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Farr v. Pollard

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

September 25, 2019

RONNELL DONYELL FARR, Petitioner,
v.
WILLIAM J. POLLARD, Respondent.

          DECISION AND ORDER DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

          DAVID E. JONES, United States Magistrate Judge.

         In 2011, Ronnell Donyell Farr was sentenced to life in prison after a Wisconsin jury convicted him of the first-degree murder of Michael Bender outside a Milwaukee nightclub. Mr. Farr filed a post-conviction motion, arguing that his trial lawyer failed to investigate key evidence. He further argued that his post-conviction lawyer erred in failing to allege that his trial lawyer was ineffective, the prosecutor engaged in misconduct, and the trial court abused its discretion in allowing certain evidence to be presented. The state courts rejected Mr. Farr’s arguments, finding that he had not demonstrated that either lawyer exhibited deficient performance or that he was prejudiced by his lawyers’ alleged errors. Mr. Farr is currently serving his sentence at Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin.

         In June 2017, Mr. Farr filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that he is in custody in violation of the United States Constitution because his trial and post-conviction lawyers provided ineffective assistance of counsel. The respondent maintains that Mr. Farr has not satisfied his burden of proving that his claims merit relief under the deferential standards set forth in § 2254. The Court agrees. Because the state court’s decision denying Mr. Farr’s claims was not objectively unreasonable, Farr is not entitled to relief under § 2254. The Court therefore will deny his federal habeas petition.

         I. Background

         On March 28, 2010, Michael Bender was shot and killed outside Quarters nightclub in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. See Exhibit 2 to Answer to Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, ECF No. 20-2:7. A few days later, Ronnell Farr was arrested and interrogated about Bender’s death. See Id . at 7–12. After several interrogations, Mr. Farr confessed to Detective Rodolfo Gomez that he had shot Bender, id. at 11–12, though he claimed the shooting was unintentional, see Id . at 23.

         A. Circuit Court proceedings

          On April 5, 2010, Mr. Farr was charged in Milwaukee County Circuit Court with first-degree intentional homicide with the use of a dangerous weapon. Id. at 14. Prior to trial, Mr. Farr filed a motion to determine the admissibility of his statements to law enforcement. Id. Following a hearing, the Circuit Court concluded that Mr. Farr’s statement to Detective Gomez was voluntary and could be used at trial. See Exhibit 25 to Answer, ECF No. 20-25; Exhibit 26 to Answer, ECF No. 20-26:1–35.

         The case was tried before a jury in February 2011. See Answer Ex. 26; Exhibit 27 to Answer, ECF No. 20-27; Exhibit 28 to Answer, ECF No. 20-28; Exhibit 29 to Answer, ECF No. 20-29; Exhibit 30 to Answer, ECF No. 20-30; Exhibit 31 to Answer, ECF No. 20-31; Exhibit 32 to Answer, ECF No. 20-32; Exhibit 33 to Answer, ECF No. 20-33. At trial, Mr. Farr testified that he recognized Bender inside Quarters as the man who stole his designer eyeglasses and shot him back in August 2009. See Answer Ex. 30, 67:3–81:17. He later saw Bender outside the club and decided to “run up on him and take [his] glasses back.” Id. at 88:11–89:9. Mr. Farr pointed the gun at Bender, not intending to shoot, but the gun fired multiple times. Id. at 88:22–89:18. He then fled the scene. Id. at 89:19–90:8.

         As part of his defense, Mr. Farr called Detective Gomez to testify about the statement Farr made to him. Detective Gomez testified that he assisted in a live lineup involving Mr. Farr on April 3, 2010. Answer Ex. 31, at 77:23–78:2. According to Detective Gomez, while escorting Mr. Farr back to the prisoner processing section, Farr lamented that he didn’t mean to kill Bender. Id. at 78:3–79:18.

         The jury ultimately found Mr. Farr guilty of intentional homicide. See Exhibit 33 to Answer, ECF No. 20-33. He was sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for release to extended supervision after forty years. See Exhibit 34 to Answer, ECF No. 20-34; see also Exhibit 1 to Answer, ECF No. 20-1.

         B. Post-conviction proceedings

          Mr. Farr was appointed new counsel for post-conviction proceedings. See Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 By a Person in State Custody at 11–12, ECF No. 1, He “filed a motion for a new trial alleging violations of his constitutional rights and trial court error.” Answer Ex. 2, at 49. The trial court denied the motion without a hearing. See Id . at 49–51.

         Mr. Farr appealed, arguing that his confession to Detective Gomez was involuntary, the Circuit Court erred in determining that the confession was voluntary and failing to make a Miranda finding, evidence derived from the involuntary confession-including an interview with an alleged accomplice-should have been excluded, and a new trial was warranted in the interests of justice. See Attachments to Habeas Petition at 1, ECF No. 1-1; see also Answer Ex. 2; Exhibit 3 to Answer, ECF No. 20-3; Exhibit 4 to Answer, ECF No. 20-4. On February 18, 2014, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming Mr. Farr’s judgment of conviction and the order denying his post-conviction motion. See Exhibit 5 to Answer, ECF No. 20-5; see also State v. Farr, Appeal No. 2013AP504-CR, 2014 Wisc.App. LEXIS 133 (Wis. Ct. App. Feb. 18, 2014). The court determined that judicial estoppel barred Mr. Farr’s claim concerning his confession, the police would have interviewed the alleged accomplice regardless of Mr. Farr’s confession, and the case did not warrant discretionary reversal. See Id . ¶¶ 4–12.

         Mr. Farr sought review of the appellate court’s decision. See Exhibit 6 to Answer, ECF No. 20-6; Exhibit 7 to Answer, ECF No. 20-7. The Wisconsin Supreme Court summarily denied his petition for review on August 4, 2014. See Exhibit 8 to Answer, ECF No. 20-8. Mr. Farr did not file a petition for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court. See Pet. at 4.

         Proceeding without the assistance of counsel, on August 14, 2015, Mr. Farr filed a motion for post-conviction relief seeking a new trial pursuant to Wis.Stat. § 974.06 and State ex rel. Rothering v. McCaughtry, 556 N.W.2d 136 (Wis. Ct. App. 1996). See Exhibit 9 to Answer, ECF No. 20-9:63. He argued that his post-conviction lawyer was ineffective for failing to raise claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, and abuse of discretion by the trial court. See Id . at 63–71. The Circuit Court rejected these arguments and denied the motion without a hearing. See id.

         Mr. Farr appealed again. See Answer Ex. 9; Exhibit 10 to Answer, ECF No. 20-10; Exhibit 11 to Answer, ECF No. 20-11. On November 16, 2015, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming the denial of Mr. Farr’s § 974.06 motion. See Exhibit 12 to Answer, ECF No. 20-12; see also State v. Farr, Appeal No. 2015AP1901, 2016 Wisc.App. LEXIS 749 (Wis. Ct. App. Nov. 16, 2016). The court held that trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to investigate, post-conviction counsel was not ineffective for failing to challenge alleged prosecutorial misconduct, and the trial court had properly exercised its discretion in managing the challenged evidence. See Id . ¶¶ 7–42.

         Again, Mr. Farr sought review of the appellate court’s decision. See Exhibit 13 to Answer, ECF No. 20-13; Exhibit 14 to Answer, ECF No. 20-14. The Wisconsin Supreme Court summarily denied his petition for review on March 13, 2017. See Exhibit 15 to Answer, ECF No. 20-15.

         C. Federal habeas proceedings

          On June 6, 2017, Mr. Farr filed a federal habeas petition alleging ineffective assistance of trial and post-conviction counsel. See Attach. to Pet. at 3–8. The matter was randomly assigned to this Court, and all parties have consented to magistrate-judge jurisdiction. See Consent to Proceed Before a Magistrate Judge, ECF Nos. 6 & 11 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b)). The Court has jurisdiction over Mr. Farr’s petition under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The petition is fully briefed and ready for disposition. See Petitioner’s Supporting Memorandum, ECF No. 2; Respondent’s Brief in Opposition, ECF No. 23; Petitioner’s Reply, ECF No. 24.

         II. Standard of Review

          Federal habeas corpus review is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214. Under AEDPA, a prisoner in custody pursuant to a state-court judgment of conviction is entitled to federal habeas relief only if he is “in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). With respect to claims adjudicated on the merits in state court, a federal court can grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus “only if the state court’s decision was contrary to clearly established Supreme Court precedent, involved an unreasonable application of such precedent, or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in state court.” Promotor v. Pollard, 628 F.3d 878, 888 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)); see also White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014).

         “A legal principle is ‘clearly established’ within the meaning of [§ 2254(d)(1)] only when it is embodied in a holding of [the Supreme Court].” Thaler v. Haynes, 559 U.S. 43, 47 (2010) (citing Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74 (2006); Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)). 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 decides a case differently ...


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