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Lawrence E. Pratt v. Karen Balicki

March 14, 2011


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



Petitioner Lawrence E. Pratt ("Petitioner") filed the instant Petition ("Petition"), seeking a writ of habeas corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), and challenging a judgment of conviction in the Superior Court of New Jersey. Respondent filed an answer to the Petition, and Petitioner traversed. For the reasons expressed below, the Court will dismiss the Petition and will decline to issue a certificate of appealability. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 2253(c), 2254(a), (b), (c).


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 States.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

"In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991); 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); accord Barry v. Bergen County Probation Dept., 128 F.3d 152, 159 (3d Cir. 1997). "Federal courts hold no supervisory authority over state judicial proceedings and may intervene only to correct wrongs of constitutional dimension." Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 221 (1982). "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). "[E]rrors of state law cannot be repackaged as federal errors simply by citing the Due Process Clause." Johnson v. Rosemeyer, 117 F.3d 104, 110 (3d Cir. 1997). Moreover, "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) (citation omitted); see also Smith v. Zimmerman, 768 F.2d 69, 71, 73 (3d Cir. 1985).

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). 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). 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 [as it is interpreted or] set forth in [the Supreme Court's, rather than in any state court's or any circuit 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." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000).

In other words, 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." Id. at 413. Whether a state court's application of federal law is "unreasonable" must be judged objectively, which means that 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, 660 (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).


The factual events, as presented by the State's witnesses during Petitioner's trial, were as follows:

During evening hours of June 24, 1998, a certain Kevin Pretlow ("Pretlow") was in his apartment. At that time, Pretlow was engaged, and he and his fianceee were saving money to move in a jointly-held residence. The saved money, in the amount of $3,000, were held in a safe located within Pretlow's apartment.

Pretlow, not feeling well, laid down on a couch trying to get some rest. As he was laying on the couch, he heard a knock at the door of his apartment. Apparently, he looked through a window and saw a certain Michael Speller ("Speller"), whom Pretlow had known from a while ago, but whom he had not seen for some time. Recognizing Speller as a familiar face, Pretlow opened the door just to see, to his surprise, that Speller arrived with two other individuals, a certain Darnell Taylor ("Taylor") and Petitioner. All three arrivals entered Pretlow's apartment. At that point, Petitioner was armed with a sawed-off shotgun, while Speller had a handgun.

Upon entry of Pretlow's apartment, Speller demanded money. In response, Pretlow claimed he had none. Petitioner then pushed Pretlow to the floor, hit him in the head with the shotgun, and kicked him. As Petitioner continued kicking and beating Pretlow with the shotgun, Pretlow kept trying to crawl away, first making his way into the hallway and then into his daughter's bedroom. As that point, Speller handed his handgun to Taylor, and Taylor was instructed to watch Pretlow (who was ordered to lie on the floor), while Petitioner and Speller initiated a search for money throughout the apartment. Since Pretlow continued to move during this search, Petitioner -- at a brief moment when he re-entered the bedroom -- kicked Pretlow again, saying, "didn't I tell you don't move?"

Still trying to escape, Pretlow hit Taylor with an iron, after which Taylor took the iron away from him and beat Pretlow on the head. Pretlow then threw a portable heater through the bedroom window: he was trying to get attention of the people outside; that act seemed to be successful, since Pretlow's "visitors" left his apartment. However, by that time, they already found and took away with them Pretlow's safe containing, ...

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