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Collins v. Runnels

May 5, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California James K. Singleton, Senior District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:04-cv-01516 JKS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hug, Circuit Judge


Argued and Submitted January 13, 2010 -- San Francisco, California.

Before: Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge, Procter Hug, Jr. and Richard R. Clifton, Circuit Judges.


Johnny Paul Collins appeals the district court's denial of his 28 U.S.C. § 2254 habeas corpus petition challenging his jury conviction of first degree murder and second degree robbery. Collins was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in a California state court. The central issue on appeal is whether clearly established Supreme Court precedent binding on the states requires trial severance where a co-defendant presents a mutually antagonistic defense. We hold that the cases upon which Collins relies for this argument do not bind the states, so the decision of the California Court of Appeal was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's denial of the writ of habeas corpus.


On October 22, 1998, Robert Yee and his wife, Sim Yee, were robbed while closing their convenience market in Rio Linda, California. They were forced to lie down after which their hands and feet were tied and duct tape was placed over their mouths. Mr. Yee was kicked and hit on the head with a heavy object, but nevertheless managed to free himself and summon help. Mrs. Yee, who suffered from impaired lungs and an enlarged heart, died.

Investigators identified Collins, Shaun Anderson, and James M. as the suspected robbers. James M. confessed to the robbery and agreed to testify against his co-defendants in exchange for a deal permitting him to plead guilty to murder as a juvenile. Collins and Anderson were jointly charged with robbery and first degree murder. Before trial, it became evident that they intended to present mutually antagonistic defenses. Collins planned to present an alibi defense attempting to show that he was on the telephone with his brother at the time of the robbery. Anderson intended to present a duress defense claiming that Collins had coerced him and James M. into participating in the robbery. Collins moved to have his case severed from that against Anderson, arguing that a jury might infer that if Collins coerced Anderson into committing the robbery, Collins must also have been part of the robbery, thus contradicting his alibi defense. Collins also argued that Anderson's planned testimony regarding their prior joint criminal activities and Collins' alleged coercion of Anderson would cause the jury to become unduly prejudiced against Collins and thus more likely to find him guilty. According to Collins, this situation would deprive him of his constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial. The trial court recognized the existence of some antagonism, but found that the defenses were not so antagonistic as to render a joint trial inherently unfair to Collins. In so finding, the trial court emphasized the California Legislature's preference for joint trials and the policy considerations favoring one jury hearing all issues and finding all facts at one time.

At trial, several witnesses were called. These included James M., who confessed to participating with Collins in the planning and execution of the robbery, and Vanessa H., who also presented strong testimony incriminating Collins. Anderson testified on his own behalf, corroborating James M.'s testimony regarding Collins' involvement in the robbery and asserting his own duress defense. Nonetheless, Collins presented an alibi defense. At the conclusion of the trial, the court instructed the jury to consider Anderson's testimony regarding Collins' prior coercion only as to Anderson's state of mind. The court also excluded evidence regarding the defendants' prior joint criminal acts. The jury found Collins guilty of robbery and murder, but deadlocked on the identical charges against Anderson.*fn1

Collins subsequently moved for a new trial based on the failure to sever. The trial court rejected the motion, reiterating its previous arguments and adding that the significant amount of evidence against Collins created a compelling case against him even absent Anderson's testimony. The trial court concluded that Collins could not have overcome these obstacles even if a separate trial had been granted.

Collins appealed his conviction to the California Court of Appeal, again asserting that the joint trial was unduly prejudicial. The Court of Appeal held that neither California nor federal law required trial severance under the circumstances and that Collins' due process rights had not been violated. It explained that Collins had been able to confront Anderson's conflicting evidence, which would have been admissible even if a separate trial had been granted. It further explained that there was no indication that the joint trial induced the jury to convict Collins without proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It also noted that the jury deadlocked against Anderson, demonstrating that the jury had considered the charges against the defendants separately. The Court of Appeal held that even if the trial court's refusal to order separate trails was error, any error was harmless because of the overwhelming evidence against Collins. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal affirmed Collins' conviction. The California Supreme Court summarily denied review of that decision as well as of Collins' writ of habeas corpus repeating his prejudice arguments.

Subsequently, Collins filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 2254 with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, once again presenting his prejudice and severance arguments. The District Court adopted the recommendation of a magistrate judge that Collins' petition be denied, finding that no clearly established federal law binding on the states requires severance of co-defendants' trial when they present mutually antagonistic defenses. The district court issued a Certificate of Appealability under 28 ...

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