On Appeal From the United States District Court For the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civ. No. 99-cv-04347) District Judge: Honorable William H. Walls
Before: Roth, Becker and Cowen, Circuit Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Becker, Circuit Judge
This is an appeal from the order of the District Court denying the petition of John Martini, Sr. for a writ of habeas corpus brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Martini was convicted of first-degree murder and related offenses in connection with the disappearance and death of Irving Flax, a Fairlawn, New Jersey businessman. Flax was forcibly taken from his home by Martini and his thengirlfriend, Therese Afdahl. The pair demanded ransom money from Flax's wife and although Mrs. Flax paid the money, Martini murdered Flax by three pistol shots to the back of the head, and left his body in a parking lot. It was not disputed that Martini committed the crime; rather, the defense challenged the state's claim that he acted purposely or knowingly, adducing evidence that Martini's capacity was diminished by serious and long-standing addiction to cocaine. The jury rejected that defense at both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial, and Martini was sentenced to death. Martini seeks to overturn his sentence, alleging, inter alia, that a potential juror was improperly dismissed for cause in violation of Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968), and also that the trial court improperly answered a jury question regarding the permissible use of mitigating evidence, the two issues on which we granted a Certificate of Appealability ("COA").
We have no difficulty with the latter point, and reject Martini's contention. The former issue is, however, close and difficult with respect to juror Ronald Vladyka (though not with respect to two other jurors with respect to whom a COA was not issued). Martini presents a forceful argument that the ability of juror Ronald Vladyka to follow the trial Court's instructions as to the penalty phase was not substantially impaired, and that he should have been seated on the jury. We conclude, however, that Martini has failed to meet the rigorous standard of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) for rebutting, by clear and convincing evidence, the presumption of correctness of the finding of the state trial judge, affirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court, that Vladyka's ability was substantially impaired, and hence we will affirm the order of the District Court.
I. Procedural History; Standard of Review
After a Bergen County, New Jersey jury convicted Martini of the 1990 Flax kidnapping and murder, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence on direct appeal. State v. Martini, 131 N.J. 176, 619 A.2d 1208 (1993). Although Martini was initially scheduled to be executed in 1995, the public defender successfully sought a stay and in the ensuing years has filed several appeals alleging, inter alia, psychiatric incompetence to waive post-conviction relief proceedings, ineffective assistance of counsel, and violation of Martini's Brady right to exculpatory evidence. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's denial of post-conviction relief on each of these grounds. State v. Martini, 139 N.J. 3, 651 A.2d 949 (1994); State v. Martini, 144 N.J. 603, 677 A.2d 1106 (1996); State v. Martini, 148 N.J. 453, 690 A.2d 603 (1997); State v. Martini, 160 N.J. 248, 734 A.2d 257 (1999).
Martini then sought a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court for the District of New Jersey under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his death sentence on seven grounds listed in the margin.*fn1 The District Court denied the petition in all respects. Although Martini sought relief on all seven grounds, we granted a COA on only the two referenced above. The District Court had jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241 and 2254, and we exercise appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2253 and 1291. Although our review of the District Court's decision is plenary, Marshall v. Hendricks, 307 F.3d 36, 50 (3d Cir. 2002), under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA") and the Supreme Court's decision in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), we must deny federal habeas corpus relief to any claim which was adjudicated on the merits in a state court proceeding unless such adjudication:
(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.
28 U.S.C. §§ 2254(d)(1) and (2) (2001).
In this statutory scheme of legal deference, only the unreasonable determination prong of § 2254(d)(2) is potentially applicable to Martini's Witherspoon claim. See, e.g., Kinder v. Bowersox, 272 F.3d 532, 543-44 (8th Cir. 2001). Also relevant to the analysis is § 2254(e)(1):
In a proceeding instituted by an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court, a determination of a factual issue made by a State court, shall be presumed to be correct. The applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.
See Wiggins v. Smith, 123 S. Ct. 2527, 2539 (2003) (applying the standard).
II. Wrongful Exclusion of a Prospective Juror
During voir dire, 209 persons were individually questioned by the court and counsel. Over defense counsel's objection, the trial court excluded for cause prospective juror Ronald Vladyka because the court believed that his answers to the prosecutor's and public defender's questions demonstrated that he would have substantial difficulty voting for the death penalty. Martini argues that Vladyka's exclusion constitutes an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in state court. As we have explained elsewhere, " Witherspoon 's holding is grounded in the right to a fair and impartial jury guaranteed to state criminal defendants by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, and thus veniremen can be excluded based on their views on capital punishment only if they would be biased and lack impartiality in hearing the case." Szuchon, 273 F.3d at 327. A trial court's conclusion that a potential juror would be biased is a factual determination, see id. at 330, and it is therefore entitled to a presumption of correctness under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).
It is clear that potential jurors may not be excused for cause "simply because they voiced general objections to the death penalty or expressed conscientious or religious scruples against its infliction." Witherspoon, 391 U.S. at 522. Instead, the Supreme Court has explained that the standard for exclusion is whether a potential juror's views would "prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath." Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 433 (1985) (quoting Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38, 45 (1980)). It emphasized that the determination of juror bias is a factual one that need not be proven with "unmistakable clarity." Id. at 424. In this type of case, it is crucial to examine the transcript in detail. Although we will discuss relevant portions of it in this opinion, because the reader may find it useful, we have attached the entire transcript, which is relatively short, as an appendix to this opinion.
It is beyond dispute that Vladyka was personally opposed to the death penalty:
Q. Do you have any feelings or beliefs about the death penalty?
A. I don't believe in it.
Q. Under any circumstances?
A. Well, I just — I don't know. I just don't believe in it. I can't really give a reason why.
Q. Do you think there are any crimes where the death penalty is an appropriate penalty?
The law, however, is clear that mere personal opposition to the death penalty is not cause for exclusion if the prospective juror would nevertheless be able to follow his oath and apply the death penalty if the facts and law required. See Szuchon, 273 F.3d at 329 (holding improper the removal of a prospective juror for cause where the court found "no evidence that [his] lack of belief in capital punishment would have prevented or substantially impaired his ability to apply the law"). The Court, the defense counsel, and the prosecutor all questioned Vladyka as to the extent to which his personal views might inhibit his ability to vote to impose capital punishment. We will detail Vladyka's responses.
The Court proceeded first:
Q. Do you feel that your beliefs about the death penalty would adversely affect your ability to fairly and impartially determine guilt or innocence?
Q. As a sworn juror — would you be able to weigh the [aggravating and mitigating] factors, the evidence on both sides, apply the principles of law as I explain, and if the facts warranted — would you be able to vote to impose the death penalty?
A. That's a hard situation. You know, you don't know the facts, okay.
Q. That's what I've said; you don't know the facts, but let's assume there are no mitigating factors, only aggravating factors, or the aggravating factors... outweigh the mitigating factors to such a degree that based on the law, as I explain it, you have no choice?
Q. Would you be able to vote to impose the ...