United States District Court, D. New Jersey
Cornelius Petitioner, pro se
Elliott J. Almanza On behalf of Respondents.
B. SIMANDLE U.S. District Judge
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
FACTUAL BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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. (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
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).
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.
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
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,
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
2254(d) sets the standard for granting or denying a writ of
(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;
(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).
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)).
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).
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).
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)).
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)).
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
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
Trial Court's Erroneous Admission of Hearsay
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.)
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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.
the state's case included substantial evidence supporting
the jury's guilty verdict including testimony from four
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.
Trial Court's Jury Instructions
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 ...