United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
March 2007, a Plymouth Country grand jury returned
indictments charging Michael (the “Petitioner” or
“Mr. Riley”) and Carolyn Riley with murder in the
first degree, in connection with the December 13, 2006 death
of their four-year-old daughter, Rebecca. In 2010, Mr.
Riley and Carolyn were tried separately in Plymouth County
Superior Court and in March 2010, Mr. Riley was convicted of
murder in the first degree committed with extreme atrocity or
before the Court is Mr. Riley’s petition for habeas
corpus. His petition raises three grounds for relief, each
based on the alleged ineffective assistance of counsel. [ECF
No. 1]. He claims that his trial counsel was ineffective by:
(1) failing to investigate and challenge the toxicology
evidence supporting the Commonwealth’s theory that
Rebecca died of a Clonidine overdose (Ground One); (2) not
moving to preclude the Commonwealth from arguing that the
Petitioner and his wife concocted their children’s
symptoms of mental illness in order to collect Supplemental
Security Income benefits (Ground Two); and (3) delivering a
closing argument that did not effectively marshal the
evidence (Ground Three). In his memorandum in support of his
petition, the Petitioner waived Ground Two [ECF No. 38 at 2,
n.2], and therefore only Grounds One and Three are before the
Court. For the reasons stated herein, Mr. Riley’s
habeas petition is DENIED.
Factual Background and Procedural History
Commonwealth v. Riley, 467 Mass. 799 (2014), the
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”)
described the facts of this case, which this Court now
“supplement[s] with other record facts consistent with
the SJC’s findings.” Yeboah-Sefah v.
Ficco, 556 F.3d 53, 62 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting
Healy v. Spencer, 453 F.3d 21, 22 (1st Cir.
Petitioner and Carolyn had two children in addition to
Rebecca: Gerard, aged eleven at the time of Rebecca’s
death and Kaitlynne, aged six at the time of Rebecca’s
death in 2006. Riley, 467 Mass. at 801. In August
2004, when Rebecca was a little over two years old, the
Petitioner and Carolyn took Rebecca to Dr. Kayoko Kifuji, a
child psychiatrist who was already treating Kaitlynne, and
complained to Dr. Kifuji that Rebecca was very hyperactive,
hardly slept, and was violent towards her siblings.
Id. at 801-802. Dr. Kifuji diagnosed two-year-old
Rebecca with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(“ADHD”) and prescribed her Clonidine, a
medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to
treat high blood pressure in adults, but which is also used
off-label to treat ADHD in children. Id. at 802.
Roughly two months after Rebecca received her ADHD diagnosis,
the Petitioner initiated a claim for Rebecca to receive
Social Security disability benefits, which was denied.
Id. In May 2005, the Petitioner and Carolyn took
Rebecca back to Dr. Kifuji, who diagnosed Rebecca, then aged
three, with bipolar disorder, and prescribed her Depakote, a
drug used to treat bipolar disorder in adults that Dr. Kifuji
had previously prescribed for Kaitylnne. Id.
Thereafter, the Petitioner requested reconsideration of the
denial of benefits for Rebecca, which the Social Security
Administration denied. Id. In December 2005, the
Petitioner appealed the denial. The appeal had not been heard
at the time of Rebecca’s death.
January 2006, Rebecca began attending preschool, where she
showed persistent signs of overmedication throughout the
school year: she was lethargic, needed assistance on the
stairs because she was unsteady on her feet, and also needed
help when getting off the school bus. Id. at
802-803. Rebecca exhibited similar symptoms of overmedication
when she returned to school in the fall of 2006. Id.
the end of November and early December of 2006, having
temporarily moved out, the Petitioner moved back in with
Carolyn and their children. Id. At this point they
were living in Hull, Massachusetts and Carolyn’s
half-brother, James McGonnell, his girlfriend, Kelly
Williams, and her son were also living in the house.
Id. Carolyn, at the Petitioner’s direction,
began to give the children their nighttime medications
earlier in the evening-between 5 and 6 p.m.-and Rebecca would
fall asleep within a half-hour. Id. at 803. She
would sleep until around 6 a.m., then be up for approximately
one and one-half hours, be given her morning dose of
Clonidine, and go back to sleep until 11 a.m. or noon.
Id. During this time, Rebecca’s condition at
school worsened: she became more lackadaisical, did not
engage with the other children or staff members, and required
an aide to sit behind her to prop up her body. Id.
last day at school, Friday, December 8, 2006, Rebecca
appeared to have a cold. Id. at 803. The cold
continued on Saturday, and she developed a barking cough that
sounded like a croup cough. Id. at 803-804. On
Sunday, Rebecca did not eat anything and her cough was
causing her to vomit. Id. Over the weekend and into
the week, as Rebecca’s condition worsened, her parents
consistently rebuffed her requests for help, often yelling or
cursing at her to go away. When others in the house insisted
that the Petitioner and Carolyn call an ambulance or take
Rebecca to the doctor, they refused to or said that they
planned to do so, but never did. The events culminated
Tuesday night into Wednesday morning:
At approximately 10 p.m., Rebecca again walked down the hall
to her parents’ bedroom. The defendant opened the door,
grabbed Rebecca by the arm, turned her around, pushed her
back toward her bedroom, and yelled, “Go to your
fucking room.” Rebecca cried, calling for her mother
and saying that she did not feel well. Rebecca kept returning
to her parents’ bedroom. After her parents turned
Rebecca away from their bedroom several more times, McGonnell
kicked the defendant’s and Carolyn’s door and, in
a panicked tone, told them that they needed to call an
ambulance. Williams picked up Rebecca, who was stiff, and
brought the child back to her bedroom.
At approximately 1 a.m. (now Wednesday, December 13), Blaine
Groetzinger, a friend of Williams who was staying in the
basement of the house, heard Rebecca faintly calling out for
her mother in her bedroom. On hearing this, he knocked on
McGonnell’s door to tell him that he should get
Carolyn. At the time, Rebecca was gurgling and choking, and
when McGonnell went to her, Rebecca spit up a red liquid onto
his pants. McGonnell went to the defendant’s and
Carolyn’s door and kicked it in after nobody answered
it; he then kicked their bed to awaken them. The defendant
asked McGonnell what he wanted, and McGonnell said that
Rebecca was worse and again brought up that they needed to
take her to the emergency room, asking, “What if she
dies?” According to McGonnell, the defendant acted like
“[i]t was a big joke.”
]Carolyn thereafter brought Rebecca into the bedroom she
shared with the defendant. Rebecca was stiff, gasping for
air, and moaning. At the defendant’s direction, Rebecca
received at least one-half pill more of clonidine, and was
placed on her parents’ bedroom floor with a blanket and
pillow. When the defendant and Carolyn awoke around 6:30 a.m.
that morning, Rebecca was dead. Her body was stiff and cold,
and a pink-tinged foamy liquid had secreted from her nose and
the Petitioner and Carolyn were to be tried together in
Plymouth County Superior Court. Id. at 807. On the
first day of their joint trial, however, the Commonwealth
assented to Carolyn’s motion to sever. Id.
Carolyn was tried first, from January to February 2010, and
was convicted of murder in the second degree. Id. at
801, 807. The Petitioner was tried in March 2010, and on
March 26, 2010, was convicted of murder in the first degree
on a theory of extreme atrocity and cruelty. [S.A.
173]. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
February 2012, the Petitioner filed a motion for a new trial
[S.A. 233-308], which the trial court denied. [S.A. 798-801].
In April 2014, the SJC affirmed the conviction [S.A.
1191-1209], and in July 2014, it denied Mr. Riley’s
petition for rehearing, [S.A. 1215].
Riley filed his petition for a writ of habeas corpus on
December 15, 2014, raising the three grounds described
earlier. [ECF No. 1]. The Respondent answered the petition on
April 21, 2015. [ECF No. 15]. The Petitioner filed his
Memorandum in Support of his Petition on October 5, 2015 [ECF
No. 38], the Respondent opposed on January 22, 2016, [ECF No.
47], and the Petitioner replied on February 11, 2016. [ECF
Standard of Review
standard of review for a writ of habeas corpus application
submitted by a person in custody pursuant to a state court
judgment is set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective
Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). The writ may not be
granted for any claim that was “adjudicated on the
merits” in State court unless the adjudication of the
(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.
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). Under this deferential standard,
federal habeas relief may only be granted where it is shown
that “the earlier state court’s decision
‘was contrary to’ federal law then clearly
established in the holdings of [the Supreme Court] . . . that
it ‘involved an unreasonable application of’ such
law . . . or that it ‘was based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts’ in light of the record
before the state court.” Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 100 (2011).
the AEDPA, “clearly established Federal law” is
limited to the holdings of the Supreme Court at the time of
the underlying state-court decision. Williams v.
Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). Accordingly, a state
court 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 confronts facts that are
materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court
precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [the Supreme
Court’s].” Id. at 405.
court decision involves an unreasonable application of
clearly established Federal law where the state court’s
application of Supreme Court precedent is
“‘objectively unreasonable, ’ not merely
wrong; even ‘clear error’ will not
suffice.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697,
1702 (2014) (quoting Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S.
63, 75-76 (2003)); see also Harrington, 562 U.S. at
102 (“[E]ven a strong case for relief does not mean the
state court’s contrary conclusion was
unreasonable.”). In other words, a state court decision
unreasonably applies clearly established Federal law where it
“identifies the correct governing principle from [the
Supreme Court’s] decisions but unreasonably applies
that principle to the facts of the prisoner’s
case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 413.
“a decision adjudicated on the merits in a state court
and based on a factual determination will not be overturned
on factual grounds unless objectively unreasonable in light
of the evidence presented in the state-court
proceeding.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S.
322, 340 (2003). “A state-court factual determination
is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court
would have reached a different conclusion in the first
instance.” Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301
relief under the AEDPA is “intentionally difficult to
meet.” Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct. 1372, 1376
(2015) (internal quotations omitted). It “reflects the
view that habeas corpus is a guard against extreme
malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not a
substitute for ordinary error correction through
appeal.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102-03
(internal quotations omitted). To obtain habeas relief from a
federal court, “a state prisoner must show that the
state court’s ruling on the claim being presented in
federal court was so lacking in justification that there was
an error well understood and comprehended in existing law
beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”
Id. at 103.
the Petitioner’s remaining habeas claims allege that
his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective. AEDPA
review of an ineffective assistance claim is “doubly
deferential.” Woods v. Etherton, 136 S.Ct.
1149, 1151 (2016) (internal quotations omitted). This is
because a court reviewing a habeas ineffective assistance
claim must assess the claim through the lens of both the
AEDPA and Strickland v. Washington. Under
Strickland-the clearly established Federal standard
for ineffective assistance claims-counsel is “strongly
presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all
significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable
professional judgment.” 466 U.S. 668, 690 (1984).
Accordingly, on habeas review, “the question is not
whether counsel’s actions were reasonable. The question
is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel
satisfied Strickland’s deferential
standard.” Harrington, 562 U.S. at 105.
established a two-prong test for determining whether
counsel’s defective performance violates the
First, the defendant must show that counsel’s
performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel
made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as
the “counsel” guaranteed the defendant by the
Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the
deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires
showing that counsel’s errors were so serious as to
deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. To satisfy this test,
“the defendant must prove that counsel’s
representation fell below an objective reasonableness
standard and that there is a reasonable probability that, but
for counsel’s unprofessional error, the
proceeding’s result would have been different.”
Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 686 (2002). Because an
ineffective assistance claim under Strickland is a
mixed question of law and fact, when raised in a habeas
petition, it is evaluated under the “unreasonable
application” clause of section 2244(d).
Yeboah-Sefah, 556 F.3d at 70.
the reviewing court asks “whether the state court
applied Strickland to the facts of
petitioner’s case in an objectively unreasonable
manner.” Id.; see also Jewett v.
Brady, 634 F.3d 67, 75 (1st Cir. 2011) (“[T]he
pivotal question in a federal collateral attack under
Strickland is not whether defense counsel’s
performance fell below Strickland’s standard,
but whether the state court’s application of the
Strickland standard was ...