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Martin v. Wallace

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

September 21, 2016

TODD MARTIN, Petitioner,
IAN WALLACE, Respondent.



         This matter is before the Court on Petitioner Todd Martin's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. 1). The Government has responded (Doc. 8). Petitioner has not filed a reply, and the time to do so has elapsed. For the following reasons, Petitioner's section 2254 petition is DENIED and this action is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. Introduction and Background

         In December 2009, Petitioner was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court of St. Louis City, Missouri, of second-degree felony murder, first-degree assault, unlawful discharge of a firearm, and two counts of armed criminal action (Resp. Ex. D at 22-25). On January 29, 2010, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on the first-degree assault count, and 20 years in prison on each count of second-degree murder, armed criminal action, and unlawful discharge of a firearm, all terms to be served concurrently for a total of 20 years in prison (Id.). All of the counts arose out of the death of a female passenger in a car into which Petitioner admitted he had shot a rifle.

         On direct appeal from his conviction and sentence, Petitioner asserted one assignment of error-that the trial court had erred by failing to sua sponte instruct the jury on defense of premises (Resp. Ex. C). On March 15, 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions, summarizing the facts of Petitioner's case, as follows:

[Petitioner] claims he reasonably believed that he needed to use force to prevent an attempted burglary of his home and/or an assault by Terrance Vann and Carlos Buford, who [Petitioner] asserts were attempting to unlawfully re-enter his home in a violent and tumultuous manner. Vann and Buford had previously been inside [Petitioner's] home, to allegedly purchase heroin. After the men briefly chatted, Buford pulled out a gun and Bann wrestled with [Petitioner], taking [Petitioner's] gun away from him. Buford later hit [Petitioner] over the head with his gun. Vann and Buford then took [Petitioner] and two other men into a bedroom at the back of the house. Vann and Buford closed the bedroom door, took the heroin, and left the house. The defendant dug through a pile of clothing in the bedroom and pulled out a rifle. Petitioner then exited the bedroom, ran to the front of the house, opened the front door, and immediately started shooting. [Petitioner] claims that when he opened the front door he saw Vann halfway in and halfway out of the car. According to [Petitioner], Vann looked at him, said something, and reached to his side. [Petitioner] thought Vann was reaching for a gun. [Petitioner] further testified that he saw Buford sitting in the front passenger seat of the car and that he saw Buford reach under the seat. He thought Buford was reaching for a gun. And so, [Petitioner] started shooting. [Petitioner] testified that he fired because he was scared. He thought the two men were going to get out of their car and either shoot or come back inside the house and “finish what they had started.” He wanted to make absolutely sure that the two men did not come back inside his house. All he wanted was for them to leave. And so he fired at them.

(Resp. Ex. E at 7-8). The Court of Appeals then concluded that Petitioner had failed to adduce sufficient evidence at trial to support a defense-of-premises jury instruction, explaining as follows:

[Petitioner] claims that Vann and Buford were attempting to re-enter [Petitioner's] premises at the time he used deadly force, but there is no evidence or reasonable inferences to support [Petitioner's] claim. [Petitioner] himself testified that when he stepped out on the porch and began firing, Vann was halfway in the car and Buford was sitting in the front seat of the car. No other version of the events indicates that Vann and Buford ever attempted to re-enter [Petitioner's] house. Rather, all the other evidence shows that once Vann and Buford left the defendant's house, the two men were in a hurry to get in the car and to leave. Of all the witnesses who testified, the only two who witnessed the events that took place when [Petitioner] opened his front door and began shooting were Latonya Mitchell, who was in the car, and Antonio [Willis], who was in [Petitioner's] home. Both witnesses testified that Vann and Buford were in a hurry to get away. Although [Petitioner] testified that he believed Vann and Buford were going to re-enter his home, the evidence does not support such a belief. [Petitioner's] subjective belief, without an evidentiary basis to create a question of fact as to its reasonableness, does not meet the quantum of proof necessary to give a defense-of-premises instruction.

(Id. at 9).

         Petitioner filed a pro se Missouri Supreme Court Rule 29.15 motion on February 2, 2010 (Doc. 1 at 3; Resp. Ex. F at 5-20). An attorney was appointed for Petitioner, and the attorney filed an amended Rule 29.15 motion on September 7, 2011 (Resp. Ex. F at 21-31). As amended, Petitioner's Rule 29.15 motion asserted three grounds for relief: (1) that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to seek a jury instruction on defense of others; (2) that trial counsel was ineffective by presenting a “defense” that the victim had not been shot by Petitioner, but had instead been shot by a co-passenger in the car (“alternative-shooter claim”); and (3) that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to object during the prosecutor's closing argument (“closing-argument claim”) (Id.). As relevant, during closing arguments, the prosecutor argued that “[t]his is the reason St. Louis is always in the top ten for the nation's most violent cities. This kind of stuff. Retaliation over dope. Retaliation. That's what this is” (Resp. Ex. A at 185).

         The motion court held an evidentiary hearing on December 6, 2011, and accepted the following relevant testimony (Resp. Ex. J). First, trial counsel testified that she could not remember why she did not seek a defense-of-others jury instruction. She further testified that, in hindsight, she believed that Petitioner would not have been successful on a defense-of-others theory unless he also had been successful in his self-defense claim. Specifically, trial counsel testified that Petitioner's self-defense claim was based on his testimony that a gun was pointed at him at the time he shot into the car, and that, at that moment, Petitioner did not know where his girlfriend and children were located. Trial counsel conceded that she could have requested a defense-of-others instruction, but explained that “one of the things we were trying to do was simplify the case to the degree that we could.” Trial counsel believed that proceeding on a self- defense theory was “more clear cut” than “saying that [Petitioner] was standing in the doorway shooting at people because he was defending someone who was in an unknown location in the house and that he wasn't defending himself and he was defending them. Allowing that argument to be made would take away from the credibility of [the] self-defense argument” (Id. at 7-10). As to the alternative-shooter argument, trial counsel testified that she had sought an expert witness's opinion as to whether the bullet that struck the victim could have been fired by a co-passenger instead of Petitioner; and that the expert was unable to offer an opinion as to the source of the bullet or the direction from which it had been fired (Id. at 13). As to Petitioner's closing-argument claim, trial counsel testified that she could not remember why she did not object to particular statements the prosecutor made during closing arguments, but that “it's always kind of a balancing call as to when to object and when not to in terms of how often and what things to object to and what not to” (Id. at 22).

         Petitioner testified that before his criminal trial, he had informed trial counsel that he shot into the car because he knew that Vann and Buford were armed and he was afraid they were “going to get out of the car and re-enter [his] home” to kill him, his girlfriend, and his children (Id. at 28). Petitioner also testified that he was aware that one of the other co-passengers in the car had admitted to firing the shot that killed the victim, but that the co-passenger would refuse to testify if subpoenaed to testify at Petitioner's trial. Petitioner claimed that he asked trial counsel not to present the alternative-shooter defense because there was no evidence to support it, and because he thought it would undermine his claim that he had acted in self-defense (Id. at 32-33).

         The motion court denied Petitioner's Rule 29.15 motion on February 14, 2012 (Resp. Ex. F at 32-43). Specifically, the motion court found that trial counsel's decision not to seek an instruction on defense of others was objectively reasonable, as Petitioner would not have been entitled to such an instruction. More specifically, the motion court noted that Petitioner's girlfriend and children were not nearby at the time of the shooting, and that trial counsel's opinion that Petitioner's self-defense claim was stronger, and could be undermined by an alternative defense-of-others claim, was reasonable and supported by the evidence (Id. at 40). As to Petitioner's alternative-shooter claim, the motion court noted that, after his sentencing hearing, Petitioner stated that trial counsel had done everything he had asked her to do during his trial, and that she had not done anything that he told her specifically not to do. The motion court further noted that an expert had advised trial counsel that it was possible that the fatal bullet had been fired from inside the car, that trial counsel's reliance on that argument was not baseless, that trial counsel's attempt to use the alternative-shooter theory to create reasonable doubt was a reasonable trial strategy, and that there was no reasonable probability that the result of Petitioner's trial would have been any different had trial counsel not presented the alternative-shooter defense (Id. at 40-41). Finally, as to Petitioner's closing-argument claim, the motion court found that, even assuming that the prosecutor's comments were improper, there was no reasonable probability that the result of Petitioner's trial would have been different had the argument not been made, or had trial counsel objected and the jury told to disregard them (Id. at 42-43).

         On direct appeal from that denial, Petitioner raised only two points of error: (1) that the motion court erred by finding that trial counsel had not been ineffective by failing to seek a defense-of-others jury instruction; and (2) his closing-argument claim (Resp. Ex. G at 1-41). On May 28, 2013, the denial of Petitioner's motion was affirmed. The Missouri Court of Appeals first construed Petitioner's argument that he was entitled to a jury instruction on defense of others as an allegation of trial court error, which Petitioner had raised on direct appeal from his conviction; and concluded that the trial court had not erred by failing to give the jury a defense-of-others instruction, as the evidence at trial did not support the instruction (Resp. Ex. I). As to Petitioner's closing-argument claim, the Court of Appeals concluded that the prosecutor's argument permissibly referred to the prevalence of drug-related violence in the City of St. Louis and the jury's obligation to uphold the law and ...

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