United States District Court, D. New Jersey
November 1, 2005.
WILLIAM TRAMONTANA, Petitioner,
ROY L. HENDRICKS, et al., Respondents.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: STANLEY CHESLER, District Judge
William Tramontana filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Respondents filed an Answer,
arguing that the Petition should be dismissed on the merits.
Petitioner filed a Traverse. For the reasons expressed below, the
Court dismisses the Petition with prejudice and declines to issue
a certificate of appealability. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 2253(c),
2254(a), (b), (c). I. BACKGROUND
Petitioner challenges a judgment of conviction entered on
September 25, 1997, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law
Division, Mercer County, after a jury convicted him of first
degree murder, felony murder, first degree robbery, third degree
possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, and fourth degree
unlawful possession of a weapon. The Law Division merged the
murder and felony murder convictions and sentenced Petitioner to
a life sentence, with a 30-year period of parole ineligibility on
the murder conviction, and a consecutive 20-year term, with a
10-year period of parole ineligibility, on the robbery
conviction. Petitioner appealed, arguing that the trial court's
failure to instruct the jury on intoxication was error and that
the court improperly imposed a consecutive sentence. In an
opinion filed October 13, 1999, the Appellate Division of the
Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed the convictions, vacated
the sentence, and remanded for resentencing. On November 15,
1999, the Law Division resentenced Petitioner. The Law Division
imposed the same sentence but ran the 20-year term concurrently
with the life sentence. On January 28, 2000, the Supreme Court of
New Jersey denied certification. State v. Tramontana,
163 N.J. 12 (2000) (table).
Petitioner thereafter filed a petition for post conviction
relief in the Law Division. Petitioner claimed ineffective
assistance of counsel and an unjust sentence. The Law Division
conducted an evidentiary hearing on the ineffective assistance
claim and denied relief in an order filed November 27, 2000.
Petitioner appealed on the ground that the trial court erred in
concluding that counsel was effective under the Sixth and
Fourteenth Amendments. In an opinion filed October 3, 2002, the
Appellate Division affirmed the order denying post conviction relief. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification on
March 28, 2003. State v. Tramontana, 176 N.J. 73 (2003)
Petitioner executed the Petition which is now before the Court
on July 9, 2003. The Clerk received it on July 11, 2003. The
Court notified Petitioner of the consequences of filing such a
Petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act
("AEDPA") and gave him an opportunity to withdraw the Petition
and file one all-inclusive Petition, pursuant to Mason v.
Meyers, 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000). The Petition presents two
grounds: (1) the failure to instruct the jury on intoxication
violated Petitioner's Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and
(2) trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective
assistance in violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The State filed an Answer asserting no affirmative defenses and
seeking dismissal of the Petition on the merits. Petitioner filed
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Section 2254(a) of Title 28 of the United States Code gives the
court jurisdiction to entertain a habeas petition challenging a
state conviction or sentence only where the inmate's custody
violates federal law:
[A] district court shall entertain an application for
a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in
custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court
only on the ground that he is in custody in violation
of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United
28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).
A district court must give deference to determinations of state
courts. Duncan v. Morton, 256 F.3d 189, 196 (3d Cir.), cert.
denied, 534 U.S. 919 (2001); Dickerson v. Vaughn, 90 F.3d 87, 90 (3d Cir. 1996). Where a federal claim was "adjudicated on the
merits"*fn1 in state court proceedings, § 2254 does not
permit habeas relief unless adjudication of the claim
(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).
A decision is "`contrary to' a Supreme Court holding if the
state court `contradicts the governing law set forth in [the
Supreme Court's] cases' or if it `confronts a set of facts that
are materially indistinguishable from a decision of th[e Supreme]
Court and nevertheless arrives at a [different] result."
Rompilla v. Horn, 355 F.3d 233, 250 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting
Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000)).
Under the "`unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas
court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the
correct governing legal principle from th[e Supreme] Court's
decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of
the prisoner's case." Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. Whether a
state court's application of federal law is "unreasonable" must
be judged objectively; an application may be incorrect, but still
not unreasonable. Id. at 409-10. A court begins the analysis by determining the relevant clearly
established law. See Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652,
___, 124 S.Ct. 2140, 2147 (2004). Clearly established law "refers
to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme
Court's] decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court
decision." Williams, 529 U.S. at 412. A court must look for
"the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the
Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision."
Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71, 72 (2003).
In Ground One, Petitioner asserts that the trial court violated
his constitutional rights by refusing to instruct the jury on the
intoxication defense. Specifically, Petitioner asserts:
Ground One: Defendant's Sixth Amendment Right To A
Fair Trial And Fourteenth Amendment Right To Due
process Of Law Was Violated When The Trial Court
Refused To Instruct The Jury On Intoxication.
(Pet. Addendum II, Ground I.) The government argues that New
Jersey law did not permit the trial judge to give an intoxication
charge or a manslaughter charge because the trial court properly
found that there was no rational basis for the jury to find that
Petitioner's faculties were so prostrated that he was incapable
of forming an intent to commit first degree murder.
The federal Constitution does not require a jury to consider
voluntary intoxication in determining whether the defendant
purposely and knowingly caused the death of a person, see
Montana v. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37 (1996); Goodwin v. Johnson,
132 F.3d 162, 191 (5th Cir. 1997), and the issue of whether the
evidence is sufficient to support an intoxication instruction is a question of state law, see Carpenter v. Vaughn,
296 F.3d 138, 152-53 (3d Cir. 2002); cf. Egelhoff, 518 U.S. 37.*fn2
Accordingly, Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief on
B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
In Ground Two, Petitioner argues that counsel was
constitutionally ineffective in failing to adequately investigate
and prepare a defense, and failing to call an expert witness to
testify regarding the absence of physical evidence on
Petitioner's clothing. Specifically, he asserts:
Ground Two: Defendant Was Denied His Sixth Amendment
Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel [in that]
Counsel Failed to Investigate and Prepare an Adequate
Defense[;] Counsel Failed to Investigate Potentially
Exculpatory Statements Defendant May Have Made to
Other Patrons at the Bar[; and] Counsel Failed to
Call an Expert Witness to Review the Clothing
Defendant Was Wearing to Confirm the Absence of Any
(Pet. Addendum II, Ground II.)
The right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance
of counsel, and counsel can deprive a defendant of the right by
failing to render adequate legal assistance. See Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). A claim that counsel's
assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a
conviction has two components, both of which must be satisfied.
Id. at 687. First, the defendant must "show that counsel's
representation fell below an objective standard of
reasonableness." Id. at 687-88. "A convicted defendant making a
claim of ineffective assistance must identify the acts or
omissions of counsel that are alleged not to have been the result
of reasonable professional judgment." Id. at 690. The court
must then determine whether, in light of all the circumstances at the time, the identified errors were
so serious that they were outside the wide range of
professionally competent assistance. Id. Second, the defendant
must show that "there is a reasonable probability that, absent
the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt
respecting guilt." Id. at 695.
In this case, Petitioner raised his ineffective assistance of
counsel claims on post conviction review. After conducting an
evidentiary hearing, the trial judge found that counsel was not
ineffective. On appeal, the Appellate Division rejected the claim
At a hearing held before Judge Leahy, defendant and
his former trial attorney both testified. What was
evident to Judge Leahy, and is evident to us, is that
defendant's contentions are without merit. He was
represented at trial by an attorney with over
twenty-five years experience in criminal defense work
who had tried "dozens" of murder cases. Trial counsel
explained his strategy in representing defendant and
spoke directly to the claims of ineffectiveness. In
each instance, counsel's approach was a reasonable
tactical decision. That the strategy failed is not
the test. We note that the State's case against
defendant was strong, in large part due to
defendant's confession which had been ruled
It is well-settled that in order to prevail on a
claim of ineffective assistance of counsel a
defendant must demonstrate not only that his
counsel's performance was significantly defective,
but also that the defective performance prejudiced
defendant's right to a fair disposition of the
charges. . . . Obviously, a reasonable tactical
decision belies remediable ineffectiveness. . . .
Our review of the record satisfies us that defendant
failed to demonstrate either prong of the
Strickland-Fritz test. We affirm the denial of
post-conviction relief substantially for the reasons
set forth by Judge Leahy in his oral decision.
Defendant's contentions are sufficiently without
merit that a full written opinion is unnecessary.
State v. Tramontana, No. A-2340-00T4 slip op. at 2-3 (App.Div.
Oct. 3, 2002). Petitioner is not entitled to habeas relief on Ground Two
because the adjudication of the ineffective assistance of counsel
claim by the New Jersey courts did not result in a decision that
was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of,
Strickland and its progeny.
C. Certificate of Appealability
The Court denies a certificate of appealability because
Petitioner has not made "a substantial showing of the denial of a
constitutional right" under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). See
Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322 (2003).
Based on the foregoing, the Court dismisses the Petition with
prejudice and declines to issue a certificate of appealability
under 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c).
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