United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
November 29, 2005.
RONALD GRANT CHAMPNEY, Petitioner
JEFFREY BEARD, et al., Respondents.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: WILLIAM CALDWELL, Senior District Judge
We are considering whether we should stay these
28 U.S.C. § 2254 proceedings pending resolution of Petitioner's state-court
challenge to his convictions or proceed to a consideration of
Respondents' motion to dismiss on the ground of the statute of
limitations. The limitations defense would require some discovery
on Petitioner's mental competency to file the 2254 petition in a
II. Procedural Background.
On March 8, 2004, Petitioner, Ronald Grant Champney, filed a
counseled petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his 1998 convictions in the Court of
Common Pleas of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, for, among other things, burglary, terroristic threats, robbery, simple assault
and recklessly endangering another person. The petition is mixed,
presenting exhausted and unexhausted grounds for relief. On March
16, 2004, Petitioner filed a motion to hold these proceedings in
abeyance pending resolution of his postconviction challenge in
state court to the same convictions. His state-court proceedings
present the same claims as his federal petition.
In August 2004, Respondents filed a motion to dismiss the
petition raising, among other grounds, the one-year statute of
limitations for 2254 petitions. In opposition, Petitioner argued
that his petition was timely, in part, because he had been
mentally incompetent to file the petition within the one-year
period. Mental incompetence is a valid reason for equitably
tolling the statue of limitations. See Nara v. Frank,
264 F.3d 310, 320 (3d Cir. 2001).
In connection with our consideration of the limitations
defense, on February 8, 2005, we ordered Petitioner to provide us
with the evidence supporting his claim of incompetency. On June
8, 2005, he filed a "Proffer," naming the experts who would
testify on his behalf and the substance of their testimony,
essentially that he did not "have the capacity to comprehend and
navigate through the complex post-conviction and habeas proceedings surrounding his robbery conviction in 1998." (Doc.
33, pp. 2 and 7.)
We ordered Respondents to file a brief on the merits of the
proffer and whether they intended to continue to assert the
limitations defense in light of the proffer. In reply (doc. 38),
Respondents asserted that they had to conduct their own
investigation of Petitioner's competency before they could say
whether or not they would drop the limitations defense. They
requested adequate time for their experts to review Champney's
records, evaluate Champney himself, and prepare reports. They
also requested that we direct Petitioner's counsel to provide the
Commonwealth with: (1) copies of the sources of all records
relied upon by its experts; and (2) copies of those records.
Additionally, they sought the raw test data from Dr. J. Daniel
Ragland, one of Petitioner's experts, for evaluation by one of
their own experts.
In an answer (doc. 42) to Respondents' filing, Petitioner
asserts that he is entitled on the present record to a stay of
his 2254 petition while he pursues relief from his conviction in
state court and that resolution of the limitations defense can
await the outcome of state proceedings. In support of staying and
abeying the current petition, he cites Rhines v. Weber,
___ U.S. ___, 125 S.Ct. 1528, 161 L.Ed.2d 440 (2005); Pace v. DiGuglielmo, ___ U.S. ___, 125 S.Ct. 1807, 161 L.Ed.2d 669
(2005); and Crews v. Horn, 360 F.3d 146 (3rd Cir. 2004). He
asserts that discovery of his records and an examination would be
premature at this point, especially if the state courts grant his
request that his direct-appeal rights be restored since that
would restart the federal habeas limitations period, and moot
that defense here.*fn1 He also asserts that the Commonwealth
possesses numerous exculpatory documents that would impact our
resolution of the timeliness issue.
Respondents oppose the stay, asserting that the Commonwealth is
entitled to prompt litigation of this federal petition and noting
that the convictions were used as part of the aggravating
circumstances leading to a death sentence in another case. See
Commonwealth v. Champney, 574 Pa. 435, 441 n. 8, 832 A.2d 403,
407 n. 8 (2003). Hence, delay in litigating this petition will
delay execution of the death sentence.
Relief cannot be granted on a mixed petition, see Rhines,
supra, ___ U.S. at ___, 125 S.Ct. at 1533, 161 L.Ed.2d at 450, so Rhines (and Crews before it) approved the protective
filing of such a petition and then staying it while the
petitioner presents his unexhausted claims in state court. This
procedure allows the petitioner to exhaust his state-court
remedies on all his claims without the risk of being time-barred
on a new federal petition, which might result if the first one
had been dismissed (rather than stayed) thereby requiring the
petitioner to file a new petition. The court has discretion to
grant a stay but should not stay a mixed petition routinely; this
would frustrate one of the goals of the statute of limitations,
"to reduce delays in the execution of state and federal criminal
sentences, particularly in capital cases." Rhines, supra,
___ U.S. at ___, 125 S.Ct. at 1534, 161 L.Ed.2d at 451 (quoted case
and internal quotation marks omitted). Generally, a stay should
be granted only when there was good cause for the petitioner's
failure to exhaust his claims first in state court, the
unexhausted claims are meritorious, and the petitioner did not
intentionally engage in dilatory litigation tactics. Rhines,
supra, ___ U.S. at ___, 125 S.Ct. at 1535, 161 L.Ed.2d at 452.
We do not believe a stay is warranted here until we decide
whether the petition was timely. Rhines and Crews both
contemplate that the federal petition was timely filed. See
Rhines, ___ U.S. at ___, 125 S.Ct. at 1533, 161 L.Ed.2d at 450 ("If a petitioner files a timely but mixed petition in federal
district court, and the district court dismisses it . . . after
the limitations period has expired, this will likely mean the
termination of any federal review."); Crews, supra,
360 F.3d at 150 (noting the timeliness of the petition). A stay in those
circumstance makes sense, but when a petition is untimely to
begin with, there is no purpose in staying it; it should simply
be dismissed as time-barred. See also Frazier v. Stickman,
389 F. Supp. 2d 623, 627 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (refusing to grant a stay
under Rhines while the petitioner pursued state-court remedies
when the federal petition was untimely).
Hence, we will deny the motion to stay the instant petition. In
making our ruling, we consider the following. First, the state
trial court has already denied Petitioner's state-court
postconviction petition, finding it time-barred under the
relevant statute. (Doc. 47, Commonwealth v. Champney, No.
1208-1997 (Schuylkill Co. Ct. Com. Pl. Sept. 30, 2005)). Second,
while Petitioner has appealed that denial, it is highly unlikely
that the state appellate courts will restore Petitioner's
direct-appeal rights, thereby possibly restarting the federal
habeas clock.*fn2 Petitioner has already had his
direct-appeal rights restored once, on his first state postconviction petition.
Commonwealth v. Champney, 783 A.2d 837 (Pa.Super. 2001). True,
if we accept Petitioner's allegations, when the direct appeal did
come before the Pennsylvania Superior Court, it disagreed with
the decision of direct-appeal counsel to only file an Anders
brief, but the court did examine potential arguments for the
petitioner and did affirm. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 14; doc 27, at pp. 9-10,
citing Commonwealth v. Champney, 816 A.2d 326 (Pa.Super. 2002)
(unpublished memorandum)). In these circumstances, the state
courts will must likely resolve any claim of direct-appeal
counsel's ineffectiveness in the context of postconviction
remedies, see generally, Commonwealth v. Moore, 580 Pa. 279,
860 A.2d 88 (2004), thereby not restarting the federal
limitations period. We also acknowledge that Petitioner has
advanced other reasons to support equitable tolling of the
statute of limitations (Doc. 27, Pet'r's Resp. to Mot. to
Dismiss, Sections II and III), but, in our view, only his mental
incompetence would toll the statute.
We will therefore deny the motion to stay the petition and will
consider Respondents' motion to dismiss on the basis of the
statute of limitations. Respondents will be allowed discovery on Petitioner's mental competence to have filed a timely 2254
petition. We will order Petitioner to provide the requested
records and that Dr. J. Daniel Ragland turn over his raw test
data to the Commonwealth's neuropsychologist, Dr. John
AND NOW, this 29th day of November, 2005, it is ordered that:
1. Petitioner's motion (doc. 6) to hold proceedings
in abeyance is denied. Petitioner may renew that
motion if we decide that the petition was timely.
2. Petitioner shall have twenty (20) days from the
date of this order to provide Respondents with: (a)
the sources of all records relied on by Petitioner's
experts and copies of those records; and (b) Dr. J.
Daniel Ragland's raw test data for use by the
Commonwealth's neuropsychologist, Dr. John Gordon.
3. The parties may schedule an examination of
Petitioner by Respondents at a mutually agreeable
time and place.
4. Within 150 days of the date of this order,
Respondents shall indicate whether they intent to pursue their limitations defense or
concede that the limitations period was tolled
because Petitioner was mentally incompetent during
the relevant time.
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