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O'Neal v. Balcarcel

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 7, 2019

Tyson O'Neal, Petitioner-Appellee,
v.
Erick Balcarcel, Warden, Respondent-Appellant.

          Argued: June 20, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:06-cv-12307-Avern Cohn, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Scott R. Shimkus, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Benton C. Martin, FEDERAL DEFENDER OFFICE, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Scott R. Shimkus, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant.

          Benton C. Martin, FEDERAL DEFENDER OFFICE, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: BOGGS, MOORE, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          KAREN NELSON MOORE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The warden appeals the district court's grant of Appellee Tyson O'Neal's application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. O'Neal was convicted in Michigan state court of the second-degree murder of Gene Shelby, who was shot at a gas station. At trial, O'Neal argued that Parish Hickman, not O'Neal, had shot Shelby. Over O'Neal's objections, the trial court excluded two statements that would have supported this defense theory: (1) a jailhouse confession that Hickman allegedly made to another inmate, claiming that Hickman had gotten away with shooting Shelby and was going to blame O'Neal, and (2) a statement that Shelby made to a police officer at the hospital where he died, identifying Hickman as the shooter. The statement was also overheard by a nurse.

         On appeal, the warden concedes that the trial court's exclusion of these statements violated O'Neal's right to present a complete defense under Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284 (1973). Yet, the warden argues that the Michigan Court of Appeals reasonably determined that the erroneous exclusion of the statements was harmless. We affirm the district court's grant of O'Neal's § 2254 application.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 23, 2001, Gene Shelby, a member of the Sons of Zodiac Motorcycle Club, and three other club members were at a gas station in Detroit when they observed Parish Hickman pull into the gas station. Shelby and Hickman had previously had a dispute. Hickman soon left the gas station and went to a nearby home to retrieve mace. He returned to the gas station but then left again, driving to the same home to retrieve an AK-47. He then promptly traveled back to the gas station and called Shelby over to speak to him. The two quarreled, and Hickman returned to his car. Shots were then fired from the vicinity of Hickman's vehicle, hitting Shelby in the shoulder. Shelby's fellow motorcycle club member Shakir Azeem drove him to the hospital where Shelby eventually died of heart complications brought on by the gunshot.

         Hickman fled the country soon after the shooting but returned about a year later and was arrested. He informed the police that Tyson O'Neal had been a passenger in his vehicle and had been the one to shoot Shelby. Hickman entered into a plea agreement, pleading guilty to manslaughter, which would carry a sentence of between three and fifteen years in prison, in exchange for his testimony at O'Neal's murder trial.

         At O'Neal's trial, Hickman testified that he and O'Neal, who was allegedly high on heroin at the time, arrived at the gas station and saw that Shelby was there with members of his motorcycle gang. Hickman claimed that he was frightened because Shelby was with a group and there was bad blood between Shelby and himself. Hickman testified to traveling to the same nearby house twice, first to retrieve mace and then to get an AK-47. He testified that he returned to the gas station and left the gun in the car with O'Neal when he got out to confront Shelby. Hickman testified that he challenged Shelby to a fight, but Shelby did not engage. Hickman stated that he then walked back toward his car and told O'Neal to "handle [O'Neal's] business." R.14 (Trial Tr. at 43-44) (Page ID #674-75). According to Hickman, he was surprised when O'Neal then opened the passenger door, got out, and fired the AK-47 twice at Shelby. Id. at 44 (Page ID #675).

         Four witnesses testified that the gunshots had come from the passenger side of Hickman's vehicle. Three of the four were members of Shelby's motorcycle club: Edward Clark, Henry Patterson, and Shakir Azeem. Clark testified that he saw O'Neal begin to emerge from the car with the AK-47, but that he sought cover when the shooting began and did not see whether O'Neal got all the way out of the car. R. 13-6 (Trial Test. at 260-63) (Page ID #434- 37). Patterson testified that he saw O'Neal begin to emerge from the passenger side of the car with a rifle, but that he began to run and did not see O'Neal fire shots. R. 13-6 (Trial Tr. at 296) (Page ID #470). Azeem testified that he saw O'Neal emerge from the vehicle with the AK-47 but did not see the shots fired. R. 14-2 (Trial Tr. at 96-98) (Page ID #620-22); R. 14-3 (Trial Tr. at 101) (Page ID #525). Clark, Patterson, and Azeem all identified O'Neal as the shooter in a lineup conducted over a year after the shooting occurred. R. 13-6 (Trial Tr. at 267, 270, 299) (Page ID #441, 444, 473); R. 14-2 (Trial Tr. at 94-97) (Page ID #618-21). However, Patterson's lineup identification of O'Neal varied from Patterson's statement to Officer Curtis Johns ...


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