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Coffey v. Sexton

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Chattanooga

March 21, 2018

DAVID SEXTON, Respondent.



         This is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, filed by pro se prisoner Johnny William Coffey, challenging the constitutionality of his confinement under a state court judgment of conviction of second-degree murder [Doc. 1]. Respondent filed a response in opposition, as well as a copy of the state record [Docs. 7 and 10]. For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's § 2254 petition [Doc. 1] will be DENIED and this action will be DISMISSED.


         Petitioner was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment. State v. Coffey, No. E2011-00192-CCA-R3CD, 2012 WL 362969, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 6, 2012), perm. App. Denied (Tenn. Apr. 11, 2012). Petitioner appealed the jury conviction claiming that the trial court erred by denying him funds to procure additional expert assistance, by denying his request to play witness statements in their entireties, by refusing to grant his motion for a mistrial, by denying his request for a jury instruction on self-defense, and by failing to apply certain mitigating factors to reduce his sentence. Id. Discerning no reversible error, on February 6, 2012, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”) affirmed the trial court's judgment. Id. at *13. Petitioner sought permission to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court (“TSC”), but his request was denied by the court on April 11, 2012. Id. at *1.

         On November 19, 2012, Petitioner filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging forty-eight grounds for ineffective assistance of counsel. [Doc. 7, State Court Record Attachment 26]. Petitioner was subsequently appointed counsel, and an amended petition for post-conviction relief was filed contending that trial counsel was ineffective for: (1) failing to properly petition the trial court for a State-funded independent expert to assist in the Petitioner's claim of diminished capacity or self-defense; and (2) failing to adequately investigate and present evidence at trial of Petitioner's mental condition and level of intoxication at the time of the offense [Id.]. Following an evidentiary hearing on the matter, the post-conviction court denied the petition on June 13, 2013 [Id.]. On April 23, 2014, the TCCA affirmed the post-conviction court's denial of relief and on August 26, 2014, the TSC denied review. Coffey v. State, No. E2013-01659-CCA-R3PC, 2014 WL 1632765, at *1 (Tenn. Crim. App. Apr. 23, 2014).

         Petitioner then filed the instant petition for writ of habeas corpus on January 9, 2015 [Doc. 1]. This matter is now ripe for the Court's review.


         The following factual background is taken from the TCCA's opinion on appeal;

The defendant's conviction relates to the stabbing death of the victim, Jesse Schoate, on September 27, 2008. On that date, William Burrell and some others organized a 30th birthday party for Misty Thompson to be held in a vacant field. Ms. Thompson testified at trial that Mr. Burrell had selected the location, procured a keg of beer, and hired a band for the evening's entertainment. Guests were invited via flyer or handbill to bring tents to camp overnight. Ms. Thompson said that she arrived for the party at approximately 6:00 p .m. to help set up and that Mr. Burrell was mowing the area. She met the defendant for the first time when he offered to help her set up her tent, and she accepted his help. As they worked, the defendant asked her, “Who's the lucky man tonight?” She told him, “No one, ” and she explained that it was her birthday and that she intended to “have fun.” When the defendant remarked that he might be sleeping with her, she told him, “No.” She explained that the defendant “wasn't really too aggressive” when he made the comment. At that point, Autumn Cooper arrived with the victim. Shortly thereafter, others arrived, and the party began in earnest.
Ms. Thompson said that she and the others were drinking beer and that the victim primarily stayed seated next to the campfire. She stated that she did not pay any particular attention to the defendant during the party because she “didn't know him.” She recalled that she became sleepy “probably around 12 o'clock” and went to her tent. Ms. Thompson testified that she “passed out” as soon as she got into her tent and that the next thing she remembered was “[a] cop crawling in [her] tent waking [her] up.” She did not witness any altercation between the defendant and the victim.
Karen Jackson Vetten testified that she knew the defendant as a friend of Mr. Burrell. She and her husband attended Ms. Thompson's party on September 27, 2008, arriving at approximately 9:15 p.m. She said that at one point during the evening, her husband and Mr. Burrell asked the defendant to leave the party because of his behavior. Ms. Vetten explained that the defendant had “grabbed [her] butt” and had gotten into the background of several photographs “making sure he was known” by “obscene” gestures. She said that she “got in between them and pushed them apart” after the men started bickering. She and her husband then walked away, and the defendant followed them “dragging his leg” and asking her to “help him.” She said she started to help the defendant but her husband would not allow it. She and her husband left the party at “[a]round 11:15 or 11:30.” Cassie Brown, Mr. Burrell's girlfriend at the time of the murder, helped Mr. Burrell plan Ms. Thompson's party. While helping Mr. Burrell set up for the party, Ms. Brown realized they needed some items, so she went to the store. When she returned, the defendant was there, which she thought odd because the defendant had not been invited to the party. Later that evening, she and the defendant were sitting around the campfire drinking beer when they saw “headlights coming over the hill” toward the party. The defendant told Ms. Brown “that he didn't know who it was, but he was gonna go get a shotgun out of his truck.” She said she told him to “shut up.” The defendant remained beside the fire.
When the band finished playing at midnight, people began to leave, and Ms. Brown “climbed into the van and went to sleep.” At approximately 2:00 a.m., “[t]here was a lot of screaming and banging on the van door.” When she opened the van door, Ms. Brown saw the victim “laying on the ground” and the defendant “on the other side of” the fire “with a knife in his hand, just covered in blood.” Ms. Brown testified that she “[a]utomatically” wrapped the victim in a blanket and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (“CPR”). She said that the victim “had a large gash underneath his left arm, ” and Ms. Cooper and the defendant were trying to get the victim into the van. Then she saw the defendant pull the victim's feet so that they could not actually get the victim into the van. She said that she never saw the defendant attempt to render aid to the victim.
Autumn Cooper testified that she and the victim, who were dating at the time, attended Ms. Thompson's birthday party together. She met the defendant for the first time when she arrived for the party and saw him with Mr. Burrell. Ms. Cooper said that later that evening, she saw the defendant with his hands inside Ms. Thompson's tent “feeling around on her legs.” When Ms. Cooper asked the defendant what he was doing, he said, “She's unconscious .... she's dying.” Ms. Cooper ordered the defendant out of the tent and got into the tent with Ms. Thompson. She recalled that she stayed for 15 to 20 minutes talking with Ms. Thompson until Ms. Thompson fell asleep. After she left Ms. Thompson's tent, Ms. Cooper got some snacks for herself and the victim. She returned to the tent the couple was sharing, and they began to eat.
Ms. Cooper said that she and the victim ate for a few minutes and “pick[ed] at” one another before deciding to go to sleep. The victim went outside to urinate. Ms. Cooper said that she could hear the victim urinating and that she heard the defendant say, “You know you like it.” The victim said, “I don't know what you're talking about, man, ” and the defendant said, “Why don't you come down to the campfire with me?” Ms. Cooper testified that the victim refused and told the defendant to “go to bed and leave [them] alone” before zipping the tent. She recalled that the defendant then unzipped the tent, and the victim again told the defendant to leave and zipped the tent. At that point, the defendant stepped down onto the tent and onto Ms. Cooper's chest. She said that she and the victim tried to be quiet because they were unsure what the defendant might do next.
The defendant then began kicking and pulling the tent to the ground with Ms. Cooper and the victim inside. She said that they immediately began groping for the zipper. The victim found the zipper and started crawling out, with Ms. Cooper close behind him. Ms. Cooper said that when she emerged from the tent she saw the defendant and the victim on the ground. She testified that Mr. Burrell attempted to separate the men. Suddenly, the defendant looked at Ms. Cooper and said, “He's bleeding, he's bleeding.” The defendant pulled the victim to his feet, and Ms. Cooper saw that he had been stabbed. Ms. Cooper said that she immediately began looking for her car keys so that she could take the victim to the hospital. She explained that cellular telephones would not work in the remote area. When she could not find her own keys, she decided to try to get the victim to the van where Ms. Brown was sleeping. The defendant helped her carry him.
During cross-examination, Ms. Cooper admitted that she told officers that the victim “went after” the defendant when he emerged from the tent, but she explained that the victim “didn't even have time to stand up” before the defendant attacked him.
Bradley County Sheriff's Office (“BCSO”) Officer James Bohannon testified that he responded to a 1:30 a.m. call of a stabbing at a location on Bradford Lane in Charleston. When he arrived, he encountered Mr. Burrell, who was bleeding from a cut on his hand and urging the officer to go to the victim in a nearby field. On his way, Officer Bohannon encountered the defendant “walking through the field” toward the scene and “covered in blood.” The defendant did not speak to the officer but “pointed down the field to the direction of a white van” where another individual was performing CPR on the victim. Officer Bohannon took over CPR. As he performed CPR, the defendant walked up and sat down on the ground behind the officer and the victim. The defendant said “that he didn't mean to cut [the victim] so deep.” At that point, Officer Bohannon briefly stopped CPR to handcuff the defendant.
The shirtless defendant had blood on his face, shoulders, and hair. When other officers arrived, the defendant told them that the murder weapon was in his pocket. Officer Bohannon took a small knife and a large knife from the defendant. The larger of the two weapons was covered in blood. He never saw the defendant attempt to aid the victim.
United States Secret Service Special Agent Joseph Lea testified that at the time of the murder he was working as a Detective with BCSO and that he acted as the primary investigator in the case. Detective Lea said that when he arrived on the scene, he observed the victim on the ground next to a white van. He recalled that a tent identified as belonging to the victim had been knocked to the ground, and witnesses said that the defendant had knocked it down. A trail of blood led from the tent to the victim's body. Detective Lea described the victim's injuries, He had a laceration about that long on his abdomen, another one long across his chest, another one that went the whole radius of his arm, and ... another cut to his back around the same area, and I believe his ear was also cut, the top part of his ear.
Detective Lea testified that toxicology testing showed that the victim's blood was negative for the presence of narcotics and that his blood alcohol level was .18 percent. Testing also established that the defendant's blood alcohol level was .10 percent and that his blood tested positive for the presence of propoxyphene, norpropoxyphene, dihydrocodeinone, and alprazolam. Forensic testing also established that the victim's blood was on the large knife confiscated from the defendant.
During cross-examination, Detective Lea conceded that the level of drugs in the defendant's system were within therapeutic limits. He also acknowledged that the location of the defendant's shirt at the crime scene was consistent with witness accounts that the defendant had attempted to use his shirt to stem the victim's bleeding. Finally, he acknowledged that Mr. Burrell told police that the defendant and the victim ran toward one another at the beginning of the altercation.
Knox County Medical Examiner Doctor Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, who performed the autopsy of the victim, testified that the cause of the victim's death “was multiple sharp force injuries; specifically, multiple incised wounds” and explained that the victim suffered “very long wounds that are relatively shallow, but some of them go deep enough into the body to injure major vessels.” The first of these wounds, a “very deep incised wound that was on the inside all the way high up on the right arm, ” traveled right to left and went “all the way to the bone, it completely sever[ed] the major artery, which is the brachial artery.” Because the wound severed a major artery, “the main mechanism of death” was “severe blood loss.” Doctor Mileusnic-Polchan said that the orientation of the wound established that the victim sustained the wound while his arm was “raised not halfway, but all the way up.” A second wound to the victim's left chest traveled “front to back, right to left, and down ward, and ... toward the back of the body.” Doctor Mileusnic-Polchan described “that particular wound” as “very, very deep, ” noting that the victim's “ribs are exposed.” A third, similar wound to the victim's upper abdomen also traveled “front to back and kind of right to left” and was “very deep” and “very long.” Doctor Mileusnic-Polchan testified that neither of the wounds to the front of the victim's body were life threatening but that the wound to the arm was life threatening “because of the involvement of the major vessels, the size of the vessels, the closeness to the heart, and the location. It's in an area that it's really hard to block the artery.” The victim also suffered “two relatively superficial cuts” on his back and a superficial cut to his ear. In addition he had “a superficial abrasion” in the middle of his forehead and two “linear” blunt force trauma injuries on his neck.
During cross-examination, Doctor Mileusnic-Polchan testified that the wound inflicted to the victim's arm could not have occurred if the victim had the defendant in a headlock because “that would actually block [the affected area] more than really expose it.” She conceded that the autopsy could not determine where the defendant and the victim were when the wounds were inflicted. Upon examining a photograph of the clothing worn by the defendant and the victim, however, she opined that the blood stains showed “that the victim and the assailant are facing each other.” Following Doctor Mileusnic-Polchan's testimony, the State rested. In addition, the State dismissed the count of the indictment charging the defendant with the aggravated assault of Mr. Burrell.
The defendant offered the testimony of William Burrell. Mr. Burrell testified that he knew the defendant but “wouldn't call him a friend.” Nevertheless, he invited the defendant to Ms. Thompson's party. He said that the defendant “kept causing problems” throughout the evening culminating in the victim's murder. He recalled that in the minutes leading up to the stabbing, he heard the victim's “begging [the defendant] to leave him alone” and the defendant's telling the victim to come to the campfire. He also saw the defendant “stomping and kicking” at the victim's tent as the victim tried to get out of it. Mr. Burrell said that he ran toward the defendant just before the victim exited the tent. He said that “no sooner than [the victim] came out of the tent, it was like [the victim and the defendant] fell straight down.” He stated that he could not really tell what was happening, but he admitted that he told Detective Lea that it appeared that the victim “was beating Johnny up.” He said that he tried to break up the fight, and the defendant “whacked off” his finger with a knife.
Doctor June Young, a Clinical Psychologist, testified that she evaluated the defendant and concluded “that he was competent to stand trial[ ] and that there was no support for insanity.” She agreed that the defendant had been treated by a psychiatrist for “many years” and that he had had “[q]uite a few” mental hospitalizations. She said that she reviewed the records of the defendant's treating psychiatrist, Doctor Troy Gilson, and agreed that the defendant had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She did not review records of the defendant's hospitalization at Moccasin Bend for mental health issues, explaining that the hospitalization “was too far away from the time of the alleged crime to be relevant.” Doctor Young explained that she only reviewed the defendant's records going back to 2007 because her “job was to determine his mental condition around the time of the crime, not for the past 15 years.” She did review the records of his most recent admission to Peninsula Hospital. In addition to her review of the relevant records, Doctor Young met with the defendant for approximately 90 minutes. She agreed that the defendant continued to be affected by mental illness but concluded that the defendant's mental illness did not render him legally incompetent or insane. She emphasized, “My report does not say that he is not affected by mental illness. It simply states that his mental illness was not so severe as to interfere with his ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts.” Doctor Young acknowledged that she did not speak directly with Doctor Gilson, explaining that she wanted to avoid a conflict of interest.
Renee Kimsey, who had previously maintained a romantic relationship with the defendant, testified that the defendant had “an unnatural fear” that he was being watched and that, on occasion, he “would talk to people that [she] didn't see.” She recalled one specific occasion when she observed the defendant talking to “a teenage boy and a teenage girl” that were not really there. She said that the defendant had had several surgeries on his neck and his knees and that “[h]e's very protective of the areas that have been ... injured prior.” Specifically, she stated that the defendant was “very fearful that if someone hit him or injured him that he could become paralyzed or even that it would kill him.” During the weeks just prior to the offense, the defendant called her and told her that he was “chasing [her] through the woods” when she was not even in the same county.
Pamela Lightfoot, the defendant's cousin, testified that she saw Mr. Burrell at the defendant's residence and that he showed her a flyer and invited her to Ms. Thompson's birthday party. When she declined the invitation, Mr. Burrell said, “Well, what do you think about [the defendant] being the bouncer?” The defendant told Mr. Burrell “that he wasn't gonna be a bouncer.” At that point, Ms. Lightfoot “told them they w[ere] crazy” and left. On the following day, she again saw the defendant and Mr. Burrell together, and the pair were discussing the defendant's acting as a “bouncer” at Ms. Thompson's party. Mr. Burrell said, “Well, [the defendant's] got a gun permit. That's the reason I want [him] to do it.” She told the defendant he would be “crazy” if he accepted the job.
The 41-year-old defendant testified that Mr. Burrell invited him to Ms. Thompson's birthday party and asked him to act as “a bouncer” because the defendant had both a handgun and a handgun carry permit. The defendant said that he told Mr. Burrell that he “wasn't able to be no bouncer, but [he would] show up.” The defendant stated that prior surgery on his hands, knees, and neck prevented him from working as a bouncer.
He arrived at the party location at approximately 5:00 p.m. and helped Mr. Burrell set up for the party. The defendant said that he could not “remember much” of the struggle with the victim, explaining, “[I]t seems like ... he come running at me or something, and I throwed (sic) my hand up and said, ‘Stop, wait, ' or something to that effect. I mean, I can't really remember.” He testified that the next thing he remembered was the victim's lying “there on the ground and he's cut, and I took my shirt off and put it on his side.” The defendant claimed that he was frightened and confused at the time. The defendant insisted that he did not intend to kill the victim, saying, “I never planned on hurting nobody. I mean, I ain't never hurt nobody. I've always tried to do the right thing.” He could not recall kicking the victim's tent prior to the homicide.
The defendant testified that in addition to his medical issues, he had been treated by Doctor Gilson for mental health issues for several years and had been hospitalized for those issues “a lot.” The defendant said that he had been “attacked by trolls one time in [his] yard, ” explaining, “I didn't know where it come from. I didn't know where they come from at all, and then all at once, blam, there they was, you know, just on my legs and everything.” He stated that he telephoned police, who transported him to the mental hospital. The defendant said that he often suffered from panic attacks. He conceded that he consumed alcohol “every once in a while” even though doctors told him that he should not do so while on medication. Based upon this evidence, the jury convicted the defendant of the lesser included offense of second degree murder. The trial court imposed a sentence of 20 years' incarceration to be served at 100 percent by operation of law.

State v. Coffey, 2012 WL 362969, at *1-7.


         The Court must review Petitioner's request for habeas corpus relief pursuant to the standards set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), which allows state prisoners to seek federal habeas corpus relief on the ground that they are being held in custody in violation of the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254; Reed v. Farley, 512 U.S. 339, 347 (1994). Congress has mandated that federal courts review state court adjudications on the merits of such claims using a “highly deferential” standard of review. See, e.g., Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 105 (2011). Under this deferential standard, this Court is bound to accept the state court's findings of fact as true unless a petitioner presents “clear and convincing evidence” to the contrary. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)(providing that “a determination of a factual issue by a State court shall be presumed to be correct” unless the petitioner rebuts that presumption with clear and convincing evidence); see Seymour v. Walker, 224 F.3d 542, 551-52 (6th Cir. 2000). Additionally, this Court may not grant habeas relief to a state prisoner unless the state court's decision on the merits of his claims “(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 in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         “Clearly established federal law, ” for the purposes of § 2254(d)(1), refers to rulings of the United States Supreme Court in place at the time of “the last state-court adjudication on the merits.” Greene v. Fisher, 132 S.Ct. 38, 44 (2011); Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71-72 (2003)(defining clearly established federal law as “the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision”). A decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if “the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme Court] on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme Court] on a set of materially indistinguishable facts.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 413 (2000). A state-court decision unreasonably applies ...

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