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Nance v. Moore

September 15, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Faith S. Hochberg, U.S.D.J.


Petitioner Lyle Nance, a prisoner currently confined at East Jersey State Prison, submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The respondents are Terrance Moore, the former administrator of East Jersey State Prison, and the Attorney General for the State of New Jersey. After having carefully reviewed the submissions of the parties, the Court will deny the petition.

Factual and Procedural History

Petitioner was tried in the Superior Court of Essex County for the purposeful or knowing murder of Michael Snow, felony murder, second-degree burglary of the apartment of his former girlfriend Donnelle Williams, two counts of endangering the welfare of children and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. On March 7, 1994, a jury acquitted the defendant of purposeful or knowing murder, but found him guilty of the lesser-included offense of aggravated manslaughter and guilty of the remaining charges.

Petitioner was sentenced to a thirty-year term of imprisonment without parole for the felony murder count, two four-year terms with two years of parole ineligibility on the endangerment charges and a concurrent term of twenty-one years with seven years of parole ineligibility for the aggravated manslaughter count. The weapon and burglary charges were merged with the other convictions.

On April 1, 1996, the Appellate Division reversed Petitioner's conviction and remanded for a new trial. On March 20, 1997, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the appellate decision and remanded back to the Appellate Division for consideration of prosecutorial misconduct and sentencing issues. State v. Nance, 148 N.J. 376, 689 A.2d 1351 (N.J. 1997). On April 15, 1998, the Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's conviction and modified the sentence to run all custodial terms concurrently.

After the Appellate Division's affirmance of his conviction, Petitioner filed several motions, both pro se and through numerous attorneys, for Post-Conviction Relief. All of these motions, along with several Motions for Reconsideration and a Petition for Certification to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, were denied. On July 12, 2004, Petitioner filed his petition for habeas relief with this Court, citing violations of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. Subsequently, this Court issued an Order to Show Cause, directing Petitioner to show why his application should not be dismissed as time-barred or unexhausted.*fn1

Standard of Review

Petitioner rests his application for a writ of habeas corpus on two substantive theories. He first argues that the gross misconduct of the prosecutor resulted in a violation of his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. He next argues that his rights under the Sixth Amendment were violated due to ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

The standard for federal habeas relief is set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d):

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the 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.

Further, "a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus... pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or the laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

The United States Supreme Court elaborated upon this statutory standard in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). There, the Supreme Court explained that a State court's decision can be "contrary to" Supreme Court precedent if the State court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that of the Supreme Court on a "question of law" or if "the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [the Supreme Court's]." Williams, 529 U.S. at 412--13. A federal habeas court making a determination on an allegedly "unreasonable application" of federal law should ask "whether the state court's application of the clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable." Id. at 409. In assessing the objective reasonableness of the state court application, "a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the State court identifies the correct governing legal principal from [the Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. at 413. Because "Congress specifically used the word 'unreasonable' and not a term like 'erroneous' or 'incorrect,'" a federal habeas court must conclude that the application of the law was unreasonable, not merely incorrect, for the writ to issue. Id. at 411.

While examining actions taken by a state court, federal habeas courts should grant proper deference to those state courts. Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75-76 (2003). "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." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). This presumption of correctness can only be overcome "by clear and convincing evidence." Id.

1. Prosecutorial Misconduct

When considering a claim of prosecutorial misconduct, "it is not enough that the prosecutors' remarks were undesirable or even universally condemned." Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 181 (1986). "[N]ot every trial error or infirmity which might call for application of supervisory powers correspondingly constitutes a 'failure to observe that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice.'" Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 642 (1974) (quoting Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 236 (1941)). Instead, "[t]he relevant question is whether the prosecutors' comments so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process." Darden, 477 U.S. at 181 (quoting Donnelly, 416 U.S. at 643); see Ramseur v. Beyer, 983 F.2d 1215, 1239 (3d Cir. 1992) (quoting Greer v. Miller, 483 U.S. 756, 765 (1987)) (holding that "review of a prosecutor's conduct in a state trial on application for a writ of habeas corpus is limited to determining whether the prosecution's conduct 'so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.").

The Court must view the prosecutor's remarks in the context of the entirety of the trial. "Inappropriate prosecutorial comments, standing alone, would not justify a reviewing court to reverse a criminal conviction obtained in an otherwise fair proceeding.... [T]he remarks must be examined within the context of the trial to determine whether the prosecutor's behavior amounted to prejudicial error." United States v. Young, 470 U.S. 1, 11-12 (1985) (citing Lawn v. United States, 355 U.S. 339 (1958)). The Court's decision should be predicated upon "the probable effect the prosecutor's [remarks] would have on the jury's ability to judge the evidence fairly." United States v. Young, 470 U.S. at 12.

2. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Petitioner also claims that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. To prevail on such a claim, Petitioner must meet the two-pronged test laid out in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, Petitioner must demonstrate that his attorney failed to provide "reasonably effective assistance" and that "counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 687-88. Second, "any deficiencies in counsel's performance must be prejudicial to the defense in order to constitute ineffective assistance under the Constitution." Id. at 692. In demonstrating prejudice, "[t]he defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. In weighing the effectiveness of counsel, "the court should recognize that counsel is strongly presumed to have rendered adequate assistance and made all significant decisions in the exercise of reasonable professional judgment." Id. at 690.


Petitioner makes seven specific claims alleging violations of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and five specific claims regarding violations of right to effective counsel under the Sixth Amendment. The Court addresses these claims individually and then turns to the assertion that ...

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