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Smith v. Smith

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 3, 2018

MICHELLE SMITH, Warden, MCF - Oak Park Heights, Respondent.





         Byron David Smith is serving two life sentences in a Minnesota state prison for a 2012 double murder in Little Falls, Minnesota. Smith brings this petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court, arguing that the Minnesota trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial when the trial court closed the courtroom to all spectators and the press for a short period before opening statements were delivered. Smith further argues - pursuant to the requirements of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) - that the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision upholding his conviction was contrary to, and an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. United States Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung issued a Report & Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that the Court deny Smith's petition. Smith objects to the R&R. Because the Court will conclude that the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision was neither contrary to, nor an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, the Court will overrule Smith's objections, adopt the R&R, and deny Smith's petition.


         On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Byron Smith shot and killed two teenagers who had broken into his home: Nicholas Brady and Haile Kifer. State v. Smith, 876 N.W.2d 310, 317 (Minn. 2016). Smith was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in Minnesota state court. Id. at 321. At trial, Smith maintained that the shootings were a justified act of self-defense. Id. To support his argument, Smith sought to introduce evidence that Brady had been involved in several prior burglaries of Smith's home. Id. at 327. Specifically, Smith sought to call three witnesses to testify about Brady's alleged involvement: Brady's mother and two of Brady's friends who were also allegedly involved in the prior burglaries, J.K. and C.K. Id.

         The trial court permitted Smith to introduce evidence of prior burglaries of his home via the testimony of law-enforcement agents. Id. at 328. But the court prohibited Smith from introducing evidence that Brady was associated with the prior burglaries because Smith had not known of Brady's involvement at the time of the shootings. Id. The trial court's ruling came in 2014 after two public hearings, held on March 25 and April 17, on the subject. Id. The first public hearing resulted in a public order dated April 4. Id. at 330. In that April 4 order, the court reasoned that the prior burglaries

“strike directly at the reasonableness of [Smith's] decisions in defending his person and his dwelling. . . .” However, the fact that it may have been Nicholas Brady who was involved in the previous burglaries contributes nothing to [Smith's] argument, for the reasonableness of [Smith's] action and judgment must be determined by his state of mind at the time of the shooting, not by what was learned after the event.

(Pet. Ex. 1 at 7, Mar. 3, 2017, Docket No. 5.) The April 4 order did not discuss whether Smith could call J.K. and C.K. as witnesses. (See Id. at 6-7) At the April 17 public hearing, Smith's counsel “discussed Brady's alleged co-participants [J.K. and C.K.] by name.” Smith, 876 N.W.2d at 327.

         Smith's trial was a “high-profile case, which captured the attention of Minnesotans because of its unusual facts and the deaths of two teenagers.” Id. at 337 (Stras, J., concurring). On the morning of April 21 - the day that opening statements were to be delivered and after the jury had been selected - Smith's case was called, and the trial court then cleared all spectators and the press from the courtroom. (See Resp't Ex. C at 4, Mar. 31, 2017, Docket No. 12; Smith, 876 N.W.2d at 327-28 (majority opinion).) Smith's counsel objected to this courtroom closure.

Your Honor, this is a - - I thought about the court's suggestion, and I would ask the court to reconsider. This is a public facility. Mr. Smith is on trial in a public courtroom, and I ask to allow any of the public to be allowed to be present, including media, if they choose. To not allow that would infringe upon the freedom of the public to be present as well as free press. He has that right to a public trial.

(Resp't Ex. C at 4:11-19.) The court overruled Smith's objection and kept the courtroom closed so that the court could explain to the parties and counsel the scope of the court's evidentiary ruling, including that there was to be no mention of J.K. or C.K. by name.

And the pretrial ruling of the court was that the defense had given notice that it . . . wants to offer testimony from [J.K.] and [C.K.] about their involvement in prior burglaries which, of course, would have involved Nick Brady as well a co-perpetrator. And the court has ruled the . . . defendant will not disclose the names of [J.K., C.K.] or Brady involved in prior burglaries . . . .

(Id. at 4:20-5:6.) The court then explained its reasons for closing the courtroom:

And for that reason -- that was the reason that the court is not allowing the press in for this ruling, because otherwise it could be printed, and indeed, while the jurors hopefully will follow the admonition not to read or hear anything in the press and TV and such in the meantime while this case is pending, certainly the media would publish and print the substance of the court's pretrial ruling, and then of course it runs the risk of getting to the jury if for some reason they don't adhere to their oath.

(Id. at 6:4-14.)

         Immediately after the closure, the court filed a second public order, “reiterat[ing] that evidence of prior bad acts by Nicholas Brady or Haile Kifer, of which [Smith] was unaware at the time of the shooting, shall be inadmissible at trial, ” and that while evidence of the prior burglaries “may be received through the testimony of . . . law enforcement agents, there will be no need to seek its admission through more prejudicial means (i.e., through the testimony of Brady's mother or of a perpetrator of the prior break-ins).” (Pet. Ex. 2 at 1, 3, Mar. 3, 2017, Docket No. 6; see also Smith, 876 N.W.2d at 328.) Three minutes after the court filed this second order, the court reopened the courtroom, swore in the jury, gave preliminary instructions, and the parties then gave their opening statements. (Resp't Ex. C at 8-9; Smith, 876 N.W.2d at 328.)

         The jury found Smith guilty of murder, and the trial court sentenced him to two life sentences. Smith, 876 N.W.2d at 321. Smith appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court's closure violated his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. Id. at 327. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld his conviction, finding that the closure did not implicate Smith's Sixth Amendment right because the closure was “administrative” in nature. Id. at 327-30.[1]

         This habeas petition in federal court followed.



         Upon the filing of a report and recommendation by a magistrate judge, a party may “serve and file specific written objections to the proposed findings and recommendations.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2); accord D. Minn. LR 72.2(b)(1). “The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3).

         II. AEDPA

         AEDPA governs the Court's review of Smith's habeas petition. 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Habeas review is narrow and is “limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 68 (1991); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a) (“[A] district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus . . . only on the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”).

         For federal claims adjudicated during a petitioner's state-court proceedings, AEDPA is “highly deferential” to the state court's decision on that federal claim. Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2198 (2015). AEDPA provides:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim . . . 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).[2] AEDPA “was intended to be difficult to meet and only authorizes a federal habeas court to issue the writ in cases where ‘there is no possibility fairminded jurists could disagree that the state court's decision conflicts with [the Supreme Court's] precedents.'” Shelton v. Mapes, 821 F.3d 941, 949 (8th Cir. 2016) (alteration in original) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011)).[3] AEDPA's highly deferential scheme necessarily means that some constitutional violations will go unremedied, in favor of “promoting ‘comity, finality, and federalism.'” Carey v. Saffold, 536 U.S. 214, 220 (2002) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 420, 436 (2000)).

         The phrase “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” in § 2254(d)(1), “refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 412. And the Supreme Court has cautioned lower courts against “framing [its] precedents at . . . a high level of generality.” Nevada v. Jackson, 569 U.S. 505, 512 (2013).

         “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 United States Supreme Court on a question of law.” Davis v. Grandlienard, 828 F.3d 658, 666 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 405).[4] “A state-court decision will certainly be contrary to [the Supreme Court's] clearly established precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 405. “A state court's decision is not ‘contrary to . . . clearly established Federal law' simply because the [state] court did not cite [Supreme Court] opinions, ” Mitchell v. Esparza, 540 U.S. 12, 16 (2003) (per curiam) (omission in original) (quoting Early v. Packer, 537 U.S. 3, 8 (2002)), or simply because the state-court decision “relied heavily on its own precedent, ” Davis, 828 F.3d at 666.

         “An ‘unreasonable application' of Supreme Court precedent occurs when a state court correctly identifies the governing legal standard but either unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular case or unreasonably extends or refuses to extend the legal standard to a new context.” Munt v. Grandlienard, 829 F.3d 610, 614 (8th Cir. 2016) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 407). AEDPA's “‘unreasonable application' clause requires the state court decision to be ‘objectively unreasonable,' which demands the decision be more than incorrect or erroneous.” Davis, 828 F.3d at 666 (quoting Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75 (2003)). “The ‘objectively unreasonable' standard is not satisfied even by clear error.” Id.

         If a state-court decision is contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, “[a] federal court must then resolve the claim without the deference AEDPA otherwise requires.” Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 953 (2007); see Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 173 (2012).


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