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Medina v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 7, 2017

ANGEL MEDINA, Petitioner,
STEVEN JOHNSON, et al., Respondents.



         Presently before the Court is the petition for a writ of habeas corpus of Angel Medina (“Petitioner”) brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging Petitioner's state court murder conviction (ECF No. 1). Following an order to answer, Respondents filed a motion to dismiss the petition as time barred (ECF No. 6), which this Court denied. (ECF No 9). Respondents thereafter filed a response to the petition (ECF No. 11), to which Petitioner has replied. (ECF Nos. 14-16). For the following reasons, this Court will deny the petition and will deny Petitioner a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In its opinion affirming Petitioner's conviction and sentence on direct appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, summarized the factual background of this matter as follows:

         On September 3, 2004, the Essex County Grand Jury returned [an indictment], charging [Petitioner] with knowing or purposeful murder, in violation of [N.J. Stat. Ann. §] 2C:3-11a(1) and (2) (Count 1), unlawful possession of a weapon, in violation of [N.J. Stat. Ann. §] 2C:39-5(b) (Count 2), and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, in violation of [N.J. Stat. Ann. §] 2C:49-4(a) (Count 3).

The jury trial began on September 28, 2005[, ] and continued for five more trial days. Testimony was completed on October 18th.[1] The trial judge charged the jury on October 19th. During the next three days, the jury deliberated and requested read-backs of both testimony and portions of the charge.
The jury returned on October 25th and continued its deliberations. At the end of the day, the jury sent the following note to the trial judge: “After four days of deliberations this jury cannot arrive at a unanimous decision, and all 12 jurors believe that further deliberations will not yield a different result.” In response to the note, he excused the jurors for the day and directed them to return the next day at 9 a.m.
The following day, the trial judge gave the jury a supplemental charge about continuing their deliberations. After further deliberations and read backs, including the entire charge on the murder and possession for an unlawful purpose counts, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts.
The trial judge sentenced [Petitioner] to an extended term of 40-years, with a 35-year parole ineligibility, on the murder charge. He imposed a concurrent 5-year term on the unlawful possession count. The remaining count, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, was merged with the murder.
The testimony at trial revealed the following facts relevant to [Petitioner's petition]. On December 31, 2003, Makisia Haskins and her boyfriend Yusef Battle went to the Club Elaganza in Newark. They arrived at the Club, which they described as being dark, crowded and with loud music playing, after midnight. After approximately ten minutes in the Club, Haskins saw people fighting and recognized [Petitioner] to be one of the people involved. Haskins became separated from Battle because of the fight, but ended up being escorted out of the building by the Club's security personnel, along with [Petitioner] and Battle.
Haskins and Battle left the Club in Battle's burgundy Honda Civic and drove to Battle's mother's house. After sitting outside the 1 As the Appellate Division explained, there “was a hiatus in the trial because of a long weekend following October 6th and the trial judge's unavailability the following week.” (Document 23 attached to ECF No. 7 at 3 n. 1). house for a few minutes talking with Battle, Haskins went into the house and talked to Battle's sister. After Battle called her on the cell phone, she left the house and returned to the car, where she found [Petitioner] in the car with Battle.
Haskins described Battle as being a little upset and [Petitioner] as calm. They drove around with little conversation for less than an hour, going nowhere in particular. They eventually ended up at a store called King's Fried Chicken, which is referred to as the “Chicken Shack.” Battle parked the car down the street from the store. [Petitioner] got out of the car and went into the store. Haskins saw him talking to people in the store. She could not see clearly into the store because the windows were “foggy.” She described the lighting outside of the store as dark, but said that there was light inside the store.
Battle then moved his car to a spot on the street right in front of the Chicken Shack. After a few minutes, Battle got out of the car and went inside to get a soda for Haskins. A few minutes later, six or seven people, including [Petitioner] and Battle, came outside. Haskins then saw [Petitioner] and two other males arguing in front of the store. One was light-skinned and the other, the victim, was dark-skinned and wearing a “colorful hat.” Haskins saw the light-skinned male trying to push [Petitioner] away, apparently to prevent a fight. The arguing continued for about five minutes.
According to Haskins, shortly before she heard a shot, [Petitioner] was face-to-face with the victim and only a few feet away from him. The other male grabbed [Petitioner], but then let him go. [Petitioner] started to walk closer to the victim. Haskins testified that she did not see the shooting itself.
After she heard the shot, Haskins turned towards [Petitioner] and saw the victim fall. [Petitioner] walked back to the car and got in. At almost the same time, Battle got in the driver's seat and they drove away quickly. Haskins testified that they drove away going about 70 mph and that [Petitioner] said he wanted to drive on the highway.
According to Haskins, [Petitioner] told Battle he wanted to stop at housing projects referred to as “Seth Boyden.” Haskins' initial testimony was that she did not see anything in [Petitioner]'s hands while they were driving around. She was subsequently shown her statement to the police and then testified that she saw a gun fall out of [Petitioner]'s pocket, which [Petitioner] picked up from the floor. After they arrived at the projects, [Petitioner] got out, went into a building and came right back out again.
They then drove to the Ritz Hotel on the border of Newark and Elizabeth. When they arrived at the hotel, [Petitioner] asked Haskins to go into the office and get a room. After some reluctance, the clerk rented her a room. Haskins used a fictitious name. [Petitioner] also asked Haskins to request the clerk to make the check-in time an hour earlier than it really had been, but the clerk refused. Haskins returned to the car and handed the room key to [Petitioner], who left the car. Battle and Haskins then drove to Battle's mother's house.[]
Fermin Wilson[2] was a friend of the victim who was present at the Chicken Shack at the time of the shooting. Wilson described the victim as being in a good mood and acting normally. He knew [Petitioner] because they had grown up in the same neighborhood. Wilson is a member of a gang known as the “Bloods, ” but testified that the victim was not a member. Wilson believed that [Petitioner] knew that [Wilson] was a member of the Bloods.
Wilson saw [Petitioner] and Battle come into the Chicken Shack. Wilson thought that [Petitioner] looked angry. [Petitioner] said that he had been “jumped, ” presumably meaning at the Club. According to Wilson, [Petitioner] had been jumped by members of the Bloods. The victim and [Petitioner] then started arguing. A third individual stepped between [Petitioner] and the victim to move the two men apart.
After the victim left the Chicken Shack with the third individual, [Petitioner] followed them outside. Wilson, who had initially turned away from the front of the store, turned back towards the front windows in time to see [Petitioner] walk behind the victim and shoot him in the head. [Petitioner] walked away and got into a red Honda Civic, which pulled away very quickly. Wilson left the store and tried to help the victim, staying with him until the police arrived.
Battle's testimony concerning the preliminary events of the evening was similar to that of his girlfriend, Haskins. Battle had known [Petitioner] for a few years. Battle saw [Petitioner] and the victim arguing in the Chicken Shack. After the victim and [Petitioner] left the store, he was talking to Wilson when he heard a 2 Wilson, who was apparently imprisoned for a parole violation at the time of his testimony, testified while wearing prison garb and shackles. (See Document 34 attached to ECF No. 7 at 3).gun shot. Upon hearing the gun shot, Battle ran to the car because he was concerned about Haskins. After [Petitioner] got into the car, Battle dove away quickly. They drove around for a little while, ending up at the Ritz Hotel.
Irena Suvhocka, an employee at the Ritz Hotel, testified that someone came to the hotel in the early morning hours on January 1, 2004, and asked to rent a room. Suvhocka was asked to stamp the check-in time one hour earlier than the actual time, but refused to do so.
Dr. Thomas A. Blumfeld, the medical examiner, testified that the victim had been shot in the back of the head. Based on the toxicology tests done, the victim had a blood alcohol level of 0.085 and an alcohol level in his stomach of 0.104 at the time of his death.
[Petitioner] called two witnesses, but exercised his right not to testify himself. Terrance Harris was inside the Chicken Shack on the night of the shooting. He testified that the windows of the Chicken Shack are “really blurry” and that one cannot really see through them. One of the investigating officers, who had testified for the State and was then called as a defense witness, testified on cross-examination that when the police entered an apartment to arrest [Petitioner], he started running and tried to jump out of a window.

(Document 23 attached to ECF No. 7 at 2-9).

         Following his conviction and sentencing, Petitioner filed an appeal, with the Appellate Division affirming his conviction and sentence by way of a written opinion dated June 23, 2008. (Id.). Petitioner then filed a petition for a writ of certification, which the New Jersey Supreme Court denied on September 24, 2009. (Document 24 attached to ECF No. 7).

         On December 18, 2008, Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief. (Document 25 attached to ECF No. 7). That petition, however, was dismissed without prejudice on May 11, 2009. (See Document 34 attached to ECF No. 7 at 3 n. 3). Petitioner thereafter filed another petition for post-conviction relief on March 8, 2010. (Id. at 3).

         Following an evidentiary hearing at which both trial counsel and Petitioner testified, that petition was denied on the merits on June 28, 2013. (Document 30 attached to ECF No. 7). In denying the petition, the PCR judge made the following factual and credibility findings regarding trial counsel's alleged failings:

In this case, Petitioner asserts that his trial attorney (1) failed to keep him appraised of his case status[, ] (2) did not provide him with discovery or other case materials[, ] (3) did not discuss the State's witnesses and his trial strategy for those witnesses[, ] (4) did not discuss with him “testimony that might have been elicited during the trial [if he had] chosen to take the witness stand on his [own] behalf[, ]” (5) lacked overall trial preparation[, ] and (6) failed to object to the State's witness, Wilson, testifying in prison garb.
At the Evidentiary Hearing, [trial counsel Richard] Banas testified regarding each of these accusations. Points (4) and (6) are discussed separately in this opinion. With regard to keeping Petitioner appraised of his case status, Banas testified that he met with Petitioner daily during trial and more than two times outside of the courtroom. He also met with Petitioner's family members prior to and during the trial. Banas testified that as defense counsel in a homicide case, he represented Petitioner by presenting witnesses and discussing their respective testimonies with Petitioner. Petitioner was also actively involved in cross-examination strategies of the Prosecutor's witnesses. Moreover, Petitioner aided Banas with the jury's voir dire and offered personal letters written by . . . a married woman with whom Petitioner was having a relationship. Petitioner hoped [her] testimony would account for his whereabouts during the early morning hours of January 1, 2004. From those letters, Banas formulated a line of questioning that revealed inconsistencies with [her] testimony on October 6, 2005. The following day, [she] sought out the prosecutors to tell them that she picked Petitioner up from the Ritz Hotel the morning of the homicide. With input from Petitioner, Banas challenged the credibility of each of the State's witnesses. For instance, Wilson's friendship with Petitioner was questioned, the vantage point from where he observed Coleman's murder as well as conflicting statements regarding the color of Petitioner's alleged gun were also reviewed. Additionally, Banas cross-examined Reed and tried to argue that Reed's initial statement to detectives was unduly influenced. Banas also highlighted the fact that neither Haskins nor Battle accrued accomplice liability charges. Moreover, Banas claimed that he gave Petitioner discovery materials while he was in custody. Although he could not specifically recall the exact date, he also testified he gave Petitioner the Grand Jury transcripts. The Court finds Banas' testimony on these points to be credible and negates these claims of Petitioner.

         (Document 29 attached to ECF No. 7 at 13-14). The PCR judge also found credible trial counsel's testimony at the hearing that he had discussed with Petitioner his right to testify on his own behalf, including the effect Petitioner's prior convictions would have on his credibility if he testified, and found credible trial counsel's testimony that he told Petitioner that the decision whether to testify was Petitioner's alone to make and that Petitioner made that decision initially before trial and once again when asked by the trial court whether he wished to testify. (Id. at 18-19). Petitioner appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed on May 11, 2015, “substantially for the reasons expressed in [the PCR judge's] thorough and cogent written opinion, ” including the credibility and factual findings quoted above. (Document 34 attached to ECF No. 7 at 12-15). Petitioner filed a petition for certification, which was denied on January 29, 2016. (Document 35 attached to ECF No. 7). This habeas petition followed. (ECF No. 1).


         A. Legal Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), the district court “shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus [o]n 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.” A habeas petitioner has the burden of establishing his entitlement to relief for each claim presented in his petition based upon the record that was before the state court. See Eley v. Erickson, 712 F.3d 837, 846 (3d Cir. 2013); see also Parker v. Matthews, ___U.S. ___, ___, 132 S.Ct. 2148, 2151 (2012). Under the statute, as amended by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2244 (“AEDPA”), district courts are required to give great deference to the determinations of the state trial and appellate courts. See Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 772-73 (2010).

         Where a claim has been adjudicated on the merits by the state courts, the district court shall not grant an application for a writ of habeas corpus unless the state court adjudication

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the ...

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