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Riley v. Medeiros

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 16, 2016

MICHAEL RILEY, Petitioner,
v.
SEAN MEDEIROS, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         In 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.[1] 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 cruelty.

         Currently 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.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         In 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. 2006)).[2]

         The 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. Id.[3]

         In 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. at 803.

         Between 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.

         On her 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 mouth.

Id. 805-06.

         Originally, 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].[4] He was sentenced to life imprisonment. [S.A. 147].

         In 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].

         Mr. 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 No. 50].

         II. Standard of Review

         The 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 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; 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). 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).

         Under 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.

         A state 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.

         Lastly, “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 (2010).

         Habeas 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.

         Both of 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.

         Strickland established a two-prong test for determining whether counsel’s defective performance violates the constitution:

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 is reliable.

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.

         Thus, 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 ...


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