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O'Neal v. Bowersox

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

September 10, 2019

ANTHONY O'NEAL, Plaintiffs,



         This matter is before the Court on Petitioner Anthony O'Neal's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1.) The government responded (Doc. 9), and Petitioner replied (Doc. 14). For the following reasons, Petitioner's petition is DENIED and this action is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         Introduction and Background

         Petitioner is currently serving a life sentence for the second-degree murder of his then-girlfriend's fourteen-month-old daughter. State v. O'Neal, No. ED97342 (Mo.Ct.App. March 5, 2013); (Doc. 9-8.) The child had suffered numerous injuries, including burns to her arms, legs, chest, face, and back; bruising on her chest, abdomen, and back; injuries to the mouth and nose “consistent with blunt force and possible suffocation”; human bites to the cheek and abdomen; and wounds that implied sexual assault. (Id. at 2-3.) In addition, the child had internal injuries indicative of severe violence-five fractured ribs, a bruised lung, a lacerated liver, hemorrhages in both the pancreas and large intestine, and blood in the abdominal cavity. (Id.) Petitioner was alone with the child when her mother left to work an overnight shift and when she returned, she found her daughter's body on the floor and Petitioner asleep in the bed. (Id. at 2.)

         At trial, the prosecution showed the jury photos of the child's body to illustrate the extent and severity of her injuries, over counsel's objection. (Doc. 1 at 15.) The Court also admitted a video recording and written transcript of Petitioner's statement to police-which referenced Petitioner's prior requests for counsel-and the results of a “presumptive forensic test” that indicated, but could not conclusively prove, the presence of semen. (Doc. 9-8 at 3-4.) Counsel filed a motion in limine to exclude the test results but did not object at trial when the results were offered into evidence. (Id. at 10-12.) A jury convicted Petitioner and his subsequent motion for new trial was denied. (Id. at 3.)

         On direct appeal, Petitioner argued that the trial court erred when it admitted his statements to police. He argued that the references to his request for counsel violated his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and that the statements themselves were the result of improper interrogation after he had requested counsel. (Id. at 6.) The Missouri Court of Appeals found that Petitioner voluntarily reinitiated communication after invoking his Miranda rights and that the references to Petitioner's requests for counsel were adduced to show the order of events and not to imply Petitioner's guilt. (Id. at 8-9.) In addition, the Court of Appeals concluded that any error was harmless considering the overwhelming evidence against Petitioner. (Id. at 9.)

         Petitioner also argued on appeal that the trial court erred by admitting the test results. (Id. at 10.) The Missouri Court of Appeals noted that it could only review the claim for plain error because Petitioner did not object at trial when the test was discussed. (Id. at 12.) The court then found no error, concluding that the jury was “fully informed” of the limitations of the test and that the results, though not conclusive, were of help to the jury. (Id. at 13.) Petitioner's appellate counsel did not raise any issue regarding the photographs. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence.

         Petitioner filed a motion for state post-conviction relief under Missouri Court Rule 29.15, reiterating both complaints regarding the admission of his statements to police and adding an argument that his appellate counsel was ineffective for not raising a claim of trial error based on the admission of the photos of the victim's body. (Doc. 9-10 at 50-56.) The trial court denied relief and Petitioner appealed, raising only his ineffective-assistance-of-appellate-counsel claim. (Doc. 9-13.) The Missouri Court of Appeals deferred to the trial court's discretion in admitting evidence and agreed that the photographs “helped explain the medical examiner's testimony, helped show the nature and location of the victim's wounds, and helped establish [Respondent's] intent to kill or seriously injure the victim.” (Id. at 6.) Finding that any claim of trial error based on the admission of the photos “certainly would have been denied” on direct appeal, the Court of Appeals found that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to raise the claim and affirmed the trial court's denial of post-conviction relief. (Id.)

         Petitioner then filed this petition, advancing four grounds for habeas relief: (1) ineffective assistance of appellate counsel based on the failure to argue that admitting the photos was trial error; (2) trial error based on the admission of statements alluding to Petitioner's requests for counsel; (3) trial error based on the admission of Petitioner's statements to police made after invoking his right to remain silent; and (4) trial error based on the admission of presumptive testing results. (Doc. 1.) Respondent argues that Ground 3 is procedurally defaulted because Petitioner did not raise it on direct appeal and that Ground 4 is barred because the Missouri Court of Appeals reviewed it only for plain error. (Doc. 9 at 4.) In addition, Respondent argues that all four grounds fail on their merits. (Id. at 7-11.) Petitioner argues that the failure to raise Ground 3 on direct appeal was due to appellate counsel's ineffective assistance and that Respondent's procedural argument regarding Ground 4 is inconsistent with the Eighth Circuit's application of Missouri law. (Doc. 14 at 15-17.)


         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, a district court “shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Federal courts may not grant habeas relief on a claim that has been decided on the merits in state court unless that adjudication:

(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 ...

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