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Cox v. Warren

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 13, 2013

CHARLES E. WARREN, JR., et al., Respondents.


FAITH S. HOCHBERG, District Judge.

Petitioner Benjamin Cox ("Petitioner") filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), challenging a judgment of conviction entered by the Superior Court of New Jersey. See Docket Entry No. 1. This Court advised Petitioner of his rights under Mason v. Meyers , 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000), and - upon receipt of Respondents' limited answer conceding both timeliness and due exhaustion of Petitioner's challenges - directed an answer on the merits. See Docket Entries Nos. 2, 7 and 15. Respondents duly complied, and Petitioner traversed. See Docket Entries Nos. 17 to 20.


Petitioner was convicted of murder and possession of a weapon for unlawful purposes. See State v. Cox, 2007 WL 1773188, at *1 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. June 21, 2007). The state courts described the events underlying these charges and Petitioner's conviction as follows:

[T]his matter arises out of the shooting death of Reginald Coley, known by his street name as "Rahdo." Several hours after he had an altercation with Coley, [Petitioner] returned to Rosa Parks Boulevard, walked up to a vacant lot with his right hand covered in a white towel, and fired three shots [at Coley while Coley was trying to run away]. Two of the shots struck Coley['s liver and kidney], causing him to bleed to death. Purvis King, a... cousin of Coley, saw [Petitioner]... extend[ing] his right hand toward Coley. [King] heard three shots [and] ran into the liquor store where Coley had collapsed and told police officers that "Mojigg" ([Petitioner's] street name) shot [Coley]. King identified [Petitioner]... and gave a statement. [Petitioner] was arrested on June 23, 2001, ... on other charges, and officers from the Paterson Police Department went to Wallington to interview him. [Petitioner] was read his Miranda rights and, without being asked a question, stated: "You guys probably think I killed that guy [Coley]. What was I supposed to do, let him stomp a hole in my head?"


Petitioner was tried to a jury and found guilty on the above-mentioned charges but acquitted on another weapon-related offense. See id. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal (albeit his matter was remanded for re-sentencing under then-recent state precedent, State v. Natale , 184 N.J. 458 (2005)), and the Supreme Court of New Jersey denied certification. See id.; see also State v. Cox , 192 N.J. 479 (2007). Petitioner then sought post-conviction relief ("PCR"). The Law Division denied him PCR; said denial was affirmed by the Appellate Division, and the Supreme Court of New Jersey again denied certification. See Docket Entry No. 7-2, at 21-35; see also State v. Cox , 2011 WL 831716 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Mar. 11, 2011).

The within Petition followed. Petitioner raised three umbrella Grounds, one of which consumed fourteen pages[2] and another incorporated six different sub-grounds which, effectively, were grounds on their own. See Docket Entry No. 1, at 7-47.


The general standard of federal habeas review is long-established, and it sets forth a narrowly-tailored test. See Cullen v. Pinholster , 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011) ("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"). Section 2254(a) permits a federal court to entertain only claims alleging that a person is held in state custody "in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). In addition, when a state court has adjudicated a petitioner's federal claim on the merits, a district 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)).[3]


A. Ground One

In his Ground One, Petitioner alleged that his "trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury as to the lesser included offenses of... aggravated and reckless manslaughter."[4] Docket Entry No. 1, at 7. In support of his contention, Petitioner relies on State v. Jenkins, a New Jersey decision. See id.; see also State v. Jenkins , 178 N.J. 347 (2004).

In Beck v. Alabama , 447 U.S. 625, 638 (1980), the United States Supreme Court determined that defendants in a capital case possess a constitutional right to have the jury instructed on a lesser included offense. See also Kontakis v. Beyer , 19 F.3d 110, 119 (3d Cir. N.J. 1994) ("In Beck, the Supreme Court held that in a capital case the trial court committed constitutional error when it would not charge on a lesser-included offense for which the evidence supported a conviction") (emphasis supplied). In a footnote, the Supreme Court expressly reserved judgment on "whether the Due Process Clause would require the giving of such instructions in a non-capital case." Beck , 447 U.S. at 638 n.7. Since then, the courts have consistently held that a petitioner fails to establish an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law where the petitioner asserts a violation of his due process rights on the basis of the court's election not to instruct the jury on lesser included offenses. See Wanger v. Hayman, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1305 (D.N.J. Jan. 3, 2011) (collecting cases and finding that habeas relief could not be granted where petitioner failed to assert a due process violation recognized by the Supreme Court); accord Urcinoli v. Cathel, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133733, at *49 (D.N.J. Dec. 17, 2010) ("[B]ecause Petitioner did not face the death penalty, Supreme Court precedent did not require the instruction on the lesser included offenses of manslaughter"); Peoples v. Cathel, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89304 (D.N.J. Nov. 21, 2006) (same).[5]

Furthermore, Petitioner's reliance on Jenkins is misplaced since: (a) Jenkins is a state law, and errors in application of state law are not cognizable in federal habeas review, see, e.g., Priester v. Vaughn , 382 F.3d 394, 402 (3d Cir. 2004) ("Federal courts reviewing habeas claims cannot reexamine state court determinations on state-law questions'") (quoting Estelle v. McGuire , 502 U.S. 62, 67-68(1991)); see also Montana v. Egelhoff , 518 U.S. 37, 43 (1996) (State court evidentiary rulings cannot rise to the level of due process violations unless they "offend[] some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental"); accord Real v. Shannon , 600 F.3d 302, 309-10 (3d Cir. 2010); and (b) even under the New Jersey law, a trial court is obligated to instruct the jurors on a lesser-included offense only when the evidence "clearly indicate[s] that a jury could convict on the lesser while acquitting on the greater offense, " Jenkins , 178 N.J. at 361, i.e., in a scenario absent in Petitioner's circumstances. Therefore, Petitioner's Ground One does not merit habeas relief.

B. Ground Two

Petitioner's fourteen-page-long Ground Two attacks the performance of his trial, PCR and, perhaps, appellate counsel.

The Sixth Amendment, applicable to states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, guarantees the accused the "right... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." U.S. Const. amend. VI; see also Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984). A claim that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of a conviction has two components, both of which must be satisfied. See Strickland , 466 U.S. at 687.

First, the defendant must "show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 687-88.[6] The court must then determine whether, in light of all the circumstances at the time, the identified errors were so egregious that they were outside the wide range of professionally competent assistance.[7] See id.

To satisfy the prejudice prong, the defendant must show that "there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting ...

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