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Saunders v. Fortier

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

February 11, 2015

Dianna Saunders
Joanne Fortier, Warden, New Hampshire State Prison for Women


ANDREA K. JOHNSTONE, Magistrate Judge.

Before the court is respondent Warden Joanne Fortier's motion for summary judgment (doc. no. 5) on Dianna Saunders's petition for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Saunders has objected (doc. no. 8).


Saunders was found guilty of a being an accomplice to first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, theft by unauthorized taking, and theft by misapplication of property, following a jury trial in the New Hampshire Superior Court, sitting at Strafford County ("SCSC"). The New Hampshire Supreme Court ("NHSC") affirmed the conviction. State v. Saunders, 164 N.H. 342, 356, 55 A.3d 1014 (2012). The evidence before the jury included both circumstantial evidence and direct evidence.

Saunders's § 2254 petition asserts the same due process challenge to a jury instruction that she preserved at trial and litigated unsuccessfully in the NHSC:

Saunders's conviction violated her right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, in that the jury was instructed that, in a case such as Saunders's, "where both direct and circumstantial evidence is offered for a conviction, the evidence does not have to exclude all rational conclusions other than the defendant's guilt, " which had the effect of reducing the state's burden of proof to less than "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The NHSC concluded that, in general, the instruction was improper, as it risked confusing a jury regarding the state's burden of proof. See id., 164 N.H. at 353, 55 A.3d at 1022. Turning to the case before it, however, the NHSC found that there was no "reasonable likelihood" that the jury in Saunders's case understood the challenged instruction as allowing it to convict Saunders based on proof less than "beyond a reasonable doubt, '" and that the jury instruction did not "so infect[] the entire trial that the resulting conviction violate[d] due process, '" id. (quoting Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5 (1994), and Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 147 (1973)).

Respondent moves for summary judgment here, arguing that the NHSC ruling was correct and consistent with federal precedent. Petitioner objects, asserting that the NHSC ruling unreasonably applied United States Supreme Court precedents to the facts of Saunders's case, and that the jury was reasonably likely to have interpreted the challenged instruction in Saunders's case to allow conviction on proof insufficient to satisfy the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.


I. Habeas Standard of Review

In a federal habeas action, relief is not available as to any claim adjudicated on the merits in state court, unless the state court's legal conclusions or application of legal standards to settled facts "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." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1); see also Robidoux v. O'Brien, 643 F.3d 334, 338 (1st Cir. 2011). A state court decision is "contrary to" established federal law, either if it applies a standard of substantive law that differs from, and conflicts with, the standard prescribed by the United States Supreme Court, or if it issues a different ruling than that Court did, based on materially identical facts. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). An "unreasonable application" of federal law is not the same as an incorrect application of such law. See id. at 411. The petitioner must show "that the state court's ruling on the claim... was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement.'" Scoggins v. Hall, 765 F.3d 53, 57 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, ___, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011)), cert. denied, 83 U.S.L.W. 3581, 2015 WL 133436 (Jan. 12, 2015).

If the issue is one of fact, the habeas court must "apply a presumption of correctness to the [state] court's factual findings and also examine whether there has been an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court proceeding." John v. Russo, 561 F.3d 88, 92 (1st Cir. 2009); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). The petitioner bears the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness of state court factual findings by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

II. Reasonable Doubt and Due Process

The "beyond a reasonable doubt standard is a requirement of due process." Victor, 511 U.S. at 5. When confronting a case in which the petitioner contends that the jury instructions lessened the state's burden, resulting in a due process violation, "[t]he constitutional question... is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury understood the instructions to allow conviction based on proof insufficient to meet the Winship standard." Victor, 511 U.S. at 6 (citing ...

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