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Tiggs v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 8, 2019

ARTHUR L. TIGGS, Petitioner,
STEVEN JOHNSON, el al., Respondents.




         The petitioner, Arthur L. Tiggs, has submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 L.S.C. § 2254. (DE 1.) For the reasons stated herein, the petition shall be denied and no certificate of appealability shall issue.


         The New Jersey Superior Court. Appellate Division, on direct appeal, summarized Mr. Tiggs's state court criminal proceedings, and the relevant evidence underlying his resulting convictions, as follows:[1]

Lance Pettiford was shot and killed shortly before 3:00 a.m. on April 9, 2006, outside the Cave Lounge on Halsey Street in Newark. [Mr. Tiggs] was at the Cave to attend his own birthday party; he had arrived between 1:15 and 1:45 a.m.
The Cave is a bar owned by Vanessa and Charles Walker. El Raqib Poole, a/k/a Namiel, who is a friend of [Tiggs's] and worked for the Walkers, helped arrange the party. Not all of those present were guests; the Cave was also open for regular business.
Vanessa Walker and her cousin, Cynthia Boggs, arrived before [Tiggs], and Vanessa met him at the door and took his coat. Although there were two men stationed outside the entrance to check for weapons and identification, Vanessa did not know whether [Tiggs] was searched. Several others who were there said they had not been searched, including Poole; Boggs; Hodges Sears, who is a friend of the Walkers1 son Brad; Sean Williams, a regular patron who arrived at about 2:00 a.m.; and Timothy Williams, who came with Sean Williams. Pettiford went into the Cave with Sean and Timothy Williams. There is no evidence of any disturbance, fight or altercation inside the Cave that night.
During the course of the party, [Tiggs], Sears and Poole went outside to smoke. According to Sears, his companions shared a cigar filled with marijuana rather than tobacco. While they were smoking, Pettiford and Sean Williams left the Cave and crossed the street. Timothy Williams joined them and had a bottle of liquor.
According to Poole, Timothy Williams cursed at his group from across the street. Poole was not threatened, but he noticed that [Tiggs] seemed to be upset. Poole heard [Tiggs] say. "I had a vision that somebody-somebody got shot-I popped somebody for my birthday." He told [Tiggs] to think about his son and "leave it alone."
Sears heard [Tiggs] say he wanted to "push" somebody, which Sears understood to mean that [Tiggs] wanted to shoot someone. Sears ignored the comment because he did not think [Tiggs] would do such a thing, but he also said that [Tiggs] was mildly intoxicated and appeared to have something on his mind.
Poole left. From his car he noticed [Tiggs] standing by the door of the Cave and did not see him with a gun. At 2:53 a.m. Sears went back into the Cave to find his girlfriend: [Tiggs] remained outside. After Sears found his girlfriend, they left the Cave and walked toward his truck. [Tiggs] crossed the street.
Sean Williams, still outside with Timothy Williams and Pettiford. heard one loud pop in his left ear, turned around and saw Pettiford falling into Timothy's arms. [Tiggs] ran past Sean. As [Tiggs] passed, Sean saw that he had a gun in his right hand.
Sears, still walking to his truck, also heard a gun shot. He turned and saw [Tiggs] running in the middle of the street, yelling something and holding a black "357 revolver" in his right hand.
Vanessa Walker and Boggs had left the Cave just before the shooting. Both women heard but did not see the shot fired. Boggs heard someone yell. "Oh my God. Lance got shot in the head"; she looked across the street and saw [Tiggs] with a gun in his hand, and she retreated into the Cave with Vanessa.
Videotapes from the Cave's four surveillance cameras were retrieved by the police who responded to the scene. The tapes from the camera mounted outside depicted some of the comings and goings of the patrons described above. including [Tiggs's] crossing the street just prior to the shooting. The shooting was not captured by the camera.
The police took statements from the witnesses and compiled a photo array. Sears, Poole, Boggs and Sean Williams all selected [Tiggs's] photo from an array and identified him in court. Sears identified him as the person who ran away with a gun after the shooting. Poole identified him as the person who said "I had a vision I popped somebody on my birthday." Boggs said [Tiggs] was the person she saw with a gun in his hand, and Sean Williams said he was the person he saw with a gun on the night of the shooting and the one who killed his cousin. Timothy Williams could not make an identification.
Later that day, [Tiggs] called Sears. He asked Sears to talk to Brad Walker so that Brad could get the Cave's surveillance tapes from his father, Charles Walker. [Tiggs] also gave Sears his new telephone number. On another occasion [Tiggs] called Sears and threatened, "[people] better get money up for my lawyer or I'm gonna say they had something to do with it." Sears hung up and called a detective.
Reservations were made in [Tiggs's] name to travel to Atlanta by train and by air. He, his girlfriend and their child used the stand-by airplane tickets on April 10. 2006. The train tickets were cancelled. On May 3. 2006. [Tiggs] surrendered to law enforcement in Orange, New Jersey.
Dr. May Jennifer Amolat. M.D.. an assistant medical examiner, did the autopsy. She found that Pettiford's death was caused by a "penetrating gunshot wound of the head, located at the left forehead, proceeding left to right, front to back, and slightly downward." In her opinion, "the presence of soot in the bony skull, close to the entrance ... [and] the extensive fragmentation of the skull bones [was] consistent with a contact wound."
The defense stipulated that [Tiggs] did not have a permit to carry a handgun. [Tiggs] did not testify or present any witnesses.

State v. Tiggs, No. A-2440-07T4, 2010 WL 2795363, at * 1-3 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. July 13, 2010).

         On June 18, 2007, a jury found Mr. Tiggs guilty oft (i) first-degree murder. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:1 l-3(a)(1)-(2); (ii) third-degree unlawful possession of a handgun. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5b; and (iii) second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-4a. See Id. at *1. On August 17, 2007. the trial court "merged [Mr. Tiggs's] convictions for murder and possession of a firearm with an unlawful purpose .. . and sentenced [Tiggs] as follows: for first-degree murder, to a term of incarceration for life that is subject to the [provisions of] the No. Early Release Act, [N.J. Stat. Ann. §] 2C:43-7.2; for unlawful possession of a handgun, to a five-year term of incarceration that is concurrent with his sentence for murder." Id. (See also Aug. 17, 2007 Sentencing Hr'g Tr., DE 9-35.)

         On July 13, 2010, the Appellate Division affirmed Mr. Tiggs's conviction and sentence for first-degree murder. That court also '"reverse[d] and vacate[d] his conviction for unlawful possession of a handgun because the judge instructed the jury on the element of a different weapons offense not charged in the indictment."[2] Id. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification of Tiggs's direct appeal on November 10, 2010. State v. Tiggs, 12 A.3d 209 (N.J. 2010) (table).

         On December 17, 2010. Mr. Tiggs filed a petition for post-conviction relief 0;PCR") in state court (the "PCR court"'). See Stale v. Tiggs, No. A-1041-12T2.2014 WL 2765611, at * 1 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. June 19, 2014). The PCR court held a hearing on Tiggs's PCR application on June 1.2012. (PCR Hr'g Tr.. DE 9-36.) On that date, the PCR court issued an order denying Tiggs's PCR petition "for the reasons expressed in [its accompanying opinion]." (DE 9-19 and DE 9-18, respectively.) The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of Tiggs's PCR petition on June 19, 2014. Tiggs. 2014 WL 2765611. at *4. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification of Tiggs's PCR appeal on December 5. 2014. State v. Tiggs, 103 A.3d 267 (N.J. 2014) (table).

         Mr. Tiggs filed his § 2254 petition on December 3. 2015.[3] (DE 1.) Respondents filed their answer on March 18. 2016. (DE 9.) Tiggs acknowledged receipt of Respondents' answer in his May 5, 2016 motion requesting an extension of time to submit a reply. (See DE 16-1 at ¶ 5.) In spite of receiving said filing extension (see DE 17). Tiggs has not filed a formal reply in response.


         An application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody under judgment of a state court can be granted only for violations of the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. See Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 119 (1982); see also Mason v. Myers, 208 F.3d 414, 415 n.1 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254). Tiggs filed this petition for writ of habeas corpus after April 24, 1996, thus, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (''AEDPA"). Pub. L. 104-132. 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996). applies. See Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320. 326 (1997). Under AEDPA. federal habeas corpus relief is not available for any claim decided on the merits in state court proceedings unless the state court's 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 state court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), As a threshold matter, a court must "first decide what constitutes 'clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States."' Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71 (2003) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)).'''[C]learly established federal law' under § 2254(d)(1) is the governing legal principle set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision." Id. (citations omitted). A federal habeas court making an unreasonable-application inquiry should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was "objectively unreasonable." See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 409 (2000). Thus, "a federal court may not issue a writ simply because the court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable." Id. at 411. The AEDPA standard under § 2254(d) is a "difficult" test to meet and is a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt." Callen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). The petitioner has the burden of proof and, with respect to § 2254(d)(1), review "is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits." Id.

         In applying AEDPA's standards, the relevant state court decision that is appropriate for federal habeas corpus review is the last reasoned state court decision. See Bond v. Beard, 539 F.3d 256. 289-90 (3d Cir. 2008). Furthermore, the court will assume that, "[w]here there has been one reasoned state judgment rejecting a federal claim, later unexplained orders upholding that judgment or rejecting the same claim rest upon the same ground." Ylst v. Nunnemaker, 501 U.S. 797, 803 (1991); see also Wilson v. Sellers, 138 S.Ct. 1188.1194 (2018). Additionally. AEDPA deference is not excused when state courts issue summary rulings. For example, "[w]hen a federal claim has been presented to a state court and the state court has denied relief, it may be presumed that the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits in the absence of any indication or state-law procedural principles to the contrary.'' Harrington v. Richer, 62 U.S. 86. 99 (2011) (citing Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 265 (1989)).

         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 courts 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 federal court."' Leyva v. Williams, 504 F.3d 357, 365 (3d Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). This requirement ensures that state courts "have:an initial opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of prisoners' federal rights.'" Id. (citations omitted). To the extent that a petitioner's constitutional claims are unexhausted, 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): Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700. 728 (3d Cir. 2005).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Tiggs raises the following points for this Court's review:

Ground One: [Tiggs] was denied his right to a fair trial when the court erroneously advised the jury that four witnesses had all identified [Tiggs] as "the person who committed the murder." Ground Two: [Tiggs] was denied his right to a fair trial as the jury was not properly instructed as to the charge of unlawful possession of a weapon, that conviction must be vacated.
Ground Three: [Tiggs's] right against cruel and unusual punishment was violated when the trial court sentenced him to a term of seventy-five years.
Ground Four: [Tiggs] was denied his right to a fair trial when the court erroneously advised the jury that four of the witnesses had all identified [Tiggs] as "the person who committed the murder."
Ground Five: Counsel failed to investigate and prepare pretrial; counsel failed to object on numerous occasions throughout trial; counsel failed to properly raise[] an intoxication defense or hire an expert in that regard; counsel failed to properly inform [Tiggs] of the plea offer and its terms; counsel allowed prosecutor to commit misconduct during varying points of the trial; appellate counsel was also ineffective for failing to raise many of these same issues at the appellate level.
Ground Six: The trial court erred in denying [Tiggs's PCR petition] without affording him an evidentiary hearing to fully address his contention that he failed to receive adequate legal representation at the trial level.
(A) Trial counsel did not adequately represent [Tiggs] as a result of his failure to assert and pursue an intoxication defense rather than a defense of mistaken identification.
(B) Trial counsel did not adequately represent [Tiggs] as a result of his failure to object to certain aspects of the prosecutor's summation which exceeded the bounds of propriety.
Ground Seven: The trial court erred in denying [Tiggs's PCR petition] without affording him an evidentiary hearing to fully address his contention that he failed to receive adequate legal representation at the trial level.
Ground Eight: Because [Tiggs] established prima facie case of ineffective assistance of counsel, the PCR [c]ourt should have granted [an] evidentiary hearing in order to receive evidence and take testimony to ascertain trial counsel's reason for the alleged failures.

(DE l-l at 1-16; DE 1 at 13 (capitalization in original omitted).)

         A. Grounds One, Two, and Four: Jury Instructions

         1. Ground Two

         Mr. Tiggs asserts that because "the jury was not properly instructed as to the charge of [third-degree] unlawful possession of a [firearm without a permit. N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5b], that conviction must be vacated." (DE 1-1 at 2-3.)

         When Tiggs raised this issue on direct appeal, the State conceded (DE 9-9 at 31). and the Appellate Division agreed. Tiggs's "conviction for unlawful possession of a weapon [was accordingly] vacated" by the appellate court. Tiggs, 2010 WL 2795363. at *4. Nothing in the record before this court suggests that Tiggs was ever thereafter retried or resentenced on this charge. Based on everything before me, the weapons possession conviction was vacated, and remains so. Mr. Tiggs's Ground Two is therefore denied as moot, because he has already obtained the relief he seeks on direct appeal.

         2. Grounds One and Four

         Tiggs claims that he was denied his right to a fair trial because the trial court's jury charge erroneously advised the jurors that four witnesses had identified Tiggs as "the person who committed the murder." (DE 1-1 at 1-2, 6.) Here, Tiggs refers to the following portion of the trial court's charge to the jury:

Here the State has presented the testimony of Hodge Sears. Sean Williams, Cynthia Boggs. and [El Raqib] Poole. If you'll recall that these witnesses identified [Tiggs] in court as the person who committed the murder.
The State also presented testimony that on a prior occasion before this trial, these witnesses identified [Tiggs] as the person who committed these offenses.

(DE 1-1 at 1.) This statement, says Tiggs. "was not only completely inaccurate, but overwhelmingly prejudicial to [Tiggs's] constitutional right to a fair trial." (Id.) He adds that the "statement was clearly misleading ... [and] led the jury to an unjust verdict." (Id. at 6.)

         ''[A]n error in the instructions to the jury" may support habeas relief if it rises to the level of a denial of due process. Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154 (1977). "The question [during habeas review] is whether the ailing instruction by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violate[d] due process." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); accord Waddington v. Saransad, 555 U.S. 179, 191 (2009). The challenged instruction "may not be judged in artificial isolation." but must be viewed in the context of the overall charge and the trial record. Cupp v. Naughton, 414 U.S. 141, 146 (1973). It is the rare case in which;-an erroneous instruction was so prejudicial that it will support a collateral attack on the constitutional validity of a state court's judgment." Henderson. 431 U.S. at 154; accord Middleton v. McNeil 541 U.S. 433, 437 (2004) ("not every ambiguity, inconsistency, or deficiency in a jury instruction rises to the level of a due process violation.").

         In order to obtain habeas relief, a petitioner must establish that the instructional error "had [a] substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury's verdict." Brecht v. Abrahamson,507 U.S. 619. 637 (1993). For example, due process is violated where '"the erroneous instructions have operated to lift the burden of proof on an essential element of an offense as defined by state law." Smith v. Horn, 120 F.3d 400, 416 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Williams v. Beard,637 F.3d 195, 223 (3d Cir. 2011) (noting that due process is violated when "the instruction contained some ambiguity, inconsistency, or deficiency," and "there was a reasonable likelihood that the jury applied the instruction in ...

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