The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHRISTOPHER CONNER, District Judge
Presently before the court is a petition for writ of habeas corpus
(Doc. 1) in which petitioner, Darrell Wayne Breighner ("Breighner"),
asserts that the Superior Court of Pennsylvania acted unreasonably in
finding sufficient evidence to support his conviction for arson.
Resolution of this issue requires the court to determine whether recent
amendments to the federal habeas statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2254, mandate
that federal courts accord a "presumption of correctness" to factual
findings of a state court when the state court has previously considered
and rejected the petitioner's claims for relief. For the reasons that
follow, the court holds that the presumption of correctness does not
apply in such cases.
With respect to the merits, petitioner's assertions of constitutional
error by the state court are unavailing. Consequently, the court will
deny petitioner his requested relief.
At approximately 7:00 p.m. on January 2, 1999, a fire broke out in the
rental offices of Briarcrest Garden, a large apartment complex in
Hershey, Pennsylvania. The fire spread quickly and flames were soon
visible outside of the building. Residents of the complex notified
emergency personnel, who were able to contain the fire. (Doc. 8, Exs. A
at 36, 82-85, B at 5-11). Following their examination of the scene,
officials determined that the fire had been set intentionally and fueled
through use of an accelerant. They also found that a burglary of funds
held in the rental offices had occurred prior to the fire. (Doc. 8, Ex. C
at 50-74). The incident occurred near the first of the month, when
residents typically submitted their rental payments, and the outer door
showed no signs of forced entry. Consequently, officials postulated that
the offender was likely someone with access to the rental offices and
knowledge of office policies. (Doc. 8, Ex. C at 50-74).
After further investigation, state authorities brought charges of arson
and burglary against Breighner, a maintenance worker at the apartment
complex. Breighner had access to the rental offices as well as use and
possession of a red maintenance truck owned by Briarcrest Garden. (Doc.
8, Ex. H). According to the prosecution, Breighner drove to the rental
offices in the red truck, left it running while he went inside to commit
the burglary and set the fire, and then drove quickly away from the
rental offices to his own apartment in the same complex.
Several witnesses placed Breighner at the scene of the fire through
circumstantial evidence. Marissa Mueller ("Mueller"), a resident of the
saw the red maintenance truck pull up and park in front of the
rental offices "at about" 6:15 p.m., as she was walking to a local video
store. (Doc. 8, Ex. B at 5-11). Upon her return, she saw "the same truck"
quickly pull into another part of the complex, located a significant
distance from the rental offices. Although Mueller estimated that she saw
the truck the second time at "around quarter to 7:00 [p.m.], give or take
five minutes," her estimates of time spent walking and browsing at the
video store suggest that she may have seen the truck closer to 7:00 p.m.,
or even slightly later.*fn1 (Doc. 8, Ex. B at 5-11). When she approached
the rental offices, she noticed smoke coming from the building. Soon
after, firefighters arrived to combat the blaze. (Doc. 8, Ex. B at 5-11).
Another resident, Robert C. Wohlmaker ("Wohlmaker"), testified that he
saw the red maintenance truck parked outside the rental offices on the
night in question. (Doc. 8, Ex. A at 82-85). He noticed that the lights
of the truck were turned on and that the engine was running, but he could
not see anyone inside. As he continued towards his own apartment, he
"heard the engine rev up." (Doc. 8, Ex. A at 82-85). He turned and saw
the red truck "go real fast" down the drive leading out of the complex.
Although he could not estimate when he saw the truck,
it was after night had fallen (approximately 5:30 p.m.*fn2) but
before firefighters arrived on the scene, shortly after 7:00 p.m. (Doc.
8, Ex. A at 82-85).
Testimony of other residents confirmed that the fire started at or
shortly after 7:00 p.m. and that the flames were "real high" by 7:15 p.m.
(Doc. 8, Ex. A at 36). Expert testimony established that the arsonist had
used an accelerant available in the rental offices. The prosecution's
expert concluded that the fire was started about ten or fifteen minutes
before it became so intense that people would likely notice and report it
to authorities. (Doc. 8, Ex. A at 81).
Although Breighner did not take the witness stand, a police officer
testified as to his investigative conversations with Breighner. According
to the officer's testimony, Breighner had initially admitted to driving
the red maintenance truck on the day in question. (Doc. 8, Ex. C at
50-74). Breighner had also made several comments about the expenses
associated with his girlfriend's pregnancy and his need for additional
money to meet other child support obligations. (Doc. 8, Ex. C at 50-74).
In a subsequent session, the officer confronted Breighner with statements
of other witnesses placing the red maintenance truck outside the rental
offices before the fire started. After learning of these statements,
Breighner suggested that
he had been driving a different, blue truck on the day in question.
When the officer persisted, Breighner "became extremely angry" and would
not explain the change in his version of events. (Doc. 8, Ex. C at
50-74). Other witnesses at trial testified that they had, in fact, seen
Breighner driving the red truck on January 2, 1999. However, none of them
affirmatively placed him in the truck at the time of the fire. (Doc. 8,
Ex. Bat 53).
After several days of trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on
the charges of arson and burglary. (Doc. 8, Ex. H). In its opinion in
support of the verdict, the trial court recounted the evidence and
[I]t is clear that [the] red maintenance truck was
occupied by the perpetrator of the crime. Only one
person places himself in this red truck at
approximately the same time. There is only one
person who had the opportunity to be in possession
of this red truck at the time the crime occurred.
That person is the defendant.
(Doc. 8, Ex. H). The court found Breighner's contention of insufficient
evidence "to be without merit." (Doc. 8, Ex. H).
On appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, Breighner attempted to
cast doubt on the credibility of several witnesses and argued that "no
direct evidence" linked him to the scene of the fire. (Doc. 8, Ex. I).
Although the superior court agreed that the prosecution was based on
circumstantial evidence, it stated that "a conviction for arson may be
based solely on circumstantial evidence." (Doc. 8, Ex. I). Crediting the
testimony of Mueller and Wohlmaker, who "place[d] the red truck that was
assigned to [Breighner] at the scene of the fire," the superior court
held that sufficient evidence existed to permit the jury "to find that
elements of the crime charged have been proven beyond a reasonable
doubt." (Doc. 8, Ex. I). The court upheld the conviction. The Supreme
Court of Pennsylvania subsequently denied Breighner's petition for
review. (Doc. 8, Ex. M).
On October 10, 2002, Breighner filed the instant habeas petition under
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). He asserts (1) that "the [s]uperior [c]ourt's
review resulted in a decision that was an unreasonable application of
federal law" and (2) that the decision was "based on an unreasonable
determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the
state court proceeding." (Doc. 1). With respect to the first claim,
Breighner argues that the superior court misapplied the "beyond a
reasonable doubt" standard established in Jackson v. Virginia,
443 U.S. 307 (1979), by "adopt[ing] the [C]ommonwealth's
misrepresentation of the record" and by "treat[ing] the argument of
insufficiency of the evidence as a credibility issue wherein the jury was
free to believe or disbelieve the testimony of Wohlmaker and Mueller."
(Doc. 1 ¶¶ 37-45). As to the second, petitioner contends that the
testimony did not support the conclusions that Mueller and Wohlmaker saw
the same red truck, that the red truck was the one used by Breighner, or
that the two witnesses saw it near the time of the fire. (Doc. 1 ¶¶
45-59). Breighner neither requested nor received a new evidentiary
hearing in the federal proceedings.
Amendments to the federal habeas statute enacted as part of the
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub.L. No.
104-132, 110 Stat. 1218, severely restrict a federal court's authority to
grant relief when a state court has previously considered and rejected
the petitioner's claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (d). Under
the new provisions, a federal court may grant relief to a prisoner held
pursuant to a state court judgment only when the state court's
(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
Id. Only through one of these two avenues may prisoners
successfully relitigate claims presented to and decided by the state
A cursory examination of the two provisions shows that the first is
concerned primarily with considerations of law while the second focuses
on issues of fact. Relief under paragraph (1) is available when the state
court has either misinterpreted the governing federal legal principles or
has misapplied those principles to the facts of the case. Id.
§ 2254(d)(1). In contrast, paragraph (2) permits relief when the
state court decision was ...