs. Bryant, by then divorced from Petitioner, wrote a letter to the Parole Board, explaining that her prior account had been untrue and that Petitioner was innocent of the charges against him. Pet'r Ex. A-10, Doc. 1-2, at p. 26. Mrs. Bryant stated that if she had been notified of the revocation hearing, it would have been clear that he was innocent of the charges. Id.

         Petitioner filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 91 in the Circuit Court of Mississippi County, Missouri, asserting that he was denied his right to confront his accuser, as well as other claims. Pet'r Ex. A-11, Doc. 1-2, at pp. 27-34. The Circuit Court denied the petition without explanation. Resp't Ex. A-12, Doc. 1-2, at p. 36. The Missouri Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court also denied the petition without explanation. Resp't Ex. B, Doc. 8-1, at p. 4.

         On May 15, 2013, Petitioner filed the instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Petitioner asserts two grounds for relief: (1) that his due process rights were violated because he was denied the right to confront his chief accuser at his final revocation hearing, and (2) that his due process rights were violated because he was not provided with adequate notice or evidence before his preliminary hearing.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal habeas review exists only “as ‘a guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.'” Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015) (per curiam) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102-03 (2011)). Accordingly, “[i]n the habeas setting, a federal court is bound by AEDPA [the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] to exercise only limited and deferential review of underlying state court decisions.” Lomholt v. Iowa, 327 F.3d 748, 751 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254). Under AEDPA, a federal court may not grant relief to a state prisoner with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in the state court proceedings unless the state court's adjudication of a 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). A state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established Supreme Court precedents “if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases” or “if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [the Supreme Court's] precedent.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000); see also Brown v. Payton, 544 U.S. 133, 141 (2005). A state court decision involves an “unreasonable application” of clearly established federal law if it “correctly identifies the governing legal rule but applies it unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 407-08; see also Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). “Finally, a state court decision involves an unreasonable ...

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