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Aquilina v. Anderson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 7, 2017

WILLIAM ANDERSON, et al., Respondents.


          Hon. Susan D. Wigenton, United States District Judge.

         Presently before the Court is the petition for a writ of habeas corpus of Debra Ann Aquilina (“Petitioner”) brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging Petitioner's state court conviction (ECF No. 1). Following this Court's Order to Answer, the State filed a response to the petition (ECF Nos. 4). Petitioner did not file a reply. For the following reasons, this Court will deny the petition and deny Petitioner a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In its opinion affirming Petitioner's conviction and sentence, the Superior Court of New Jersey - Appellate Division provided the following summary of the factual basis of this matter:

At approximately 6:00 a.m. on February 15, 2003, the Garfield Police Department received a telephone call from [Petitioner] stating that when she awoke, she noticed that her husband Ralph Ludvik, Jr., was not breathing. A few minutes later, when Sergeant John Demko arrived at [Petitioner] and Ludvik's residence on Palisade Avenue, [Petitioner] directed him to the second floor of the home, where he saw Ludvik lying face up on the floor, wedged between a wall and the bed. Because there was no light in the bedroom, Demko dragged Ludvik to the kitchen. While Demko was in the course of doing so, [Petitioner] attempted to grab something from her husband's pocket. Demko told her to stop. At that point, [Petitioner] became upset, telling Demko she was merely trying to retrieve money that was hers. According to Demko, there were signs of rigor mortis and he believed that Ludvik had been “deceased for quite some time.” Paramedics arrived shortly thereafter, and pronounced Ludvik dead at 6:18 a.m.
While Demko was in his patrol car outside [Petitioner]'s and Ludvik's home completing a form to be provided to the medical examiner, [Petitioner] approached him in a “flirtatious” manner and said, “I've seen you before, I've seen you around. How are you?” According to Demko, [Petitioner] was not “crying” or “showing any signs of grief at that point in time.”
At 6:30 a.m., Detective Michael Latona of the Garfield Police Department arrived at the scene and spoke with [Petitioner], who informed him that she was Ludvik's wife and that her husband was a heroin user. She pointed to empty bags in the bedroom that appeared to contain trace amounts of heroin. In a dresser drawer, Latona also observed drug paraphernalia, including syringes, plastic tubes and a tourniquet, although Latona was unable to find the syringe that caused the apparent overdose.
Latona also interviewed James Gerritsen, who had moved into the house a few weeks earlier. Gerritsen told Latona that he had gone to sleep at 10:30 p.m. the previous night, and was awakened by defendant at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, who stated that Ludvik was not breathing. Gerritsen explained that Ludvik's temperament of late had been “somewhat odd, ” and Ludvik “had been more angry and not his normal self.”
Latona did not interview [Petitioner's son], Mark Aquilina, who also lived in the home.
A toxicology report prepared by Theodore Siek, Ph.D., at the request of the medical examiner, Dr. Sunandan Singh, attributed Ludvik's death to an overdose of heroin. Cocaine was also found in his blood, but not in an amount sufficient to have caused his death. Based on the report of the toxicologist, and the drug paraphernalia found in Ludvik's bedroom, Dr. Singh concluded that Ludvik's death was the result of an accidental drug overdose.
Singh's conclusion remained unchallenged until fifteen months later, when on May 11, 2004, the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office received a letter from Frank Baez, an inmate at the Bergen County Correctional Facility, where Mark Aquilina, defendant's son, was incarcerated on unrelated charges. Baez's letter made reference to a comment by Mark Aquilina admitting that he had been involved in a suspicious death that occurred in Garfield. Contacting the Garfield Police Department, the Prosecutor's Office learned of Ludvik's death due to a drug overdose in February 2003. After interviewing Baez, Detectives Gil Breit and Mark Bendul brought Mark Aquilina to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office for questioning on March 4, 2005.
After receiving [the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)], Mark initially denied taking part in Ludvik's murder. After further questioning, he provided a full confession about a conspiracy to kill Ludvik, between [Petitioner], Gerritsen and himself. Mark explained that his mother believed that if Ludvik were dead, she would inherit the house on Palisade Avenue where Mark, [Petitioner], Gerritsen and Ludvik had been living. According to Mark, the three devised a plan “to somehow take over the house, ” which involved “taking care of Ralph” by “getting him out of the way.” Mark explained that the only reason his mother married Ralph Ludvik was “to get her hands on the house.”
Mark explained that on the day of Ludvik's death, Ludvik had driven to Paterson to buy cocaine. While he was gone, [Petitioner] and Gerritsen discussed “ways of getting rid of [Ludvik, ]” and devised a plan to “give him a drug overdose.” In furtherance of that plan, Mark dissolved nearly four bags of heroin, and drew the heroin solution into a syringe, knowing that such quantity was a lethal dose. Mark admitted that following a signal from [Petitioner], he handed the syringe to an unsuspecting Ludvik, who injected the heroin into his arm. Ludvik immediately clutched his chest, and dropped to the floor unconscious. Mark explained that while Ludvik was unconscious, [Petitioner] rifled through Ludvik's pockets and removed whatever cash she could find. Afterward, he and [Petitioner] “part[ied] through the night.” Shortly before 6:00 a.m., they returned to the bedroom, realized Ludvik was dead, and called the police.
In the March 4, 2005 statement that Mark provided to Detectives Breit and Bendul, he also explained that during the time his mother was married to Ludvik, she was “fooling around” with Gerritsen, and that his mother and Gerritsen intended to “get together” after Ludvik was dead.[1]
Ultimately, Mark provided a twenty-seven page statement to Detectives Bendul and Breit, and on videotape, acknowledged that his statement was true. At [Petitioner]'s trial, Breit read Mark's entire statement to the jury, and played the videotape.
The State presented Mark's testimony at trial. After initially asserting his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, Mark was granted immunity by the Attorney General. Confronted by the prosecutor with his March 4, 2005 statement to Detectives Breit and Bendul, Mark insisted that “it was all made up. Nothing ever happened. . . . It was all just a fictional account.” He denied telling Baez that he participated in Ludvik's murder, and asserted that he neither “hot loaded” a syringe nor handed the deadly quantity of heroin to Ludvik.
The State also presented the testimony of Gerritsen, who denied any involvement in the plan to murder Ludvik. Gerritsen explained that he moved into the home on Palisade Avenue with [Petitioner] and Ludvik in the latter part of 2002, because Ludvik had lost his job, and Ludvik and [Petitioner] were experiencing financial difficulties. [Petitioner] and Ralph had married a few months earlier. Gerritsen testified that while they were all living together, [Petitioner] continually made disparaging remarks about Ludvik. He also testified that Mark suggested to [Petitioner] that she should loosen one of the stair rails, push Ludvik down the stairs and “make it look like an accident.”
Gerritsen also testified, without objection, that while he was living in the house with [Petitioner], Ludvik and Mark, there were several occasions when [Petitioner] came into his room and crawled into his bed. When Gerritson protested, and told her she should be in bed with her husband, and not with him, she became “pissy, ” which he defined as “[a]ggravated.”
The State also presented the testimony of Ludvik's father, Ralph Sr., who explained that before Ralph Jr.'s death, he, Ralph Sr., had explained to [Petitioner] that he believed title to the property on Palisade Avenue had passed to Ralph Sr.'s sister Jane after their mother's death. Ralph Sr. explained that [Petitioner] told him a lawyer had assured her that her husband, Ralph Jr., was the owner of the property.
In his testimony, Detective Breit described his interview with [Petitioner] at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, where [Petitioner] was incarcerated on unrelated charges involving the fraudulent use of a credit card. The jury was merely told that the interview occurred in a “break room, interview room setting, ” with no mention of [Petitioner] being incarcerated. Breit testified that he began his interview with [Petitioner] by telling her that he was there to discuss the circumstances of her husband's death, at which time she immediately responded that he had died of a drug overdose. When Detective Breit handed [Petitioner] the pre-printed Miranda rights form, and explained that he needed to advise her of her constitutional rights, she became “hostile and irate.” According to Breit, [Petitioner]'s agitation increased, and “her demeanor changed, ” when Breit told her he had already spoken with her son, Mark. [Petitioner] then demanded to know what Mark had told him, but Breit explained he was unable to provide her with any further information until she signed the Miranda rights card. At that point, [Petitioner] “became more hostile, ” “started to . . . cry and [became] upset and . . . was very agitated.”
Breit testified that he was never able to interview [Petitioner] because his discussion with her “just went into . . . a circular conversation” in which he would try to elicit her cooperation and have her sign the Miranda rights card, while [Petitioner] would demand to know why it was necessary that she do so. Ultimately, after forty-five minutes, Breit terminated the interview when [Petitioner] said, “if you're not going to answer my questions, I'm not going to answer yours.”
The State also presented Dr. Singh, who testified that after reading Mark Aquilina's March 2005 statement, he had not changed his earlier conclusion that Ludvik died from a drug overdose; however, Mark's statement caused him to alter his original conclusion that the death was accidental. Singh instead concluded that the manner of death was homicide. Dr. Singh conceded that if Mark's statements to the Prosecutor's Office were false, he would be obliged to revise his opinion accordingly.
The toxicologist, Dr. Siek, testified that the quantity of heroin found in Ludvik's blood was five times more than the therapeutic level of morphine.[2] Because the heroin had not been completely metabolized, Dr. Siek opined that it had been ingested only a few hours prior to Ludvik's death. In sum, Dr. Siek concluded that Ludvik died due to an overdose of morphine and cocaine.
At the conclusion of deliberations, the jury [convicted Petitioner of first degree murder in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:11-3, first degree conspiracy to commit murder in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:11-3 and 5-2, two counts of third degree possession of cocaine and heroin respectively in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:35-10(a)(1), and third degree hindering prosecution in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-3(b)(1)]. Prior to sentencing, [Petitioner] moved for acquittal and for a new trial. The judge denied both motions.

State v. Aquilina, 2012 WL 140851, at *1-5 (N.J. App. Div. Jan. 19), certif. denied, 210 N.J. 479 (2012). Following the merger of certain charges for sentencing purposes, Petitioner was ultimately sentenced to a life sentence with an eighty five percent parole disqualifier on the murder charges, concurrent five year terms on the two drug charges, and a five year term of imprisonment on the hindering prosecution charge to run consecutive to all the other sentences. Id. at *1. Petitioner appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed her conviction and sentence. Id. The New Jersey Supreme Court thereafter denied her petition for certification on June 8, 2012. State v. Aquilina, 210 N.J. 479 (2012).

         Petitioner thereafter filed a petition for post-conviction relief in which she argued that she had received ineffective assistance of counsel during her trial, which was denied without an evidentiary hearing. See State v. Aquilina, 2016 WL 5746623, at *2 (App. Div. 2016), certif. denied, 228 N.J. 474 (2017). Petitioner appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief. Id. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification on January 20, 2017. State v. Aquilina, 228 N.J. 474 (2017). She thereafter filed her present habeas petition. (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, 567 U.S. 37, 40-41 (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 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)(1)-(2). Federal law is clearly established for these purposes where it is clearly expressed in “only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta” of the opinions of the United States Supreme Court. See Woods v. Donald, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 125 S.Ct. 1372, 1376 (2015). “When reviewing state criminal convictions on collateral review, federal judges are required to afford state courts due respect by overturning their decisions only when there could be no reasonable dispute that they were wrong.” Id. Where a petitioner challenges an allegedly erroneous factual determination of the state courts, “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct [and the] applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         B. ...

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