United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
A. TRAUGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
a habeas corpus action brought by a state prisoner pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The petitioner is serving an
effective sentence of 25 years imprisonment, imposed by the
Davidson County Criminal Court on July 19, 2007, after a jury
convicted the petitioner of second-degree murder and theft of
property over $1, 000 but less than $10, 000. The respondent
has filed an answer to the petition (ECF No. 15) stating that
the grounds should be denied because they are not cognizable
in federal habeas proceedings, are without merit, and are
matter is ripe for review and the court has jurisdiction. 28
U.S.C. § 2241(d). The respondent does not dispute that
the petitioner's federal habeas petition is timely. (ECF
No. 15 at Page ID# 2546.) The respondent states that the
federal habeas petition at issue here appears to be the
petitioner's first application for federal habeas relief.
a federal court must presume the correctness of a state
court's factual findings unless the petitioner rebuts
this presumption with ‘clear and convincing evidence,
” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), and because the issues
presented can be resolved with reference to the state-court
record, the court finds that an evidentiary hearing is not
necessary. See Schriro v. Landrigan, 550 U.S. 464,
474 (2007) (holding that, if the record refutes a
petitioner's factual allegations or otherwise precludes
habeas relief, the district court is not required to hold an
evidentiary hearing (citing Totten v. Merkle, 137
F.3d 1172, 1176 (9th Cir. 1998))). Upon review and applying
the AEDPA standards, the court finds that the petitioner is
not entitled to relief on the grounds asserted. Accordingly,
the petition will be denied and this matter, dismissed.
state prosecution arose from the death of April Anderson, the
victim, who was the petitioner's live-in girlfriend at
the time of her death, and the theft of the victim's car.
On March 3, 2006, the petitioner was indicted by the Davidson
County grand jury and charged with one count of first-degree
murder and one count of theft of property valued at more than
$10, 000 but less than $60, 000. (ECF No. 14-1 at Page ID ##
58-60.) The petitioner was tried before a jury, beginning on
May 21, 2007 and concluding on May 24, 2007. (ECF Nos. 14-8
through 14-12.) At the conclusion of trial, the jury found
the petitioner guilty of second-degree murder and theft of
property in the amount of $1, 000 or more, but less than $10,
000. (ECF No. 14-12 at Page ID # 1025.) Following a
sentencing hearing on July 19, 2007, the trial court
sentenced the petitioner to 25 years for the second-degree
murder conviction and 4 years for the theft conviction to run
concurrently for a total effective sentence of 25 years
imprisonment to be served at 100%. (ECF No. 14-15 at Page ID#
petitioner appealed his judgment of conviction to the
Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”),
which rejected all appellate arguments and affirmed the
petitioner's convictions and sentences in an unpublished
opinion issued on February 2, 2010. (ECF No. 14-20 at Page
ID## 1564-1582; see also State v. Steven Bernard
Sydnor, No. M2007-02393-CCA- R3-CD; 2010 WL 366670, at
*1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 2, 2010) [Sydnor
I].) The petitioner filed an application for
permission to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court
(“TSC”), which was denied on June 17, 2010.
November 18, 2010, the petitioner filed a petition for
post-conviction relief in the Davidson County Criminal Court.
(ECF No. 14-24 at Page ID## 1684-1733.) On February 11, 2011,
the trial court appointed counsel to assist the petitioner.
(ECF No. 14-24 at Page ID# 1745.) On April 7, 2011, counsel
filed an amended petition for post-conviction relief in the
state court (ECF No. 14-24 at Page ID## 1746-61), and, on
July 29, 2011, counsel filed a second amended petition (ECF
No. 14-25 at Page ID## 1814-31). The matter was heard on
August 21, 2011 and January 11, 2012, at which time it was
denied. (ECF No. 14-25 at Page ID## 1882-83.) The trial court
issued a memorandum opinion denying relief on March 10, 2015.
(ECF No. 14-25 at Page ID## 1887-1903.)
petitioner appealed to the TCCA, which denied relief on
January 26, 2016. (ECF No. 14-33 at Page ID## 2538-42;
see also State v. Steven Bernard Sydnor, No.
M2015-00651-CCA-R3-PC, 2016 WL 304415, at *1 (Tenn. Crim.
App. Jan. 26, 2016) [Sydnor II].) The petitioner
filed an application for permission to appeal to the TSC,
which was denied on June 23, 2016. (Id.)
STATEMENT OF FACTS
TCCA summarized the facts presented at trial as follows:
The State's first witness at trial was Savannah Singer,
one of the victim's five sisters. Singer testified that
in November 2004, the victim and the appellant lived near
them in Culver City, California. The relationship between the
victim and the appellant was tumultuous, and the victim's
family urged her to move to Tennessee to get away from him
and be near other family members.
Singer stated that in January 2005, the victim was staying
with friends, not with the appellant, after spending a week
visiting family in Montana. Singer said the victim gave her
the code to access the voice mail on the victim's
cellular telephone. Three of the voice mail messages Singer
heard were from the appellant; two were messages for the
victim and the other was for the victim's youngest son.
In one message to the victim, the appellant told her that he
knew she was back in town and that she should return his
call. In the second message to the victim, the appellant said
that he knew where the victim and her children were living.
In the message to the victim's youngest son, the
appellant said that he knew where the child went to school.
Singer stated that all three messages were
“sinister” and “threatening” in tone.
Singer said that because of the messages, she helped the
victim get out of town. The victim moved to Tennessee and
began living intermittently with her sisters, Holly Anderson
and Tina Anderson. In October 2005, the victim began living
with the appellant, who had also moved to Tennessee.
Singer testified that she last talked with the victim one
week prior to her death. The victim mentioned that she was
sad because of the death of their grandparents in October and
that she was looking forward to being with family at the
grandparents' memorial service, which was scheduled to be
held in Pennsylvania on November 26, 2005. The victim planned
to drive her car to Pennsylvania after Thanksgiving dinner on
November 24, 2005, and several family members were scheduled
to ride with her. Singer said that the appellant had not been
invited to the memorial service.
Hillary Selvin, the partner of the victim's sister,
Bonnie Anderson, testified that she first met the appellant
one morning in February 2005. Selvin saw the victim and the
appellant sitting in the victim's Honda Accord which was
parked in the driveway of the home Selvin and Bonnie shared.
The appellant and the victim were arguing, and the appellant
would not get out of the victim's car. Shortly
thereafter, the victim left to take the appellant to a bus
station. The victim returned fifteen minutes later, visibly
upset, crying, scared, and anxious. Selvin and Bonnie spoke
with the victim for hours, suggesting places where she could
get help dealing with “whatever issues she was dealing
with.” Selvin said they also urged the victim to get
out of town and go to Montana to stay with her mother and
brother. The victim left for Montana about twenty-four hours
later, putting her belongings in storage while she was away.
When the victim returned to California approximately one week
later, she gave away the items that had been in storage,
preparing to move to Tennessee to stay with one of her
sisters, Holly or Tina, who were living near Nashville.
Selvin testified that after the victim returned from Montana
but before she left California for Tennessee, Selvin listened
to the victim's voice mail messages and heard three
messages from the appellant. Selvin said:
[T]here were a couple of messages, one in which [the
appellant] said, “I know you dropped off the microwave
at my sister's house, I know you're back in town,
” and “I know you're back in town and, you
know, I know where your girls live. I know where you are and
I'm going to take care of you.”
Selvin also heard a message the appellant left for the
victim's youngest son, wherein the appellant said,
“I know where you go to school . . . . I know your
school route and I know where you live, and I know . . . what
school you go to and I know how to get to you.” Selvin
said all of the messages were “very threatening.”
Selvin said that the victim moved to Nashville in March or
April 2005, first staying with her sister Holly then with her
Officer Shane Fairbanks of the Metropolitan Nashville Police
Department testified that on November 22, 2005, he was
driving down Sylvan Street toward South Seventh Street when
he saw the appellant walking down South Seventh Street. When
the appellant saw Officer Fairbanks, he walked toward the
officer with his hands in the air as if he were surrendering.
Officer Fairbanks radioed dispatch that he was stopping, and
he requested backup. After Officer Fairbanks stepped out of
his car, the appellant continued to approach with his hands
in the air.
The appellant told Officer Fairbanks that he wanted to turn
himself in. Officer Fairbanks asked the appellant what was
going on and why he wanted to turn himself in. The appellant,
who was distraught and emotional, did not answer right away.
Officer Fairbanks asked the appellant if he had done
something, and the appellant replied that he “took it
too far.” The appellant said that he and his
girlfriend, the victim, often argued. The appellant
maintained that when they argued, the victim “played
like” she would commit suicide. The appellant said that
a day and a half earlier, he and the victim argued. The
appellant said that she “got a knife and told him that
she wanted him to do it . . . . [H]e put his hands on the
knife and they put the knife to her throat and they cut her
throat together.” Officer Fairbanks asked if the
appellant thought the victim was dead, and the appellant
Officer Fairbanks said:
[T]o be honest, I really wasn't sure if he was telling me
the truth or not because no one's ever come up and told
me that before, anything like that, but at the same time, you
know, I wanted to make sure, I had to find out if it was true
or not, so that's why I had dispatch[ ] send cars over to
the address to check and see if anyone's there, and if
so, if they're okay. Also, at the same time, at some
point during my time with him, I did call Mobile Crisis,
which, whenever we have somebody that's either suicidal
or homicidal, like if somebody calls and says, “Hey,
I'm going to take a bunch of pills, ” you know, if
they're a danger to themselves or someone else, we'll
call Mobile Crisis, and basically they're kind of an
intervention and those people can get them help. So, based on
what the [appellant] was telling me, I went ahead and called
them just to see if they were familiar with him, if it's
you know, something that he's gone through before or not,
and they had never dealt with him.
Officer Fairbanks said that Officer Spain arrived as backup,
and Officer Fairbanks continued to talk with the appellant:
Basically, I mean, we were just standing there having a
conversation, you know, he's telling us things and
we're trying to find out as much as we can to make sure
nobody is in danger, you know, and also to try to verify or
see if what we were being told is the truth.
Officer Fairbanks said that the appellant gave him the
victim's name, telephone number, and address. Officer
Fairbanks called dispatch and requested that officers proceed
to the victim's address, apartment C-19 at the Brookwood
Apartments in Madison, to investigate the appellant's
allegations. The appellant told Officer Fairbanks that after
the incident, he left the victim's apartment in the
victim's car and that while he was driving on the
freeway, he threw away the knife he had used on the victim.
The appellant said that he parked the victim's car in a
nearby alley, locked it, and threw the keys in the alley.
Officer Fairbanks said that the appellant asked to sit down,
and he offered to let the appellant sit in the back of the
patrol car. Officer Fairbanks handcuffed the appellant and
placed him in the patrol car. Officer Fairbanks then drove to
an alley off of South Seventh Street and Boscobel where the
victim's car was located. Police could not find the keys
to the car. While he was in the alley, Officer Fairbanks
received a call from police dispatch informing him that the
victim's body had been found at the address provided by
Metro Officer Archie Spain testified that on November 22,
2005, he heard a radio report that Officer Fairbanks was with
a suspect at Seventh Street and Sylvan. Officer Spain said
the location was a “high crime area, ” so he went
to the scene as backup. When he arrived, he saw Officer
Fairbanks speaking with a black male, the appellant. The
appellant said that two or three days earlier, he had
accidentally killed his girlfriend with a knife, which he
threw out on the interstate. The appellant said he had taken
the victim's car, driven around for a while, parked her
car in a nearby alley, and thrown the keys away. Officer
Spain said the appellant was “crying like a baby”
while he was talking with the officers. Officer Spain stated
that he wondered if the appellant were telling the truth or
if he were crazy. Officer Spain said the appellant gave
accurate directions to where he had parked the victim's
Honda in a nearby alley.
Metro Detective Matthew Filter testified that on November 22,
2005, he and Detective Terrence Bradley heard Officer
Fairbanks radio for assistance from a detective. When
Detective Filter arrived at the scene, he saw Officer
Fairbanks and the appellant standing outside the patrol car.
Officer Fairbanks told Detective Filter what the appellant
had been saying. During their conversation, the appellant
walked up and told Detective Filter that about a day and a
half earlier, he and his girlfriend got into an argument. The
appellant said that when they argued, the victim acted as if
she were going to commit suicide. The appellant stated that
on this occasion, the victim took a knife and put it to her
throat. The appellant attempted to take the knife from her,
and “they cut her throat together.” The appellant
told Detective Filter that he thought the victim was dead, so
he took the knife, got into the victim's car, and fled.
The appellant said that he drove around on the interstate,
tossed the knife, and later abandoned the car. Detective
Filter said police found the victim's car in a nearby
alley. Detective Filter said the appellant was very excited
and anxious and seemed as if he wanted to talk. Detective
Filter said his conversation with the appellant lasted two or
Detective James Fuqua of the Metropolitan Police Department
testified that he was one of the officers who responded to
the victim's apartment at 714 Due West Avenue. Detective
Fuqua saw the victim's body on a blanket in the back
bedroom of the apartment. Her wrists were bound behind her
back with a riveted black leather belt, her ankles were bound
together with another black leather belt, and a black coaxial
cable looped between the hand and foot bindings, drawing her
limbs together behind her back in a “hog-tie”
fashion. A shirt was wrapped around her face, and a cord from
a cellular telephone charger protruded from under the shirt.
Detective Fuqua saw “saturation blood on the neck area
and on the shoulder, around the left eye area and around the
throat area.” Blood was also on the carpet around the
Detective Fuqua said that there was no furniture in the
bedroom, only luggage and baggage containing clothing.
Mattresses were on the floor in the living room. Men's
and women's clothing was scattered around the apartment,
and the appellant's business cards were on a counter.
Detective Fuqua left the victim's apartment and went to
the north precinct to talk with the appellant. Upon request
from Detective Fuqua, the appellant signed a form, consenting
to a search of the apartment he shared with the victim.
Detective Fuqua said that police were unable to get
fingernail scrapings from the appellant because his
fingernails were chewed too short. However, Detective Fuqua
noticed that the appellant “had some injuries to his
hands, some cuts . . . like a knife cut.”
Two box cutters and a pair of scissors were found in the
victim's car, but there was no blood on the items. Crime
scene officers said that there was damage on the car from the
middle of the front door to the back tire, as if the car had
sideswiped something or had been sideswiped. Also in the car
were papers bearing both the victim's name and the
appellant's name, and a man's tie was in the
backseat. However, there was no blood in the victim's
Dr. Amy R. McMaster, the medical examiner who performed the
autopsy of the victim, testified that the
thirty-nine-year-old victim was 5'1” tall and
weighed 100 pounds. Dr. McMaster said that the victim was
wearing a beige sweater with a green shirt underneath, blue
jeans, and black boots. A pink or peach shirt was wrapped
around her upper neck and lower mouth. Beneath the shirt, a
black electrical cord was wrapped around her mouth and neck,
securing a white sock which was stuffed in the victim's
mouth. Dr. McMaster said that the victim's wrists were
bound so tightly with the riveted black leather belt that
blood was pushed to either side of the ligature and circular
rust stains were left embedded in her skin. Dr. McMaster
stated that the victim's body was showing signs of
decomposition at the time of the autopsy.
Dr. McMaster said that the black cord around the victim's
neck was tied tightly enough to constrict the airway.
Additionally, the victim had a number of cuts to her throat;
the cuts extended to the tissue beneath the skin but were not
deep enough to damage any of the major blood vessels in the
neck. Dr. McMaster said that if the victim were still alive
when the cuts were made, the cuts would have bled a
“great deal.” Dr. McMaster stated that there was
not much blood at the scene. She opined that
the explanation for the fact that there wasn't more blood
is one of two things; either she died shortly after those
cuts were inflicted on her neck, and also because of the pink
shirt wrapped tightly around her neck was pressure and it
helped to stop the bleeding, so it could be a combination of
those two things or one or the other independently.
Dr. McMaster said that the cause of the victim's death
was a lack of oxygen, otherwise known as asphyxiation. Dr.
McMaster opined that the gag in the victim's mouth made
it difficult for her to get air. She explained that the shirt
and cable wrapped around her neck impeded her ability to get
oxygen and that the bleeding from the cuts on her neck
contributed to the lack of oxygen. Dr. McMaster said that
estimating the length of time before death was difficult
because she did not know if the injuries contributing to the
victim's death occurred at one time. However, Dr.
McMaster said that a complete lack of oxygen would generally
render a person unconscious in thirty seconds and would cause
irreversible brain damage or death within a few minutes. Dr.
McMaster estimated that the victim had been dead at least
twenty-four hours prior to autopsy. Tests revealed that no
drugs or alcohol were in the victim's body when she died.
Agent Charles Hardy, a forensic scientist with the Tennessee
Bureau of Investigation Crime Laboratory, testified that the
appellant's blood was found on his gray sweatshirt and in
several spots on his blue jeans. The victim's blood was
on the tongue end of the belt that was wrapped around her
wrists, and DNA which did not match the victim or the
appellant was on the belt buckle. There was “visible
staining” on the buckle, waistband, and “middle
back” of the belt that was around the victim's
ankles. The blood on that belt was a mixture; the major
contributor was the appellant and the minor contributor was
the victim. Agent Hardy saw “questionable indentations
on the tongue of the belt, ” which could have been from
a person's teeth. Testing revealed the appellant's
saliva on the tongue of the belt around the indentations. The
cord around the victim's neck, an AC adaptor, was stained
with the victim's blood. The appellant's DNA was on
the coaxial cable which connected the victim's bound
wrists and ankles.
Agent Hardy said that the appellant's sperm was found on
swabs taken from the victim's vaginal and anal area. DNA
consistent with the appellant was found on clippings taken of
the fingernails of the victim's left hand. Blood from
both the appellant and the victim was found on the beige
sweater the victim was wearing. The victim's DNA was
found on the pink shirt that was wrapped around her head; a
second contributor's DNA was also found on the pink shirt
and the appellant could not be excluded as the minor
contributor. The victim's blood was also found on the toe
area of the sock which was in her mouth.
The victim's sister, Holly Anderson, testified that she
lived in White House, Tennessee, and that the victim moved in
with her in March 2005. In mid-September 2005, the victim
went to live with another sister, Tina Anderson. In October
2005, after the appellant came to Tennessee, the victim moved
into an apartment with the appellant. Holly Anderson said
that on November 26, 2005, the family was scheduled to leave
for Pennsylvania to attend a memorial service for their
recently deceased grandparents. The victim was one of the
people slated to drive.
Holly Anderson said that she went to the victim's
apartment after her death to gather some of the victim's
belongings. Later, she went through the papers she had
gathered from the kitchen counter and found a note which was
signed by the appellant. The note said, “Mom, I have
done it. I used today. Last night I was kind of fiending and
I did it today, 11/20.” Detective Fuqua testified that
Holly Anderson gave him the note after she found it. He said
that “fiending . . . has something to do with drug
usage, possibly wanting drugs . . . needing or wanting
Singer and Selvin both testified that in April 2004 the
victim bought a new, silver Honda Accord for her birthday.
Selvin said that the victim paid “[o]ver $500 a month
on the car.” Sydnor, 2010 WL 366670, at *1-6.
ISSUES PRESENTED FOR REVIEW
pro se petition, the petitioner raises the following
grounds for relief:
A. The trial court erred in denying a motion to suppress the
statements the petitioner made to the police; B. The trial
court erred in admitting:
1. A photograph of the victim taken prior to her death; 2.
Graphic photographs of the victim's face and body
3. Testimony regarding alleged incidents of threatening
C. The trial court erred in imposing the maximum sentence on
the petitioner's conviction for second-degree murder;
D. The evidence was insufficient to support the
(ECF No. 1 Page ID## 5-25.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
matter is governed by the provisions of the Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat.
1214 (“AEDPA”). See Penry v. Johnson,
532 U.S. 782, 792 (2001). AEDPA “dictates a highly
deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings,
which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit
of the doubt.” Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 455
(2005) (citations omitted); see Hardy v. Cross, 132
S.Ct. 490, 491 (2011); Felkner v. Jackson, 562 U.S.
594, 597 (2011). “AEDPA requires heightened respect for
state court factual and legal determinations.”
Lundgren v. Mitchell, 440 F.3d 754, 762 (6th Cir.
2006). “State-court factual findings . . . are presumed
correct; the petitioner has the burden of rebutting the
presumption by clear and convincing evidence.”
Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2199-2200 (2015)
(citations and internal quotations omitted).
state court adjudicated the claim, deferential AEDPA
standards must be applied. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d); see
Premo v. Moore, 562 U.S. 115, 121 (2011); Waddington
v. Sarausad, 555 U.S. 179, 190 (2009). AEDPA prevents
federal habeas “retrials” and “ensure[s]
that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent
possible under law.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S.
685, 693 (2002). It prohibits “using federal habeas
corpus review as a vehicle to second-guess the reasonable
decisions of state courts.” Parker v.
Matthews, 132 S.Ct. 2148, 2149 (2012).
AEDPA limits the source of law to cases decided by the United
States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). This court
may consider only the “clearly established”
holdings, and not the dicta, of the Supreme Court.
Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000);
Bailey v. Mitchell, 271 F.3d 652, 655 (6th Cir.
2001). In determining whether federal law is clearly
established, this court may not rely on the decisions of
lower federal courts. Lopez v, Smith, 135 S.Ct.1, 4
(2014); Harris v. Stovall, 212 F.3d 940, 943-44 (6th
Cir. 2000). Moreover, “clearly established Federal
law” does not include decisions of the Supreme Court
announced after the last adjudication of the merits in state
court. Greene v. Fisher, 132 S.Ct. 38, 44 (2011).
Thus, the inquiry is limited to an examination of the legal
landscape as it would have appeared to the Tennessee state
courts in light of Supreme Court precedent at the time of the
state-court adjudication on the merits. Miller v.
Stovall, 742 F.3d 642, 644-45 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing
Greene, 132 S.Ct. at 44).
AEDPA standard is difficult to meet “because it was
meant to be.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S.
86, 102 (2011); see Burt v. Titlow, 134 S.Ct. 10, 16
(2013); Metrish v. Lancaster, 133 S.Ct. 1781, 1786
(2013); Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181
(2011). Indeed. “habeas corpus is a guard against
extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems,
not a substitute for ordinary error corrections through
appeal.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102-03
(citation and internal quotation omitted); see Woods v.
Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015).
AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d):
An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a
person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court
shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was
adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless
the adjudication of the claim-
(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;
(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented
in the State court proceeding.”
Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. at 2198; see also
White v. Wheeler, 136 S.Ct. 456, 460 (2015) (explaining
that the Supreme Court, “time and again, has instructed
that AEDPA, by setting forth necessary predicates before
state-court judgments may be set aside, ‘erects a
formidable barrier to federal habeas relief for prisoners