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Alonzo Bryant v. Michelle R. Ricci

January 7, 2011

ALONZO BRYANT, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHELLE R. RICCI, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bumb, District Judge

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Petitioner Alonzo Bryant, a prisoner currently confined at the New Jersey State Prison, Trenton, New Jersey, has submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The respondents are Michelle Ricci, the Administrator of the New Jersey State Prison, and the Attorney General of New Jersey.

For the reasons stated herein, the petition must be denied.

BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

The relevant facts are set forth in the opinion of the New Jersey Supreme Court, in the direct appeal of Petitioner's co-defendant, Robert Morton.*fn1 See State v. Morton, 155 N.J. 383 (1998), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 931 (2001).

In two separate events during the night of February 23-24, 1993, two assailants attacked Toby Chrostowski and Michael Eck. Chrostowski, who was stabbed once in the chest, survived. Eck, who sustained a total of twenty-four stab wounds, died.

A. Chrostowski Stabbing

At approximately 10:20 p.m. on February 23, Chrostowski drove his BMW automobile into the parking lot of the Playhouse, a go-go bar in Burlington Township. Chrostowski, who had arranged to meet a co-worker, Brian Land, parked in front of Land's car. He noticed two men staring at him from a Ford Escort parked next to Land's car. Chrostowski exited his car and walked toward the bar. His path required him to pass between Land's car and the Ford.

As Chrostowski walked between the cars, the driver of the Ford stepped into Chrostowski's path. At the same time, the passenger walked around the car and approached Chrostowski from behind. Chrostowski tried to walk past the driver. He felt a sharp pain in his chest, but continued into the bar. On entering the bar, Chrostowski discovered that he was bleeding from a stab wound.

He described his attackers as black males, both of whom were wearing jackets. The shorter of the two men was wearing gold-framed glasses and a "different" kind of hat. Chrostowski's descriptions matched those of two men who had just been ejected from the Playhouse for unruly behavior. Chrostowski did not know which of the two men had stabbed him.

B. Eck Stabbing

In the early morning of February 24, approximately two hours after the Chrostowski stabbing, James Sireci, a limousine driver, was buying gas at the Amoco station in Delran. The attendant pumping gas was Michael Eck. Sireci saw a maroon Ford Escort pull into the station and stop by an air pump. No one, however, left the Ford. After paying Eck, Sireci noticed that the Ford was backing toward his limousine. Because the Ford almost hit the limousine, Sireci stared at the occupants. The driver was a dark-complexioned male with a mustache, who was wearing a black wool cap with a rolled-up brim. The passenger was a light-complexioned black male with closely cropped hair. Sireci then drove from the station.

Soon after, a 9-1-1 emergency dispatcher received a call from a public phone located at the Delran Amoco. The caller, who was gasping for breath, twice said "Delanco Amoco," but nothing else. By chance, Officer Charles Reynolds of the Delran Township Police Department, who had just completed his shift, arrived at the Delran Amoco to purchase cigarettes. On entering the attendant's office, he saw Michael Eck lying face up on the floor. The telephone was dangling off its hook. As Officer Reynolds knelt besides him, Eck said that he had been stabbed in the arm, groin, and chest. Eck's shirt and pants were torn and stained with blood. Although Eck was having difficulty breathing, he told Officer Reynolds that he had been stabbed by two young black men. The men were driving a "Gremlin" style vehicle which appeared under the station's fluorescent lights to be tan in color.

At approximately 12:25 a.m., emergency medical technicians arrived at the Delran Amoco. They gave Eck oxygen and applied pressure bandages to his stab wounds. They transported Eck to Memorial Hospital, where he died. The immediate cause of his death was a stab wound to his heart.

C. The Investigation

At approximately 1:05 a.m. on February 24, Officer William Zielinski went to the emergency room of the Rancocas Valley Hospital in response to a call regarding a patient with a knife wound. The patient was [Morton]. As Officer Zielinski entered the hospital, he passed Alonzo Bryant, who was leaving. Despite the subfreezing temperature, Bryant was not wearing a coat.

Inside the hospital, Nurse Mary Costello Armstrong explained that [Morton] had arrived with Bryant and was suffering from a spiral laceration on his left index finger. Although Bryant had told her that a broken bottle caused the cut, Nurse Armstrong recognized it as a knife wound. She believed that [Morton] was lying and suspected his injury was related to the stabbing of Chrostowski, whom she had treated earlier in the evening.

Officer Zielinski interviewed [Morton], whom he described as a short, stocky, black male wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a short-sleeved shirt. [Morton] was not wearing a coat. He said that a stranger had injured him at a bar in Trenton, but did not know the name or location of the bar. [Morton] also declined Officer Zielinski's offer to pursue further legal action against his assailant. Officer David Barnes, who arrived at the hospital to serve as a backup, described [Morton]'s demeanor as curt and evasive. When Detective Dean Potts of the Delran Police Department arrived, [Morton] repeated that he had been injured by an unknown assailant at an unnamed Trenton bar.

[Morton] left the hospital accompanied by two women. Detective Potts followed them in his patrol car as they left on foot. [Morton] wore only a short-sleeved shirt. On noticing that a police car was following them, [Morton] and his companions began to run. Detective Potts followed them until they entered a Burlington apartment complex.

On the afternoon of February 24, Frances Robinson and Paula Palmo-Reeves, who were exotic dancers at the Playhouse, along with their manager and a Playhouse bouncer, met with a police sketch artist. The purpose of the meeting was to obtain a description of the two men who had been ejected from the bar just before Chrostowski's stabbing. The two women described one man as a short, stocky, black male who wore gold-rimmed glasses and a fishing-style Raiders hat. The other man was a taller, thinner black male, whose conduct had caused both men to be ejected from the bar.

Later that evening, Robinson was driving on Route 130 with her boyfriend, Brian Land, when she noticed [Morton] driving alongside in his maroon Ford Escort. She recognized [Morton] as the short, stocky male who had been in the Playhouse the previous night. [Morton] again was wearing gold-rimmed glasses and his Raiders fishing hat. Land called the police on his car phone, and Robinson described [Morton] and his car. Robinson also gave the police a partial license plate number and said that [Morton] had turned off Route 130 into the Edgewater Park McDonald's Restaurant.

Patrolman Robert Hess of the Edgewater Park Police Department went to McDonald's at 12:25 a.m. on February 25. He discovered that [Morton]'s car was not listed in the police department's mobile data terminal information database, indicating that the car was either unregistered or stolen. While inspecting the car, [Morton] emerged from McDonald's wearing an employee uniform. When asked by Patrolman Hess for his name and address, [Morton] gave his name as Robert Moore, gave his aunt's phone number and address as his own, and admitted that he owned the car. Patrolman Hess reported the information to the Burlington City Police Department.

On that same morning, Beverly Cuffie called the Willingboro Police to report that her daughter, Vicky Williams, knew something about the Amoco station robbery. Officer David Barnes went to Cuffie's apartment to interview Williams. Also present was Bernard Harper, who was both Williams's boyfriend and Bryant's brother. Williams explained that Bryant's girlfriend, Annie Edwards, had called her with information about the robbery. According to Williams, Edwards said that, in the early morning of February 24, Bryant and [Morton] arrived at her apartment. They told her that they had robbed a gas station and stabbed the attendant. Harper explained that he too knew of [Morton]'s and Bryant's activities. He went to the police station and gave a taped statement.

In the statement, Harper related that at 9:00 p.m. on February 23, [Morton] and Bryant drove him to Williams's apartment. At the time, [Morton] was wearing glasses and a Raiders fishing hat. Additionally, [Morton] and Bryant were wearing green surgical gloves, and both possessed knives. Bryant told Harper that he planned to "get somebody, kill somebody and get some money." [Morton] and Bryant drove Harper to Williams's house and then to his aunt's house. Harper did not see either of them again until early the next morning when they returned to his aunt's house. At that time, [Morton] had blood on his jacket and a cut on his left hand. Bryant took [Morton] to Rancocas Valley Hospital. Sometime thereafter, Bryant called Harper to tell him that the police were interviewing [Morton] at the hospital, and to ask if the police had come to his aunt's house looking for them. When Harper saw Bryant later that day, Bryant said that he had done something that he did not want to talk about. Bryant then gave Harper $25 dollars from a "knot" of bills in Bryant's pocket.

Police also obtained statements from Annie Edwards, Bryant's girlfriend, and Carolyn Bennett, Edward's roommate. The two women explained that [Morton] and Bryant arrived at their apartment sometime after midnight on February 24. At the time, [Morton] was wearing a Raiders fishing hat and a blood-stained jacket. [Morton] and Bryant went to the bathroom to treat a cut on [Morton]'s finger. Thereafter, Bryant took four cartons of cigarettes from his jacket. He asked Edwards to count a blood-stained wad of money, which totaled approximately $200.

Sometime thereafter, Bryant returned to the apartment alone. He explained that he and [Morton] had robbed the Amoco station. While Bryant beat the victim, [Morton] stabbed him. At Bryant's request, the two women went to the hospital, where they observed [Morton] speaking with police officers.

When returning from the hospital, [Morton] told the women that he had cut his finger in a bar fight. The women, however, told [Morton] that Bryant had already told them about the gas station robbery. [Morton] then admitted that he had cut himself when his knife folded back on his finger as he was stabbing Eck. [Morton] related that he had stabbed Eck as Bryant beat him. Demonstrating how he had stabbed Eck, [Morton] said that he believed that they had killed Eck. He boasted that "there was one less cracker that he would have to worry about." The women understood the word "cracker" to mean a white person.

Back at the apartment, [Morton] and Bryant spoke of their plan to "hit either a bank or another gas station." They laughed and joked as they described Eck's murder. Bryant told the women that [Morton] had stabbed Eck in the genitals, a statement [Morton] did not deny. According to Bryant, Eck called him "nigger" while being beaten and stabbed. Finally, Bryant said [Morton] had stabbed Eck with his knife. Bryant then disposed of [Morton]'s knife by throwing it somewhere between Cinnaminson and Willingboro. While at the house, Bryant placed [Morton]'s bloody jacket in the washing machine.

Based on this information, Police Captain Michael King decided to arrest [Morton] and Bryant for the murder of Michael Eck. Morton, 155 N.J. at 398-404.

B. Procedural Background

On September 16, 1993, a Burlington County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging Petitioner and co-defendant Robert Morton. Petitioner was charged with first-degree capital murder of Michael Eck, first-degree murder of Eck, first-degree robbery of Eck, and first-degree robbery while armed with a knife. Petitioner was also charged, along with Morton, with first-degree criminal attempt of murder of Chrostowski, first degree robbery with a knife, first-degree robbery of Chrostowski, second-degree aggravated assault of Chrostowski, and third-degree aggravated assault of Chrostowski with a knife, all in violation of New Jersey state law.

On October 15, 1993, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office served Petitioner with a Notice of Aggravating Factors, pursuant to New Jersey law, designating the case as a capital prosecution.

Pretrial motions were extensive, and included a motion to suppress Petitioner's statements to the police, which was denied. The guilt phase of the trial began on December 16, 1996. On January 30, 1997, the jury acquitted Petitioner of capital murder, but convicted him of purposeful or knowing murder of Eck and felony murder of Eck, the first-degree robbery of Eck, the first-degree robbery of Chrostowski, and both counts of aggravated assault against Chrostowski. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the charge of attempted murder of Chrostowski.

Petitioner's motion for a new trial was denied on April 11, 1997, and Petitioner was sentenced pursuant to an extended term sentence. Petitioner's aggregate sentence was two life terms, with a 55-year parole disqualifier.

Petitioner appealed. On February 2, 2000, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division ("Appellate Division") affirmed the conviction and sentence. Petitioner filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court, which was denied on May 11, 2000.

On November 3, 2000, Petitioner filed a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) in the sentencing court. The motion was denied on June 30, 2005. Petitioner appealed the denial, and on August 13, 2007, the Appellate Division affirmed the denial. Petitioner's petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court was denied on January 18, 2008.

Petitioner filed this habeas petition on July 14, 2008. Petitioner was advised of his rights pursuant to Mason v. Meyers, 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000), on September 3, 2008. On October 23, 2008, an Order to Answer was issued to Respondents. Respondents filed an Answer to the petition and the available state court record on or about May 18, 2009. Petitioner filed objections to the answer on November 16, 2010.

C. Petitioner's Claims

Petitioner cites fifteen grounds for relief in his habeas petition:

1. The court abused its discretion in denying Petitioner's motion to sever certain counts of the indictment because the prejudice of joinder outweighed the interests of judicial economy.

2. Petitioner's oral and written statements should have been suppressed because they were induced by material representations by the police that Petitioner would not be subject to the death penalty.

3. The court erred in denying Petitioner's motion for a mistrial made immediately after the prosecutor said in his opening statement that "there are no living witnesses to what ...


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