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Thomas Mustaffa A/K/A andre Rose v. Michelle Ricci

April 25, 2011

THOMAS MUSTAFFA A/K/A ANDRE ROSE, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHELLE RICCI, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brown, Chief Judge:

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Petitioner*fn1 filed a petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a) challenging a judgment of conviction rendered by the Superior Court of New Jersey, see Docket Entry No. 1, which petition, upon Petitioner's counsel appearance was superceded by Petitioner's application currently at bar ("Petition"). See Docket Entry No. 9. Respondents were directed to answer the Petition and duly complied, see Docket Entry No. 16, and Petitioner traversed. See Docket Entry No. 17.

For the reasons expressed below, the Court will dismiss the Petition and decline issuing a certificate of appealability. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 2253(c), 2254(a), (b) and (c).

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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" *fn2 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 set forth in [the Supreme 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).

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; 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).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Parties' Positions

Petitioner raised only one Ground in his Petition, reading as follows: [Petitioner] was denied his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel by his attorney's failure to present testimony in support of, and request a jury charge on, the lesser-included offense of passion-provocation manslaughter, . . . , while [conceding to] aggravated manslaughter as a lesser-included . . . offense. Docket Entry No. 9-1, at 2.

In their answer, Respondents maintain that:

1. [While] Petitioner [is asserting that he] received effective assistance of counsel who portrayed the State's witnesses as untrustworthy liars[, Petitioner's c]counsel reasonably did not pursue a passion-provocation defense because the [availability of the passion-provocation] defense [had] been undercut by . . . evidence depicting [the underlying homicide as an unprovoked, within the legal meaning of the defense,] execution-style murder[;]

2. Petitioner has procedurally defaulted on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The state court ruled [during post-conviction-relief proceedings] that the [P]petitioner was barred from raising the claim because it had been already ...


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