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Al-Amin v. Warden, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 31, 2019

JAMIL ABDULLAH AL-AMIN, Petitioner - Appellant,
v.
WARDEN, COMMISSIONER, GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Respondents - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 1:12-cv-01688-AT

          Before WILSON, JILL PRYOR, and TALLMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.

          WILSON, Circuit Judge:

         Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin appeals the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Al-Amin argues that he is entitled to habeas relief under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993), for the constitutional errors that occurred during his state trial. After careful review and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm the district court's denial of habeas relief.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         One evening in March 2000, Fulton County Deputies Ricky Kinchen and Aldranon English drove to Al-Amin's home to execute a valid arrest warrant.[1]Believing that Al-Amin was not home, the Deputies began to drive away. But the Deputies quickly turned around when they spotted a black Mercedes pull in front of Al-Amin's home. A man exited the vehicle, and the Deputies approached.

         The Deputies asked the man to show his hands. The man began firing an automatic rifle and pistol at the officers. The Deputies, standing only a few feet away, returned fire. During the firefight, Deputy English's pepper spray canister exploded, temporarily blinding him. Deputies Kinchen and English were both shot during the exchange, and both believed they had shot the assailant in return. As the man drove away in the black Mercedes, Deputy English radioed for help. When help arrived, Deputy Kinchen described the assailant as a 6'4" black male wearing a long coat and a hat. Both Deputies were transported to a local hospital, where Deputy Kinchen died from his injuries.

         Officers who responded to the scene found a trail of blood leading from the crime scene to a vacant house and nearby woods. The investigating officers believed the blood belonged to the fleeing assailant. Neighbors also reported seeing a bleeding and injured man in the area that night.

         The next day, while on morphine and other medication, Deputy English identified Al-Amin as the assailant after examining a photo lineup. Soon after, law enforcement received a tip that Al-Amin was in White Hall, Alabama. Federal and local law enforcement converged on White Hall, where, after an exchange of gunfire with a fleeing figure matching Al-Amin's description, [2] they eventually found Al-Amin unarmed and alone near a wooded area. When officers arrested Al-Amin, he was wearing a bulletproof vest and had the keys to his black Mercedes. Al-Amin's medical assessment revealed no signs that he was recently shot or wounded.

         After Al-Amin was arrested, law enforcement searched the surrounding area for other evidence. The officers located a 9mm pistol and ammunition. The next day, officers recovered a bag in the woods containing, among other things, ammunition, a cell phone, registration documents for a Mercedes indicating that Al-Amin was the owner, Al-Amin's passport, and a bank statement for Al-Amin. An assault rifle was also discovered nearby. Expert testimony at trial later established that these weapons were those used to shoot Deputies Kinchen and English. Experts matched, for example, the two 9mm bullets recovered during Deputy Kinchen's autopsy to the pistol found at White Hall. Experts also matched the shell casings found at the scene of the Fulton County shooting and in the area of Al-Amin's White Hall arrest to the .223-caliber Ruger rifle recovered in the White Hall woods.

         Several days after apprehending Al-Amin, law enforcement discovered his Mercedes on his friend's private property. The car was riddled with bullet holes. Investigators later matched the bullets recovered from the Mercedes to the Deputies' service weapons.

         Al-Amin was charged with malice murder and various other offenses in Georgia state court. During the jury trial, the state's case against Al-Amin included, among other things, the physical evidence from White Hall and in-court testimony by Deputy English identifying Al-Amin as the assailant.

         Invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Al-Amin did not testify. Al-Amin nonetheless presented a substantial defense. Approximately twenty witnesses testified on his behalf, including a neighbor and eyewitness to the shooting who testified that he was "absolutely positive" that Al-Amin was not the shooter. The defense showed that although the Deputies were confident that they had shot their assailant and there was a blood trail leading away from the scene, Al-Amin was not injured when he was apprehended. The defense also attempted to undermine Deputy English's identification of Al-Amin as the shooter. The defense emphasized that Deputy English was on morphine when he picked Al-Amin out of a lineup, and that Deputy English had consistently said the shooter had grey eyes, while Al-Amin has dark brown eyes.

         At trial, the defense argued that law enforcement-namely, FBI Agent Ron Campbell-planted the weapons found in the White Hall woods, noting that law enforcement had never connected Al-Amin's DNA or fingerprints to the weapons.[3]Five years before Al-Amin's arrest, Agent Campbell was involved in a shooting of an allegedly unarmed Muslim black man. News reports suggested that law enforcement may have planted a weapon at the scene, but Agent Campbell was later cleared of any wrongdoing in that incident. The trial court refused to let the defense cross-examine Agent Campbell about this past shooting.

         During closing arguments, the prosecution told the jury, "I want to leave you with a few questions you should have for the defendant." The prosecution then presented a visual aid to the jury titled, "Questions for the Defendant." This visual aid included several written questions, including:

Why would the FBI care enough to frame you? How did the murder weapons end up in White Hall? How did your Mercedes get to White Hall? How did your Mercedes get shot up? Why did you flee (without your family)? Where were you at 10PM on March 16, 2000?

         The prosecution also posed these rhetorical questions aloud to the jury:

Why would the FBI care enough to frame you?
How did the murder weapons end up in White Hall? . . . Mr. Defendant, how did those murder weapons get ...

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