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Merritt v. Bartkowski

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 28, 2013

CHARLES MERRITT, Petitioner,
v.
GREG BARTKOWSKI, et al., Respondents.

CHARLES MERRITT, Petitioner pro se 306635/693799-B, Southwoods State Prison, Bridgeton, N.J.

MARY ELIZABETH SPARKMAN, Mercer County Prosecutors' Office, Trenton, N.J. Counsel for Respondents.

OPINION

JOEL A. PISANO, District Judge.

Petitioner Charles Merritt ("Petitioner"), a prisoner currently confined at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, New Jersey, has submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The respondent is Greg Bartkowski. For the reasons stated herein, the petition will be denied.[1]

I. BACKGROUND

This Court, affording the state court's factual determinations the appropriate deference, see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1)[2], will simply reproduce the recitation of facts as set forth by Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division on direct appeal:

Defendant was convicted of the attempted murder of Matthew Campbell, Besham Henderson, Lamont Henderson and Dora McRae. He was also convicted of aggravated assault by attempting to cause serious bodily injury and by pointing "a handgun and a sawed-off shotgun" at the aforementioned victims, as well as George Henderson, Sallie Henderson and Jerome Campbell.
The proofs at the trial reflect the following: On February 21, 1996, a fight occurred between defendant and his brother William and Besham Henderson. The dispute involved a debt Besham's friend, Tia Womack, owed to defendant's brother and some damage the brother allegedly caused to Tia's car. At approximately 1:00 am on February 23, 1996 Henderson's car was discovered with broken windows and slashed tires. Everyone from the Henderson home went outside to observe the damage to the car. Some neighbors from the Campbell family also came out to see the damage.
At approximately 1:15 a.m., Besham noticed a group of about ten people walking towards the Henderson house. Suspecting that it was the group responsible for the damage, Besham notified everyone that "they are coming back." Henderson's aunt, Dora McRae, noticed two men leading the group and heard the taller of the two state that "it was all over now." The speaker was observed by the aunt as having two or three gold teeth and carrying a silver gun. Defendant has gold teeth. Shots were fired as the group reached the Henderson home, causing the bystanders to scramble for safety. Bullets began to fly and struck the brick facade of the house, at which time the family dog was hit and injured.
Matthew Campbell, a neighbor, testified that he recognized both defendant and his brother as the shooters and that defendant fired a shot that hit the step on which Campbell was standing. Campbell knew the defendant "by face" and "had seen him-around the area." He saw defendant shoot the handgun and his brother fire the shotgun.
The police responded to a call to the scene. Patrolman Charles M. Nemes surveyed the Henderson home for damage. He observed shotgun projectiles on the Henderson porch, a smashed front window pane and a bullet lodged in the brick right next to the front door. Patrolman Nemes called Detective Richard Osvai of the Trenton Police Department to examine and collect evidence. Afterwards, he returned to his patrol vehicle to search the area for a gray Honda used in the escape.
Detective Osvai arrived at the Henderson home at approximately 2:00 a.m. and began to photograph the damage and collect the evidence from the scene. Detective David Maldonado, of the Violent Crimes Unit, also arrived at the Henderson home to interview the victims and take statements. Shortly thereafter, Nemes observed a car matching the description of the Honda vehicle and stopped it. With the aid of a flashlight, he noticed a handgun inside a hat on a seat. He directed the driver to exit, frisked him, and "found a shotgun shell in his front right pocket." The driver was defendant's brother, William. Detective Maldonado responded to the scene.
After arresting William and advising him of his rights, Detective Maldonado interrogated him. During the interview, William informed the detective that the incident was "to get back at or to retaliate against the individuals" at the Henderson's address who had damaged the car of defendant's girlfriend, a white Saab, "about two hours prior to the shooting." William also admitted to being involved in the fight that had occurred the day before between him, defendant and Besham Henderson. Moreover, William admitted firing the shotgun and agreed to help locate it. During his statement, William also implicated Shaun Paul as the one who shot the revolver and other members of the group involved in the incident. He did not include defendant.
Detective Maldonado and Detective Osvai accompanied William to retrieve the shotgun. As the two detectives retrieved the shotgun, William managed to escape from the vehicle. Several hours later, he returned to the Trenton Police Station accompanied by an attorney.
On March 4, 1996, Detective Maldonado learned that defendant was confined in the Gloucester County Jail. Maldonado traveled there and brought defendant back to Trenton. Although Merritt refused to sign a waiver of rights form, Maldonado testified that he voluntarily waived his rights and denied any involvement in the February 23rd shooting. He also told Maldonado that he lived with Felonda Spears. When the detective asked whether Ms. Spears owned a white Saab that had its windows smashed, defendant replied that she did not own such a vehicle. When confronted with proof that Ms. Spears did in fact own a white Saab, "Mr. Merritt then declined to answer any other questions" and the interview was "terminated."
Ms. Spears testified that the Saab belonged to defendant but "was given to [her] for transportation for the[ir] kids." She never saw any damage to the car, but heard it suffered damage and so advised Maldonado when interviewed by him.

State of New Jersey v. Merritt, A-2648-98T4 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Sept. 28, 2000).

Petitioner was convicted of four counts of attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C: 11-3, 2C:5-2, 2C:2-6; seven counts of second degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-lb(l), and seven counts of fourth degree aggravated assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-lb(4), 2C:2-6. Id. He was found not guilty of possession of a handgun and sawed-off shotgun for unlawful purpose, possession of a handgun without a permit, possession of a sawed off shotgun and criminal mischief. Id. After merging some of the offenses, Petitioner was sentenced to fifty years, with twenty years to be served without parole eligibility on one of the convictions for attempted murder. Id. Concurrent sentences were imposed for the other convictions. Id.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction and sentence, id., and the New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification, State v. Merritt, 769 A.2d 1051 (N.J. 2001). On May 2, 2001, Petitioner filed a Pro Se Petition for Post-Conviction Relief ("PCR"), which was denied by the trial court. State of New Jersey v. Merritt, XX-XXXX-XX ( N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. Nov. 28, 2006). The Appellate Division affirmed the denial, State v. Merritt, 2010 WL 5420149 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Apr. 6, 2010), and the New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification, State v. Merritt, 999 A.2d 464 (N.J. 2010). Petitioner filed a second PCR petition on February 10, 2011, which was denied on October 17, 2011 by the trial court. State of New Jersey v. Merritt, XX-XX-XXXX ( N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. Oct. 17, 2011). The Appellate Division affirmed the denial on May 6, 2013. State v. Merritt, 2013 WL 1858865 ( N.J.Super. App. Div. May 6, 2013).

On June 23, 2011, Petitioner submitted his original habeas petition to this Court. (ECF No. 1.) In response to this Court's notice pursuant to Mason v. Meyers, 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000), Petitioner submitted an amended petition on August 26, 2011. (ECF No. 6.) On March 18, 2012, Respondent filed his answer (ECF No. 24) and on February 19, 2013, Petitioner filed his amended reply (ECF No. 66).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

As amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2254 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 violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.
...
(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the 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.

"As amended by AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 sets several limits on the power of a federal court to grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a state prisoner." Cullen v. Pinholster, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011). Section 2254(a) permits a court to entertain only claims alleging that a person is in state custody "in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." Id. A federal court's authority to grant habeas relief is further limited when a state court has adjudicated petitioner's federal claim on the merits.[3] See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). If a claim has been adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings, this Court "has no authority to issue the writ of habeas corpus unless the [state court's] decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal Law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, ' or was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'" Parker v. Matthews, 132 S.Ct. 2148, 2151 (2012) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)). However, when "the state court has not reached the merits of a claim thereafter presented to a federal habeas court, the deferential standards provided by AEDPA... do not apply." Lewis, 581 F.3d at 100 (quoting Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001)).

A court begins the analysis under § 2254(d)(1) by determining the relevant law clearly established by the Supreme Court. 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 v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). 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). "[C]ircuit precedent does not constitute clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court, ' [and] therefore cannot form the basis for habeas relief under AEDPA." Parker, 132 S.Ct. at 2155 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)).

A decision is "contrary to" a Supreme Court holding within 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), if the state court applies a rule that "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 [the Supreme Court] and nevertheless arrives at a [different result.]" Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06. Under the "unreasonable application' clause of § 2254(d)(1), a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. However, under § 2254(d)(1), "an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 785 (quoting Williams at 410). As the Supreme Court explains,

A state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree on the correctness of the state court's decision.... Evaluating whether a rule application was unreasonable requires considering the rule's specificity. The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations. It is not an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law for a state court to decline to apply a specific legal rule that has not been squarely established by [the Supreme] Court.

Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 786 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

"This is a difficult to meet, and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt." Cullen, 131 S.Ct. at 1398 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The petitioner carries the burden of proof, and review under § 2254(d) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. Id.

B. Analysis

1. Miranda Violation (Ground One)

In his first ground for relief, Petitioner argues that Detective Maldonado violated his right to remain silent when he continued to question Petitioner after he had requested an attorney. Petitioner states that he did not convey any information during the interrogation, nor did he sign any papers or waiver form.

The admissibility of Petitioner's statements was initially addressed at a Miranda hearing in state court, where the court found:

In this case, I find that the credible testimony is that the rights form was utilized. It was read to defendant. He indicated that he understood it when asked if he did, but he refused to sign it.
* * * *
Now, the Court is required in these cases to look at the totality of circumstances. It seems to me, and I do find as a result, that there was a refusal to sign the form; however, there was a Miranda given, the warnings; that there was a, in effect, a waiver by a speaking to a certain extent, and then, of course, there came a time when there was - I'm not going to answer any more questions. The way that plays out smacks of truth to me, as I hear it, and the interview ended when the defendant indicated he was not going to answer any more questions for whatever reasons that he had at that time for doing so.
The Court is further mindful of the questions that were, in fact, asked and answered. the defendant admitted having a girlfriend and her name. He denied any involvement in the criminal acts that are the subject of his indictment and trial. He denied the other aspects, and when confronted with some alleged evidence - I haven't seen it, but I just heard the testimony, and I do find it to be credible up to this point - that would have, in a sense, attacked his credibility on one of the answers, he just said he wasn't going to answer any more. That is his ...

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