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Smith v. Aldridge

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

September 17, 2018

RAYE DAWN SMITH, Petitioner - Appellant,
DEBBIE ALDRIDGE, Warden, Respondent - Appellee.


          Stephen Jones, Jones, Otjen, Davis & Bloyd, Enid, Oklahoma, for Petitioner-Appellant.

          Theodore M. Peeper, Assistant Attorney General (Mike Hunter, Attorney General of Oklahoma, with him on the brief), Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Respondent-Appellee.

          Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, BALDOCK, and HOLMES, Circuit Judges.


         Oklahoma charged Raye Dawn Smith with several child abuse charges stemming from the death of her two-year-old daughter, Kelsey, who died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen. Kelsey's death, and Smith's subsequent trial, generated substantial public interest and publicity. In the end, a jury convicted Smith of enabling child abuse.

         After her conviction, Smith moved for a new trial based on claims of juror misconduct and jurors' exposure to information outside the courtroom. In support, Smith produced two affidavits from individuals who had attended the trial. Both alleged several jurors slept during the trial, and one juror slept continuously. Smith also claimed jurors were exposed to extraneous outside-the-court publicity about the trial that tainted the verdict. The trial court denied the motion. In ruling on the motion, the trial judge asserted he closely watched the jury and did not see a juror continuously sleeping.

         Smith then appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA), raising numerous claims. She also requested an evidentiary hearing on a variety of issues, including her claims related to juror misconduct. The OCCA granted the request in part. But the OCCA refused to hold a hearing on the sleeping-juror allegations because it concluded the trial judge's statement that no juror slept throughout the trial adequately refuted the allegations to the contrary in the affidavits Smith submitted. Ultimately, the OCCA denied relief on all of Smith's claims.

         Smith now seeks a writ of habeas corpus in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, advancing three primary arguments. She bases the first two on allegations that a juror slept throughout the duration of her trial. First, Smith claims this violated her constitutional rights to an impartial jury and due process. Second, Smith argues her counsel performed ineffectively by failing to bring the sleeping juror to the court's attention. Finally, Smith asserts the jury's improper exposure to outside information also violated her constitutional rights to an impartial jury and due process.

         The district court denied Smith's petition. We AFFIRM. The OCCA did not base its denial of Smith's claims on an unreasonable determination of the facts. And Smith does not argue the OCCA's opinion was contrary to, or unreasonably applied, clearly established federal law. Accordingly, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) forbids us from granting relief.

         I. Background

         We begin with the facts of the crime and the relevant procedural history.

         A. The Crime and Smith's Conviction

         Raye Dawn Smith's two-year-old daughter, Kelsey, died in October 2005 from blunt force trauma to the abdomen. The medical examiner considered the death a homicide. Eventually, Oklahoma charged Smith with child abuse or, alternatively, enabling child abuse by injury.

         Kelsey's death-and Smith's subsequent indictment, trial, and conviction-garnered great public attention and immense media coverage. This was due in part to the family of Kelsey's father starting a website entitled "Kelsey's Purpose." The site aimed to "seek justice" for Kelsey's killer, and it all but accused Smith of causing the child's death. App. at 529. Indeed, the site prominently featured allegations of abuse against Smith.

         Because of the widespread public interest in the case, Smith moved to change the trial's venue. The court granted the request and moved the trial to an adjacent county. This change of venue did not, however, altogether eliminate the media's laser-like focus on the case. Indeed, many members of the media attended Smith's trial, personally watching the proceedings and then providing on-camera updates outside the courthouse.

         After an eight-day trial, the jury convicted Smith of one count of enabling child abuse. In accordance with the jury's recommendation, the court sentenced her to 27 years' imprisonment.

         B. Post-Trial Motions and Appeal to the OCCA

         After sentencing, Smith moved for a new trial in the state district court. She alleged numerous errors, including that jurors' failure to stay awake throughout the trial prejudiced her defense. In support, Smith attached two affidavits from individuals who attended the trial. Both claimed they saw multiple jurors sleeping during Smith's trial, including one female juror who slept continuously.

         The trial court denied the motion. In doing so, it expressly rejected the allegation jurors slept during trial:

In Randleman v. State, 552 P.2d 90 (Ok. Cr. 1976), the Court stated, "The trial court should make his observations of the trial (i.e. jurors who might have fallen asleep) a part of the record in his ruling upon such an issue."
The following is the Court's observation: During the course of this trial, as with any trial, I constantly and zealously view the jury in order to ascertain whether or not they are alert and attentive, as required by the Court's instructions and by the law. The allegation that as many as nine jurors slept during the trial is absolutely false and untrue. It did not happen. I observed one juror who on one day appeared to be asleep. I immediately admonished the jury on the record to remain alert and then recessed court. I continued to monitor the jury in general and this juror in particular and saw no repetition of this behavior. No other juror ever gave any appearance whatsoever of falling asleep. One juror did bring what appeared to be a throw and placed it over her shoulders, inasmuch as the courtroom was too cold for her personal preference.
The jurors were faithful and conscientious to their duty, and any attempt to say otherwise maligns them.

App. at 170.

         Smith then appealed to the OCCA, raising a number of claims. She also requested an evidentiary hearing on various issues, some of which related to her claims of juror misconduct. To support her contention a juror slept throughout the trial, Smith submitted affidavits from five jurors. In four of the affidavits, jurors alleged that one of their fellow jurors, L.E., continuously slept during trial. The fifth and final affidavit was from juror L.E. herself. She admitted that "[d]uring the trial, [she] continually fell asleep and the woman next to [her] was told to nudge [her] to keep [her] awake." App. at 442. L.E. stated the reason she kept falling asleep was her low potassium levels. Though she had a prescription for potassium to prevent this very problem, L.E. claimed she "never c[ould] remember to take it." Id.

         The OCCA granted Smith's request for an evidentiary hearing in part, but not for the purpose of determining if a juror actually slept throughout the trial.[1]After the evidentiary hearing, the OCCA denied relief on all of Smith's claims.

         Next, Smith filed a petition for habeas relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing she was entitled to relief for many reasons. The district court denied the petition. But the court granted Smith two certificates of appealability (COA). The first addresses whether juror misconduct deprived Smith of her constitutional rights to an impartial jury and due process. More precisely, the district court granted a COA on whether jurors engaged in misconduct in two ways: by sleeping continuously during trial, and by being prejudicially exposed to outside information. The second COA addresses whether Smith's trial counsel performed ineffectively by failing to object to the supposedly sleeping juror.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeals from the denial of a petition for habeas corpus, we review the district court's legal analysis de novo and its factual findings for clear error. Smith v. Duckworth, 824 F.3d 1233, 1241-42 (10th Cir. 2016). But Congress has sharply limited our review of state court decisions. When a state court adjudicates a petitioner's claim on the merits, AEDPA bars us from granting relief except in two narrow circumstances.

         First, we can grant relief if the state court's decision was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law the Supreme ...

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