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Okon v. Knutson

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 22, 2019

NATE KNUTSON, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Respondent Nate Knutson's Motion to Dismiss Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, ECF No. 11 (Mot. to Dismiss). That motion targets Petitioner Enamidem Celestine Okon's Petition Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody, ECF No. 1 (Pet.). For the following reasons, the Court recommends granting the Motion to Dismiss and dismissing the Petition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Trial

         To simplify the analytical discussion below, the Court provides a relatively fulsome account of this case's procedural background. In July 2012, authorities charged Okon with two counts of aiding and abetting first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Register of Actions, State v. Okon, No. 73-CR-12-6911 (Minn. Dist. Ct.) (Okon Docket); Minn. Stat. § 609.342.1(e)(i), (f)(i). Before trial, Okon made motions in limine seeking (among other things) to admit certain evidence of the prior sexual conduct of C.M.H., the victim of an assault underlying the charges. Order 1, State v. Okon, No. 73-CR-12-6911 (Minn. Dist. Ct. May 20, 2013), attached to Pet. Specifically, Okon sought to introduce evidence from swabs used to collect DNA from underwear that C.M.H. had worn at the time of the assault. Id. at 7-8. That evidence suggested that seminal fluid or semen from five different people-though not Okon-was found on the underwear. Id. Okon argued that the “evidence [was] relevant and not barred by [Minnesota's rape-shield law] because [the evidence] shows what DNA was present, which excludes his, and because the presence of semen is one of the exceptions to the rape shield law.” Id. at 8.[1]

         Analyzing Minnesota evidentiary law-and noting that because “the issue at trial will be whether [Okon] had oral and vaginal sex with C.M.J. on the night in question, ” “what is relevant is if the DNA of any semen matched [Okon's] DNA”-the district court ruled that Okon could “introduce evidence of the limited fact that there was not a DNA match to [Okon] found on the samples from C.M.J.'s underwear.” Id. He could not, however, “introduce any evidence as to number of sources.” Id.

         On May 23, 2013, a jury convicted Okon on both counts. State v. Okon, No. A13-2018, 2014 WL 3800324, at *2 (Minn.Ct.App. Aug. 4, 2014) (Okon I); Okon Docket. That October, the trial court amended a prior order and sentenced Okon to 172 months in prison. Okon Docket.

         B. Direct Appeal

         On October 22, 2013, Okon filed a notice of appeal with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Case Information, State v. Okon, No. A13-2018 (Minn. Ct. App.), available at (last accessed Dec. 8, 2018). He made numerous arguments on direct appeal; two concern the present Motion to Dismiss. First, Okon argued that by excluding evidence about the number of sources of semen found on C.M.J.'s underwear, the trial court misapplied Minnesota law and violated his Sixth Amendment confrontation right. Okon I, 2014 WL 3800324, at *1; Appellant's Br. and App. 12-21, State v. Okon, No. A13-2018 (Minn.Ct.App. Feb. 13, 2014) (Okon Direct-Appeal Brief). Okon's second relevant argument observed that at trial, a DNA forensic scientist testified for the state that (1) a rectal swab taken from C.M.H. indicated the presence of semen, but an insufficient amount for DNA analysis; and (2) “semen could be detectable in a vaginal swab for about five days and in a perioral swab for two to twelve hours.” Okon I, 2014 WL 3800324, at *2. Okon argued on appeal-admitting he had not raised the point below-that this testimony “opened the door” to introduction of the number-of-sources-of-semen evidence such that failure to admit that evidence amounted to a mistaken interpretation of Minnesota law and an infringement of Okon's confrontation rights. Id.; Okon Direct-Appeal Br. 21-27.

         The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed Okon's conviction on August 4, 2014. In relevant part, it determined that the trial court (1) had not abused its discretion by excluding the number-of-sources-of-semen evidence, and (2) had not plainly erred by refusing to allow the evidence to rebut the DNA-scientist testimony. Okon I, 2014 WL 3800324, at *2-4. The decision's handling of Okon's confrontation claims was somewhat unclear. The Court of Appeals recited the standard that “‘[w]hen an error implicates a constitutional right, we will award a new trial unless the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.'” Id. at *2 (quoting State v. Davis, 820 N.W.2d 525, 533 (Minn. 2012)). Aside from this, however, the decision did not address whether the trial court had violated Okon's constitutional rights; it instead affirmed the trial court's decision based on Minnesota evidence law. Id. at *3-4.

         Okon petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court for review, including as a basis for review the trial court's handling of his confrontation rights. See, e.g., Okon v. Warden of Moose Lake Prison, No. 14-CV-4499 (JRT/LIB), 2016 WL 1643762, at *3 (D. Minn. Apr. 26, 2016) (Okon III) (quoting Okon's petition for review). But in October 2014, that court denied his petition. Okon I, 2014 WL 3800324, at *1. Okon did not petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss Pet. for Writ of Habeas Corpus 2, ECF No. 12 (Dismissal Mem.) (not challenged by Okon).

         C. First § 2254 Petition

         On October 27, 2014, Okon filed a § 2254 petition challenging his conviction. Pet. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus by a Person in State Custody 1, Okon v. Warden of Moose Lake Prison, No. 14-CV-4499 (JRT/LIB) (D. Minn. Oct. 27, 2014) (October 2014 Petition). Okon raised five grounds for review-including that the trial court had violated his federal-law confrontation rights by prohibiting him from offering the number-of-sources-of-semen evidence. Id. at 5.[2]

         The October 2014 Petition was assigned to the Honorable John R. Tunheim, now Chief District Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, and referred to the Honorable Leo I. Brisbois, Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. Docket, Okon v. Warden of Moose Lake Prison, No. 14-CV-4499 (JRT/LIB) (D. Minn.). Magistrate Judge Brisbois entered his report and recommendation on July 28, 2015, which recommended denying the petition and dismissing the action with prejudice. Order and R. & R., Okon v. Warden of Moose Lake Prison, No. 14-CV-4499 (JRT/LIB), 2015 WL 13731340, at *1 (D. Minn. July 28, 2015) (Okon II). Addressing Okon's confrontation argument, Magistrate Judge Brisbois stated that Okon had not raised a federal-law confrontation argument in his brief to the Minnesota Court of Appeals or to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and so had procedurally defaulted on the issue. Id. at *6. “[O]ut of an abundance of caution, ” however, Magistrate Judge Brisbois said he would consider the argument anyway. Id. He did so as follows:

[Okon] challenges the trial court's exclusion of evidence of the number of semen DNA samples on the victim's underwear and the rectal swab. Although [Okon] attempts to label the trial court's evidentiary decision as a violation of his federal due process rights, the state trial court determined the scope of the admissibility of the DNA evidence that Petitioner sought to admit at trial under Minnesota law in the form of Minnesota Rule of Evidence 412 and Minn. Stat. § 609.347, Subd. 3(b). The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that “it is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, law or treaties of the United States.” This Court may not review the state trial court's decision applying solely Minnesota law to determine the scope of admissibility of the DNA evidence that [Okon] sought to admit into evidence at trial.

Id. at *7 (citation omitted).

         Okon raised various objections to Okon II, including that Magistrate Judge Brisbois had erred while reviewing Okon's confrontation argument. Okon v. Warden of Moose Lake Prison, No. 14-CV-4499 (JRT/LIB), 2016 WL 1643762, at *2-3 (D. Minn. Apr. 26, 2016) (Okon III). Reviewing the objections de novo, Chief Judge Tunheim overruled Okun's confrontation objection, though his analysis differed from that of Magistrate Judge Brisbois. Id. at *3-6.

         Specifically, Chief Judge Tunheim found that Okon had sufficiently raised a federal-law confrontation argument with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Id. at *3. Chief Judge Tunheim also found that the Court of Appeals's resolution of Okon's claim did not rest on “adequate and independent state grounds” that would prevent a federal court from addressing the claim. Id. at *4 (quoting Echols v. Kemna, 511 F.3d 783, 785 (8th Cir. 2007)); cf. Walker v. Martin, 562 U.S. 307, 316 (2011) (“A federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court if the decision of the state court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.”) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citation omitted). The Court of Appeals had rested its analysis on Minnesota evidence law, but Chief Judge Tunheim observed that “[i]f Okon's argument were correct and his federal constitutional rights required the state court to admit the at-issue evidence, then it does not matter whether the state court properly interpreted state law because where state law conflicts with the Constitution, a state judge must apply the Constitution.” Okon III, 2016 WL 1643762, at *4. Chief Judge Tunheim concluded that “[t]he Court must . . . decide the merits of Okon's claim.” Id.

         On the merits, however, Chief Judge Tunheim determined that Okon's confrontation claim failed. Id. at *6. The Minnesota Court of Appeals had not addressed Okon's federal-law confrontation argument, so the Court's task was “only to evaluate whether the state court's decision [was] ‘contrary to' established federal law.” Id. at *4. The applicable test was whether the Court of Appeals had reached a conclusion opposite that of the U.S. Supreme Court on a matter of law, or decided a case differently than the U.S. Supreme Court on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Id. at *2 (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412-13 (2000)). Reviewing Okon's arguments, Chief Judge Tunheim found that Okon had not met this test, id. at *6, and, as a result, Okon's federal-law confrontation argument failed as a potential ground for awarding him habeas relief.

         D. Second State-Court Appeal

         In March 2016-before Okon III issued-Okon moved for postconviction relief in state court. He argued, in relevant part, that his confrontation rights had been violated by his inability to introduce the number-of-sources-of-semen evidence. Okon v. State, No. A16-0940, 2016 WL 7042097, at *1 (Minn.Ct.App. Dec. 5, 2016) (Okon IV). The Court does not have a copy of the postconviction-relief motion, but Okon asserts that it raised “the same constitutional issue raised on direct appeal, ” Show-Cause Mem. 2, suggesting that it put in play the federal-law confrontation question. See Mem. and Aff. in Resp. to Magistrate Judge's Order to Show Cause Why the Pet. Is Not Time Barred, ECF No. 9 (Show-Cause Memorandum). The state district court denied Okon's motion in May 2016, stating in relevant part that State v. Knaffla, 243 N.W.2d 737 (Minn. 1976), barred Okon's confrontation claim. See Okon IV, 2016 WL 7042097, at *1. Under Knaffla, “where direct appeal has once been taken, all matters raised therein, and all claims known but not raised, will not be considered upon a subsequent petition for postconviction relief.” 243 N.W.2d at 252.

         Okon appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, arguing that “his constitutional-rights claim based upon the exclusion of the semen evidence should not be Knaffla barred because the interests of justice require that this court analyze the issue.” See Okon IV, 2016 WL 7042097, at *2; cf. Griffin v. State, 883 N.W.2d 282, 286 (Minn. 2016) (“An unraised claim is not Knaffla-barred . . . ‘if (1) the claim is novel or (2) the interests of fairness and justice warrant relief.'”) (quoting Andersen v. State, 830 N.W.2d 1, 8 (Minn. 2013)). The Court of Appeals affirmed. Okon IV, 2016 WL 7042097, at *4. Agreeing that it had not “expressly analyzed” Okon's “exact constitutional issue . . . on direct appeal, ” the Court of Appeals said that it had nevertheless “recognized the constitutional component of [his argument].” Id. at *3. As a result, Okon had raised his confrontation argument on direct appeal-and because he had previously raised it, the argument was correctly deemed Knaffla-barred. Id.

         The Court of Appeals then determined that the interests-of-justice exception to Knaffla did not apply. Id. For that exception to apply, “a claim must have substantive merit and be made without deliberate or inexcusable delay.” Id. (citing Andersen, 830 N.W.2d at 8). The Court of Appeals held that Okon's claim lacked merit, such that the interests-of-justice exception did not apply:

The constitutional right to present a defense is limited by the defendant's responsibility to comply with procedural and evidentiary rules. We already conducted a detailed analysis of the underlying evidentiary ruling, recognized the constitutional component inherent in that ruling, and concluded that the semen evidence ...

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