United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division
RODNEY L. DONELSON, Petitioner,
TROY STEELE, Respondent.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
G FLEISSIG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.Petitioner was sentenced to consecutive
terms of life imprisonment without parole.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 rights, [Petitioner]
repeated the story he had given to investigators during the
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
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.
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
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Right to Testify
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?
Q Okay. You have had plenty of time to talk to her ...