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Cornelius v. D'illo

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 30, 2018

STEPHEN D'ILIO, et al., Respondents.

          Daniel Cornelius Petitioner, pro se

          Elliott J. Almanza On behalf of Respondents.


          JEROME B. SIMANDLE U.S. District Judge


         Petitioner Daniel Cornelius (“Petitioner”), a prisoner currently confined at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey, has filed a pro se Petition (ECF No. 1) for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. For the reasons explained in this Opinion, the Court will deny the Petition and will also deny a certificate of appealability.


         The factual background and procedural history in this matter were summarized in part by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division on Petitioner's direct appeal.[1] (ECF No. 8-23 at 2-3.)

On September 22, 2001, around 10:30 p.m., seventeen-year old Robert (Bobby) Williams agreed to walk Yakita Foreman and her two-year old son to her home in Atlantic City. On the way, the group decided to cut through the Shore Terrace Housing Complex, also known as the Six Bedrooms Project, and stopped at the playground for a few minutes to allow Foreman's son to play.
As the group was passing the community center, a man dressed in black boots, black jeans, a hooded sweatshirt with a scarf over his face asked Williams to come over. He had a gun and directed Williams to get down on the ground, but Williams refused. The perpetrator then turned Williams around and forced him to the doors of the community center and told him to empty everything out of his pockets. When Williams told him that he had already done so, the man hit Williams on the right side of his head with the gun. Williams turned around and punched the man, knocking him to the ground. Without rising, the man shot Williams. The shooter ran off first in one direction and then he ran back, passing Foreman a second time.
A 911 call, traced to the home of Cheryl Royster, reported the shooting. Police went to Royster's home, where they learned that Royster's son, Ronald Harris, had witnessed the shooting. Harris told police that he had been outside in the courtyard playing with his friends, Roger, Latel Allen, Todd Dorn, and others and that he recognized the shooter as “Shorty.” Vaughn Blakely approached another investigator and identified defendant as the shooter. The initial statement was not recorded because Blakely was obviously drunk or high at the time. However, a few days later police re-interviewed Blakely and a sworn, recorded statement, consistent with his earlier statement was made. Based partly on this information, police decided to include defendant's photograph in a sequential photo array. This array was shown to Foreman, Allen and Harris. All of them identified defendant as the man who shot and killed Williams.
The officers also interviewed Abdul Muhammad, a resident of Six Bedrooms. On September 25, 2001, Muhammad gave a sworn statement in which he identified defendant as the shooter.
During the course of the investigation, the Atlantic City police were unable to locate defendant. In January 2002, Keith Bell, an inmate at the Atlantic County Jail, sent prosecutors a letter, stating that he had information concerning the possible whereabouts of the defendant. On January 30, 2002, Bell gave a recorded statement to detectives of the Major Crime Squad, in hopes of obtaining a deal from the prosecutor's office. In his statement, Bell said that defendant did not intend to shoot Williams, but that he was attempting to rob him for drug money. Defendant was ultimately apprehended in Baltimore, Maryland, and brought to trial.
At the trial, Foreman, Harris, Allen, and Dorn all gave eyewitness testimony concerning the shooting and again identified defendant as the shooter. Allen and Dorn both made in-court identifications of defendant. Bell, despite his previous statement to police, testified that he had no information regarding the shooting and asserted that his earlier statement to the police was a lie. Muhammad also testified that his earlier statements to police, that defendant had shot Williams, were lies. Vaughn Blakeley was not called to testify by either side.

State v. Cornelius, Indictment No. 01-12-2508, 2007 WL 1687510 at *1-2 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. June 13, 2007).

         Petitioner was convicted of felony murder, first degree robbery, second degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, third degree unlawful possession of a weapon, fourth degree aggravated assault, third degree hindering prosecution, fourth degree tampering with physical evidence and second degree possession of a weapon by a convicted person. Id. at *1. Petitioner was sentenced for the felony murder to a term of sixty-three and three-quarter years mandatory minimum subject to the No Early Release Act. Id. Petitioner was also sentenced to a consecutive ten-year extended term with a three-year mandatory minimum for hindering prosecution and a concurrent five-year term for the offense of possession of a firearm without a permit. Id. His conviction for second degree possession of a weapon by a convicted person was dismissed and the remaining counts were merged.

         The Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's conviction. Id. at *5. The Supreme Court denied certification on February 3, 2010. State v. Cornelius, 192 N.J. 479 (2007).

         Petitioner then filed a petition for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) on December 10, 2007, that was denied following oral arguments from the parties. (ECF No. 8-29, 8-32.) Judge Kyran Connor adjudicated the PCR matter. On May 15, 2013, the Appellate Division affirmed the PCR Court's decision. State v. Cornelius, Indictment No. 01-12-2508, 2013 WL 2169666 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. May 25, 2013).

         On November 14, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court denied Petitioner's petition for certification. State v. Cornelius, 932 A.2d 29 (N.J. 2007). Petitioner filed the instant petition for habeas relief under § 2254 on May 23, 2014. (ECF No. 3.) Respondents filed their full Answer on June 12, 2015. (ECF No. 8.) The matter is fully briefed and ready for disposition.


         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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Petitioner has the burden of establishing each claim in the petition. See Eley v. Erickson, 712 F.3d 837, 846 (3d Cir. 2013). Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (“AEDPA”), federal courts in habeas corpus cases must give considerable deference to determinations of state trial and appellate courts. See Renico v. Lett, 599 U.S. 766, 772 (2010).

         Section 2254(d) sets the standard for granting or denying a writ of habeas corpus:

(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(d).

         Where a state court adjudicated a petitioner's federal claim on the merits, a federal court “has no authority to issue the writ of habeas corpus unless the [state c]ourt'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, 567 U.S. 37, 40-41 (2012) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)).

         “[C]learly established law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court's] decisions, ” as of the time of the relevant state-court decision. White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000))). If a decision is “contrary to” a Supreme Court holding within 28 U.S.C. § 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. As to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), a federal court must confine its examination to evidence in the record. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 180-81 (2011).

         Where a petitioner seeks habeas relief, pursuant to § 2254(d)(2), on the basis of an erroneous factual determination of the state court, two provisions of AEDPA necessarily apply. First, AEDPA provides that “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct [and] [t]he applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1); see Miller-El v. Dretke, 545 U.S. 231, 240 (2005). Second, AEDPA precludes habeas relief unless the adjudication of the claim “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)(2).

         In addition to the above requirements, a federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus under § 2254 unless the petitioner has “exhausted the remedies available in the court of the State.” 28 U.S.C. 2254(b)(1)(A). To do so, a petitioner must “fairly present all federal claims to the highest state court before bringing them in a federal court.” Leyva v. Williams, 504 F.3d 357, 365 (3d. Cir. 2007) (citing Stevens v. Delaware Corr. Ctr., 295 F.3d 361, 369 (3d Cir. 2002)). This requirement ensures that state courts “have ‘an initial opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of prisoners' federal rights.'” Id. (citing United States v. Bendolph, 409 F.3d 155, 173 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Duckworth v. Serrano, 454 U.S. 1, 3 (1981)).

         Even when a petitioner properly exhausts a claim, a federal court may not grant habeas relief if the state court's decision rests on a violation of a state procedural rule. Johnson v. Pinchak, 392 F.3d 551, 556 (3d. Cir. 2004). This procedural bar applies only when the state rule is “independent of the federal question [presented] and adequate to support the judgment.” Leyva, 504 F.3d at 365-66 (citing Nara v. Frank, 488 F.3d 187, 196, 199 (3d Cir. 2007); see also Gray v. Netherland, 518 U.S. 152 (1996), and Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991)). If a federal court determines that a claim has been defaulted, it may excuse the default only upon a showing of “cause and prejudice” or a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Leyva, 504 F.3d at 366 (citing Lines v. Larkins, 208 F.3d 153, 166 (3d Cir. 2000)).

         To the extent that a petitioner's constitutional claims are unexhausted and/or procedurally defaulted, a court can nevertheless deny them on the merits under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2). See Taylor v. Horn, 504 F.3d 416, 427 (3d Cir. 2007) (“Here, because we will deny all of [petitioner's] claims on the merits, we need not address exhaustion”); Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700, 728 (3d Cir. 2005) (considering procedurally defaulted claim, and stating that “[under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2), we may reject claims on the merits even though they were not properly exhausted, and we take that approach here”).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The Petition raises twelve grounds for relief, two of which assert error by the trial judge regarding admission of hearsay and jury instructions, three of which allege prosecutorial misconduct, and seven of which allege ineffective assistance of trial, appellate and or PCR counsel. For the reasons explained in this section, the Court finds that Petitioner's claims do not warrant federal habeas relief.

         A. Trial Court's Erroneous Admission of Hearsay Evidence

         Petitioner asserts that the trial court's admission of prejudicial hearsay evidence was in violation of his Sixth Amendment Right of Confrontation as well as his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and a fair trial. (ECF No. 3 at 11.) The prejudicial statements that form the basis of this claim were those made by Vaughn Blakely to investigators shortly after the shooting. (Id. at 12.)

         Petitioner previously raised this claim on direct appeal. (ECF No. 19 at 27-32.) The Appellate Division agreed that the statements were inadmissible hearsay, but were harmless nonetheless because the trial evidence overwhelmingly proved Petitioner's guilt. State v. Cornelius, Indictment No. 01-12-2508, 2007 WL 1687510 at *3 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. June 13, 2007).

         Petitioner argues that Vaughn Blakely's out of court statements were improperly admitted when a police investigator testifying for the state partially referenced statements taken from Blakely shortly after the shooting. (ECF No. 12-13.) Immediately after the shooting, Blakely, an acquaintance of the Petitioner who was observed to be drunk or high, identified Petitioner as the assailant but was not asked to provide a formal statement at that time. Cornelius, 2007 WL 1687510 at *2. A few days later Blakely provided a sworn, recorded statement that was consistent with the prior statement. Id.

         At the trial, Detective Michael Graham of the Atlantic City Police Department testified that Blakely approached him as he was canvassing the Six Bedrooms Apartments shortly after the shooting. (ECF No. 8-6 at 32.) Blakely offered information about the shooting after the detective informed him that Williams succumbed to his injuries. (Id. at 33.) Blakely agreed to accompany the detectives to their office where he was interviewed. Detective Graham testified that during the course of the interview, Blakely provided the identity of a person involved in the shooting, however, the interviewing officials decided against taking a recorded statement from Blakely because of his obvious intoxication. (Id.) A few days later, Blakely provided a recorded statement that was consistent with his prior statement. (Id. at 34.) Graham further testified that Blakely also identified the type of weapon used by Robert Williams' assailant. (Id. at 35.) Graham never testified about whom it was that Blakely identified as the shooter, only that Blakely did in fact identify a shooter. Moreover, Graham testified that the Petitioner was ultimately identified as a suspect after witness interviews were conducted not only by himself but also by his fellow detectives who were assigned to the case. (Id. at 42.) Based on their investigation, the detectives composed a photographic array that included Petitioner's photograph, subsequently shown to multiple witnesses. (Id. at 42-43.)

         The Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause, which is binding on the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The standard for determining Confrontation Clause violations in criminal trial proceedings was outlined in the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). In Crawford, the Supreme Court held that the prosecution could not use the police statement of a wife against her defendant husband at trial, where the wife was unavailable as a witness due to the spousal privilege. Admission of the statement violated the Confrontation Clause. Id. at 68-69.

         The circumstances surrounding both of Vaughn Blakely's relevant statements to law enforcement arguably qualify as testimonial. See United States v. Hendricks, 395 F.3d 173, 181 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Crawford, 541 U.S. at 51) (“A witness ‘who makes a formal statement to government officers bears testimony in a sense that a person who makes a casual remark to an acquaintance does not'.”)) Moreover, the Petitioner did not have an opportunity to cross-examine Blakely as the Sixth Amendment demands. Crawford, 541 U.S. at 68.

         The Appellate Division agreed with Petitioner's contention that Officer Graham's impermissible hearsay testimony about Blakely's statement should not have been admitted into evidence. Cornelius, 2007 WL 1687510 at *3. Nonetheless, it ruled that in light of the “overwhelming evidence” of Petitioner's guilt, admission of the statement was harmless. Id.

“[F]actors in assessing whether the erroneous admission of testimonial evidence in violation of the Confrontation Clause was harmless to the defendant, includ[e] the importance of the testimony to the Government's case, the cumulative nature of the evidence, the existence of corroborating evidence, the extent of cross-examination allowed in the case, and the strength of the Government's case as a whole.”

United States v. Jimenez, 513 F.3d 62, 78 (3d Cir. 2008)(citations omitted). The record reflects that the state presented the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses to the shooting, some of whom were already familiar with Petitioner. Therefore, notwithstanding Blakely's statements that may have aided the early investigatory stage of the case, Detective Graham's reference to those statements was not the linchpin of the state's evidence.

         Further, the state's case included substantial evidence supporting the jury's guilty verdict including testimony from four eyewitnesses.

         For these reasons, the Appellate Division's determination that Detective Graham's wrongfully permitted statements were not injurious to Petitioner's case was not an unreasonable application of established federal law. See Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 121 (2007)(held that “in § 2254 proceedings a court must assess the prejudicial impact of constitutional error in a state-court criminal trial under the substantial and injurious effect standard . . . ”). Therefore, the Court denies relief on this ground.

         B. Trial Court's Jury Instructions

         Petitioner also claims that the inadequate jury instructions were in contravention of his right to a fair trial and due process of law. (ECF No. 3 at 18.) While Petitioner does not provide any supporting facts or arguments in the instant petition, he directs the ...

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