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Quixal v. Nogan

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 17, 2018

SILAS QUIXAL, [1] Petitioner,
PATRICK NOGAN, et al., Respondents.



         Presently before the Court is the pro se amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus of Silas Quixal (“Petitioner”) brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging Petitioner's state court conviction. (ECF No. 7). The State filed a response to the petition (ECF No. 12), to which Petitioner has replied. (ECF No. 24). 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, the Superior Court of New Jersey - Appellate Division provided the following summary of Petitioner's criminal trial and conviction:

Tried to a jury, [Petitioner] was convicted of aggravated sexual assault upon a victim less than thirteen years of age, a crime of the first degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2a(1); endangering the welfare of a child, a crime of the third degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4a; and sexual assault upon a victim less than thirteen years of age, a crime of the second degree, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2b. The trial court sentenced [Petitioner] to nineteen years in prison, subject to the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2C:43-7.2, the No. Early Release Act (“NERA”), for aggravated sexual assault; four years in prison for endangerment, to be served concurrently; and nine years in prison, subject to NERA, for sexual assault, to be served consecutively. . . .
[Petitioner's] victim was S.B., who was six years old at the time of the incident. S.B.'s mother had some plants she wished to have repotted so she drove to a local nursery, taking S.B. and her sixteen-month-old daughter with her. While they were waiting for the plants to be repotted, S.B. became separated from her mother. Her mother went through the store, calling for S.B. and found her at the end of one the aisles. [Petitioner] was nearby, and S.B. had a strange expression on her face. Her mother asked if S.B. had not heard her calling for her, but S.B. did not answer. Her mother asked what she had been doing, but S.B. said she could not tell her. Her mother asked if [Petitioner] had told her not to say anything, and S.B. nodded affirmatively. S.B.'s mother assured her she would not be angry with S.B. and that [Petitioner] would not either. S.B. then told her mother that [Petitioner] had kissed her and licked her; she pointed to her vaginal area. S.B.'s mother went immediately to store personnel to report what her daughter had told her and they summoned the police.
Police Officer Michael Boccher of the Paramus Police Department responded to the scene. He spoke with S.B., who repeated what she had told her mother. Officer Boccher asked S.B. if she could show him, where in the store the incident occurred. She agreed and led him toward the rear. On the way, [Petitioner] happened to pass by. S.B. spontaneously identified [Petitioner] to Officer Boccher as the man who had assaulted her.
The police spoke to [Petitioner], who appeared nervous and upset. When he asked what would happen to him if he told them the truth, he was placed under arrest and verbally advised of his Miranda rights. See Miranda v. Arizona, [384 U.S. 436] (1966).
S.B. was interviewed by Detective Barbara Stio of the prosecutor's Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit at the Audrey Hepburn Children's House. Detective Stio has been trained in conducting forensic interviews of children in connection with claims of sexual abuse. She repeated what she had told her mother. She also said that [Petitioner] had taken out his penis and asked her to touch it, but she refused. Following that interview, S.B. was examined by a physician and her clothing was taken for examination. Subsequent testing at the State Police laboratory disclosed the presence of [Petitioner's] DNA on S.B.'s underpants.
After [Petitioner] was arrested, he was transported to the prosecutor's office, where he was again advised of his Miranda rights and executed a written waiver. He was questioned by Sergeant Cilento of the prosecutor's sex crimes and child abuse squad. Confronted with S.B.'s allegations, [Petitioner] confessed. Following a pretrial hearing, [Petitioner's] confession was ruled admissible at his trial.
During [Petitioner's] trial, the prosecution presented a number of witnesses, including Detective Stio, who testified with respect to her interview of S.B. and Sergeant Cilento, who testified with respect to his interrogation of [Petitioner].

State v. Quixal, No. A-5879-07T4, 2010 WL 5419109, at *1-3 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Apr. 19, 2010).

         In its 2016 opinion affirming the denial of Petitioner's state court petition for post-conviction relief, the Appellate Division additionally noted the following about the evidence underlying Petitioner's conviction:

The testimony at trial established that [Petitioner] worked at a garden center. The six-year-old victim had come to the center with her mother. When the child was separated from her mother, she encountered [Petitioner] and asked for help to find her mother. [Petitioner] took the child to a secluded area of the garden center, kissed her on the lips, pulled her pants and underwear down and licked her on her vagina. The child also reported that [Petitioner] had taken out his penis and asked her to touch it, but she refused.
Shortly after the incident, the child gave a recorded statement that was played at trial, and the child also testified at trial. The State introduced DNA evidence taken from the inside of the child's underwear. The DNA analysis showed that cells from a male's saliva were found on the inside of the child's underwear and [Petitioner's] DNA matched the DNA found on the underwear.
[Petitioner] also gave a statement to the police during which he admitted to kissing the victim “on the vagina, ” which he also described as “[o]n top of the vagina.” [Petitioner's] statement was admitted at trial. At trial [Petitioner] testified that when he encountered the child, she asked him to help her find her mother. When he said he would help, the child kissed him and he kissed her on her stomach. [Petitioner] denied sexually assaulting the child, and testified that he told the police what they wanted to hear because he was afraid.

State v. Quixal, No. A-1966-14T2, 2016 WL 1637217, at *1-2 (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Apr. 26, 2016) (footnote omitted). As the foregoing makes clear, “the evidence of [Petitioner's] guilt at trial was strong. The victim gave a statement and testified, [Petitioner] gave a statement, and there was DNA evidence.” Id. at *3.

         Following his conviction and sentence, Petitioner appealed. See Quixal, 2010 WL 5419109. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed his conviction, but remanded for resentencing because “the trial court gave no reasons for imposing consecutive sentences.” Id. at *3. The Appellate Division instructed “the trial court to determine anew whether consecutive sentences are appropriate and, if it is satisfied they are, to place its reasons upon the record.” On June 22, 2010, the trial court resentenced Petitioner to “the same term” of imprisonment.[2] State v. Quixal, 70 A.3d 749, 750 (N.J.Super. App. Div. 2013). The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification of Petitioner's direct appeal on July 12, 2010. State v. Quixal, 999 A.2d 463 (N.J. 2010) (Table).

         On or about May 12, 2014, Petitioner filed a counseled petition for post-conviction relief (“PCR”) in the state trial court (the “PCR court”).[3] (See Aug. 1, 2014 PCR Hr'g Tr. 3, ECF No. 12-28). Following briefing and a non-evidentiary hearing, the PCR court denied that petition by way of an opinion and order. (ECF No. 12-10). The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of PCR relief in all respects on April 26, 2016. Quixal, 2016 WL 1637217. Petitioner then filed a petition for certification, which the New Jersey Supreme Court denied on September 12, 2016. State v. Quixal, 151 A.3d 92 (2016) (Table). Petitioner's current habeas petition followed.


         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).

         The petitioner carries the burden of proof, and review under § 2254(d) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98, 100 (2011). “[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)); accord 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.” Woods, 125 S.Ct. at 1376. 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).

         A federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus under § 2254 unless a petitioner has “exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). In other words, “a petitioner must ‘fairly present' all federal claims to the highest state court before bringing them in 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) (quoting Whitney v. Horn, 280 F.3d 240, 250 (3d Cir. 2002))). “This requirement ensures that state courts have an initial opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of prisoners' federal rights.” Leyva, 504 F.3d at 365 (citing United States v. Bendolph, 409 F.3d 155, 173 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Duckworth v. Serrano, 454 U.S. 1, 3 (1981))). To the extent that a petitioner's constitutional claims are unexhausted, this 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) (“because [this court] will deny all of [petitioner's] claims on the merits, [it] need not address exhaustion.”); Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700, 728 (3d Cir. 2005) (“Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2), [this court] may reject claims on the merits even though they were not properly exhausted, and [this court will] take that approach here.”).

         B. Analysis

         1. Petitioner's Excessive Sentence Claim

         Petitioner argues that his sentence is excessive. (Am. Pet., ECF No. 7 at PageID: 26, 32). More specifically, Petitioner claims that “[t]he [t]rial [c]ourt erred in imposing consecutive sentences and imposing sentences in excess of the mid-point in the sentencing range” and that he should have instead received a five-year prison term. (Id.). Petitioner claims that his “crimes[, ] while reprehensible, were less serious than the typical sexual assault.” (Id. at Page ID: 26). As noted above, Petitioner challenged the sentence he received in the lone direct appeal he filed, and as a result, the Appellate Division remanded for resentencing. See Quixal, 2010 WL 5419109 at *3. Petitioner was then resentenced to “the same term” of imprisonment on June 22, 2010. Quixal, 70 A.3d at 750. Because Petitioner failed to appeal the sentence imposed on him at resentencing, it does not appear that Petitioner properly exhausted this claim during his state court proceedings. However, because this Court finds this claim is without merit, it will be denied, notwithstanding Petitioner's failure to exhaust. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(2).

         State sentences are generally matters of state law that fall outside of the purview of federal habeas courts. See Chapman v. United States, 500 U.S. 453, 465 (1991) (“a person who has been so convicted is eligible for, and the court may impose, whatever punishment is authorized by statute for his offense, so long as that penalty is not cruel and unusual . . . and so long as the penalty is not based on an arbitrary distinction that would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment”) (citations omitted); see also Reid v. Ricci, No. 07-3815, 2008 WL 2984207, at *12 (D.N.J. July 31, 2008) (“absent a claim that the sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, or that it is arbitrary or otherwise in violation of due process . . . the legality of [a petitioner's] state court sentence is a question of state law”) (citations omitted).

         Here, the facts do not indicate that the sentence Petitioner received was cruel and unusual, or arbitrary in a manner that would violate the United States Constitution. The record reveals that Petitioner was sentenced to an aggregate term of twenty-eight years imprisonment, consisting of: (i) nineteen years for his conviction on count one, i.e., committing aggravated sexual assault upon a victim less than thirteen years of age; (ii) five years for Petitioner's conviction on count two, i.e., endangering the welfare of a child, to run concurrently to count one; and (iii) nine years for his conviction for count three, i.e., committing sexual assault upon a victim less than thirteen years of age, to run consecutively to count one. (See June 18, 2010 Sentencing Tr. 20-23, ECF No. 12-27).

         The sentencing judge made clear that he imposed consecutive sentences on counts one and three “because they were clearly independent, separate and distinct offenses.” (Id. at 21). The judge also noted that Petitioner's lack of any prior criminal history represented a mitigating factor which he accounted for when imposing the sentence, but further noted that there were many other aggravating factors, including the “especially heinous, cruel and depraved” nature of Petitioner's crimes against a “particularly vulnerable [victim] because of her age” that were also taken into consideration. (Id. at 20-23). The record further makes clear that the sentence imposed, while on the higher range, did not go beyond the statutory maximum. See, e.g., Quixal, 2010 WL 5419109 at *3.

         Based on these facts, it is clear that this is not one of those rare or extreme cases where the sentence imposed was cruel and unusual, or arbitrary in a manner that would violate the United States Constitution. See Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 77 (2003) (explaining that a state sentence raises federal constitutional concerns only when it is grossly disproportionate to the crime committed); United States v. Miknevich, 638 F.3d 178, 185-86 (3d Cir. 2011) (“a sentence within the limits imposed by statute is neither excessive nor cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.”) (internal quotations and citations omitted); Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 481 (2000) (“judges [are permitted] to exercise discretion . . . in imposing a judgment within the range prescribed by statute). As such, this claim for habeas relief is denied.

         2. Petitioner's Jury ...

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