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Abdul A. Abdullah v. Michelle Ricci

March 31, 2011


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



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

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


A. Factual Background

The relevant facts are set forth in the opinion of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division ("Appellate Division"), in Petitioner's direct appeal.*fn1 See Respondents' Exhibit ("RE") 9.

Defendant, also known as Aleem, first met Catrina Lark in 1996 and thereafter they developed a relationship. Defendant would visit Lark during the day and return to his girlfriend Joan Robinson's apartment at night. Defendant fathered two children with Robinson and referred to her as his "wife." Defendant's relationship with Lark ended sometime between December 1998 and January 1999. Lark then began dating defendant's cousin Robert Boswell. After being incarcerated on January 15, 1999, in the Atlantic County Jail for a parole violation, defendant learned that Lark was seeing his cousin. Soon thereafter, Boswell was incarcerated in the same jail. On March 21, 1999, Corrections Officer Frank Timik observed an argument between defendant and Boswell while they were being visited by their respective girlfriends. Timik heard defendant call Lark a "bitch" and a "whore." Defendant and Boswell were thereafter placed on the no contact list.

According to Lark's mother, Shelby, Lark refused to accept daily collect calls from defendant after their relationship ended. Phone records from Atlantic County Jail indicate that defendant made 467 calls to Lark from the County Jail. (Defendant admitted making numerous calls to Lark, including 192 calls in a single day.) Shelby testified that one day in March, while she was visiting Lark, she accepted a call from defendant and used the occasion to tell him to stop calling her daughter because Lark did not want to be bothered by him anymore. Shelby stated that defendant responded: "If I can't have the bitch, nobody can have her. I'll kill her first."

Defendant claimed that he made the calls after he learned Lark was pregnant with his child and she threatened to abort the pregnancy if he did not leave his wife. Defendant told Lark that he would not leave his wife but that he would be a father to his child. He denied ever threatening Lark. Defendant was released from the county jail in April 1999.

On May 1, 1999, at approximately 3:30 a.m., Lark phoned Jessica Ruiz, her friend and neighbor who lived in an apartment across the street from her. At the time Ruiz was awake watching television with her then boyfriend, Lark's cousin, Ronald Taylor. Ruiz related that Lark called her and told her that defendant was outside "knocking on her window trying to get in her house." Before hanging up the telephone, however, Lark told Ruiz that defendant had left the area and that she would be all right.

Stella Hargrove lived on the second floor in the same apartment building as Lark. She testified that she was awakened in the early morning hours by a female voice in Lark's apartment saying, "Aleem don't hit me." Ronald Taylor woke up and left Ruiz's apartment between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. He went across the street to visit Lark. When Taylor arrived at Lark's apartment, he found the door unlocked and Lark lying on the kitchen floor. The apartment was in complete disarray and Lark was lying in a pool of blood. Taylor ran back to Ruiz's house and told her to call the police.

Officer Ed Leon of the Atlantic County Police Department was dispatched to Lark's apartment. Leon found Lark lying on her kitchen floor, nude from the waist down, with a pool of blood around her head. She had no pulse, her skin was cold, and she was becoming rigid.

Police officers seized various items from Lark's apartment believed to be associated with the attack that were either near the body or in Lark's bedroom.

The items included: a blood stained rolling pin, a broken clothes iron, a broken ceramic lamp, a broken cast iron frying pan, three blood-stained serrated steak knives with bent blades, three blood-stained kitchen knives with broken blades, and three intact bloodstained kitchen knives. Only two items, both serrated steak knives, were not found in plain view-one behind a chair in the bedroom and the other on the right side of a sofa cushion which was slightly askew. According to the Atlantic County Medical Examiner, Doctor Hydow Park, Lark's death was caused by "multiple blunt and sharp force injuries to the head, neck, and upper torso areas." These included numerous stabbing and cut wounds to her head, face, neck, back, hands, and chest. Additionally, Lark had a large open skull fracture around her left eye caused by a heavy object.

Phillip Beesley, a Senior Forensic Scientist with the Department of Law and Public Safety Forensic Science Section (the Department), testified that swabbings taken from various locations in the apartment tested positive for blood and tissue and were submitted for DNA testing, along with blood samples taken from the victim and defendant. Patricia Prusak, also a Senior Forensic Scientist employed by the Department, found defendant's DNA matched one of the specimens taken from the apartment and also matched the source mixed with Lark's DNA on two other specimens taken from the apartment.

Officer Howard Mason and several other officers went to defendant's home. Mason noticed that defendant had a cut on his hand that was bleeding. Defendant claimed that he was injured when he fell from his bicycle. He also stated that he had not left his house the entire night. Defendant claimed that he had not been in Lark's apartment since the last week in December 1998.

Robinson told police that defendant left her apartment at approximately 2:40 a.m. and made a great deal of noise when he returned between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. Two of defendant's fingerprints were found on the handle of the frying pan found next to Lark's body. A bloodstained glove belonging to defendant and used by him to lift weights was recovered from Lark's apartment.

At trial, Defendant admitted that he left his house at about 2:30 a.m. to purchase some marijuana. Victor Winters, a witness called by defendant, acknowledged selling marijuana to defendant and smoking it with him for about half an hour. Defendant denied referring to Lark as a "bitch" and a "whore" during the alleged incident at the county jail. Defendant also denied threatening Lark in a conversation with Lark's mother. He also claimed that approximately a week after he was released from jail and a week to ten days before the murder he saw Lark at a party at his cousin's house. According to defendant, there was no confrontation or ruckus between them. They had a brief conversation concerning whether she aborted her child.

He claimed that they really did not interact and "would just pass each other by without too much conversation at all."

See Respondents' Exhibit 9, State v. Abdullah, 372 N.J. Super. 252, 260-63 (App. Div. 2004).

B. Procedural Background

An Atlantic County Grand Jury returned an indictment charging Petitioner with seven counts including murder, burglary, and various charges of possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, all in violation of New Jersey state law.

Prior to trial, motions to suppress and to dismiss the indictment were held. Trial was held in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Atlantic County, from June 24, 2002 to July 3, 2002. A jury found Petitioner guilty of all seven counts of the indictment.

On September 13, 2002, Petitioner was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a 30-year period of parole ineligibility for the murder charge, and to a consecutive 10-year sentence on the burglary charge. All other charges were merged for sentencing purposes.

Petitioner appealed. On October 12, 2004, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction and sentence. Petitioner filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court. On August 2, 2005, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction but remanded for resentencing in accordance with State v. Natale (Natale II), 184 N.J. 458 (2005). On remand, the same sentence was imposed. Petitioner did not appeal the resentence.

On October 18, 2005, Petitioner filed a pro se motion for post-conviction relief (PCR) in the sentencing court. The motion was denied on October 31, 2006. The Appellate Division affirmed the denial on October 1, 2008. Petitioner's petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court was denied on April 23, 2009.

Petitioner filed this habeas petition on March 3, 2010. Petitioner was advised of his rights pursuant to Mason v. Meyers, 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000), and Respondents were ordered to answer. Respondents filed an answer to the petition and the available state court record on or about September 9, 2010. On March 30, 2011, Petitioner filed a Traverse/Reply to the Answer addressing the timeliness of his petition.

C. Petitioner's Claims

Petitioner cites seven grounds for relief (Petition, ¶ 12 and Addendum).

1. The trial court should have charged the jury on the lesser-included offense of passion/provocation manslaughter.

2. Prosecutorial misconduct deprived Petitioner of a fair trial.

3. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel by failing to object to the introduction of certain evidence without a proper curative instruction deprived Petitioner of his Sixth Amendment rights.

4. Petitioner was deprived of his due process rights to DNA testing prior to the trial.

5. The State violated Brady by failing to disclose the jail telephone toll records that were in the State's possession prior to Defendant's trial.

6. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel at the suppression hearing and by failing to interview alibi witnesses before calling them to the stand.

7. Petitioner's sentence is contrary to clearly established federal law.

28 U.S.C. § 2254

As amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2254 now provides, in pertinent part:

(a) The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or 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 ...

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