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Salas v. Warren

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

July 30, 2019

JUAN C. SALAS, Petitioner,
v.
CHARLES WARREN, et al., Respondents.

          Juan C. Salas, No. 704311-C/524176 New Jersey State Prison Petitioner pro se.

          Linda A. Shashoua Robin Ann Hamett Maura Murphy Sullivan Camden County Prosecutor's Office Counsel for Respondents.

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         Petitioner Juan C. Salas (“Petitioner”), a prisoner presently incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey, has filed an Amended Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (the “Amended Petition”). (ECF No. 12.) By order of the Court, (ECF No. 21), Respondents Charles Warren and the Attorney General for the State of New Jersey (“Respondents”) filed a full and complete Answer to the Amended Petition (the “Answer”). (ECF No. 26.) Petitioner filed a traverse to the Answer (the “Traverse”).[1] (ECF No. 27.) The Amended Petition is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, the Amended Petition will be denied.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HSITORY

         a. State Court Proceedings

         In its opinion on Petitioner's direct appeal, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division set forth the following facts underlying Petitioner's conviction:

The State presented evidence that defendant and his companions took umbrage at the intrusion of others into what they deemed their territory in Camden for the sale of narcotics. Their solution was to “clear the block.” This they did with a hail of bullets from at least five different weapons. When the shooting ended, Richard Williams was dead and Jabbar Lee died shortly thereafter. David Williams (no relation to Richard) had been shot in the back, but he survived. David testified, as did Joseph Quinones. Mr. Quinones had been with defendant and his companions as they planned what to do and saw them arm themselves with weapons supplied by defendant's uncle. We infer from various comments by counsel during the course of the trial, in the absence of the jury, that defendant's uncle was known as a narcotics trafficker.
One of the guns used was a semiautomatic rifle similar to an AK-47. Police who responded to the scene recovered more than seventy shell casings and projectiles. Investigator James Joyce of the New Jersey State Police testified as an expert in ballistics and firearm identification. According to Investigator Joyce, at least five separate guns were involved in the incident, and there may have been as many as eight.
Defendant was only seventeen years old at the time of the shootings. He was taken into custody several months later and, in the presence of his mother, supplied a statement about his involvement in this incident, which was played for the jury. According to that statement, the shootings were planned by Angel Mendoza, who recruited defendant and his brother, Jose Egron. Defendant in his statement said that Mendoza supplied the guns, not defendant's uncle. He said that Mendoza instructed him and his brother to shoot at the victims, with the expectation that they would run toward where Mendoza would be stationed and that Mendoza would kill them. Defendant said in his statement that he went along with the plan because he was afraid of what Mendoza would do to him if he did not.
Defendant testified at his trial and recanted his statement. He said he only gave the statement because the police would not let his mother leave until he did so. His mother testified to the same effect. Defendant testified he had no involvement with the shootings although he could not recall where he was when they occurred.

(ECF No. 26-10, at 2-4.)

         Following a jury trial in March 2005, Petitioner was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:5-1, 2C:11-3(a)(1) and (2); one count of first-degree attempted murder, N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 2C:5-1, 2C:11-3a(1) and (2); one count of first-degree conspiracy to commit murder, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:5-2; one count of second-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-4a; one count of third-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-5(b); and one count of third-degree hindering apprehension, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-3(b)(1). (ECF No. 26-5.) At sentencing, the sentencing court merged the conviction for hindering apprehension with the convictions for murder and attempted murder. (Id.) The sentencing court thereafter sentenced Petitioner to a 40-year term of imprisonment, subject to an 85 percent parole disqualifier on the first count of murder; and a 30-year term of imprisonment with a 30-year term of parole ineligibility on the second count of murder, to run consecutive to the sentence imposed on the first count of murder. (Id.) The remainder of Petitioner's sentences were ordered to run concurrent to the sentence on the first count of murder. (Id.)

         Petitioner filed an appeal of his conviction to the Appellate Division in which he raised the following issues for review:

POINT I DEFENDANT WAS DENIED A FAIR TRIAL AND DUE PROCESS OF LAW WHEN THE PROSECUTOR TOLD THE JURY DURING SUMMATION THAT MR. SALAS HAD GROWN UP IN A VIOLENT AND STRANGE CULTURE, THEREBY INFLUENCING THE JURY'S PERCEPTION OF MR. SALAS AS A VIOLENT AND STRANGE MAN, RATHER THAN AS A 17-YEAR-OLD JUVENILE.
POINT II THE TRIAL COURT ERRED, AND CONSEQUENTLY IMPOSED AN EXCESSIVE SENTENCE, IN REFUSING TO ORDER CONCURRENT THE SENTENCES FOR THE FIRST-DEGREE MURDER CONVICTIONS AND IN IMPOSING GREATER THAN THE MINIMUM TERM UNDER THE NO EARLY RELEASE ACT.
A. The Trial Court Erred in Refusing to Order Concurrent Sentences for the Two First-Degree Murder Convictions
B. The Sentence Was Manifestly Excessive.

(ECF No. 26-10, at 4.) The Appellate Division affirmed Petitioner's conviction and sentence on July 3, 2007. (Id. at 1, 7.) Petitioner did not immediately file a petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, on or about July 22, 2013, Petitioner filed a motion for leave to file a petition for certification as within time with the New Jersey Supreme Court. (ECF No. 26-32.) On September 17, 2013, the New Jersey Supreme Court denied Petitioner's motion without explanation and dismissed the petition for certification. (ECF No. 26-33.)

         On or about January 31, 2008, Petitioner filed his first petition for post-conviction relief (“First PCR”) in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division. (ECF No. 26-11.) In the First PCR, Petitioner alleged that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth Amendment and that his due process right to a fair trial was violated as a result of various trial errors and prosecutorial misconduct. (Id. at 5.) On January 30, 2009, following oral argument, the Superior Court denied the First PCR on the record. (ECF No. 26-14.)

         Petitioner appealed the denial of the First PCR to the Appellate Division, where he argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel as a result of counsel's failure to investigate, failure to present a “meaningful trial strategy, ” failure to confer with Petitioner, and failure to adequately present a Miranda[2] issue to the trial court. (ECF No. 26-18, at 9.) Petitioner also argued that his PCR counsel was ineffective and that his statement to police was taken in violation of the Fifth Amendment and should have been suppressed at trial. (Id.) The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the First PCR. (Id. at 13.) Petitioner, acting pro se, moved for reconsideration of that opinion on March 9, 2011. (ECF No. 26-19.)[3]

         On March 9, 2011, Petitioner filed a motion to file a petition for certification nunc pro tunc to the New Jersey Supreme Court. (ECF Nos. 26-21, 26-23.) Petitioner raised the same issues in his petition for certification that were raised to the Appellate Division in the appeal of the First PCR. (See ECF No. 26-24.) On April 21, 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted Petitioner's motion to file a petition for certification nunc pro tunc. (ECF No. 26-26.) Shortly thereafter, on July 14, 2011, the Supreme Court of New Jersey denied the petition for certification. (ECF No. 26-27.)

         It appears that sometime after certification was denied on the First PCR, Petitioner filed a pro se motion for leave to file a successive petition for post-conviction relief in the Superior Court (“Second PCR”). (ECF No. 26-28.) That motion was denied on January 20, 2012. (ECF No. 26-29.) Petitioner did not file any appeal of that denial.

         Petitioner filed a third petition for post-conviction relief (“Third PCR”) on June 19, 2013, alleging that his sentence was in violation of the Supreme Court's decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). (ECF No. 26-30.) The Superior Court determined that the Third PCR was timely because it was filed within one year of the issuance of Miller, but ultimately denied relief on the merits. (ECF No. 26-31, at 2-3.) Petitioner appealed that decision to the Appellate Division, who affirmed the Superior Court's denial of the Third PCR on June 3, 2015. (ECF No. 26-43.) Petitioner filed a petition for certification of that decision, which the New Jersey Supreme Court denied on February 5, 2016. (ECF No. 26-49.)

         b. Federal Habeas Proceedings

         Petitioner first filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 with this Court on or about September 8, 2011 (“Salas-I”). (ECF No. 1.) Because it was apparent that all of Petitioner's claims were not exhausted and because Petitioner indicated that he was pursuing the Second PCR, this Court granted Petitioner a stay and abeyance of the habeas proceeding. (ECF No. 6.)

         On June 19, 2012, Petitioner submitted a letter to this Court indicating that his Second PCR had been denied as untimely and that he wished to include that claims raised in his Second PCR in his petition for writ of habeas corpus. (ECF No. 8.) Thereafter, on or about July 11, 2012, Petitioner filed a second § 2254 petition, which gave rise to Petitioner's second habeas case, Salas v. Warren (“Salas-II”), No. 12-4275 (NLH) (D.N.J) (No. 12-4275, ECF No. 1). Upon recognizing that Salas-II was a duplicate of Salas-I, on April 26, 2013, this Court directed the Clerk to terminate Salas-II and elected to proceed solely with Petitioner's Salas-I action in order to eliminate any statute of limitations concerns. (ECF No. 9.)

         In the Court's April 26 Order, it recognized that Petitioner wished to raise in his habeas petition:

(a) all his state and federal law based challenges raised on direct appeal to the Appellate Division but not challenged before the Supreme Court of New Jersey; (b) all his state and federal law based challenges raised, during his first PCR, to the Law Division, Appellate Division and the Supreme Court of New Jersey; and (c) all his state and federal law based challenges raised and dismissed as untimely during his second PCR.

(ECF No. 9, at 4.) The Court advised Petitioner that he intended to raise claims which may have exceeded the scope of federal habeas review, notably that certain claims appeared to be facially unexhausted and procedurally defaulted. (Id. at 4- 14.) The Court informed Petitioner that he may either withdraw these challenges or otherwise attempt to overcome the procedural bat by asserting facts warranting excuse of non-exhaustion and resolution of these claims on the merits. (Id. at 15-16.) The Court thus extended the stay in Salas-I to afford Petitioner the opportunity to make an informed decision on his petition and take any appropriate action in the state court. (Id.)

         In a letter dated July 12, 2013, Petitioner indicated that he wished to seek certification with respect to his unexhausted direct appellate claims. (ECF No. 10.)

         On or about April 11, 2016, Petitioner submitted a third § 2254 petition, giving rise to the case Salas v. Johnson, No. 16-2018 (NLH) (D.N.J.) (“Salas-III”). (No. 16-2018, ECF No. 1.) Because Salas-III challenged the same conviction as Salas-I, this Court, in an order dated May 19, 2016, directed the Clerk of the Court to terminate Salas-III and proceeded solely with Petitioner's Salas-I action. (ECF No. 11.) The election in favor of Salas-I was made to eliminate any statute of limitation concerns. See Urcinoli v. Cathel, 546 F.3d 269, 272 (3d Cir. 2008). Additionally, the Clerk of the Court was directed to refund Petitioner the $5 paid in connection with Salas-III. Finally, because the Salas-III petition apparently raised only one claim for relief, this Court afforded Petitioner one final opportunity to submit an amended petition setting forth all exhausted claims he wished to raise. (ECF No. 11.)

         On June 20, 2016, Petitioner filed an amended petition representing his one all-inclusive petition. (ECF No. 12.) Because of the complicated procedural history of this matter, this Court directed Respondents to file a limited answer as to the issue of exhaustion. (ECF No. 13.) Respondents filed their limited answer on September 26, 2016. (ECF No. 17.) Petitioner thereafter filed a reply. (ECF No. 20.)

         On March 4, 2019, this Court ordered Respondents to file a full and complete answer to the Amended Petition. (ECF No. 21.) Respondents filed their full and complete answer on June 7, 2019. (ECF No. 26.) Petitioner filed a traverse on July 11, 2019. (ECF No. 27.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a state prisoner to challenge the fact or duration of his confinement where the petitioner claims his custody is in violation of the Constitution or the laws of the United States. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011); Preiser v. Rodriquez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99 (1973). A habeas petitioner bears the burden of establishing his entitlement to relief for each claim presented in the petition. See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 98 (2011).

         The standard used in reviewing habeas claims under § 2254 depends on whether those claims have been adjudicated on the merits by the state court. If they have not been adjudicated on the merits, the Court reviews de novo both legal questions and mixed factual and legal questions. See Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). If the state court adjudicated the claim on the merits, then 2254(d) limits the review of the state court's decision as follows:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings 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). If a claim has been adjudicated on the merits in state court, [4] this Court has “no authority to issue the writ of habeas corpus unless the [state court's] decision ‘was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal Law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States,' or ‘was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'” Parker v. Matthews, 567 U.S. 37, 40 (2012) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)).

         A court begins the analysis under § 2254(d)(1) by determining the relevant law clearly established by the Supreme Court. See Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 660 (2004). Clearly established law “refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme Court's] decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). A court must look for “the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision.” Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71-72 (2003). “[C]ircuit precedent does not constitute ‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,' [and] therefore cannot form the basis for habeas relief under AEDPA.” Parker, 567 U.S. at 48-49 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)).

         A decision is “contrary to” a Supreme Court holding within 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1), if the state court applies a rule that “contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme Court's] cases” or if it “confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme Court] and nevertheless arrives at a [different result.]” Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06. Under the “ ‘unreasonable application' clause of § 2254(d)(1), a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme Court's] decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. “[A]n ...


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