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Wright v. Steele

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

September 27, 2017

TROY STEELE, Respondent.



         This matter is before the undersigned on the petition of Missouri state prisoner Ronald David Wright (“Petitioner” or “Wright”) for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1). The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to U.S. § 636(c)(1). (Doc. 8). For the following reasons, the petition is denied.

         I. Factual Background

         The Missouri Court of Appeals summarized the facts as follows:

On October 16, 2008, at approximately 1:00 p.m., a witness observed Wright sitting in his truck while parked across the street from John and Jean Shaw's (“the Shaws”) house. The witness watched Wright drive around the subdivision, stopping outside various houses and at a construction site. Eventually, Wright drove through a field and backed his truck into the Shaws' driveway.
The Shaws, a couple in their seventies, were at home watching television when Wright knocked on their door. Mr. Shaw, who was in frail health and walked with a cane, answered the door. Wright told Mr. Shaw that he was looking for someone else and returned to his truck but did not leave the Shaws' driveway. Feeling increasingly nervous about Wright's continued presence, Mrs. Shaw gathered some tools, including a short-handled sledgehammer, and placed them on a stool by the front door.
Wright suddenly broke into the Shaws' home, threw Mr. Shaw to the floor, and began punching him. Mrs. Shaw threw an ashtray at Wright, hitting him in the arm. When Wright started moving toward Mrs. Shaw, she ran out the back door with a cordless phone, called the police, and hid in some brush.
When the police arrived, they found Mr. Shaw's body in the living room. His head appeared to be “smashed in” and there was blood on the floor and ceiling. Mr. Shaw's autopsy revealed that the cause of death was blunt trauma from an instrument to the head. The pathologist counted at least eight blows to Mr. Shaw's head, which were consistent with a sledgehammer as the cause of the blunt trauma.
Later that day at about 3:00 p.m., Jerald Wells (“Wells”) was at his home when he heard his garage door close. Wells entered the garage and found Wright standing beside Wright's truck, which he had parked in Wells's garage. After Wells ordered Wright to leave, Wright returned to his truck and backed it out of the garage, but the truck stalled in the driveway. Wells watched Wright walk down the street, steal a truck belonging to Wells's neighbor, and drive the truck down a deadend street. Wells drove his own truck after Wright and blocked Wright until the police arrived and arrested Wright.
The State of Missouri (“State”) charged Wright with first-degree murder, armed criminal action, and first-degree burglary. The jury found Wright guilty of all counts. The trial court then sentenced Wright as a prior and persistent offender to consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without probation or parole for first-degree murder, 200 years' imprisonment for armed criminal action, and life imprisonment for first-degree burglary.

Resp't Ex. Q, at 4-6.

         At trial, Petitioner testified that on the day of the crimes at issue, he was hearing voices that drew him to the Shaws' subdivision, and that while he was there, he was guided to go to different places by seeing flags and hearing voices. Resp't Ex. E, at 440-449. He ultimately went to the Shaws' residence because he thought a flag was pointing in that direction. Id. at 449-50. He testified that he did not remember why he attacked Mr. Shaw but that he did remember how he attacked him. Id. at 452-53. Petitioner testified that he attacked Mr. Shaw first with a hammer from his tool belt, and then with a sledgehammer. Id. at 453-56. He testified that when he saw the sledgehammer, he thought it was a “killing kit” and that they were “bad people, ” because “there was a license plate there, said, ‘Alabam.'” Id. at 455. Petitioner testified that he heard an unfamiliar voice say, “God has delivered him into our hands.” Id. at 456. Petitioner testified that after he realized what he was doing, he stopped. Id.

         Evidence was also presented at trial regarding Plaintiff's actions before the murder. The day before the murder, while Petitioner was working at a construction site with his foreman, Michael Miller, he pushed Miller off the ladder, then started swearing and swinging at Miller until another worker stopped him. Resp't Ex. C, at 157-58, 160. Miller fired Petitioner and then called the police. Id. at 158. At the time of these events, Petitioner was on probation and parole. Id. at 164. At about 11:10 a.m. on the day of the murder, Petitioner's probation and parole officer called Petitioner and asked Petitioner to report to his office at 1:00 p.m. concerning alleged violations of his probation and parole conditions, including violation of laws. Id. at 164-66. Petitioner was concerned that he would be arrested, but the officer told him there had not been a warrant issued. Id. at 168-71, 176. Petitioner agreed to come in, but never showed up. Id. at 167.

         Prior to trial, there was a dispute over whether Petitioner could offer evidence that he was incapable of the deliberation required for first-degree murder[1] because he was suffering from drug-induced psychosis at the time of the crimes. The Missouri Court of Appeals stated:

Prior to trial, the State filed a motion to preclude testimony regarding whether Wright suffered from a mental disease or defect or diminished capacity. The motion noted that Wright had obtained a forensic evaluation from Dr. Scott, who offered the opinion that Wright suffered from an “amphetamine-induced psychotic disorder” that made him incapable of premeditation at the time of John Shaw's murder. The motion argued that “amphetamine-induced psychotic disorder” is not a mental disease or defect under controlling law but rather is intoxication or a drugged condition resulting from the voluntary ingestion of methamphetamine. Therefore, Dr. Scott's testimony is inadmissible. After hearing arguments, the trial court granted the State's motion during a pre-trial conference.
In order to preserve for appellate review the issue of whether methamphetamine-induced psychosis is a mental disease or defect, trial counsel made an offer of proof with Dr. Scott during trial. Dr. Scott testified that he evaluated Wright to determine his mental state at the time of the attack on Mr. Shaw. Dr. Scott concluded that during the attack, Wright was suffering from a methamphetamine-induced psychosis and as a result, he was not capable of cooly reflecting or premeditating upon his actions.

Resp't Ex. Q, at 8.

         In addition to making an offer of proof with regard to Dr. Scott's evidence, Petitioner's trial counsel called Petitioner to the stand to make an offer of proof outside the presence of the jury. Resp't Ex. E, at 499. Petitioner stated that that he had used methamphetamine off and on since 1999 and was a chronic and heavy user. Resp't Ex. E, at 499-501, 504-05. He testified that he had voluntarily used methamphetamine the day before the murder, but not on the day of the murder. Id. at 499-500, 507, 511. He stated that prior to the date of the murder, he had experienced auditory hallucinations (hearing voices in his head) based on his methamphetamine use on five or six occasions. Id. at 501. He also stated that when he had those auditory hallucinations, it was customary for him to attach significance to signs, such as the flag he mentioned in his testimony. Id. at 501-02. Petitioner testified that incidents of hearing voices had occurred more in the past few years. Id. at 507. Petitioner also testified that he had been committed to the state hospital four times. Id. at 502.

         Petitioner's trial counsel also made an offer of proof at the bench in which he stated that he anticipated that Petitioner's mother would testify that two days before the murder, Petitioner's mother saw him and saw that he was extremely depressed, that he was very distressed, that he had problems with anxiety, that he had shaved his head, and that she was extremely worried about his mental health. Id. at 497-98. The trial court ruled the testimony inadmissible. Id. at 498.

         II. Procedural Background

         In his direct appeal, Petitioner argued that the trial court violated his right to due process and his right to a fair trial by excluding several pieces of evidence: (1) the testimony of psychiatrist Dr. Richard Scott (for the purpose of showing that Petitioner was suffering from a drug-induced psychosis and was unable to form the intent required for first-degree murder); (2) his own testimony about his prior mental health history, which would have supported Petitioner's defense that he did not deliberate before killing the victim because he was suffering from a psychosis; and (3) Petitioner's mother's testimony about Petitioner's strange behavior two days prior to the charged crimes. Resp't Ex. K. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, finding that under Section 562.076.3, Mo. Rev. Stat., as interpreted by Missouri courts, evidence of drug-induced psychosis is not admissible to show the absence of a mental state that is an element of the offense. Resp't Ex. M, at 8-14. The Missouri Court of Appeals also specifically rejected Petitioner's contention that the statute was unconstitutional. Id. at 13-14.

         In Petitioner's amended motion for post-conviction relief, filed through counsel, Petitioner asserted three claims: (1) that his trial counsel was ineffective because he failed to assure that his expert, Dr. Richard Scott, understood that under Missouri law, methamphetamine-induced psychosis is not a basis for challenging the mental state of murder in the first degree, leaving Petitioner without any reasonable trial strategy when Dr. Scott's opinions were excluded; (2) that his trial counsel was ineffective based on his failure to present testimony about Petitioner's drug-induced psychosis (from witnesses William Wright, Dale Wright, Carole Jenson, Joan Bohn, Linda Capone, Dr. Rick Scott, and Doug Thurston) as an explanation for Petitioner's actions before and after the crimes; and (3) that his trial counsel was ineffective based on his failure to object to the state's improper closing argument. Resp't Ex. N, at 23-26. The motion court rejected each claim on its merits. ...

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