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Rolan v. Vaughn

April 18, 2006


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 01-cv-00081) District Judge: Hon. Berle M. Schiller.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge


Argued on November 7, 2005

BEFORE: ROTH, FUENTES and GARTH, Circuit Judges.


The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has appealed the District Court's grant of the writ of habeas corpus to Florencio Rolan. For the reasons stated below, we will affirm.

I. Background

Florencio Rolan was convicted in Pennsylvania state court of first-degree murder and of possession of an instrument of crime for the 1983 death of Paulino Santiago. The Commonwealth's theory of the crime was that Rolan shot and killed Santiago during an attempted robbery of the proceeds of a five-dollar drug deal. Rolan was sentenced to death by a jury, but in 1997 the Pennsylvania post-conviction relief court vacated the sentence, holding that Rolan's attorney provided ineffective assistance during the penalty phase of the trial. In 2003, the penalty phase was retried and, following a unanimous jury verdict, Rolan was re-sentenced to life imprisonment. Rolan then brought a federal habeas action under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging that he also received ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt stage of his original trial.

The crux of Rolan's ineffective assistance claim was that his trial counsel, Melvin Goldstein, failed to investigate two witnesses who would have supported Rolan's self-defense claim. As a result, Goldstein never called the witnesses to testify at trial. Rolan also alleged ineffective assistance of counsel because Goldstein prevented Rolan from testifying on his own behalf and because Goldstein did not properly cross-examine Francisco Santiago, the prosecution's key witness, concerning a deal with the Commonwealth for his testimony.

Rolan's version of events, which corroborates his self-defense claim, is that he and his cousin, Robert Aponte, were involved in a dispute with brothers, Paulino and Francisco Santiago, over the proceeds of a petty drug sale. A buyer drove by the street corner on which Rolan, Aponte, and the Santiago brothers were selling marijuana. The driver held out a five dollar bill, and Paulino Santiago and Aponte both tossed a "nickel bag" of marijuana into a car. Paulino grabbed the bill as the driver drove away with the two bags, leaving Paulino and Aponte to resolve their claims to the money. In the ensuing dispute Rolan sided with Aponte, and Francisco Santiago with his brother, Paulino.

According to Rolan, at some point during the argument, an intoxicated Paulino grew angry and walked away, and Francisco went to urinate in an abandoned building in which neighborhood residents kept guns and drugs. Rolan followed Francisco into the building to continue discussing the payment incident. Paulino then entered the building. He was carrying what Rolan believed to be a knife, shouted a threat at Rolan, and charged at him. Rolan claims that he noticed a loaded rifle lying nearby, picked it up in time, and felled Paulino with a single shot.

Prior to trial, Goldstein and Rolan spoke on two occasions for short periods of time. Goldstein asked Rolan whether there were any people with whom he should speak about the crime. Rolan provided two names: Robert Aponte and Daniel Vargas. Goldstein wrote a letter to the prosecutor's office in which he disclosed these names as potential alibi (rather than self-defense) witnesses in accordance with Pennsylvania law. See PA. R. CRIM. P. 573 (formerly R. 305). Rolan claims that he did not tell Goldstein that Vargas and Aponte were alibi witnesses but instead that he wanted to call them in furtherance of his self-defense claim.

There is no indication that Goldstein ever attempted to contact Vargas or Aponte. A detective for the Commonwealth did, however, interview them. Vargas refused to cooperate with the detective. The detective reported that Vargas knew absolutely nothing about Rolan and was not an alibi witnesses. When Aponte was interviewed, he told the detective that "[a]s I started walking home [after the shooting] I saw my cousin [Rolan] and I asked him was he alright, [Paulino Santiago] didn't stab you or anything."*fn1

For reasons that are not clear from the record, the prosecution initially did not disclose having interviewed Aponte, stating on the eve of trial that he could not be found. At the close of the case, the prosecution did admit that detectives had interviewed Aponte, but reported that he was not an alibi witness and that neither Vargas nor Aponte knew anything about Paulino Santiago's death.Goldstein did not dispute the prosecution's claim.

At trial, the Commonwealth presented evidence that Rolan killed Paulino Santiago after following him into an abandoned house with the intention of robbing him of the five dollars from the drug deal. The main witness for the state was Francisco Santiago, who testified that he and Paulino were in the abandoned house when Rolan burst in carrying a 3-foot rifle and demanded that Paulino give him the drug money. According to Francisco, Rolan then fired a single shot to Paulino's chest, killing him. Francisco further testified that Rolan fled out of the back of the house and down an alley.*fn2 Francisco was given immunity from prosecution for the drug activities described in the testimony and other charges related to his brother's murder. At trial, the prosecution stated that the only thing the Commonwealth gave in exchange for Francisco's testimony was a letter to the Parole Board to let them know that Francisco had cooperated in the investigation and trial. This misrepresentation was never corrected by the Commonwealth or challenged by Goldstein.

The Commonwealth also called Edwin Rosado. Rosado's testimony was largely inconsistent with Francisco's account. Rosado claimed to have heard Paulino and Rolan arguing over a woman and stated that Rolan entered the house, without a weapon, before Paulino. Rosado then heard a single shot and saw Paulino emerge from the front of the house, at which point Francisco came to aid his brother -- but not from inside the house, as Francisco claimed.

Rolan pressed his attorney in open court to call Vargas and Aponte after Goldstein said he had no witnesses to call on Rolan's behalf. Rolan declared, "Yes, I have two other witnesses who are willing to come and testify." Goldstein explained to the court that Rolan was referring to Vargas and Aponte but that neither were alibi witnesses. After some wrangling between counsel and the court, Goldstein refused to call the witnesses. The jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced Rolan to death. Melvin Goldstein died while the direct appeal of Rolan's conviction was pending. After the direct appeal was denied, Commonwealth v. Rolan, 549 A.2d 553 (1988), Rolan sought post-conviction collateral relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 9541 et seq. In the meantime, Robert Aponte died.

In 1997, the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas held an evidentiary hearing on Rolan's PCRA petition. At the hearing, Vargas testified that he was never asked to testify on behalf of Rolan but would have testified if he had been asked to do so. Vargas also stated that the detective asked him to testify against Rolan and that he did not voluntarily go to the police with his knowledge of the case "because at that time [he] didn't want to get involved in that ... because the families was [sic] hurt and [he] knew both families." Vargas also testified at the PCRA hearing that, when Rolan went into the abandoned house, he was not carrying anything except a quart of beer; Francisco followed Rolan into the house; then Paulino came around the corner carrying a kitchen knife; Paulino went into the house after Rolan, screaming, "I'll kill you, motherfucker!" Vargas then heard a shot. When Vargas went into the house with Aponte, Paulino was lying on the ground and there was a knife at his feet.

On cross-examination, the Commonwealth questioned Vargas concerning his recalcitrance when interviewed by detectives before Rolan's criminal trial. The Commonwealth noted that the detective who interviewed Vargas gave him a piece of paper that said "You're being questioned concerning a possible alibi witness for the defendant Florencio Rolan. Are you willing to give a statement to the District Attorney's Office." Vargas, who stated that he understood "alibi" to mean "lie," testified that he thought this meant that the detective had approached him to testify against Rolan.

The PCRA trial court found that Goldstein's assistance was constitutionally defective during the penalty phase of Rolan's trial and vacated the death sentence but held that Rolan had waived his claims regarding the guilt phase of his trial. The court nevertheless reviewed Rolan's claims regarding the guilt phase for purpose of providing the state appellate court with a complete record. Although its analysis was brief and conclusory, the PCRA trial court ...

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