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Holden v. Mechling

March 22, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Kosik


This petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 was filed by James E. Holden on March 14, 2003. Holden is an inmate presently confined at the State Correctional Institution at Albion, Pennsylvania. The required filing fee has been paid. In the petition Holden challenges his December 1998 conviction in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas for Robbery and Criminal Conspiracy (Robbery). In a Memorandum and Order issued on November 2, 2005, this Court applied the principles of equitable tolling to the specific facts of this case and permitted Holden to proceed on the instant petition. Respondents were directed to file a response to the petition.*fn1 A response and exhibits were thereafter submitted on November 22 and 23, 2005. (Docs. 23, 24.) No traverse has been filed by Holden. The petition is ripe for consideration and, for the reasons that follow, will be denied.

I. Background

The following facts have been extracted from the January 28, 2000 opinion of the Pennsylvania Superior Court on direct appeal:

On June 5, 1998, Appellant entered a grocery store in Harrisburg, and after collecting several items approached the cashier's desk. He placed the groceries on the counter and the owner began to ring up the sale. When the cash drawer was open, Appellant placed a gun on the counter and instructed the victim to back away. She did so, telling him to take what he wanted. He emptied the drawer and left.

Appellant's approach to the store as the passenger in a getaway car was observed by a neighbor looking out his window, and by a young man waiting on the corner for a friend. Both watched as Appellant entered the store wearing a blue, white and red flannel shirt, and then exited a short time later, carrying the shirt over his arm, and clutching a wad of cash in one fist. Both observers continued to watch while Appellant, with some difficulty, found the getaway driver, entered the car and sped off. The young man reported the car's make, model and license plate number to police. (Doc. 24, Ex. 1, Pa. Super. Ct. Op. dated Jan. 28, 2000.) Holden was charged on June 27, 1998 with Robbery in violation of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3701(a)(1)(ii) and Criminal Conspiracy in violation of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 903(ad)(1). Holden was arrested on the charges on August 7, 1998, and found guilty of both offenses in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas on December 11, 1998. On May 17, 1999, Holden was sentenced to an aggregate term of imprisonment of 20 to 40 years, to be served consecutive to a sentence of 4 to 10 years imposed in the York County Court of Common Pleas.

Holden filed a direct appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 24, Ex. H.) In the appeal, Holden raised two grounds -- whether the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the Commonwealth to introduce into evidence other crimes he committed and whether the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing. On January 28, 2000, the conviction and sentence were affirmed. (Id., Ex. I.) The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition for allowance of appeal. See Commonwealth v. Holden, 759 A.2d 383 (Pa. 2000)(table). (Id., Ex. K.)

On June 19, 2000, Holden filed a pro se petition for relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 9541 et seq. Counsel was appointed and Holden was permitted to submit an amended PCRA petition. In the amended petition, Holden alleged ineffective assistance of trial counsel in failing to object to the lack of and failure to request a "corrupt and polluted source" charge to the jury. On November 6, 2000, the PCRA petition was dismissed without a hearing. (Doc. 24, Ex. P, 11/6/00 Order of Dauphin County Court.) The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed this decision. See Commonwealth v. Holden, NO. 2022 MDA 2000,J.S24025/01 (Pa. Super. April 23, 2001). Holden did not seek further review in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In the instant habeas petition, Holden sets forth a single ground. He argues that he was denied a fair trial and due process in violation of the United States Constitution when the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of other crimes alleged to have been committed by him. In particular, Holden states that, over defense objections, the trial court permitted a prosecution witness (James Dorsey) to testify that "earlier in the day, he and Petitioner attempted to take drugs from a drug dealer by using a gun." (Doc. 1, Supporting Memorandum at 9.) Holden further contends that Dorsey was permitted to testify that Holden ". . . changed shirts after he committed crimes." (Id.) Holden maintains in his habeas petition that in permitting this testimony, the Commonwealth introduced evidence of two crimes supposedly committed by him -- robbery of a drug dealer and the unlawful possession of a controlled substance. According to Holden, the trial court ruled that Dorsey's testimony was admissible because is showed motive, possession of a gun and habit. Holden argues that even if the motive exception applies, the prejudice of the evidence outweighed the probative value.

In answering the petition, Respondents first argue that Holden has procedurally defaulted his sole claim by failing to present any constitutional claim to the state courts relating to the challenged evidence. They argue, in the alternative, that even if considered on the merits, the petition is without merit. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.


A. Exhaustion of State Court Remedies

Respondent first maintains that Holden procedurally defaulted the sole claim raised in the petition by failing to present any constitutional claim to the state courts. It is well established that a state prisoner must exhaust available state court remedies before seeking habeas relief in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)-(c); Toulson v. Beyer, 987 F.2d 984, 986 (3d Cir. 1993); Gibson v. Scheidemantel, 805 F.2d 135, 138 (3d Cir. 1986). "Unless it would be patently futile to do so [state prisoners] must seek relief in state court before filing a federal habeas petition . . . ." Santana v. Fenton, 685 F.2d 71, 77 (3d Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1115 (1983). The exhaustion requirement "is not a mere formality. It serves the interests of comity between the federal and state systems by allowing the state an initial opportunity to determine and correct any violations of a prisoner's federal rights." Gibson, 805 F.2d at 138.

A habeas corpus petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating that he has satisfied the exhaustion requirement. Gonce v. Redman, 780 F.2d 333, 336 (3d Cir. 1985). The exhaustion requirement gives states "the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights." Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004)(quotations omitted). "To provide the [s]tate with the necessary 'opportunity,' the prisoner must 'fairly present' his claim in each appropriate state court[,]. . . thereby alerting that court to the federal nature of the claim." Id.; see also Lines v. Larkins, 208 F.3d 153, 159 (3d Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1082 (2001). In Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 366 (1995), which concerned exhaustion of an evidentiary issue, the Supreme Court held: "If a habeas petitioner wishes to claim that an evidentiary ruling at a state court trial denied him the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, he must say so, not only in federal court, but [also] in state court." A claim consists of fact and law, and to meet the exhaustion requirement, a petitioner must present both the facts and the law so as to alert the state courts as to the substance of the claim. McCandless v. Vaughn, 172 F.3d 255, 261 (3d Cir. 1999). Fair presentation requires that the ...

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