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Koonce v. Cathel

September 22, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jose L. Linares, District Judge



Petitioner KEITH KOONCE a/k/a KYEM SADAT (hereinafter "Petitioner") filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus (hereinafter "Petition") challenging his conviction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Respondents filed an Answer (hereinafter "Answer") and the state record seeking dismissal of the Petition on the merits and for failure to state a federal claim.

For the reasons expressed below, the Court denies the Petition and declines to issue a certificate of appealability.


Petitioner challenges a judgment of conviction entered in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County, on January 27, 1997, after a jury found Petitioner guilty of felony murder, aggravated manslaughter, terroristic threats, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child, and possessions of a weapon without a permit and for an unlawful purpose. See Pet. ¶¶ 1-4, Ans. ¶ 3. Petitioner was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 30-year period of parole ineligibility. See id. ¶ 3. Petitioner appealed, and on June 15, 1999, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, affirmed his conviction. See id. ¶ 9, Ans. ¶ 9. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied his petition for certification on November 5, 1999. See id.

Petitioner also filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, which the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, denied on December 23, 2003. See Cert. of [Petitioner] in Support of Order to Show Cause ¶ 11. The Appellate Division affirmed the denial on April 22, 2005, and the New Jersey Supreme Court denied Petitioner's petition for certification on September 12, 2005. See id. ¶¶ 8-9.

On October 19, 2005, Petitioner executed the instant § 2254 Petition. The Clerk received it on October 25, 2005, with Petitioner's affidavit of poverty in support of his application to proceed in forma pauperis. The Court notified Petitioner of the consequences of filing such a Petition under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 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). Finally, on August 3, 2006, Petitioner filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing.

Petitioner raises numerous grounds which can be roughly subdivided into the following five categories of claims:

(I) Claims related to testimony of Victor Parker, a state witness (hereinafter "Witness"). These claims are reflected in Petitioner's Grounds One to Four.

(II) Claims attacking Petitioner's sentence and reflected in Petitioner's Grounds Seven to Nine.

(III) Claim related to the prosecutor's summation. This claim is reflected in Petitioner's Ground Five.

(IV) Claim attacking the jury verdict delivered in Petitioner's underlying case. This claim constitutes Petitioner's Ground Six.

(V) Claims alleging ineffectiveness assistance of counsel. These claims are stated in Petitioner's Grounds Ten to Nineteen.

See Pet., Addendum II at 2-33.

The specifics of all of Petitioner's contentions are detailed infra as part of the "Discussion" section of this Opinion.


Section 2254(a) of Title 28 of the United States Code grants federal district courts subject matter jurisdiction to entertain a claim that a state prisoner is in custody in violation of the Constitution, laws or treaties of the United States. Section 2254(a) provides, in pertinent part:

. . . 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 States.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

A habeas corpus petition must meet "heightened pleading requirements." McFarland v. Scott, 512 U.S. 849, 856 (1994) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Rule 2(c)). The petition must "specify all the grounds for relief which are available to the petitioner," and set forth "the facts supporting each of the grounds thus specified." See Rule 2(c) of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases.

Significantly, "it is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); Barry v. Bergen County Probation Dep't, 128 F.3d 152, 159 (3d Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 1136 (1998). A federal district court must dismiss a habeas corpus petition, summarily or otherwise, if it does not assert a constitutional violation. Siers v. Ryan, 773 F.2d 37, 45 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 490 U.S. 1025 (1989); Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases.*fn1 "If a state prisoner alleges no deprivation of a federal right, § 2254 is simply inapplicable. It is unnecessary in such a situation to inquire whether the prisoner preserved his claim before the state courts." Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 120 n.19 (1982). A district court is not permitted to transform a ground asserting a violation of state law into a ground raising a violation of the federal Constitution.*fn2 Nor may the court consider a federal claim that can be discerned from the facts of the case but is not asserted in the petition as a ground.*fn3

Furthermore, in its examination of a claim, a district court must give deference to determinations of state courts. Duncan v. Morton, 256 F.3d 189, 196 (3d Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 919 (2001); Dickerson v. Vaughn, 90 F.3d 87, 90 (3d Cir. 1996). Federal courts "must presume that the factual findings of both state trial and appellate courts are correct, a presumption that can only be overcome on the basis of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary." Stevens v. Delaware Correctional Center, 295 F.3d 361, 368 (3d Cir. 2002); see also 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) ("The applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.").

Where a federal claim was "adjudicated on the merits" 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) (emphasis supplied).*fn4 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 the [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 the [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; therefore, an application may be incorrect yet still reasonable. Id. at 409-10.

Lastly, although Petitioner did not present certain grounds to the New Jersey courts on direct appeal or in his petition for post conviction relief and the claims are not exhausted, this Court will not dismiss the Petition as a mixed petition because none of these grounds presents a colorable federal claim. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2) ("An application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the courts of the State."); Lambert v. Blackwell, 134 F.3d 506, 515 (3d Cir. 1997) (district court may deny an unexhausted petition on the merits under § 2254(b)(2) "if it is perfectly clear that the applicant does not raise even a colorable federal claim.").


I. Claims Related to the Witness' Testimony

a. Grounds One, Two and Three: Petitioner's Cross-examination of the Witness

In his first three grounds, Petitioner sets forth interrelated claims challenging the restrictions applied by Petitioner's trial court to Petitioner's cross-examination of the Witness. See Pet., Addendum II at 2-4. Specifically, Petitioner asserts as follows:

The [trial] court's restriction on [Petitioner's] ability to cross-examine [the Witness] deprived [Petitioner] of a fair trial. [T]he [trial] Court improperly restricted [Petitioner's] ability to cross-examine [the Witness] when [the Court] precluded any inquiry into the facts of the cases which were dismissed by the cooperation agreement [between the Witness and the State].*fn5 The Court set forth three reasons for precluding [this inquiry]: unfairness to [certain parties whose] cases . . . were dismissed; undue consumption of time; and . . . lack of probative value.

Id. at 2 (Ground One).

[Petitioner's] ability to engender a reasonable doubt was [therefore] unduly restricted by the [trial] court. It is unfortunate that the [trial] Court was more concerned with potential prejudice to . . . [other parties] than to [Petitioner when the Court restricted cross-examination of the Witness]. In [a complex case] such as [that of Petitioner's], issues of undue consumption of time and jury confusion are not particularly weighty.

Id. at 4 (Ground Three).*fn6

The precluded evidence [should have been allowed since it] was admissible [under the State law]. The dismissed [cases] against [the Witness] constituted . . . evidence [admissible] pursuant to N.J.R.E. 404(B).

Id. at 3 (Ground Two).

Petitioner's claims are without merit.

Petitioner's Ground Two contention is based on state law and, hence, is not subject to review by this Court since, even if Petitioner's contentions are valid, "errors of state law cannot be repackaged as federal errors simply by citing the Due Process Clause," Johnson, 117 F.3d at 110, and "it is well established that a state court's misapplication of its own law does not generally raise a constitutional claim." Smith v. Horn, 120 F.3d 400, 414 (3d Cir. 1997) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Smith v. Zimmerman, 768 F.2d 69, 71, 73 (3d Cir. 1985). "Before a federal court may overturn a conviction resulting from a state trial . . . it must be established not merely that the [State's action] is undesirable, erroneous, or even 'universally condemned,' but that it violated some right which was guaranteed to the defendant by the Fourteenth Amendment." Marshall v. Hendricks, 307 F.3d 36, 64 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209 (1982), and citing Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 146 (1973)); see Siers, 773 F.2d at 45 (a federal district court ...

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