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Donelson v. Steele

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

September 30, 2019

TROY STEELE, Respondent.



         This matter is before the Court on the pro se petition of Missouri state prisoner Rodney L. Donelson for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. On May 6, 2010, Petitioner was convicted by a jury of two counts of first-degree murder.[1]Petitioner was sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment without parole.

         In his federal habeas petition, Petitioner raises several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, as well as a claim of judicial misconduct. For the reasons set forth below, habeas relief will be denied.



         The charges against Petitioner stemmed from two homicides, the first of Cassandra Scott in July 2000, and the second of Barbara Hampton in September 2005. Prior to trial, Petitioner's trial counsel filed a motion to sever, which was heard by the trial court on April 20, 2010. Trial counsel argued that the State had not made the requisite showing for joining the murder charges, including any similarity in motive or character, or any common scheme or plan.

         The State argued that joinder was proper because there were several similarities between the two homicides. A detective involved in the investigations of both homicides testified as to these similarities, including that both victims were black females that knew Petitioner; both homicides took place in the victims' apartments, which were located only about a mile apart; Petitioner's brother lived in the same apartment building as Scott, and Petitioner lived in the same apartment building as Hampton; Petitioner's DNA was found at both crime scenes; a telephone cord was found at both crime scenes, five feet away from Scott's body and underneath Hampton's body; a kitchen knife was found at both crimes scenes, still stuck in Scott's body and on a bed near Hampton's body; a bottle labeled as antifreeze but filled with water was found near Scott's body, and it appeared that blood on her body may have been diluted with some liquid, and Hampton's body was covered in several liquids and powders, with bottles of dish and laundry detergent nearby; an empty bottle of rubbing alcohol was found at both crime scenes; and Scott died by stabbing in the neck, as well as strangulation via a purse strap around the neck, and Hampton died of suffocation by a gag in her mouth and sustained a tear or laceration to her vaginal area.

         Through cross examination of the detective, Petitioner's trial counsel highlighted the differences between the crimes, including that the murders took place five years apart; there was no indication that the telephone cord had any connection to Scott's homicide; there was no indication that any cleaning fluid had been poured on Scott's body as it had on Hampton's; and Scott was stabbed violently in the neck, with the knife still stuck in her neck and a “huge pool of blood” surrounding her, whereas Hampton was not stabbed but found gagged on the floor, and the knife in her case was found at least some distance away on the bed. Trial counsel also argued that the prejudice arising from joining the murder charges “would be incredibly overwhelming, ” particularly because the State's evidence against Petitioner in the Scott case, standing alone, was relatively weak. Resp. Ex. A at 8.

         The trial court determined that the State had made a sufficient showing justifying joinder and denied trial counsel's motion. Trial began on May 3, 2010. On that date, defense counsel withdrew her motion to sever. Resp. Ex. B at 39.


         Evidence at Trial

         The evidence at trial showed the following, as summarized by the Missouri Court of Appeals in Petitioner's direct appeal:

In July 2000, Cassandra Scott (Scott) was found dead in her apartment.[2] She was lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood and with a kitchen knife protruding from the back of her neck. A container of antifreeze, a telephone cord, and a pair of men's underwear were found nearby. A purse strap was wrapped around Scott's neck and arm. The murderer had apparently broken a window on the front door to gain entry into Scott's apartment. Investigators discovered that the blood near Scott's body had been diluted by some other liquid and that the liquid was on Scott's buttocks. Investigators found an empty bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the apartment, and the knife found in Scott's neck matched some knives in the kitchen sink. An autopsy revealed that Scott died from a combination of strangulation by the purse strap and five cuts to the right side of her neck, which pierced the jugular vein. Laboratory testing on the men's underwear found near Scott's body revealed that two stains on the underwear were blood and seminal fluid. DNA tests matched the blood to Scott and the seminal fluid to [Petitioner].
[Petitioner] worked at the daycare where Scott worked, and [Petitioner]'s brother lived in the apartment below Scott's apartment. Although police investigators questioned [Petitioner] about Scott's death approximately two months after her body was found, [Petitioner] stated that he did not know anything about the murder. However, [Petitioner] told investigators that he had been in Scott's apartment to repair a VCR three days prior to her murder. [Petitioner] told investigators that he might have left a bag of clothes in Scott's apartment, including a pair of white boxer shorts. [Petitioner] claimed that he left the clothes there because he liked to flirt with women at the daycare center and he wanted to look clean. [Petitioner] then changed his story and said that he had been in Scott's apartment on the night of her murder and that they were preparing to engage in sex when they heard a car door slam. Scott suspected her boyfriend was there, so [Petitioner] gathered his clothes, ran down the rear stairs into his brother's apartment, and left the building. [Petitioner]'s brother, however, denied that [Petitioner] was in his apartment on the night of the murder.[3] When investigators confronted [Petitioner] with his brother's denial about [Petitioner]'s whereabouts, [Petitioner] subsequently changed his story again and claimed he had been at Scott's apartment to repair a VCR.
In September 2005, [Petitioner] was living in an apartment above the apartment of Barbara Hampton (Hampton). On September 14, 2005, at approximately 10:40 p.m., Hampton was having a telephone conversation with her daughter [Minnie Fuqua]. Hampton interrupted the conversation to answer a knock at the door, then told her daughter that [Petitioner] was there and wanted to use Hampton's telephone to make a call. Hampton ended the call with her daughter.
The following day, Hampton was found dead in her apartment.[4] She was lying on the bedroom floor with a gag tied around her mouth. Hampton's dress and slip were pushed up, and her underwear had been removed and left near her feet. Hampton had sustained an injury to her vaginal area. Several bottles were located near Hampton's body: dish washing liquid, laundry detergent, and an empty bottle of isopropyl alcohol. Near Hampton's body, police investigators found the cap from the bottle of isopropyl alcohol, dried liquids and powders, a kitchen knife, and a telephone cord. An autopsy revealed that Hampton died from suffocation caused by the gag pushing her tongue back so that it blocked her airway. The autopsy also showed that Hampton had sustained a fresh injury to her vaginal area that could have been caused by a sharp object or by something stretching the tissue. Blood was found on Hampton's slip, on a pillowcase, and on the cap from the bottle of isopropyl alcohol. DNA tests revealed that [Petitioner] was the source of the majority of DNA found in the blood on the bottle cap. [Petitioner]'s DNA also was found in some of the blood stains on the pillowcase. Trace amounts of DNA consistent with [Petitioner]'s DNA was found on [the] telephone cord and on Hampton's slip.
Police investigators questioned [Petitioner] about Hampton's death approximately one month after her body was found. [Petitioner] told investigators that he had spoken with Hampton the night before her body was found but that he had left with a friend named Robert Ellis (Ellis) and did not return home until the next morning. Ellis, however, denied that [Petitioner] had ever spent the night with him and specifically denied that [Petitioner] had spent the night with him in September 2005.[5]
Consequently, after further investigation, police questioned [Petitioner] a second time. This time, [Petitioner] admitted that he had lied in his first statement because he had spent the night with Brenda Jacobs (Jacobs) and he did not want his girlfriend, Melinda Freeman (Freeman), to know he had been cheating on her. [Petitioner] became angry and agitated during the second interview with police. [Petitioner] then admitted he had been in Hampton's apartment a few years earlier to help her husband carry in a mattress. Hampton's husband had died approximately two years before Hampton's murder. After [Petitioner] was arrested and informed of his Miranda[6] rights, [Petitioner] repeated the story he had given to investigators during the second interview.
Police investigators then questioned Freeman, with whom [Petitioner] had lived in the apartment above Hampton's apartment. Freeman provided investigators with Jacobs' telephone number. She stated that [Petitioner] had instructed her to tell police that he had been cheating on her with Jacobs. Investigators subsequently interviewed Jacobs, who stated that she and [Petitioner] had not spent any night together in September 2005.
After his arrest, [Petitioner] also discussed Scott's murder with police investigators. [Petitioner] claimed that he had gone to Scott's apartment the day before her murder to repair the toilet. [Petitioner] said that he must have left a bag of clothes in Scott's apartment; however, on the night of Scott's murder, he had stayed with his girlfriend, Latoya Vanderford.

State v. Donelson, 343 S.W.3d 729, 731-33 (Mo.Ct.App. 2011).

         In presenting the DNA evidence from the Scott crime scene, the State relied in part on the testimony from an analyst from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Crime Laboratory. The analyst stated that she compared DNA samples taken from the crime scene to DNA obtained from a buccal swab taken from the inside of Petitioner's mouth. Resp. Ex. A at 60-61.

         In presenting the DNA evidence from the Hampton crime scene, the State relied in part on the testimony of an analyst from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and another analyst from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who conducted additional testing with respect to the samples containing only trace amounts of DNA. The police department analyst testified that she compared the DNA samples taken from the crime scene to a known DNA profile of Petitioner and determined to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that Petitioner was the source of the major contributor of the DNA detected in samples taken from the bottle cap and a pillowcase. Id. at 86-87. She testified that she sent the DNA samples from the telephone cord and Hampton's slip to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for further testing.

         The State Highway Patrol analyst testified that she, too, compared the DNA samples from the Hampton crime scene to a known profile of Petitioner. She further testified that, according to her testing, the DNA samples taken from the telephone cord found underneath Hampton's body and from Hampton's slip were consistent with Petitioner's DNA. But she added that, in terms of statistical analysis, “[t]his haplotype was found 0 times in 3, 271 black individuals and 5 times in 3, 912 Caucasian individuals. Applying the frequency of this profile at approximately 1 in every 1, 007 total individuals, 1 in every 1, 093 black individuals and 1 in every 417 Caucasian individuals.”[7] Id. at 90. On cross examination by Petitioner's trial counsel, the same analyst also acknowledged that an initial lab report indicated that the DNA samples from the Hampton crime scene matched a Rodney “Donaldson.” The analyst then stated that she amended the report to correct the “misspelling” of the name. Resp. Ex. A at 91.

         In closing argument, Petitioner's trial counsel argued that “nobody bothered to confirm that the DNA they got in the second case, in Ms. Hampton's case, was the same as they got in the first case. Nobody compared Rodney Donaldson's DNA to Rodney Donelson's DNA. D-O-N-E-L-S-O-N, not D-O-N-A-L-D-S-O-N.” Id. at 102. She then referred to the statistical analysis of the DNA sample in Hampton's case and argued that “[t]hat DNA is more common by twice in white people than black people. Does that mean definitively that this Rodney Donaldson is white? No. But think, think about it.” Id. at 102-03.

         Juror Walker

         On the first day of trial, shortly after a lunch break and after several witnesses for the State had testified, Petitioner's trial counsel asked to approach the bench and informed the trial court that one of the jurors, Juror Walker, was seen speaking to a witness for the State, Hampton's daughter, Minnie Fuqua. Id. at 63. Walker had not disclosed any relationship with Fuqua in voir dire. The parties agreed to address the issue during a break in the trial. Id. at 64.

         During an afternoon break later that day, outside the presence of the jury, Juror Walker was brought before the trial court judge and told that the judge had been informed that Fuqua had recognized Walker or tried to say hello to him. Walker stated that he “probably knew [Fuqua] by face” and that he “probably just said hi.” Id. at 71. The judge then asked Fuqua, who was in the courtroom, to stand up, and Walker stated that, in fact, he recognized Fuqua and that the two of them “use[d] to talk, ” that they had seen each other “maybe five times, ” and that they “used to meet each other and talk on the bus and stuff like that.” Id. In response to questioning by the judge, Walker indicated that his friendship with Fuqua would not affect his ability to judge Fuqua's credibility, that he could listen to Fuqua testify and judge her as he would any other witness, and that he did not have any preconceived ideas of Fuqua's truthfulness. Id. at 71-72.

         After this line of questioning, counsel approached the bench, and Petitioner's trial counsel stated that “just to be careful we should boot him, ” thus indicating that she wished to remove Walker. Id. at 72. The State did not object, and Petitioner's counsel suggested that Walker could be removed as one of the alternates. The parties and the trial court then agreed that the trial court would reserve ruling until the end of trial. Id. After closing arguments, but before deliberations, the trial court excused Walker and asked the remaining 12 jurors to begin deliberations without Walker. Walker therefore did not participate in jury deliberations. Id. at 104.

         Petitioner's Right to Testify

         Before the case was submitted to the jury, and outside the presence of the jury, the trial court informed Petitioner that the State had rested its case and that Petitioner's trial counsel had indicated that she was not going to call any witnesses. The trial court then asked Petitioner whether he understood his right to testify and whether he desired to testify. Petitioner stated that he “guess[ed]” he did wish to testify, but then immediately said “no, I'm not going to testify.” Id. at 93. The trial court then gave Petitioner time to discuss the decision with his attorney. After a brief recess, the trial court engaged Petitioner in the following line of questioning:

Q All right. Mr. Donelson, you can come back up. After talking with Ms. Ruess, have you had enough time to discuss with Ms. Ruess whether or not you want to testify?
A I don't.
Q One question at a time. Have you had enough time to discuss with your lawyer - A Yes.
Q - whether or not you want to testify?
A Yes.
Q Okay. You have had plenty of time to talk to her ...

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