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Beckett v. Kyler

January 26, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sylvia H. Rambo United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Petitioner, Harry L. Beckett, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, commenced this action pro se with a petition for writ of habeas corpus filed pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (Doc. 1.) In accordance with Mason v. Meyers, 208 F.3d 414 (3d Cir. 2000) (requiring district courts to provide notice to pro se habeas petitioners of the implications of 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) before ruling on their petitions), an order (Doc. 35) was issued advising Petitioner that: (1) he could have the document ruled on as filed, that is, as a § 2254 petition for writ of habeas corpus and heard as such, but lose his ability to file a second or successive petition absent certification by the court of appeals, or (2) withdraw his petition and file one, all inclusive § 2254 petition within the one-year statute of limitations period prescribed by 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d). Petitioner responded by submitting a Notice of Election (Doc. 36) in which he opted to have his petition considered as filed. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.

II. Background

Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are extracted from the trial court's opinion and order denying Petitioner's post-trial motions (Doc. 39, Ex. H).*fn1

In the summer of 1991, Petitioner, Lewis Manor, and Isaac Williams traveled from Georgia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ostensibly to pick up two vehicles for Petitioner's girlfriend, Ursula Gore. However, when the three men arrived in the Harrisburg area, Petitioner purchased two knives at a local K-Mart and they proceeded to the apartment of Samuel Gore, Ursula Gore's estranged husband. The trio walked to the apartment building and approached the entrance, led by Petitioner. Petitioner knocked on the door, spoke to the man that answered, and entered the apartment. While Manor and Williams waited for Petitioner outside, they heard loud noises, talking and an argument. When they determined the source of the noise, they entered the apartment.

Upon entering, they saw Petitioner struggling with Samuel Gore. Manor and Williams ran out of the apartment, and they returned to their car. Shortly thereafter, Petitioner joined them, and the three men drove to a car wash, where Petitioner removed his bloody clothes. Then, the trio returned to Ursula Gore's apartment in Pembroke, Georgia.

That evening, Samuel Gore was discovered and transported to a local hospital. The victim never regained consciousness, and medical staff was unable to save his life. An autopsy the next day revealed that the victim had died of multiple stab wounds.

Based upon the crime scene investigation and other evidence, the police focused their investigation on Ursula Gore and her connections in Georgia. Ultimately, Petitioner, Ursula Gore, Williams, and Manor were implicated in the murder of Samuel Gore, and all four were arrested and charged with criminal homicide and conspiracy. Manor struck a deal with prosecutors, receiving less than life imprisonment in exchange for testimony and cooperation against Petitioner and Ursula Gore. Williams' trial was severed from the others, and Petitioner and Ursula Gore were tried together.*fn2 On November 23, 1992, Petitioner was convicted by a jury in the Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, Court of Common Pleas of first degree murder and criminal conspiracy. Petitioner's post-trial motions were denied (id., Ex. H), the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the conviction and sentence (id., Ex. J), and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition for allowance of appeal (id., Ex. L).

On July 24, 1996, Petitioner filed a pro se petition for relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. C. S. § 9541 et seq. Subsequently, the PCRA court appointed counsel to Petitioner, and counsel filed a supplemental PCRA petition on February 18, 1997. The supplemental PCRA was dismissed on April 9, 1997, and Petitioner appealed to the Superior Court.

Thereafter, Petitioner filed pro se motions to dismiss appointed counsel in the PCRA court and in the Pennsylvania Superior Court. On September 2, 1998, the Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated the PCRA court's dismissal of the petition and remanded the case for a hearing. On remand, Petitioner was granted leave to amend his petition. (Doc. 39, Ex. Z at 11.) After a hearing, the PCRA court denied relief (Doc. 39, Ex. AA). On June 27, 2002, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed (Doc. 39, Ex. CC), and on April 9, 2003 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allowance of appeal (Doc. 39, Ex. GG). The instant petition ensued. Respondent claims that Petitioner has procedurally defaulted three of his four claims and, in the alternative, all of Petitioner's claims are meritless.

III. Discussion

A. Procedural Default

Petitioner raises the following issues in his habeas petition:

1) The trial court erred when it denied his motion to sever his trial from the trial of Ursula Gore, in violation of Petitioner's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights;

2) The trial court violated Petitioner's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights in dismissing a juror for cause because the juror stated in voir dire that it would be "extremely difficult" to impose the death penalty;

3) The trial court's jury charge was legally deficient in several aspects, in violation of Petitioner's Fifth ...

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