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Michael Wester v. Michelle Ricci et al

July 22, 2011

MICHAEL WESTER, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHELLE RICCI ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Petitioner Michael Wester ("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 rendered by the Superior Court of New Jersey. Respondents filed an answer to the Petition, and Petitioner traversed. Following his traverse, Petitioner moved this Court for an evidentiary hearing and requested appointment of counsel. Respondents opposed Petitioner's motions.

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); Petitioner's motions will be dismissed as moot.

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. See 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).

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Following his conviction, Petitioner pursued direct appellate challenges and, having lost on appeal, sought post-conviction relief ("PCR"). Because the facts of Petitioner's conviction and his appellate and PCR challenges appear directly related to the issues at bar, this Court finds it warranted to replicate the extensive analyses conducted by the state courts.

A. Petitioner's Challenges Fostered on Direct Appeal

As noted supra, Petitioner's conviction was affirmed on direct appeal by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division ("Appellate Division"), and the Supreme Court of New Jersey denied Petitioner certification.

Addressing the events underlying Petitioner's conviction and his direct appellate challenges, the Appellate Division stated as follows:

[Petitioner] and Juanita Wester met in Paterson; they dated and lived together for ten years before marrying in October 1995. They eventually moved to Ocean County in an attempt to curb their drug arid alcohol problems. For a while, [Petitioner] and Juanita lived with her two children -- a ten-year old boy, Michael, and a fourteen-year old girl, Lucette. At the time of the incident in question, however Juanita and the children lived in Lakehurst; [Petitioner] had resided in a room in Brick since an incident of domestic violence alleged to have occurred in August 1998.

Juanita was found dead in the trunk of her Mercury Cougar in Paterson on November 20, 1998. [Petitioner] was charged and convicted, after a trial, of the first degree murder of Juanita . . . . The trial judge imposed a life sentence with thirty years parole ineligibility. . . . On appeal, [Petitioner] raise[d] the following arguments:

I. [PETITIONER'S] STATEMENTS WERE THE PRODUCT OF CUSTODIAL INTERROGATION IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRANDA WARNINGS AND ACCORDINGLY, MUST BE SUPPRESSED.

II. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED TO [PETITIONER'S] GREAT PREJUDICE IN ADMITTING EVIDENCE OF ALLEGED PRIOR INSTANCES OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

III. [PETITIONER'S] STATEMENTS MUST BE SUPPRESSED BECAUSE THEY W[E]RE OBTAINED WHILE HE WAS UNDER CUSTODIAL INTERROGATION AND WERE NOT ELECTRONICALLY RECORDED, IN VIOLATION OF HIS RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS.

IV. [PETITIONER] WAS PREJUDICED BY THE TRIAL COURT'S UNDULY RESTRICTIVE RULINGS EXCLUDING EVIDENCE OFFERED BY [PETITIONER].

V. BECAUSE THE TRIAL COURT EVINCED SIGNIFICANT HOSTILITY TOWARD [PETITIONER'S] COUNSEL, THE COURT ERRED IN DENYING [PETITIONER'S] REPEATED MOTION THAT THE TRIAL JUDGE RECUSE HIMSELF.

The contentions raised in Point IV and V are clearly without merit and do not warrant discussion. . . . We also reject the arguments raised in Points I, II and III of [Petitioner's] brief for the following reasons.

In Point I, [Petitioner] argued that statements he made at the police station from the late afternoon of November 19 to the early morning hours of November 20, 1998 should have been suppressed. The trial judge conducted a plenary hearing to examine the admissibility of these statements. Only Sergeant Hayes of the Manchester Township Police Department testified; he provided the following information.

Sergeant Hayes testified that he began investigating a November 19, 1998 missing persons report concerning Juanita. According to the report, Juanita's daughter Lucette had last seen her mother at noontime on November 18, 1998 at their home in Lakehurst before Juanita had left to pick up [Petitioner] at his residence in Brick. During the morning of November 19, a police officer contacted [Petitioner], who advised he did not see Juanita on November 18.

Investigators from Brick, Manchester and the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office attempted to locate Juanita as well as verify [Petitioner's] whereabouts on November 19. At approximately 5:20 p.m. on November 19, Sergeant Hayes and Detective Parker met with [Petitioner] at his home. They requested that [Petitioner] accompany them back to the Brick Township Police Department in regard to Juanita's disappearance. [Petitioner] agreed to go but stated the need to retrieve from his residence a gym bag containing miscellaneous paperwork. He was permitted to enter the residence unescorted where he remained for approximately ten minutes before exiting and accompanying the officers in an unmarked car to the Brick Township Police Department. On the way to the police department, [Petitioner] asked to stop at a convenience store to obtain cigarettes and lottery tickets.

Upon arriving at the police station, [Petitioner] was advised that he was not under arrest and was free to leave. [Petitioner] also signed a form, at 5:56 p.m., advising that he was appearing to answer questions voluntarily concerning Juanita's disappearance and that he was free to terminate the questioning and leave at any time he chose. The form said: "I hereby acknowledge that I have voluntarily agreed to answer questions by a representative of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. I have been advised that these questions will pertain to the missing person investigation of Juanita Wester. I am appearing voluntarily and I am aware that I am free to terminate the questions and leave at any time I so choose."

Sergeant Hayes and Detective Parker spoke with [Petitioner] for approximately two hours. [Petitioner] spoke about his history with Juanita, the possible whereabouts of Juanita, and his own whereabouts on November 18.

During his rendition of his activities on November 18, [Petitioner] said he awoke at around 8:00 a.m. and received a phone page from Juanita about forty minutes later. [Petitioner] returned her call. Juanita told him that she was in Manchester applying for welfare and doing paperwork related to her "section eight housing." She also mentioned that she and [Petitioner] had an appointment with an attorney for that day, but [Petitioner] informed her that the appointment was not for November 18 but for November 19 at 2:00 p.m. [Petitioner] told the officers that he then watched television between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. but he could not account for his activities between 10:00 and 11:30 a.m. Between 11:30 a..m. and 12:15 p.m., he called Juanita again. She said that she "was having trouble getting going" and that she had not yet gone to the welfare department.

[Petitioner] described his other activities in his residence between noontime and 2:30 p.m. At approximately 2:30 p.m., [Petitioner] advised his landlord that he was going to Target to purchase rollerblades for the children and, at 3:00 p.m., he called Lucette to confirm their shoe sizes. [Petitioner] advised that he walked from his home to a Target retail store.

Michael paged [Petitioner] at 3:39 p.m., and [Petitioner] returned the call a few minutes later. The line was busy so [Petitioner] continued his walk to Target where he arrived at 4:00 p.m. A Target receipt confirmed that [Petitioner] purchased rollerblades at 4:15 p.m. Defendant stated that he arrived home (also on foot) at 5:30 p.m. where he remained for the rest of the day. [Petitioner also] advised [Hayes and Parker] of numerous other telephone conversations he had with Lucette and Michael. [The children] advised [Petitioner] that Juanita had neither called nor returned home. In addition, [Petitioner] advised [Hayes and Parker] that he called the El Alambique Bar in Paterson, where Juanita worked weekends, but the bartender then working said she had not seen Juanita.

At this point in the interview, [Petitioner] was confronted with information that investigators had obtained a videotape from Target which showed [Petitioner] in the store and subsequently entering a dark colored Mercury Cougar fitting the description of the vehicle driven by Juanita on November 18. [Petitioner] asked to see this videotape and a break was taken in the interview for that purpose. After the videotape was played, [Petitioner] confirmed that he was inside the store purchasing rollerblades for [the] children, but he denied entering the Cougar shown exiting the Target parking lot. [Petitioner] was then confronted with information from a neighbor of his who advised [the police] that she had seen a dark-colored vehicle, possibly a Cougar, stop directly in front of [Petitioner's] residence in Brick on November 18. This neighbor also had advised that the vehicle was driven by a tall, thin white female with dark hair (matching Juanita's description), and that she saw a male walk up to the vehicle in front of [Petitioner's] Brick home. [Petitioner], upon being confronted with this information, again denied seeing his wife on November 18. The interview continued, with [Petitioner] providing from his gym bag paperwork relating to the mortgage on the Lakehurst property. [Petitioner] also produced a certified letter he received on November 18 regarding a claim filed against him by his sister-in-law, and his checkbook. Sergeant Hayes asked if [Petitioner] had been to the bank on November 18. At first, [Petitioner] said he was not sure but later advised that he went to the Hudson City Savings Bank on Brick Boulevard at approximately 1:30 p.m. on November 18. He continued to deny having seen Juanita on November 18.

At approximately 8:55 p.m., Sergeant Hayes asked [Petitioner] if he would consent to a search of his residence. [Petitioner] advised that he would and signed a consent search form after having it read to him and after taking the opportunity to read it himself.

Subsequent information was provided by [another] neighbor that [Petitioner] was seen sitting in a dark-colored two-door vehicle in front of his residence at approximately 2:15 p.m. on November 18. This neighbor advised that he did not observe anyone else in the vehicle and that [Petitioner] sat in the vehicle for approximately ten minutes, following which he backed the vehicle up to a barn located on one side of the property. When [Petitioner] was advised of this information, he asserted that the neighbor was mistaken.

At approximately 12:30 a.m. on November 20, Sergeant Hayes was provided with information that Juanita's vehicle was located in Paterson. When [Petitioner] was so advised, he became nervous. [Petitioner] was asked whether it was possible that he was drinking on November 18 and did not remember seeing Juanita. [Petitioner] said this was possible and that he believed he had consumed some vodka on November 17. [Petitioner] then stated that maybe it was November 18 that he had consumed alcohol at which point [Petitioner] stated that "something could have happened . . . it's possible something may have happened between [Petitioner] and Jenny, and [Petitioner does not] remember [it]." After having given this statement, [Petitioner] was advised of his Miranda rights. A rights and waiver form was read to [Petitioner]. He also took the opportunity to read the form, which he signed at 1:41 a.m. on November 20. [Petitioner] further advised that he understood his rights, and advised the investigators, as he had said at the outset of the interview, that he would stay and continue to answer questions pertaining to Juanita's disappearance until she was located.

Sergeant Hayes then asked [Petitioner] why he would not admit to being in the vehicle depicted in the Target videotape. [In response, Petitioner first] advised [Hayes] that he was afraid of what could happen to him, but then denied seeing his wife or being in her vehicle on November 18. [Petitioner] further advised that he had not been in Juanita's black Mercury Cougar since August 1998. Approximately one hour after [Petitioner] was advised of his Miranda rights, Sergeant Hayes was informed that Juanita's body had been found in the trunk of her Cougar. Sergeant Hayes advised [Petitioner] of this information; in response, [Petitioner] put his head down in his hands and stated, "what's going to happen to me now?" [Petitioner] continued to deny any involvement in his wife's death but then stated, "I can't bring myself to tell you what happened." He further advised, "I have no recollection of seeing my wife or being in her car that day and cannot remember anything that happened after receiving the certified letter from his sister-in-law that day" and could not remember going to the bank that day as he had earlier advised. [Petitioner] was asked to give a formal taped statement, but he said that he was "not mentally prepared" to do so.

Sergeant Hayes' testimony at the suppression hearing also revealed that [Petitioner] never asked for an attorney and never asked to return home. [Petitioner now] argues that he was "in custody" during the interview with Sergeant Hayes and, therefore, the statements he gave before the Miranda warnings should have been suppressed. We have acknowledged [in our prior decisions] that "it is not always easy to discern when a suspect is 'in custody,' and that each case must be decided on its own set of facts." The test to be employed is an "objective one that focuses on the totality of the circumstances." . .

The questioning in this case started with [Petitioner's] stated willingness to assist in the investigation concerning [Petitioner's] missing wife. [Petitioner] indicated that he was willing to help and accompanied the police to the station house. There was then no subjective or objective evidence to suggest that he was being detained. [Petitioner] was not inhibited in any way when he first met with the police and, as noted above, asked, and was permitted, to return inside his residence to get a gym bag. The police also acceded to his request1 on the way to the station, to stop at a convenience store so he could get cigarettes and lottery tickets.

There was also no evidence of "overbearing police conduct" in the questioning. Given [Petitioner's] solicitous attitude, there was no need for Sergeant Hayes to exert any type of undue pressure upon him. In addition, when the interview began, and for quite a while during the interview, the police had no substantial evidence that a crime had been committed. Sergeant Hayes was not informed that Juanita's car was located until well into the interview. Upon [being advised] of that information, [Petitioner] became nervous, and stated that "it's possible something may have happened," whereupon [Petitioner] was read his Miranda rights. It was only after giving the Miranda warnings that the first substantive evidence of a crime became known, that is, when Juanita's dead body was found in the trunk.

It is also true, as noted earlier, that the duration, place and time of the questioning can factor into the determination of whether a person being interviewed is in custody. But, here, while in a room in the police station in the company of officers, [Petitioner] was informed and signed a form indicating he could stop the questioning at any time and leave. He was allowed to walk out of the room to use the bathroom on numerous occasions. These facts were not disputed and are all indicia supporting the conclusion that [Petitioner] was not in custody prior to the Miranda warnings.

We conclude that there was sufficient credible evidence for [Petitioner's] trial judge to find that, under the totality of the circumstances, [Petitioner] was not in custody until he was given Miranda warnings and we, thus, reject the argument asserted by [Petitioner] in Point I.

In Point II, [Petitioner] argues that [his] trial judge erred by allowing the admission of evidence regarding past claims of domestic violence.

The trial judge conducted a hearing . . . to consider the admissibility of five incidents of domestic violence [between Petitioner and Juanita]. The trial judge eventually held that proof of the June 9, 1996, June 15, 1997, February 17, 1998, and August 15, 1998 events, were admissible pursuant [state law of evidence]. We are satisfied that there was ample evidence in the record to support his findings and we discern no abuse of discretion [by] the trial judge[] . . . . The most controversial aspect of the trial judgels ruling concerned the admission of evidence that [Petitioner] allegedly choked Juanita on February 13, 1998. As to this incident, [Petitioner] contends that the evidence of choking was insufficient and, in addition, was unduly prejudicial because [as it turned out upon examination of Juanita's body,] Juanita died as a result of asphyxia brought about by manual strangulation. The trial judge concluded that there was "clear and convincing" evidence of [Petitioner] having choked Juanita beyond her mere allegations because he heard the testimony of a police officer who testified that when he responded to a call on that date, Juanita "had a very bright redness around her neck." [Petitioner] contends that such a finding was precluded by the fact that the Family Part judge who heard the domestic violence matter did not make a finding that [Petitioner] choked Juanita. [Petitioner] has correctly observed that the Family Part judge only found that [Petitioner] "pushed and shoved" Juanita and made no finding of choking. However, the Family Part judge did not find that the choking did not occur. That is, the Family Fart judge found that "pushing and shoving" occurred and was sufficient to warrant the entry of a domestic violence restraining order. Having found sufficient evidence of domestic violence to issue a restraining order, the Family Part judge [must have found] it was unnecessary to make further findings. We are satisfied that these circumstances do not foreclose a later finding, for purposes of this criminal prosecution, that choking did occur. In hearing the evidence provided at the . . . hearing, the trial judge was convinced that choking had occurred and allowed the evidence to be heard by the jury which then was entitled to weigh or reject this evidence. Our review of the record leads us to conclude that there was ample evidence to support the trial judge's holding.

As for [Petitioner's] contention that the admission of evidence of his past choking of Juanita was unduly prejudicial, we are satisfied that the trial judge properly concluded that the evidence was probative as to identity and native, ...


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