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Pinder v. Crowther

United States District Court, D. Utah

March 6, 2019

JOHN R. PINDER, Petitioner,
v.
SCOTT CROWTHER, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION & ORDER DENYING HABEAS-CORPUS PETITION

          DAVID NUFFER JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         District Judge David Nuffer In this federal habeas-corpus case, inmate John R. Pinder, attacks his state conviction. 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254 (2018). Having carefully considered all relevant documents and law, the Court concludes that three of Pinder's claims are procedurally defaulted. And, on the remaining claims, Pinder does not overcome the federal habeas standard of review. The Court therefore denies the petition with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         A portion of the background is quoted from a Utah Supreme Court opinion:

Pinder owned a sprawling ostrich ranch in Duchesne County. He and his ranch-hand, Filomeno Ruiz, were accused (and ultimately convicted) of murdering June Flood and Rex Tanner. Flood and Tanner also worked on Pinder's ranch.
According to the evidence at trial, Ruiz staged a fight with his girlfriend, Mandy Harris, on the day of the alleged murder. The purpose of the staged fight was to get Harris away from the ranch. Ruiz called 911 during this staged altercation. Harris left after the police showed up. And the 911 call was recorded by the local dispatch.
That evening, Pinder, his girlfriend Barbara DeHart, Ruiz, and Pinder's employees Joe Wallen and David Brunyer (along with Brunyer's wife) gathered around a campfire to drink. At some point the conversation turned to the "shrunken heads" that Pinder and DeHart had seen at a curiosity shop in Seattle. Eventually Pinder spoke of his hopes to someday acquire one. Pinder said to Ruiz, "let's go get some heads." Ruiz responded with a question: "four or two?" Pinder replied, "two." After grabbing a baseball bat, Pinder and Ruiz drove to the home where Flood and Tanner resided. Pinder violently assaulted Flood and Tanner, kidnapped them, and then shot them both with a 10 mm pistol. Pinder and Ruiz then left the murder scene and later returned with ammonium nitrate and dynamite, packed the bodies with the explosives, and set them off.
Pinder later got others to help him hide the remains. Following a day of bulldozing the blast site, Pinder and Ruiz dropped several black garbage bags of body parts into a barrel and set them ablaze. Pinder, DeHart, and Ruiz then met with the Brunyers for dinner, after which Pinder and Ruiz returned to the lake to collect more parts for burning.
Tuesday morning, at Pinder's behest, Ruiz and Brunyer went to the Flood home armed with a bottle of alcohol and some rags to remove fingerprints and tidy up. After returning, Brunyer complained about the smell of the Flood residence, to which Pinder quipped, "[T]hat's because [Tanner] shit his pants when I shot him." Pinder, Ruiz, and Brunyer then spent the day bulldozing and gathering more body parts for disposal. . . .
By Thursday, October 29th, Pinder and DeHart had left the state, eventually arriving in Cataldo, Idaho. . . .
overy lasted three years, largely because of a drawn out battle over disqualification of the district court judge. During this time, both Ruiz and Alvarez were deposed. In 2009, at the close of discovery, the State moved for summary judgment on several grounds. The State first addressed the newly discovered evidence claims, arguing that they "could . . . have been discovered through the exercise of reasonable diligence," Utah Code Ann. § 78B-9-104(1)(e)(i) (2018), were merely cumulative of other evidence, were merely for impeachment, and in any event would not have changed the Meanwhile, back at the ranch, an investigation was underway. One of Flood's friends reported her missing, and police officers searched the Flood residence. Police discovered the home in utter disarray, with blood on the bed sheets and the backrest of a chair in the living room. They also found a pair of excrement-stained pants in the bathroom. After leaving the home, the investigating officer saw and approached Brunyer, who was standing nearby. Brunyer appeared "[v]ery agitated, very nervous, [and] scared to death.” . . .
Pinder and DeHart arrived back in Salt Lake on November 4th. On that day they decided to appear on KSL News for a television interview about the murders. Shortly thereafter, Pinder, Ruiz, and DeHart were all arrested. Investigators later searched Pinder's ranch and found a gruesome assortment of the victims' remains strewn about the area, stuck in bushes, and hanging from trees. They also searched Pinder's truck and found a 10 mm shell casing, one of the victim's thumbprints on the inside of a window, and some bloodstains (one identified as Pinder's, the other unidentified). Police also determined that the rear windows had been wiped down and cleaned, as well as the mid-section of the door jam.
Ruiz pled guilty to two counts of murder. He denied being the shooter, accusing Pinder instead. DeHart was charged with and later convicted of obstruction of justice. State v. DeHart, 2001 UT App 12. And Pinder was charged with two counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of tampering with evidence, one count of burglary of a dwelling, one count of possession of explosives, and two counts of desecration of a body.
While being held in the Summit County Jail before his preliminary hearing, Pinder met an inmate named Newly Welch. Pinder bragged to Welch about killing Tanner and Flood and blowing up their bodies. He told Welch that the day of the murders, he and Ruiz staged a fight with Ruiz's girlfriend to get her off of the ranch. Welch then asked Pinder what it was like to kill someone. And in response, Pinder put his hand on Welch's shoulder and said, "[T]here's no bigger rush[, ] especially when you know you're going to get away with it." Pinder was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole on the aggravated murder charges, and to consecutive statutory terms on the other counts.
Pinder filed a motion for a new trial. For various reasons, the motion took two years to resolve. During the eventual evidentiary hearing on the new trial motion, Pinder presented several newly discovered witnesses--Joey Silva (an inmate who allegedly spent time with Ruiz), Robert Brunyer (David Brunyer's brother), and Kristy Barnes. Each of these witnesses testified, in one way or another, that Ruiz and David Brunyer were actually the killers. The district court found none of the new witnesses credible; indeed, the court expressly found each of them to be seriously lacking in trustworthiness and accordingly denied the motion. Pinder appealed, and we unanimously affirmed his conviction. State v. Pinder, 2005 UT 15.
Pinder filed this petition for post-conviction relief in 2006. He presented two main theories of relief. First, he claimed that newly discovered evidence would exonerate him. Pinder brought affidavits from two more inmates who had spent time with Ruiz while incarcerated: Beau Heaps and Danny Alvarez. The Alvarez affidavit stated that while in the Duchesne County Jail, Ruiz told Alvarez that he and a "gavacho" committed the murders but that Pinder had "nothing to do with it." The Heaps affidavit stated that Heaps met Ruiz at the Utah State Prison and that Ruiz similarly told him that Ruiz and another man--not Pinder--were the murderers.
Pinder's second claim was based on the allegation that the State had violated his due process rights by knowingly presenting perjured testimony from Welch and by falsifying evidence concerning the 911 recording of the fight between Ruiz and Harris. To support his claims regarding Welch, Pinder provided an affidavit from a defense investigator who claimed that Welch admitted to lying on the stand but that he would not testify regarding his own perjury until "he was released from probation." With respect to the 911 tapes, Pinder submitted lengthy expert analyses of the 911 recordings of the Ruiz/Harris "fight." This analysis concluded that the 911 call recordings from the days of October the 24th and 25th were "not pristine," had in some way been "altered" and "tampered with by exporting and editing," and that these files could not "be deemed reliable." Based on these expert reports, Pinder concluded that: (1) the police had altered the recordings of the 911 call to make the Ruiz/Harris fight appear to have happened on Sunday the 25th rather than on Saturday the 24th; and (2) the State then used this fabricated date as a "baseline" in order to coax witnesses at trial to believe that all the events happened on Sunday rather than Saturday.
Discovery lasted three years, largely because of a drawn out battle over disqualification of the district court judge. During this time, both Ruiz and Alvarez were deposed. In 2009, at the close of discovery, the State moved for summary judgment on several grounds. The State first addressed the newly discovered evidence claims, arguing that they "could . . . have been discovered through the exercise of reasonable diligence," Utah Code Ann. § 78B-9-104(1)(e)(i) (2018), were merely cumulative of other evidence, were merely for impeachment, and in any event would not have changed the Meanwhile, back at the ranch, an investigation was underway. One of Flood's friends reported her missing, and police officers searched the Flood residence. Police discovered the home in utter disarray, with blood on the bed sheets and the backrest of a chair in the living room. They also found a pair of excrement-stained pants in the bathroom. After leaving the home, the investigating officer saw and approached Brunyer, who was standing nearby. Brunyer appeared "[v]ery agitated, very nervous, [and] scared to death.” . . .
outcoutcome of trial. Turning to the due process claims, the State first invoked the procedural bar limitations in the PCRA. Id. § 78B-9-106(1)(c). It argued that the due process claims "could have been but [were] not raised at trial or on appeal," or during Pinder's new trial motion. Id. Next, the State argued that Pinder failed to establish that the State "knew or had reason to believe Welch's testimony was false." Over a year later, Pinder filed a response, a motion to amend the petition, and a motion for additional discovery.
The district court granted summary judgment [for] the State. It first held, with respect to new evidence, (1) Pinder failed to show that the Heaps and Alvarez testimony could not have been discovered by the exercise of reasonable diligence, (2) the evidence was merely cumulative and merely for impeachment, and (3) even if the evidence were considered, it did not establish that the newly discovered evidence would make it impossible for a reasonable jury to render a guilty verdict. Turning to the due process claims, the court dismissed them both as procedurally barred because they could have been brought "during Pinder's motion for a new trial or on appeal." The court also ruled on the merits of both the Welch claim and the 911 claim, holding that Pinder had failed to shoulder his burden of showing that the State knew or should have known that both the Welch testimony and the 911 tapes were false. The court never expressly addressed Pinder's motion for additional discovery. But it effectively denied the motion by granting the State's motion for summary judgment. As for the motion to amend, the court denied it in its order granting summary judgment, but without explaining its reasons for doing so.

Pinder v. State, 2015 UT 56, ¶¶ 4-19.

         Pinder timely appealed, asserting two sets of claims for relief: (1) He presented newly discovered evidence of witnesses Alvarez and Heaps, apparently to show Pinder's innocence. Id. ¶ 2. (2) He asserted that the State violated his due-process rights by knowingly adducing at trial perjured testimony and fabricated evidence. Id. The supreme court rejected the first claim on the merits and the second set of claims as procedurally defaulted.

         PINDER'S ASSERTED GROUNDS FOR FEDERAL-HABEAS RELIEF

         Pinder asserts several grounds for federal habeas relief:

(I) The State violated Pinder's due-process rights by (A) falsifying 911 recordings to show the murder occurred on October 25, not October 24, 1998; and (B) presenting ...

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