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Peterson v. Warren

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 20, 2018

CHARLES WARREN, et al., Respondents.



         Presently before the Court is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus of Willie Peterson ("Petitioner") brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging Petitioner's state court manslaughter conviction (ECF No. 6-3). Following an order to answer, Respondents filed a response in opposition to the petition (ECF No. 11). For the following reasons, this Court will deny the petition and will deny Petitioner a certificate of appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In its opinion affirming the denial of Petitioner's petition for post-conviction relief, the Superior Court of New Jersey - Appellate Division summarized the background of this matter as follows:

Following an eight-day jury trial, defendant was convicted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter, third-degree theft, fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, and third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose in the stabbing death of his girlfriend. Defendant was acquitted of felony murder.
At sentencing, the court imposed an extended term sentence under N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.1(b)(2) on the aggravated manslaughter conviction, ordering defendant's incarceration for sixty years, subject to an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility on the first thirty years pursuant to the No. Early Release Act (NERA), N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2. The trial judge merged the weapons convictions and imposed a concurrent five-year term of imprisonment. Finally, the court imposed a consecutive five-year term of imprisonment for the third-degree theft conviction.
On appeal, defendant's convictions were affirmed, as was his extended term sentence for aggravated manslaughter. However, we remanded for resentencing on the convictions for the third-degree offenses of theft and weapons possession. State v. Peterson, No. A- 1930-03 (App.Div. Mar. 6, 2006) (slip op. at 17). Defendant's petition for certification was denied. State v. Peterson, 193 N.J. 223, 936 A.2d 970 (2007).
Defendant's first PCR petition was filed on November 26, 2007. He sought an evidentiary hearing to review claims of trial counsel's negligent representation and imposition of an unlawful sentence. The PCR judge denied defendant's request for a hearing and, following review of the issues presented, denied relief. Defendant filed a pro se motion for reconsideration. The PCR judge issued a letter opinion denying the motion on January 25, 2011.

State v. Peterson, 2012 WL 3870319, at *l-2 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Sept. 7, 2012), certif. denied, 221 N.J. 219 (2015).

         Shortly after filing a federal habeas petition in this Court on July 10, 2013, the Court granted Petitioner's Motion for Stay and Abeyance in order for him to exhaust claims in the state court. (ECF Nos. 1, 3). Petitioner subsequently filed a second post-conviction relief ("PCR") petition on August 13, 2013. (ECF No. 11-12 at 41-47). The second PCR petition denial was affirmed on procedural default grounds in a sua sponte order issued on September 5, 2014. (ECF No. 11-6). Petitioner filed the instant amended petition for habeas relief under § 2254 on April 23, 2015.[1] (ECF No. 6-3). He raises the following claims; the first fifteen of which, were raised in his initial federal habeas filing:

1. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for inadequate preparation;
2. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to present a diminished capacity defense;
3. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to move for suppression of portions of Investigator Raccioppi's testimony;
4. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to suppress Petitioner's statements to police;
5. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to advise Petitioner of a trial memorandum;
6. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to engage in meaningful plea negotiations.;
7. Ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to advise Petitioner of his potential sentence exposure;
8. Ineffective assistance of PCR counsel for failing to raise Petitioner's absence from certain trial and pre-trial proceedings;
9. Prosecutorial misconduct for improper remarks during closing arguments;
10. Trial court erroneously admitted hearsay statements;
11. Trial court erroneously admitted prejudicial evidence;
12. Trial court erroneously admitted evidence of strained relationship between Petitioner and decedent;
13. Trial court erroneously provided jury instruction on consciousness of guilt;
14. Trial court erroneously failed to provide a jury instruction on witness bias;
15. Trial court erroneously denied Petitioner's motion for new counsel in light of a conflict of interest; and
16. PCR court erroneously denied Petitioner's claims of ineffective assistance and due process violations by the trial court.


         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.___, ___, 135 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The petition raises sixteen grounds for relief, eight of which are ineffective assistance of trial and/or appellate counsel. For the reasons explained in this section, the Court finds that Petitioner's claims do not warrant federal habeas relief.

         The standard which applies to Petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claims is as follows:

[c]laims of ineffective assistance are governed by the two-prong test set forth in the Supreme Court's opinion in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To make out such a claim under Strickland, a petitioner must first show that "counsel's performance was deficient. This requires [the petitioner to show] that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment." Id. at 687; see also United States v. Shedrick, 493 F.3d 292, 299 (3d Cir. 2007). To succeed on an ineffective assistance claim, a petitioner must also show that counsel's allegedly deficient performance prejudiced his defense such that the petitioner was "deprive[d] of a fair trial . . . whose result is reliable." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687; Shedrick, 493 F.3d at 299.
In evaluating whether counsel was deficient, the "proper standard for attorney performance is that of 'reasonably effective assistance.'" Jacobs v. Horn, 395 F.3d 92, 102 (3d Cir. 2005). A petitioner asserting ineffective assistance must therefore show that counsel's representation "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" under the circumstances. Id. The reasonableness of counsel's representation must be determined based on the particular facts of a petitioner's case, viewed as of the time of the challenged conduct of counsel. Id. In scrutinizing counsel's performance, courts "must be highly deferential ... a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689.
Even where a petitioner is able to show that counsel's representation was deficient, he must still affirmatively demonstrate that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced the petitioner's defense. Id. at 692-93. "It is not enough for the defendant to show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding." Id. at 693. The petitioner must demonstrate that "there is a reasonable probability, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694; see also Shedrick, 493 F.3d at 299. Where a "petition contains no factual matter regarding Strickland's prejudice prong, and [only provides] . . . unadorned legal conclusion[s] . . . without supporting factual allegations, " that petition is insufficient to warrant an evidentiary hearing, and the petitioner has not shown his entitlement to habeas relief. See Palmer v. Hendricks, 592 F.3d 386, 395 (3d Cir. 2010). "Because failure to satisfy either prong defeats an ineffective assistance claim, and because it is preferable to avoid passing judgment on counsel's performance when possible, [Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697-98], " courts should address the prejudice prong first where it is dispositive of a petitioner's claims. United States v. Cross, 308 F.3d 308, 315 (3d Cir. 2002).

Judge v. United States, 119 F.Supp.3d 270, 280-81 (D.N.J. 2015).

         1. Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel Due to Inadequate Preparation

         Petitioner argues that his trial counsel was ineffective insomuch as counsel failed to fully investigate his case and adequately cross-examine key state witnesses. (ECF No. 6-3 at 31-34). While Respondents maintain this claim is procedurally barred, this Court denies the claim on the merits. See e.g. Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700, 707-10 (3d Cir. 2005).

         In order to make out a claim for Strickland prejudice in regards to counsel's alleged failure to investigate and prepare for trial, Petitioner '"must make a comprehensive showing as to what the investigation would have produced. The focus of the inquiry must be on what information would have been obtained from such an investigation and whether such information, assuming admissibility in court, would have produced a different result.'" Brown v. United States, No. 13-2552, 2016 WL 1732377, at *4-5 (D.N.J. May 2, 2016) (quoting United States v. Askew, 88 F.3d 1065, 1073 (D.C. Cir. 1996)); see also United States v. Lathrop, 634 F.3d 931, 939 (7th Cir 2011) (a petitioner making inadequate investigation claims "has the burden of providing the court with specific information as to what the investigation would have produced"); United States v. Green, 882 F.2d 999, 1002 (5th Cir. 1989) (same); accord United States v. Garvin, 270 Fed.Appx. 141, 144 (3d Cir. 2008).

         Petitioner asserts, without providing evidentiary support, that had counsel more fully investigated, he would have been able to successfully cross-examine and discredit multiple state witnesses, such as Twanna Floyd, Eric Wiltshire and Investigator Nicole Berrian. (ECF No. 6-3 at 31.) Specifically, with respect to Investigator Berrian, Petitioner asserts that adequate preparation would have allowed his trial counsel to better handle Berrian's "verbal gymnastics game by giving selective and misleading responses to questions." (Id.).

         As the Appellate Division explained in rejecting this claim on Petitioner's direct appeal, it could not make an ineffectiveness determination under Strickland based on Petitioner's "conclusory allegations of ineffective trial preparation." State v. Peterson, Docket No. 02-08-3082-1, 2006 WL 533109 at *5 (App. Div. Mar. 6, 2006). State's witness Twanna Floyd, who was the decedent Deborah Belle's neighbor and confidante, testified about the strife in Petitioner and decedent's relationship that was caused by Petitioner's multiple instances of stealing the decedent's personal belongings and pawning them. (ECF No. 12-5 at 18-25). Floyd testified about one of her last encounters with the decedent, where she helped her locate a locksmith to change the locks of the home that decedent shared with Petitioner. (Id. at 25-27). According to Floyd, Petitioner's most recent instance of pawning her belongings without her permission incited the decedent's decision to change the locks. (Id.). Nonetheless, Floyd testified that Petitioner was back in the decedent's home just days later, much to Floyd's dismay. (Id. at 28-31).

         State's witness, Eric Wiltshire, who was incarcerated with Petitioner at the Essex County Jail after the decedent's murder, testified about Petitioner's admission that he killed his fiancee and his actions immediately after the murder. (ECF No. 12-9 at 19-23). Wiltshire, who had pending criminal charges of his own, testified that he notified the prosecutor's office of Petitioner's statements with the hopes of securing a favorable plea bargain as a result of his promise to cooperate in Petitioner's murder case. (ECF No. 12-9 at 22-25). Notwithstanding this, Wiltshire's information to law enforcement was verified as information that was not provided to the general public and had to have been obtained from someone intimately familiar with Petitioner's actions on the day of the murder and the days immediately thereafter. (ECF No. 12-6 at 15-18).

         Investigator Nicole Berrian of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office testified about her observations of the crime scene and her role in the murder investigation. (ECF No. 12-6 at 2-31). She explained that law enforcement initially found the decedent in her home after her son, who was away at school, asked the police to check on his mother after days of unsuccessful attempts to reach her by telephone. (Id. at 22). Investigator Berrian described the crime scene and the victim's then-slightly decomposed body which was still at the scene. (Id. at 3-17). Berrian's responsibilities included locating Petitioner, gathering information about how long the decedent may have been dead and sending evidence for scientific testing. (Id.).

         The Court's review of the trial record indicates that trial counsel was adequately prepared and conducted a vigorous cross examination of the above-named witnesses. First, with respect to Twanna Floyd, trial counsel familiarized himself with her prior statements to law enforcement. He was able to impeach her on several issues such as (1) the significant delay between when she learned of decedent's murder and when she informed law enforcement of the tension in Petitioner and decedent's relationship; (2) her unfamiliarity with any history of physical violence by Petitioner against the decedent; and (3) her observations of decedent's mounting anger against Petitioner over the course of their relationship. (ECF No. 12-5 at 37-43). Trial counsel also impeached Eric Wiltshire with the beneficial plea agreement he obtained for himself as a result of cooperating in the murder case against the Petitioner. (ECF No. 12-9 at 27-36). Lastly, trial counsel examined Investigator Berrian about her professional observation of the shape and location of the blood spatter throughout the crime scene in order to establish that the decedent was the aggressor, therefore causing Petitioner to sustain injuries and blood loss. (ECF No. 12-6 at 44-57, 77-78). There is nothing in the record that suggests that Investigator's Berrian's testimony was evasive or misleading. Therefore, the record does not support that trial counsel had any basis to impeach the investigator during cross-examination.

         Because the facts in the record do not support Petitioner's bald assertion of ineffective assistance, the Appellate Division's conclusion that it could not determine that trial counsel was ineffective is neither contrary to nor an unreasonable application of Strickland and its progeny. Here, the Petitioner has not made any showing "that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness." See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. Thus, Petitioner is therefore not entitled to habeas relief on his ineffective assistance claim.

         2. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Failing to Raise Diminished Capacity

         Petitioner next claims that his trial counsel's failure to prepare a diminished capacity defense constituted ineffective assistance. (ECF No. 6-3 at 48). Petitioner argues that his behavior shortly after the murders, which included flagging an officer down on the street and telling him "to take me in" demonstrated that he was suffering from "a mental deficiency." (Id.). While Petitioner's habeas petition provides minimal supporting facts or allegations, his pleadings in the state courts raised more facts to support this claim. There, Petitioner cited to his suicidal ideations that he expressed to the arresting officers. Additionally, he cited to his declining medical treatment when he was observed to have sustained injuries from a car collision he was involved in shortly after the murder, which was purportedly a suicide attempt. (ECF No. 11-10 at 22).

         The state court rejected this argument, opining that neither Petitioner's mental health history nor his behavior after the murder suggested that his murdering the decedent was a result of diminished capacity.

Defendant's suicidal behavior does not demonstrate he had a diminished capacity, as turning oneself in to the police, confessing to a crime, and feeling remorse after a murder are not signs of diminished capacity. See State v. Savage, 120 N.J. 594, 614, 577 A.2d 455 (1990) (illustrating behaviors entitling a defendant to a diminished capacity defense).
In Savage, supra, the Court held trial counsel may be ineffective for not investigating a "psychiatric defense" when defendant "participated in ... bizarre conduct, and possibly had a history of mental illness and drug abuse [.]" Ibid. There, the defendant had a history of mental illness and drug abuse, suffered from possible "hallucinations or delusions, " used cocaine the night of the murder, and exhibited many symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Ibid.
The facts of this matter are easily distinguishable from Savage, as defendant did not have a history of mental illness, did not claim he was under the influence of drugs at the time of the murder, and did not claim he was having psychiatric "hallucinations or delusions." In contrast, defendant tried to commit suicide, said he wanted to die, and confessed to murder. Moreover, defendant offers no evidence showing prior or ...

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