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Richardson v. Morton

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


September 20, 1999

RE: ARTHUR RICHARDSON V. WILLIAM E. MORTON, ET AL

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nicholas H. Politan U.S.D.J.

CHAMBERS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. NICHOLAS H. POLITAN FEDERAL BUILDING & U.S.COURTHOUSE JUDGE 50 WALNUT ST., ROOM 5076 P.O. BOX 999 NEWARK, N.J. 07101-0999

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

LETTER ORDER

ORIGINAL ON FILE WITH CLERK OF THE COURT

Dear Litigants:

This matter comes before the Court on the petition of Arthur Richardson for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The Court has decided the matter without oral argument pursuant to Rule 78 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. After careful consideration of the papers submitted in support of and in opposition to the petition, the Court concludes that the petition for habeas relief should be DENIED. This case is CLOSED.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

Richardson's petition arises from his conviction in a New Jersey state court. After his direct appeal in the state courts, petitioner commenced post-conviction relief. Post-conviction proceedings concluded on May 23, 1997, when the New Jersey State Supreme Court denied his petition for certification. Shortly thereafter, in compliance with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Petitioner filed his habeas corpus petition.

DISCUSSION

Petitioner contends that: (1) by denying Edith Batts permission to testify, the trial court violated his constitutional rights; (2) the court permitted Felicia Scott, a lay witness, to give expert testimony which violated Petitioner's right to a fair trial; (3) the trial judge, through his questioning of witnesses was partial to the state, therefore depriving Petitioner of a fair trial; (4) the reporter failed to transcribe read-back of testimony, which is cause for a reversal of Petitioner's conviction; (5) the trial judge coerced the jury into convicting Petitioner and (6) Petitioner received ineffective assistance of counsel at his initial trial and on appeal.

I. LAY WITNESS TESTIMONY

Petitioner alleges that Felicia Scott, the decedent's neighbor, gave expert testimony concerning lighting conditions at the time of the murder. Because Scott testified as a lay witness, petitioner contends that the court erred by permitting her to discuss, "[t]he lighting conditions in the victim's bedroom at night [which] were certainly within the purview of expert testimony." (Defendant's Brief in Support of Petition, p. 14). Petitioner apparently argues that either the jury gave Scott's testimony more weight because it falsely believed that Scott acted as an expert witness or that the court erred in admitting her testimony.

Rule 701 of the Federal Rules of Evidence discusses the testimony that a lay witness may provide.

It states:

If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness' testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (a) rationally based on the perception of the witness and (b) helpful to a clear understanding of the witness' testimony or the determination of a fact in issue.

Ultimately, the determination of whether a person is a lay or expert witness falls within the trial judge's discretion. Scott provided opinions or inferences rationally based on her perception of the lighting conditions in the victim's apartment at the time of the murder. The testimony was helpful in determining whether the apartment had enough light for someone to observe the murder. More elaborate and complicated evidence than lighting conditions has been found admissible testimony by lay witnesses. See, e.g., Asplundh Mfg. Div. v. Benton Harbor Eng'g, 57 F.3d 1190 (3d Cir. 1995) (holding that Rule 701 gives a trial judge discretion to admit lay opinion testimony, even when the testimony concerns technical matters such as product defects, as long as the testimony meets the requirements of Rule 701).

Additionally, petitioner does not cite any cases where courts found lighting conditions to be expert testimony. Scott's testimony fulfilled both prongs of Rule 701. The petitioner failed to prove that the trial court incorrectly deemed the testimony lay instead of expert testimony. Therefore, the trial court correctly admitted Scott's testimony as a lay witness and did not violate petitioner's right to a fair trial.

II. INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL

Petitioner argues that he received ineffective assistance of counsel both at trial and on appeal. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, reh'g denied, 467 U.S. 1267 (1984), established the standard for determining ineffective assistance of counsel. Under Strickland's, two prong test, the defendant must show: (1) counsel's errors were objectively deficient and (2) counsel's performance "prejudiced the defense." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. The defendant must also overcome the "strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689.

Petitioner alleges that at trial that his attorney failed to call certain alibi witnesses, investigate completely and prepare an adequate defense strategy. (Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Hearing Discovery and Expansion of Record, p. 34). Petitioner further complains that his counsel on appeal never met with him prior to his appeal and didn't raise several issues on appeal. (Defendant's Brief in Support of Petition, p. 28).

The standard for the first prong of Strickland is whether counsel provided reasonably effective assistance. See id. at 687. Courts should be highly deferential when reviewing counsel's performance because, "[r]epresentation is an art, and an act or omission that is unprofessional in one case may be sound or brilliant in another." Id. at 693. Petitioner claims that trial counsel failed to call essential witnesses, did not perform necessary investigations, and successfully convinced Petitioner not to testify. None of these allegations constitute ineffective assistance. It may have been strategically unwise for counsel to call certain witnesses or to permit Petitioner to testify. Counsel need not investigate every allegation asserted by their client in order to constitute effective assistance. See id. at 691. In short, Petitioner has not offered any evidence or explanation of why his trial or appeals lawyer's conduct was objectively deficient within the meaning of Strickland.

To meet Strickland's second prong Petitioner must prove that counsel's performance prejudiced the defense. See id. at 691. "An error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment." Id. at 691. Petitioner does not present a claim where prejudice is normally presumed. See id. at 692. (holding that in instances of constructive denial of counsel, state interference with counsel, or when counsel has a conflict of interest, prejudice is presumed). Nor does Petitioner prove actual prejudice. Petitioner merely alleges that errors conceivably impacted the outcome. This is insufficient under Strickland, which requires the defendant to prove "that but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. Hence, Petitioner fails the second prong.

Petitioner fails both prongs of Strickland. There is no evidence that trial counsel and counsel on appeal did not act within the standards of professional conduct nor provide reasonable assistance. Furthermore, neither counsel's conduct prejudiced Petitioner's defense.

III. FAIR TRIAL

Petitioner alleges that he was denied his right to a fair and impartial trial. He claims that: (1) the trial judge denied permission for a witness to testify, which violated Petitioner's rights under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) the trial judge's questioning of the witnesses and rulings were partial and deprived Petitioner of a fair trial; (3) the failure to transcribe the read-back of some testimony tainted the trial and (4) that the trial judge coerced the jury to find the Petitioner guilty. (Defendant's Brief in Support of Petition, pp. 9-13, 18-27).

In Lisenba v. People of the State of California, 314 U.S. 219, 236 (1941), reh'g denied, 315 U.S. 826 (1942), the United States Supreme Court stated in pertinent part:

As applied to a criminal trial, denial of due process is the failure to observe that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice. In order to declare a denial of it we must find that the absence of that fairness fatally infected the trial; the acts complained of must be of such quality as necessarily prevents a fair trial.

Petitioner's allegations do not prove that his trial lacked fundamental fairness. None of petitioner's claims are supported by evidence suggesting a fatally infected trial.

Petitioner was not prejudiced by any of the alleged acts or omissions. Therefore, there is no reason to overturn petitioner's conviction based on this point.

CONCLUSION

Based upon the foregoing, Richardson's petition for writ of habeas corpus is DENIED. This case is CLOSED.

A certificate of appealability shall not issue.

SO ORDERED:

19990920

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