Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

BREIGHNER v. CHESNEY

February 10, 2004.

DARRELL WAYNE BREIGHNER, Petitioner
v.
JOSEPH CHESNEY, et al., Respondents



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHRISTOPHER CONNER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

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. Page 2

 I. Statement of Facts

  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 complex, Page 3 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, Page 4 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 Page 5 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 concluded:
[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 all Page 6 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. Page 7

 II. Discussion

  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 adjudication either:
(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.
Id. Only through one of these two avenues may prisoners successfully relitigate claims presented to and decided by the state court. Id.

  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 ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.