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Fuller v. Shannon

January 14, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Bissoon


Robert Lynn Fuller ("Fuller" or "Petitioner"), a state prisoner, has filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 2254. He challenges his March 31, 2000 state conviction of criminal homicide and related offenses for which he received a life sentence. On May 29, 1999, Fuller entered a home in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, armed with a sawed-off shotgun with the intention of threatening or killing a witness in an unrelated armed robbery case. Instead, he shot and killed 13 year old Jeremy Farrand who was watching television with two friends. Although neither surviving witness could identify Fuller as the shooter, numerous witnesses at trial testified to statements Fuller made, which were either explicit or implicit admissions of the crime (Doc. 7, Comm. Ex. Q, p. 2-3). These witnesses included Fuller's girlfriend, Regina Campbell, who drove Fuller to and from the neighborhood on the night of the crime and who heard the gunshot, and Larry Manning, a friend of Fuller's, who testified to incriminating statements Fuller made after the killing (Id.).

Fuller asserts that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance during his state court trial by failing to:

1. object to the presentation of knowingly perjured testimony, or to the Commonwealth improperly vouching for a witness;

2. object when the Commonwealth withdrew its request for an accomplice liability instruction;

3. request a corrupt source charge;

4. object to the admission of photographs of the victim. (Doc. 4, ¶12). The Commonwealth has responded to the petition, and it is now ripe for disposition.

1. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

Before reaching the merits of Petitioner's claims, the court must first determine whether constitutional and federal law issues have been fairly presented to the state courts through direct appeal, collateral review, or other available procedures for judicial review. Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351 (1989); Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275 (1971); Doctor v. Walters, 96 F.3d 675, 678 (3d Cir.1996); Burkett v. Love, 89 F.3d 135, 137 (3d Cir.1996). Here, the claims made by Petitioner are the same claims presented in his state court Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") proceeding. These claims were rejected on the merits by both the PCRA court and on appeal by the Superior Court (Doc. 7, Comm. Ex. Q). Thus, the exhaustion requirement has been satisfied.

The Commonwealth asserts that Petitioner's claims are barred by the doctrine of procedural default. Federal habeas review is not available to a petitioner whose constitutional claims have not been addressed on the merits due to procedural default, unless a petitioner can demonstrate: 1) cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law; or 2) that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). However, as noted above, Petitioner's claims were addressed on the merits by the state courts. Therefore, there is no procedural bar to consideration of Petitioner's claims.

2. Merits

A federal court may not issue a writ of habeas corpus unless it concludes that the state court's adjudication resulted in a decision that is "contrary to," or an "unreasonable application of," clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). "Under §2254(d)(1)'s unreasonable application clause, then, a federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 411 (2000).

Further, a federal court must accord a presumption of correctness to a state court's factual findings, which a petitioner can rebut only by clear and convincing evidence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e). "[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).

Fuller's claims are each framed in the context of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel exists "in order to protect the fundamental right to a fair trial." Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 368 (1993) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 684 (1984)). The Supreme Court has formulated a two-part test for determining whether counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance: 1) ...

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