United States District Court, D. New Jersey
LINARES, CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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
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).
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. (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
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
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
9. Prosecutorial misconduct for improper remarks during
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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;
(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).
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
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.
Judge v. United States, 119 F.Supp.3d 270, 280-81
Ineffective Assistance of Trial Counsel Due to Inadequate
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).
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).
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.).
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).
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
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.).
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.
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.
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel for Failing to Raise
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).
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
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 ...