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Saranchak v. Beard

January 4, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rambo


Before the court is a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, filed by petitioner Daniel Saranchak ("Saranchak"), a Pennsylvania inmate sentenced to death by a jury in the Court of Common Pleas for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, for murdering his grandmother and uncle. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be granted in part and leave will be given to the Commonwealth to conduct a new guilt phase hearing and sentencing hearing.

I. Facts and Procedural History

On September 1, 1994, before Judge Cyrus Palmer Dolbin of the Court of Common Pleas for Schuylkill County ("trial court"), Saranchak pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal homicide generally, and waived a trial by jury for those counts and the related charges of burglary, aggravated assault, robbery, theft by unlawful taking, and conspiracy.*fn1 The non-jury degree of guilt phase of Saranchak's trial commenced on September 6, 1994, with Kent Watkins, Esquire ("trial counsel" or "Attorney Watkins"), appointed to represent Saranchak. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court summarized the evidence presented at the degree of guilt phase as follows:

On October 15, 1993, Daniel Saranchak . . . was drinking with a friend, Roy Miles (Miles), at Mickey Courtney's Sportsman Bar (Courtney's Bar) in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. [Saranchak] told Miles that he knew where they could acquire some money, but that they might have to kill someone to obtain it. Thereafter, the two men left the bar and went to [Saranchak's] brother's house. [Saranchak] obtained a .22 caliber rifle from his brother, feigning that he and Miles were going hunting. After leaving his brother's house, [Saranchak] and Miles went to a second bar and purchased two quarts of beer before driving to a residence in Cumbola, Pennsylvania (the Residence) shared by [Saranchak's] 87-year-old grandmother (Grandmother) and his uncle, Edmund Saranchak (Uncle).

Before entering the Residence, [Saranchak] stated that he was going to get some money from Grandmother. [Saranchak] and Miles entered the Residence through an unlocked basement door. Once inside, [Saranchak] walked directly to the sofa in the basement and shot Uncle in the head killing him almost instantly. [Saranchak] rolled Uncle over, while Miles rifled through the victim's pockets stealing his money. [Saranchak] and Miles then went to Grandmother's second floor bedroom. [Saranchak] asked Miles to shoot Grandmother, but he refused. Upon awakening, Grandmother asked, "Danny is that you?" [Saranchak] then fatally shot Grandmother once in the head. [Saranchak] and Miles proceeded to lower the bedroom's blinds and search Grandmother's room for money.*fn2 They eventually stole some money from Grandmother's purse.

Uncle had a breakfast meeting scheduled with his employer for the next morning. When Uncle failed to appear, his employer went to his home and spoke with a neighbor, who indicated he had not seen either victim since the previous day. Employer and the neighbor decided to enter the home, and upon doing so discovered Uncle's body. They called the police, who responded and found Grandmother's body. After securing the crime scene, police canvassed the neighborhood and questioned neighbors. Based upon the information obtained, police interviewed [Saranchak's] mother who, among other things, told the police that [Saranchak] had "gone shooting" the night before. She also informed police where [Saranchak] was residing. Based upon mother's information, the police obtained a search warrant for [Saranchak's] seized a .22 caliber rifle.*fn3 apartment and On October 16, 1993, [Saranchak] was taken into custody, transported to a local police station and twice advised of his constitutional rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). He but denied killing Grandmother.*fn4 confessed to killing Uncle, Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 866 A.2d 292, 295-96 (Pa. 2005) ("Saranchak-5").

The trial court convicted Saranchak on each charge of first-degree murder, see 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2502(a), and all related charges. Approximately a week after the guilty verdicts, Saranchak's trial proceeded to the penalty phase. After the parties selected a jury on September 12, 1994, the penalty phase commenced on September 15, 1994. On September 16, 1994, the jury sentenced Saranchak to death on each conviction of first-degree murder. In doing so, the jury found two aggravating circumstances on each count of murder: 1) that the killing was committed during the perpetration of a felony, and 2) that Saranchak was convicted of another murder committed either before or at the time of the offense. The jury found no mitigating circumstances.*fn5

Saranchak, still represented by Watkins, timely filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. On April 24, 1996, the court affirmed Saranchak's convictions and sentences. Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 675 A.2d 268 (Pa. 1996) ("Saranchak-1"). Saranchak subsequently filed a pro se petition with the trial court seeking collateral relief under the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 9541-46 ("PCRA"). Robert E. Kurtz, Esquire, was appointed by the court to represent Saranchak. On May 28, 1997, the PCRA court (Judge Dolbin presiding) dismissed the petition without a hearing for lack of merit. Saranchak timely filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on June 26, 1997. On November 8, 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a per curiam order vacating the denial of post-conviction relief and remanding for the filing of an amended petition. Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 739 A.2d 162 (Pa. 1999) ("Saranchak-2").

The Defender Association of Philadelphia ("Defender Association") was appointed as new counsel, and, on December 7, 1999, filed an amended PCRA petition. However, during the proceedings on the amended petition, Saranchak wrote to the PCRA court expressing his desire to discharge the Defender Association and forego any further legal proceedings. After a thorough colloquy but without providing for a competency evaluation, the PCRA court accepted the waiver and dismissed the amended petition on July 31, 2000.

The Defender Association appealed the decision of the PCRA court to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, asserting that the waiver was invalid because no competency hearing had been conducted. While the appeal was pending, then-Governor of Pennsylvania Thomas Ridge signed a warrant, scheduling Saranchak's execution for November 8, 2000. The Defender Association, on behalf of Saranchak, then requested a stay of execution from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In response to that request, on October 25, 2000, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court remanded the case to the PCRA court for a competency evaluation. At the direction of the PCRA court, Larry A. Rotenberg, M.D., Director of Psychiatry at the Reading Hospital and Medical Center, conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Saranchak and submitted a report. On November 3, 2000, the PCRA court held a hearing, and Dr. Rotenberg testified that Saranchak was competent and had the requisite ability to knowingly waive all further legal proceedings. The PCRA court accepted Dr. Rotenberg's testimony and found Saranchak competent to waive his appeals. On November 6, 2000, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued orders dismissing the appeal and denying the stay of execution. The court also found the Defender Association lacked standing to appeal on behalf of Saranchak.

On November 7, 2000, the Defender Association filed a next-friend petition seeking a stay of execution in federal court. This court held an emergency hearing on November 8, 2000, found that the next-friend lacked standing, and denied the request for a stay of execution. Saranchak v. Horn, No. 1:CV-00-1948, Order (M.D. Pa. Nov. 8, 2000).

The Defender Association immediately appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which entered a stay of Saranchak's execution. Saranchak v. Horn, No. 00-9009, Order (3d Cir. Nov. 8, 2000). The Commonwealth filed a motion to vacate the stay of execution in the United States Supreme Court. During the pendency of that motion, the Defender Association filed a second request for a stay of execution with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, citing the Third Circuit's grant of the stay and submitting a signed declaration from Saranchak indicating his desire to retract his previous waiver of appellate rights. Before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court acted upon this request, the United States Supreme Court denied the Commonwealth's application to vacate the Third Circuit's stay of execution. Horn v. Saranchak ex rel. Troup, 531 U.S. 986 (2000).*fn6

On November 20, 2000, Saranchak filed a motion for reargument in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking reinstatement of the Defender Association as his counsel, the grant of a number of newly presented post-conviction rights, and a remand of the proceedings to the PCRA court for full consideration of his amended PCRA petition. On February 7, 2000, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court retained jurisdiction and ordered the PCRA court to conduct a colloquy with Saranchak to determine whether he had, indeed, changed his mind regarding representation and his desire to pursue PCRA claims. Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 767 A.2d 541 (Pa. 2001) ("Saranchak-3"). At the colloquy, Saranchak stated that he wished to pursue arguments raised in his PCRA petition and sought representation by the Defender Association. Based on that colloquy and further record made before the PCRA court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Saranchak's application for reargument and reinstated the amended PCRA petition. Commonwealth v. Saranchak, 810 A.2d 1197 (Pa. 2002) ("Saranchak-4").

Following remand, the PCRA court (Judge Dolbin again presiding) held an evidentiary hearing on February 11 and 19, 2003. Following the hearing, the PCRA court issued a decision denying Saranchak relief on all claims.*fn7 Saranchak timely filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In a 5-2 decision, the court affirmed the denial of PCRA relief. Saranchak-5.

After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied PCRA relief, Saranchak filed the instant Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (Doc. 7) in this court. Respondents responded to the petition on January 17, 2006. (Doc. 22.) This matter is now ripe for disposition.

II. Reviewability of Claims

A habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a prisoner to challenge the "fact or duration" of his confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99 (1973). "[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). Rather, federal habeas review is restricted to claims based "on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-68; see also Johnson v. Rosemeyer, 117 F.3d 104 (3d Cir. 1997).

On April 24, 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), Pub.L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (1996), went into effect and amended the standards for reviewing state court judgments in federal habeas petitions filed under § 2254. Because Saranchak filed his petition on June 16, 2005, after the effective date of AEDPA, the court is required to apply the amended standards to his claims for federal habeas corpus relief. See Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 195 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 336 (1997)).

Before a court may review a § 2254 petition, the petitioner must demonstrate exhaustion of state court remedies and lack of procedural default.*fn8

Only then may the court examine the merits of the petition.

A. Exhaustion of State Court Remedies

Under AEDPA, a federal court cannot consider a writ of habeas corpus unless the petitioner has first exhausted all state court remedies. § 2254(b)(1). The exhaustion requirement ensures that state courts have the first opportunity to review federal constitutional challenges to state convictions and preserves the role of the state courts in protecting federally guaranteed rights. Caswell v. Ryan, 953 F.2d 853, 857 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Braden v. 30th Judicial Cir. Ct. of Ky., 410 U.S. 484, 490-91 (1973)).

To satisfy the exhaustion requirement, a petitioner must demonstrate that he "fairly presented" to the state courts every claim alleged in the federal petition, including the highest state court in which the petitioner was entitled to review. Whitney v. Horn, 280 F.3d 240, 250 (3d Cir. 2002). A claim is "fairly presented" if the petitioner presents the federal claim's "factual and legal substance to the state courts in a manner that puts them on notice that a federal claim is being asserted." McCandless v. Vaughn, 172 F.3d 255, 261 (3d Cir. 1999). As long as the state court is given the opportunity to address the claim, it is exhausted, even if the state court refuses to hear the claim because it is time-barred or waived. Pursell v. Horn, 187 F. Supp. 2d 260, 288-89 (W.D. Pa. 2002) (citing Bond v. Fulcomer, 864 F.2d 306, 309 (3d Cir. 1989) (holding that presentation of an untimely petition to the state's highest court satisfied the exhaustion requirement)); see also Laird v. Horn, 159 F. Supp. 2d 58, 91 (E.D. Pa 2001) (concluding that petitioner had exhausted claim where it was presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on PCRA review and rejected on grounds of waiver).

Saranchak has satisfied the exhaustion requirement in this case. Each of Saranchak's eleven claims was presented to the state courts, almost verbatim, in his petition for post-conviction relief, except for his eighth claim that he was denied a fair and impartial jury. The eighth claim was addressed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on direct appeal. See Saranchak-1, 675 A.2d at 274. Even if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not reach the merits of every one of his PCRA claims, the claims were properly exhausted because the court was fairly given the opportunity to address them.

B. Procedural Default

In the event that a state court declines to consider a petitioner's federal claim and rests its decision to abstain on an "independent and adequate" state procedural rule, a petitioner's claim will be deemed in procedural default and a federal court may not evaluate it on the merits. Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 81, 86-87 (1977); see generally Harris v. Reed, 489 U.S. 255, 262-63 (1989). If, however, a petitioner's federal claim is defaulted by a state procedural rule that is not "independent" of federal law or otherwise "adequate," the federal court may proceed to consider the merits of the claim. Furthermore, a federal habeas court may always review the merits of a defaulted claim if the petitioner can establish "cause and prejudice" or a "fundamental miscarriage of justice" to excuse the procedural default. Carpenter v. Vaughn, 296 F.3d 138, 146 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991)).

In determining whether a state procedural rule is "adequate," the reviewing court must determine whether the rule was "firmly established and regularly followed" at the time the alleged procedural default occurred. Ford v. Georgia, 498 U.S. 411, 423-24 (1991) (citing James v. Kentucky, 466 U.S. 341, 348-51 (1984)). The relevant inquiry is whether the procedural rule was applied in a "consistent and regular" manner in the "vast majority of cases" at the time the alleged default occurred. Doctor v. Walters, 96 F.3d 675, 684 (3d Cir. 1996) (citing Dugger v. Adams, 489 U.S. 401, 410 n.6 (1989)).

The procedural elements of the PCRA exclude waived issues from the class of cognizable PCRA claims. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9543(a)(3). However, between 1978 and 1998, it was the practice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to apply a relaxed waiver doctrine in capital cases. Pursell, 187 F. Supp. 2d at 293-94; Laird, 159 F. Supp. 2d at 74-75; Commonwealth v. Albrecht, 720 A.2d 693, 700 (Pa. 1998). Under the relaxed waiver doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed the merits of all claims raised in capital cases, whether on direct appeal or in post-conviction proceedings, regardless of any waiver by the defendant.*fn9

This practice was so well-established that, in 1997, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had a "practice of reaching the merits of claims in PCRA petitions in capital cases regardless of the failure of the petition to meet the appropriate procedural criteria." Banks v. Horn, 126 F.3d 206, 214 (3d Cir. 1997). It was not until 1998 that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Albrecht, 720 A.2d at 700, announced that it was ending its "practice" of declining to apply waiver principles in PCRA appeals pursuant to the relaxed waiver doctrine.*fn10

At the time of Saranchak's direct appeal in 1996, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court applied the relaxed waiver doctrine in capital post-conviction appeals. This more relaxed standard permitted review of all capital claims, even those not raised on direct appeal. As a result, any alleged procedural default which may have occurred in this case is not an adequate bar to federal habeas review in Saranchak's claims. In this case, the parties agree that there are no claims in procedural default.

C. Standard of Review for Claims Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254

Once it has been demonstrated that the habeas claims have been exhausted and are not in procedural default, a federal court may reach the merits of a habeas corpus petition. AEDPA restricts a federal court's authority to grant relief when a state court has previously considered and rejected the petitioner's federal constitutional claims on the merits. § 2254(d). Section 2254(d) provides:

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim-

(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.

1. Contrary to or an Unreasonable Application of Federal Law

The United States Supreme Court interpreted the standard set forth in § 2254(d)(1) for the first time in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). First, it instructed that the federal court must decide exactly what constitutes the applicable clearly established law determined by the Supreme Court. Id. at 389-91; see also Hameen v. State of Delaware, 212 F.3d 226, 235 (3d Cir. 2000). Second, the court must determine whether the state court's decision was "contrary to" or "an unreasonable application of" that law. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Further, the Third Circuit has held that a federal court's analysis of whether a state court's decision is "contrary to" or an "unreasonable application of" Supreme Court precedent under § 2254(d) may be amplified by decisions of inferior federal courts evaluating that Supreme Court precedent. Hardcastle v. Horn, 368 F.3d 246, 256 n.3 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Matteo v. Superintendent, SCI Albion, 171 F.3d 877, 890 (3d Cir. 1999)).

In Williams, the Supreme Court also explained that the two clauses of § 2254(d)(1) have independent meaning. Addressing "contrary to" first, the Court stated: "[A] state-court decision will certainly be contrary to our clearly established precedent if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in our cases . . .[or] if the state court confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of this Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different from our precedent." Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06. "[A] runof-the-mill state-court decision applying the correct legal rule from [Supreme Court] cases to the facts of a prisoner's case [does] not fit comfortably within § 2254(d)(1)'s 'contrary to' clause." Id. at 406.

The Supreme Court then addressed the "unreasonable application" clause of § 2254(d)(1). It stated that the "unreasonable application" clause permits a federal habeas court to "grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from this Court's decision but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts" of the petitioner's case. Id. at 413. Stated otherwise, a state court decision is an unreasonable application under § 2254(d)(1) if the state court identifies the correct governing legal rule from the Supreme Court's cases but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular case or if the state court either unreasonably extends a legal principle from the Supreme Court's precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply.

Gattis v. Snyder, 278 F.3d 222, 228 (3d Cir. 2002). "The unreasonable application test is an objective one -- a federal court may not grant habeas relief merely because it concludes that the state court applied federal law erroneously or incorrectly." Jacobs v. Horn, 395 F.3d 92, 100 (3d Cir. 2005). In that respect, "an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Williams, 529 U.S. at 410 (emphasis in original).

2. Unreasonable Determination of Facts

A federal court may also grant relief under § 2254(d)(2), where the state court based its decision on an "unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceedings." A different provision of AEDPA, § 2254(e)(1), also addresses the weight of a state court determination of a factual issue. That section reads,

In a proceeding instituted by an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court, a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct. The applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). The relationship between § 2254(d)(2)'s reference to an "unreasonable determination of the facts" and § 2254(e)(1)'s "presumption of correctness" is not necessarily clear and has caused some debate within the courts.

The Supreme Court shed some light on the debate in Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322 (2003). In Miller-El, the Court described the relationship between § 2254(d)(2) and § 2254(e)(1) as follows: "The clear and convincing evidence standard is found in § 2254(e)(1), but that subsection pertains only to state-court determinations of factual issues, rather than decisions." Id. By way of example of this distinction, a district court would review under § 2254(e)(1) a state court's factual determinations made based on the evidence presented, but not the state court's legal decision made based on those factual determinations. In such a distinction, the Court rejected the Fifth Circuit's position that, in order to be entitled to relief under § 2254(d)(2), a petitioner must "prove that the state-court decision was objectively unreasonable by clear and convincing evidence." Id. at 341. The Supreme Court called this standard "too demanding . . . on more than one level." Id. Thus, in order to grant relief under § 2254(d)(2), this court must find that the state court's decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. However, the state court's decision is not subject to the clear and convincing evidence standard. As explained in Miller-El, although § 2254(e)(1) adds another layer of review to factual determinations, requiring that they be presumed correct absent "clear and convincing evidence" to the contrary, that standard is not insurmountable. The Supreme Court stated,

[e]ven in the context of federal habeas, deference does not imply the abandonment or abdication of judicial review. Deference does not by definition preclude relief. A federal court can disagree with a state court's credibility determination and, when guided by AEDPA, conclude the decision was unreasonable or that the factual premise was incorrect by clear and convincing evidence.

Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 340; see also Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 528 (2003) (rejecting state court's factual determination under § 2254(e)(1) and § 2254(d)(2)).

On the other hand, a federal court must assess the reasonableness of the state court's factual determinations through the lens of § 2254(e)(1) which, as stated above, requires federal courts to apply a presumption of correctness to factual determinations made by the state court.*fn11 A petitioner may only overcome this presumption only with clear and convincing evidence of the state court's error. Miller-El, 537 U.S. at 341; Matteo, 171 F.3d at 888; Thomas v. Varner, 428 F.3d 492, 497-98 (3d Cir. 2005). Consequently, a habeas petitioner "must clear a high hurdle before a federal court will set aside any of the state court's factual findings." Mastracchio v. Vose, 274 F.3d 590, 597-98 (1st Cir. 2001).

Similar to the "unreasonable application" prong of § 2254(d)(1), a factual determination should be adjudged "unreasonable" under § 2254(d)(2) only if the court finds that a rational jurist could not reach the same finding on the basis of the evidence in the record. § 2254(d)(2); Porter v. Horn, 276 F. Supp. 2d 278, 296 (E.D. Pa. 2003); see also Torres v. Prunty, 223 F.3d 1103, 1107-08 (9th Cir. 2000); cf. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 316 (1979). "This provision essentially requires the district court to step into the shoes of an appellate tribunal, examining the record below to ascertain whether sufficient evidence existed to support the findings of fact material to the conviction." Breighner v. Chesney, 301 F. Supp. 2d 354, 364 (M.D. Pa. 2004) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2) and (f)*fn12).

Mere disagreement with an inferential leap or credibility judgment of the state court is insufficient to permit relief. Porter, 276 F. Supp. 2d at 296; see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 408-09. Only when the finding lacks evidentiary support in the state court record or is plainly controverted by evidence therein should the federal habeas court overturn a state court's factual determination. Porter, 276 F. Supp. 2d at 296; see also Williams, 529 U.S. at 408-09.

3. Adjudication on the Merits

Section 2254(d) does not necessarily apply to all cases that otherwise fall within AEDPA's reach. The introductory sentence of § 2254(d) explicitly limits its application to only those claims that were "adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings." § 2254(d). An "adjudication on the merits" has a well-settled meaning: "a decision finally resolving that parties' claims, with res judicata effect, that is based on the substance of the claim advanced, rather than on a procedural, or other, ground." Sellan v. Kuhlman, 261 F.3d 303, 311 (2d Cir. 2001); see also Neal v. Puckett, 286 F.3d 230, 235 (5th Cir. 2002) ("adjudication 'on the merits' is a term of art that refers to whether a court's disposition of the case was substantive as opposed to procedural"). When the state court has not reached the merits of a claim thereafter presented to a federal habeas court, the deferential AEDPA standards do not apply, and the federal court must exercise de novo review over pure legal questions and mixed questions of law and fact. Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing McCandless, 172 F.3d at 260). The court must still presume, however, that the state court's factual determinations are correct, although this presumption "is rebuttable upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence." Id. (citing § 2254(e)(1)).

III. Discussion

Saranchak's petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to § 2254 contains eleven (11) claims for relief, the majority of which allege ineffective assistance of counsel. Overall, the ineffectiveness of counsel claims are grouped by failure to investigate and failure to litigate. Specifically, Saranchak argues that his counsel was ineffective (1) in failing to conduct a constitutionally adequate investigation of the diminished capacity defense; (2) in failing to object to and to litigate suppression issues with respect to a waiver of Saranchak's Miranda rights; and (3) in failing to litigate the issues related to Saranchak's alleged statement made to a Child and Youth Services caseworker.*fn13 For purposes of analysis, the court will first review Saranchak's claim of ineffectiveness of counsel for failing to investigate mental health evidence in support of a diminished capacity defense. Following this review, the court will consider, cumulatively, counsel's further alleged errors in failing to litigate certain issues at both phases of the proceedings. Upon this review, the court concludes that Saranchak has established (1) that trial counsel's errors, considered cumulatively, amounted to constitutional ineffectiveness, and (2) that Saranchak was prejudiced by those errors. Thus, Saranchak is entitled to relief on those claims.*fn14

The Sixth Amendment guarantees an accused in a criminal prosecution the right to assistance of counsel for his defense. The applicable federal precedent for ineffective assistance claims is the well-settled two-prong test established by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). See also Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 521(setting out the Strickland test); Williams, 529 U.S. at 390-91 (same). The first prong of the Strickland test requires a defendant to establish that his attorney's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness by committing errors so serious that he or she was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688; Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 521. It follows that when a petitioner claims that his counsel failed to raise a claim that the court determines to be meritless, habeas relief under Strickland is not available. See Strickland, 466 691 (failure to pursue "fruitless" claims "may not be challenged as unreasonable.") A court must indulge a "strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance;" that is, the petitioner must overcome the presumption that, under the totality of the circumstances, the challenged action "might be considered sound trial strategy." Id. at 688-89, 690-92. The question is not whether counsel did not err, but whether counsel exercised the customary skill and knowledge that normally prevailed at the time and place of counsel's conduct. Id.

The second prong of Strickland requires a petitioner to show that "the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." Id. at 687. To prove prejudice, a petitioner "must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694. This standard "is not a stringent one;" it is less demanding than the preponderance standard. Baker v. Barbo, 177 F.3d 149, 154 (3d Cir. 1999).

Further, the reviewing court must evaluate counsel's performance in light of the totality of the evidence. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695-96; see also Jacobs, 395 F.3d at 106-07. It is the petitioner's burden to establish both deficient performance and resulting prejudice in order to state an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697; see also Jacobs, 395 F.3d at 102.

At the time the state courts reviewed the claims that Saranchak's counsel was ineffective, Strickland's familiar two-pronged test was the "clearly established federal law" applicable to ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Under Pennsylvania state jurisprudence, a three-prong test is applied to ineffective assistance of counsel claims, but is, in substance, identical to the Strickland test. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Pierce, 527 A.2d 973, 975-77 (Pa. 1987). The Third Circuit Court has held that Pennsylvania's test for assessing ineffective assistance of counsel claims is not contrary to Strickland. Jacobs v. Horn, 395 F.3d 92, 107 n.9 (3d Cir. 2005); Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 204 (3d Cir. 2000). Thus, under § 2254(d)(1), the relevant inquiry in assessing ineffectiveness claims that have been adjudicated on the merits is whether the state court's decision involved an unreasonable application of Strickland. Jacobs, 395 F.3d at 107 n.9; Werts, 228 F.3d at 204.

A. Failure to Investigate Mental Health Evidence in Support of Diminished Capacity Defense

Saranchak contends that he is entitled to a new trial because he received ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights when Attorney Watkins failed to investigate, develop and present mental health evidence in support of a diminished capacity defense to the charges of first degree murder.*fn15

In support of this claim, Saranchak contends that Attorney Watkins failed to investigate or obtain certain types of information related to Saranchak's mental health and history of chronic alcoholism to support a diminished capacity defense. Specifically, Saranchak identifies the following information: (1) expert testimony detailing Saranchak's mental health problems and chronic alcohol abuse; (2) complete school and hospital records detailing Saranchak's history of mental health problems; and (3) information from Saranchak's probation officer, teachers, stepfather, and two half-brothers detailing Saranchak's socially and emotionally disturbed childhood, medical history, and personality disorder due to alcohol abuse. Saranchak also contends that had his counsel properly used and developed this information, the defense would have had available to it expert mental health testimony that would have established that he was suffering from psychotic effects of alcohol at the time of the offenses. Further, he contends that had this evidence been presented at the guilt phase, there is a reasonable probability that the trial court would have found Saranchak guilty of third degree murder rather than first degree murder.

In reviewing this claim, the court will apply § 2254(d) to the state court's analysis of both prongs of the ineffective assistance of counsel standard. The Pennsylvania supreme court addressed only Strickland's prejudice prong,*fn16 without analyzing Strickland's deficient performance prong. However, the PCRA court addressed both the deficient performance and prejudice prongs of Strickland. (Doc. 28 at 3-10.) Consequently, this court will apply § 2254(d) to the state appellate courts' assessment of both prongs of Strickland. Upon this review, the court concludes that the state court's opinion as to this claim was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

1. Factual Background

As set forth above, following Saranchak's arrest Attorney Watkins was appointed to represent him. Prior to any guilt phase proceedings, Saranchak informed Attorney Watkins that he was choosing to plead guilty to both homicides. (Notes of Testimony, PCRA Hearing, 2/11, 19/2003 ("PCRA NT") 71-72.)*fn17 Saranchak dissuaded Attorney Watkins from a trial, but he did want to contest the degree of homicide based on the inclusion of a burglary charge. (PCRA NT 72.)*fn18

In December 1993, prior to the degree of guilt hearing, Attorney Watkins filed a motion for the appointment of a psychiatrist for purposes of conducting a psychiatric evaluation. Attorney Watkins wanted a psychiatrist to evaluate possible psychiatric issues such as paranoia or schizophrenia; competency issues, such as whether Saranchak was competent to stand trial and capable of participating in his defense; and issues relating to a potential diminished capacity defense. (PCRA NT 74.) On May 4, 1994, the trial court granted in part the motion and appointed Dr. Stefan P. Kruszewski, a psychiatrist with a specialization in drug and alcohol addiction, to conduct the psychiatric evaluation and to render his opinion only on the following issues: (1) whether Saranchak was capable of participating with his attorney in preparation of his defense, (2) whether Saranchak was otherwise competent to stand trial, and (3) whether Saranchak's confession to the police was voluntary or involuntary as the result of any psychiatric dysfunction. (Doc. 9, Appendix of Exhibits to Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus, Ex. ("Pet. Ex.") 10 .) Attorney Watkins testified at the PCRA hearing that he was satisfied with the trial court's order on the limited psychiatric evaluation because "it got me in the door" for seeking further evaluation on Saranchak's diminished capacity and any mitigating factors for death penalty purposes. (PCRA NT 75.)*fn19

Dr. Kruszewski's resulting evaluation was limited to the three areas set forth by the trial court. (Pet. Ex. 1.) In conducting the evaluation, Dr. Kruszewski reviewed the initial criminal homicide report, Saranchak's statement to the State Police on the day after the killings, the criminal complaint against Saranchak filed by the State Police, and the statement of Trooper Lipsett of the State Police.*fn20 (Id. at 2-3.) Dr. Kruszewski was not provided with any of Saranchak's medical or school records at that time.

Dr. Kruszewski interviewed Saranchak on July 13, 1994, prior to the degree of guilt hearing. Saranchak related to Dr. Kruszewski his past history with the legal system, including his criminal record, and drug and alcohol abuse. (Id. at 4-5, 8.) Saranchak also informed the doctor that he had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, including an incident where he purportedly attempted suicide, was declared dead, but subsequently was revived. (Id. at 6, 8.) After reviewing the police reports and statements and interviewing Saranchak, Dr. Kruszewski concluded that Saranchak was competent to participate in his defense and to stand trial. Based on Saranchak's responses to Dr. Kruszewski's questions about his statement to the police, Dr. Kruszewski concluded that he was not suffering from any psychiatric dysfunction at the time he made his voluntary statement to police. (Id. at 10-11.)*fn21

Attorney Watkins did not return to Dr. Kruszewski to request further evaluation on issues of diminished capacity or issues of mitigation for purposes of sentencing. (Id.) Additionally, Attorney Watkins stated that he did not seek to hire any other expert to evaluate Saranchak because Dr. Kruszewski had provided "such a glowing opinion of Mr. Saranchak" when he met with him at Dr. Kruszewski's office. (PCRA NT 76.) This testimony is profoundly perplexing, however, because Attorney Watkins' time sheets indicate that he discussed the case with Dr. Kruszewski on three occasions, September 8, 13, and 16, 1994, after the degree of guilt phase had been completed. (PCRA Ex. 9.)*fn22 Prior to that, no other psychiatrist was retained to assist the defense in developing expert mental health evidence for a diminished capacity defense.

The non-jury guilt phase of Saranchak's trial commenced on September 6, 1994. The following testimony was taken regarding Saranchak's drinking on the day and evening of the killings. Julian Spirko, a neighbor of Saranchak, testified as to Saranchak's actions on the day of the killings. At approximately 3:00 p.m., Saranchak and Spirko dumped garbage on a nearby mountain for the owner of Courtney's Bar. (Guilt NT 137.) On the way back, the two men stopped at Saranchak's grandmother's home, where Saranchak consumed two or three bottles of beer. After they returned to their apartments around 5:00 p.m., Spirko later saw Saranchak at Courtney's Bar at approximately 9:00 p.m., at which time Saranchak was "in a daze . . . [l]ike he had too much to drink or something." (Id. at 140.)

James Steiner, another neighbor of Saranchak, testified that he spent time with Saranchak on the evening of the killings. At approximately 7:00 p.m., after Saranchak had parted with Spirko, Saranchak and Steiner met to collect discarded furniture from a nearby apartment and haul it to a dumping area. (Id. at 128-29.) After unloading the furniture, the two men went to a nearby barroom and drank three to four drinks each. (Id. at 130-31.) When they left the bar, Saranchak drove them to a cemetery where he stopped and spoke to his father's headstone for about five to ten minutes. (Id. at 131.) From there, the two traveled to a friend's house, where Saranchak consumed another drink, and then went to Courtney's Bar. (Id. at 132.) By the time they arrived at Courtney's Bar at approximately 9:00 p.m., Steiner observed that Saranchak was noticeably intoxicated. (Id. at 132.) Saranchak was "more aggressive than when he wasn't drinking," and was "[g]iggling and talking strange stuff." (Id. at 132.)

Saranchak's co-defendant, Roy W. Miles, Jr., testified against Saranchak in exchange for pleading to third degree murder and related charges for his involvement in the crimes. Miles had met Saranchak in a hospital while Saranchak was a psychiatric in-patient. (Id. at 61.) Miles stated that he and Saranchak had been drinking at Courtney's Bar in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, since 7:30 p.m. that evening.*fn23 (Id. at 70.) When the two men left the bar at approximately 11:30 p.m., they stopped at a store to purchase beer. (Id. at 70-71.) Saranchak then drove them to his stepfather's house where he obtained a rifle. The two proceeded to his grandmother's house, where he shot and killed his uncle and his grandmother.*fn24 (Id. at 73-79.) After leaving Saranchak's grandmother's house, Saranchak and Miles returned to Courtney's Bar at approximately 1:00 a.m., stayed there until it closed, and then went to the owner's apartment above the bar, at all times continuing to consume alcohol. At approximately 4:00 a.m., the two men drove to a diner nearby, where they separated. Miles took valium later that morning given to him by Saranchak the night before. (Id. at 84.) He testified that Saranchak had said at the time, "[L]et's eat these," but Miles did not observe Saranchak consume the pills. (Id. at 84.)

Carol Frantz, Saranchak's girlfriend at the time, testified that she saw Saranchak around midnight on the night of the killings when he stopped by his stepfather's home to obtain a gun. (Id. at 111.) Saranchak was drunk and told her he was going spotting for deer. (Id.) She also testified that Saranchak thought he was a sergeant in the army when he ...

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