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Alford v. Warden New Jersey State Prison

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 29, 2019

LAMAR ALFORD, Petitioner,
v.
WARDEN NEW JERSEY STATE PRISON, et al., Respondents.

          Lamar Alford, Petitioner pro se

          Mary Eva Colalillo, Camden County Prosecutor Linda A. Shashoua, Assistant Prosecutor Camden County Prosecutor's Office

          OPINION

          JEROME B. SIMANDLE, DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Lamar Alford has submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. [Petition, Docket Entry 1]. Respondent Warden, New Jersey State Prison opposes the petition. [Answer, Docket Entry 10]. For the reasons stated herein, the petition shall be denied and no certificate of appealability shall issue.

         II. BACKGROUND

         The facts of this case were recounted below and this Court, affording the state court's factual determinations the appropriate deference, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1), reproduces the recitation of the facts as set forth by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division (“Appellate Division”) in its opinion denying Petitioner's direct appeal:

On May 22, 2005, Salvador A. Martinez, known as Twin by some and Alex by others, was shot and killed. The victim was in an alley on Merriel Avenue in Camden at about 9:30 p.m. when two men dressed in dark clothing, one tall and one short, entered the alley and pushed the victim to the ground. Lillian Davis heard one of the men say, “don't move, just stay there, ” and the victim ceased his attempts to stand. She observed the men stand over the victim and rifle through his pockets. Then she saw the taller man run from the alley, and “[the shorter one] was getting ready to run, but he turned back around like ... pulled it out and shot one time.” Then the shorter assailant ran from the scene. Davis could not identify either man because, as she stated numerous times at trial, “I didn't see no faces.”
Carol Lofland, standing near the alley with Davis and a man known as Beans, saw the shorter man rifle through the victim's pockets and saw both men start to run. Lofland then saw the shorter man stop, turn, return to the victim, and fire one shot. Thia Kim, sitting in the park across from the alley, saw both men run from the alley, cross the street, run through the park, and across nearby railroad tracks. Kim testified that he saw the faces of both men and recognized both men. Kim recognized Alford because “I seen [him] around.” He testified he recognized [co-defendant Ziair] McDaniels as a person who hung around his middle school. Kim also stated he had seen McDaniels in the neighborhood but had not seen him with Alford. The victim was pronounced dead at the hospital.

State v. Alford (“Alford I”), No. A-0804-07, 2010 WL 3516787, *1 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. Sept. 8, 2010) (omission in original) (final alteration added). Petitioner and McDaniels were charged with first-degree murder, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:11-3(a)(1) or (2) (Count One); first-degree felony murder, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:11-3(a)(3) (Count Two); first-degree robbery, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:15-1 (Count Three); first-degree conspiracy/murder/robbery, N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:5-2, 11-3(a)(1); 15-1 (Count Four); second-degree possession of a handgun for an unlawful purpose, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-4(a) (Count Five); third-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5(b) (Count Six); and second-degree certain persons not to have weapons, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-7 (Count Seven). [Indictment, Ra1].[1]

         Neither Petitioner nor McDaniels testified or presented any witnesses on their behalf. As for the state:

Carol Lofland identified Alford, known on the street as Bling and by some as Blaze, as the taller of the men. She did not identify McDaniels as the shorter man. She, unlike Kim, gave inconsistent testimony about seeing McDaniels, known on the street as Sugar Hill, with Alford on a regular basis. Initially, she testified that she saw them together rarely. When confronted with her statement given about a month after the shooting in which she stated she saw them together often, she changed her testimony.
Jacob Eller testified he knew the victim and Alford because he was a drug user and had purchased drugs from both men on numerous occasions. He also recounted an encounter with defendants earlier on May 22, when he went to a street corner in Camden to buy drugs.
According to Eller, as he awaited his turn to purchase drugs, someone arrived in Alford's car. Eller heard the driver say to Alford, “you're not getting your money he owes you, ” and he heard Alford respond, “go get my gun, I'll get my f ----- g money.” Eller said someone obtained a gun, and gave it to Alford, who entered the passenger seat of his car and drove away. Eller also testified that Alford had an “associate, ” who he identified as McDaniels. He stated he had seen them together “a hundred times.”

Alford I, 2010 WL 3516787 at *2 (omission in original).

         Defendants were convicted on all counts.

         After merging counts and sentencing Petitioner to a life term on the felony murder charge with a concurrent twenty-year term on Count Four and a consecutive ten-year term on Count Seven, Petitioner “is serving life plus ten years in prison subject to a parole ineligibility term of 68.75 years.” Id. at *1. [See also Judgment of Conviction, Ra2; Amended Judgment of Conviction, Ra2b]. Petitioner filed a notice of appeal. The Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's convictions but remanded for reconsideration of the imposed consecutive term. Alford I, 2010 WL 3516787 at *11. On January 21, 2011, the trial court resentenced Petitioner to the same sentence. [Ra3].

         Petitioner filed a request for certification by the New Jersey Supreme Court on September 9, 2010. [Ra10]. The court denied review on February 3, 2011. State v. Alford, 13 A.3d 362 (N.J. 2011).

         Petitioner filed a pro se post-conviction relief (“PCR”) petition on March 22, 2011. [PCR Petition, Ra13]. His counsel filed a supplemental brief on September 20, 2011. [Supplemental Brief, Ra14]. The PCR court heard oral argument on September 23, 2011 and denied the petition without an evidentiary hearing. [See generally 12T].[2] The Appellate Division affirmed the denial for the reasons stated by the PCR court, State v. Alford (“Alford II”), No. A-2532-11, 2014 WL 2533794 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. June 6, 2014), and the New Jersey Supreme Court denied certification on February 17, 2015. State v. Alford, 108 A.3d 635 (N.J. 2015).

         Petitioner subsequently filed this § 2254 petition. [Docket Entry 1]. The Court reviewed the petition pursuant to the Rules Governing § 2254 Proceedings and ordered Respondent to answer the petition. [Order to Answer, Docket Entry 2]. Respondent filed its answer, [Answer, Docket Entry 10], and Petitioner submitted a traverse, [Traverse, Docket Entry 13].

         This matter is now ripe for review without oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Title 28 U.S.C. § 2254 permits a federal court to entertain a petition for writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in state 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.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

         With respect to any claim adjudicated on the merits by a state court, the writ shall not issue 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; 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). A state court decision is “contrary to” Supreme Court precedent “if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme Court] cases, ” or “if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of th[e] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [the Court's] precedent.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000). “[A] state-court decision is an unreasonable application of clearly established [Supreme Court] precedent if it correctly identifies the governing legal rule but applies that rule unreasonably to the facts of a particular prisoner's case.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1706, reh'g denied, 134 S.Ct. 2835 (2014). The Court must presume that the state court's factual findings are correct unless Petitioner has rebutted the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Petitioner raises the following points for this Court's review:

I. The improper admission of testimony regarding Defendant's alleged drug dealing with his co-defendant's [sic] violated N.J.R.E. 404(b) and deprived him of his right to due process and a fair trial.
II. The trial court permitted improper and highly prejudicial hearsay testimony from Investigator Greer, which bolstered the testimony of the State's three identification witnesses, and necessitates reversal.
III. Trial court erred in charging the jury that Lofland had “identified the [co-defendant] by build and stature as the person with [defendant] at the scene, ” which deprived Defendant of his right to due process and a fair trial. (Alterations in original)
IV. The jury's exposure to Juror 7's comment that Defendant's two teardrop tattoos meant he killed two people deprived defendant of his right to due process of law and a fair trial by an impartial jury.
V. The trial was so infected with error that even if the individual errors, as set forth above do not constitute reversible error, the errors in the aggregate denied defendant a fair trial.
VI. By improperly imposing consecutive terms, the court imposed an excessive sentence, necessitating reduction.
VII. Petitioner was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel by the failure of trial counsel to present third party guilt.
VIII. Petitioner was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel by the failure of trial counsel to effectively confront state witnesses Thia Kim and Jacob Eller.
IX. Petitioner was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel due to the cumulative errors of counsel.
X. The order denying post-conviction relief should be reversed and the matter remanded for a full evidentiary hearing because Defendant made a prima facie showing that his Fourteenth Amendment Due Process right to be protected against a deception that there was no pending plea bargain between the state and Thia Kim, and his Fourteenth Amendment Due Process right to Effective assistance of counsel were violated.
XI. The order denying post-conviction relief should be reversed and the matter remanded for a full evidentiary hearing because trial counsel's failure to cross-examine Jacob Eller on his expectation of a favorable treatment from the State satisfied the prima facie standard for ineffective assistance of counsel under the Strickland/Fritz test.
XII. Post-conviction relief should be granted because of prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.

         A. Admission of Improper Testimony

         In Grounds I and II, Petitioner alleges the trial court erred by admitting evidence about Petitioner's alleged drug dealing and by admitting hearsay evidence from Investigator Greer, respectively.

         1. Other Crimes Evidence

         Petitioner argues that the admission of Eller's testimony regarding Petitioner's history as a drug dealer violated New Jersey Rule of Evidence 404(b). [See Petition at 6; Traverse at 12-20]. This ground lacks merit. “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). Even if the admission the testimony violated New Jersey's evidence rules, “‘federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law.'” Id. at 67 (quoting Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1984)). Petitioner presented both state and federal arguments to the Appellate Division, but the Appellate Division rejected Petitioner's arguments solely on the basis of state law and did not address his federal claim. “When a state court rejects a federal claim without expressly addressing that claim, a federal habeas court must presume that the federal claim was adjudicated on the merits[.]” Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 301 (2013). The Court therefore applies the appropriate AEDPA deference.

         “Admission of ‘other crimes' evidence provides a ground for federal habeas relief only if ‘the evidence's probative value is so conspicuously outweighed by its inflammatory content, so as to violate a defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial.'” Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700, 730 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Lesko v. Owens, 881 F.2d 44, 52 (3d Cir. 1989)). Eller testified he knew Petitioner as “Johnny Blaze” and had been buying drugs from him for a long time. [5T206:1-7]. Eller stated that just before the murder, he went to purchase crack cocaine from Petitioner when a car belonging to Petitioner pulled up. [5T215:18 to 216:2]. The driver told Petitioner that “you're not getting the money he owes you.” [5T219:11]. Petitioner then became angry and stated: “go get my gun, I'll get my fucking money.” [5T220:15-16].

         At the conclusion of Eller's testimony, the trial court instructed the jury on the limited purposes for which it could use the evidence regarding Petitioner's drug dealing history:

[Y]ou've also heard evidence that the defendants in this matter, Lamar Alford and Ziair McDaniels may have been involved in drug-dealing.
Normally, this evidence is not permitted under our Rules of Evidence. Our rules specifically exclude evidence that a defendant has committed other crimes, wrongs, or acts when it's offered only to show he has a disposition or tendency to do wrong and therefore must be guilty of the charged offenses.
. . . Before you can give any weight to this evidence, you must be satisfied that the defendant committed other crimes, wrongs, or acts. If you are not satisfied, you may not consider it for any purpose.
However, our rules do permit evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts when the evidence is used for certain specific, narrow purposes.
In this case, it was admitted solely to prove the knowledge and the identity of the defendants and a possible motive for the incident.
Whether this evidence does, in fact, demonstrate that specific purpose is for you to decide. You may decide the evidence does not demonstrate that knowledge of the defendants or the identity of the defendants and a ...

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