Argued January 9, 2014.
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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08-cv-4980 -- James F. Holderman, Judge.
For RONALD RUHL, Petitioner - Appellant: Barry Levenstam, Attorney, Jonny A. Zajac, Attorney, JENNER & BLOCK LLP, Chicago, IL.
For MARCUS HARDY, Warden, Respondent - Appellee: Erin O'Connell, Attorney, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Chicago, IL.
Before MANION and SYKES, Circuit Judges, and GRIESBACH, District Judge.[*]
Griesbach, District Judge.
Ronald Ruhl appeals the district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Ruhl and Raymond Serio were convicted of the first-degree murder of Richard Neubauer in separate trials in Lake County, Illinois. After exhausting his state court remedies, Ruhl filed a petition for federal relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that his conviction was the result of violations of various constitutional rights. The district court issued a thorough decision in which it denied his petition and declined to issue a certificate of appealability. We granted a certificate as to Ruhl's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel and now affirm.
On the morning of January 6, 2002, Richard Neubauer's body was found in his mother's car, which was parked at the entrance to the Bristol Renaissance Faire, just over the Illinois/Wisconsin border in Kenosha County, Wisconsin. A medical examiner concluded that Neubauer died from two gunshot wounds to the head and one to the neck. The investigation soon focused on the Whip Lash bar in Antioch, Illinois, which was operated by Serio and frequented by Ruhl, Serio's close friend and companion. Neubauer had planned to pick up Denise Schubat, his girlfriend who worked as a bartender there, after she finished her shift at around 2:30 a.m. that morning. He left his parents' home at approximately 1:45 a.m. and never returned.
Neubauer was the father of Schubat's daughter, but the couple had separated sometime after the child's birth in August 1998. Neubauer had continued to visit his daughter, however, and sometime in November 2001, he began seeing Schubat again. After they resumed their relationship, Neubauer often picked Schubat up at the end of her shift.
When first questioned by police, Schubat denied any knowledge of the murder and claimed that Neubauer had failed to show up at the end of her shift. Schubat claimed she had driven her own car directly home and called Neubauer's cell phone at approximately 2:43 a.m. She left a message stating in effect that she assumed he had stayed in the city, that she had driven herself home, and that she would talk to him later. When Neubauer's mother called her later that morning inquiring about her son's whereabouts, Schubat told her that she had not heard from him. She told the police the same thing. Three months later, however, on April 4, 2002, Schubat's story changed dramatically after police confronted her with evidence that she was present at the time Neubauer was shot. Schubat then gave a statement implicating Ruhl and Serio. Shortly thereafter, Ruhl and Serio were both charged with Neubauer's murder, and Schubat became a key witness against them in their separate trials.
According to Schubat, Serio had been pursuing a sexual relationship with her since shortly after he hired her to tend bar at the Whip Lash in August 2001. On one occasion in late October 2001, before she had resumed her relationship with Neubauer, Schubat had gone with Serio to a motel where they used cocaine and had sexual relations. When Serio invited her to his motel room the next day, Schubat told him the previous night was a mistake. According to Schubat, Serio was unhappy with her decision and continued to pursue her even after she resumed her relationship with Neubauer.
Ruhl was Serio's friend. Schubat testified that the two were always together, and Ruhl would frequently drive Serio to work and run errands for him. Ruhl was also doing some remodeling at the bar and owed Serio a substantial amount of money.
Schubat testified that the two used " direct-connect" Nextel cellular telephones that had a two-way radio feature which they used to communicate with each other every night.
Schubat testified that while at work about a week before Neubauer's murder, she overheard Serio say to Ruhl that they were going to kill Neubauer. Ruhl responded that he would go along with it as long as Schubat would not get mad at him. Schubat testified that they were both laughing at the time, and she thought they were joking. She told them they were crazy and went back to work.
Over the following week, Serio continued to press Schubat to go out with him. On each occasion, Schubat refused, explaining that she was with Neubauer. In fact, Schubat testified that she spent almost every night during the week with Neubauer at his parents' house. On the evening of January 4, 2002, Serio again asked Schubat to go out with him after work, and Schubat again refused, stating she was going out with Neubauer. Serio then asked her to call him when she got home so he knew she was safe and not with Neubauer anymore. When Schubat asked Serio why he wanted to know that, Serio sad he was going to kill Neubauer. Schubat testified that again she did not take Serio seriously because he was laughing and joking at the time he said it.
When Schubat arrived at work the following night, Serio asked her why she did not call him when she got home earlier that day. Schubat told him she was busy, and Serio stormed away. He later returned and began questioning her about where she was and what she and Neubauer were doing. Schubat responded that they had gone to a friend's house and arrived home late, but it really was none of his concern. Serio made a comment about getting rid of Neubauer so Schubat could be with him, to which Schubat responded that he was crazy and they would never be together.
At approximately 10:00 p.m., Serio met with Ruhl in the back kitchen area of the bar where they remained talking for between 30 and 40 minutes. When Schubat poked her head in at one point, the two stopped talking. Serio later returned to the bar, and Ruhl left by another door that led to the parking lot. Later that evening Schubat also noticed that a handgun she had previously seen in one of the drawers behind the bar was missing.
After the bar closed at 2:00 a.m., Schubat began cleaning up. Neubauer previously told her that he planned to go to a party at a friend's house that evening, but would pick her up after her shift ended and take her back to the party with him. Schubat had driven her own car to work so that if his plans changed she could drive directly home. As she was cleaning up, Schubat heard Serio talking with Ruhl over their Nextel phones with the two-way radio feature about a car in the parking lot that fit the description of Neubauer's mother's car. Schubat told Serio that must be Neubauer and that she had to go. At that point, Serio told Ruhl to go up to the car window and shoot Neubauer. Again Schubat did not believe Serio was serious. She finished counting her tips, grabbed her coat, and started to leave. Serio pushed her behind the bar and told her she wasn't going anywhere. He then instructed Ruhl to go knock on the window and pull the trigger. Schubat testified she heard Ruhl ask, " Are you sure?" and Serio screamed into the phone, " I want to hear a gunshot." Thirty seconds later, Schubat heard a gunshot. She jumped over the bar and ran to the window. When she looked out, she saw Neubauer sitting in his car slumped over.
Schubat testified that at that point she collapsed. Serio picked her up, sat her on
the pool table, and began shaking her and telling her to calm down and relax. He told her she couldn't be mad at him because he didn't do it. Shortly thereafter, she heard pounding on the door and glass breaking. Serio then opened the door, and Ruhl came in. After Ruhl entered, Schubat saw the gun she had previously noticed missing lying on the bar, and Ruhl began pacing back and forth. Ruhl then told Serio that they had to hurry and get rid of the body. Serio told Schubat to go home and make sure no one knows that Neubauer came to pick her up. According to Schubat, Serio threatened to harm her and her daughter if she told anyone what happened. Serio also instructed Schubat to call Neubauer's cell phone to check in once she arrived at her home. Schubat then proceeded to her car with Serio watching her. She immediately drove to her home and, as instructed, called Neubauer's cell phone and left the message described above when she arrived.
After Neubauer's body was discovered, and in the days and weeks that followed, Schubat was questioned by police and repeatedly told them that Neubauer had never arrived at the Whip Lash after closing on January 6, 2002. She testified that she continued to lie to police because she was terrified of Serio and Ruhl and thought they would harm her daughter if she told the truth. She said she had enjoyed a close relationship with Neubauer at the time he was murdered and claimed the first time she realized Serio was serious about killing him was when he told Ruhl to shoot him just before he did so.
The State presented two other witnesses that tended to corroborate Schubat's testimony concerning Ruhl's involvement. Kristen Koets, Serio's ex-girlfriend, testified that Serio had directed her to obtain a firearm owner's identification card in 2001, even though Koets did not own a firearm and knew nothing about them. Shortly before Christmas, Serio came to Koets' house with Ruhl and had Koets drive the two of them to a sporting goods store. Serio went into the store with Koets, while Ruhl remained in the car, and Serio directed Koets to buy a box of bullets using her firearms identification card. When they returned to the car, Serio told Koets to give the bullets to Ruhl. She then dropped the two of them off at a hotel. Koets also corroborated Schubat's testimony that Serio and Ruhl were frequently together.
In addition, Waukegan police officer Keith Lamanna testified that he stopped a vehicle Serio was driving at 5:17 a.m. on the morning of January 6, 2002, at an intersection in Waukegan, Illinois. Ruhl was his only passenger. Officer Lamanna became suspicious after they told him that they were coming from the north around Round Lake because Round Lake was due west. When asked where they were going, they said they were looking for a restaurant. During a consensual search of the vehicle, Officer Lamanna recovered an open bottle of liquor from ...