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Ramos v. Lawler

May 14, 2009

CHARLES RAMOS, PETITIONER,
v.
RAYMOND LAWLER, ET. AL, RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Magistrate Judge Smyser)

(District Judge John E. Jones III)

MEMORANDUM

THE BACKGROUND OF THIS ORDER IS AS FOLLOWS:

This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") of Magistrate Judge J. Andrew Smyser (Rec. Doc. 24), which recommends that Petitioner Charles Ramos' ("Petitioner" or "Ramos") petition for writ of habeas corpus, filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, be granted in relation to his conviction for conspiracy to commit murder.*fn1

Both Ramos and the Respondents filed timely objections to the R&R. Accordingly, the matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will overrule both the Petitioner's and Respondents' objections and adopt the Magistrate Judge's R&R in its entirety.

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When objections are filed to the report of a magistrate judge, the district court makes a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674-75 (1980). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations. Id. Although the standard of review is de novo, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) permits whatever reliance the district court, in the exercise of sound discretion, chooses to place on a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 674-75; see also Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 275 (1976); Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984).

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS*fn2

On February 13, 2003, Ramos was convicted by a jury in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas of criminal conspiracy to commit murder, criminal conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, and aggravated assault. During that same proceeding, he was acquitted of one count of attempted homicide. Petitioner appealed, but his conviction was upheld by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Petitioner proceeded to file a Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") Petition, claiming that his trial counsel, Attorney Robert Laguna ("Attorney Laguna"), was ineffective. This PCRA petition was denied by the trial court, a decision that was upheld by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The instant habeas petition is based upon the same ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Ramos supports this claim with references to the evidence elicited at his trial and the testimony of Attorney Laguna at the PCRA hearing. We will now briefly recapitulate the salient aspects of these proceedings.

Ramos was on trial for an incident that occurred at the home of Angel Maldonado ("Maldonado") on April 13, 2002.*fn3 Ramos and a friend ("Diaz") went to Maldonado's home, Ramos knocked on the door, Maldonado answered, and a physical altercation ensued. Diaz entered the fray and struck Maldonado, who retreated to the kitchen. Ramos and Diaz pursued him and, when they caught him, continued to attack him. Ramos held Maldonado's neck, while Diaz struck Maldonado in the back with a knife.*fn4 Diaz pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, and aggravated assault prior to Ramos' trial.

At Ramos' trial, Attorney Laguna believed it necessary to place into evidence the fact that someone other than Ramos had pled guilty to the stabbing. While questioning Maldonado, Attorney Laguna further believed that Maldonado was being vague when questioned about who stabbed him. Accordingly, Attorney Laguna proceeded to elicit testimony from Maldonado that he had witnessed Diaz plead guilty to "the charges" and to the stabbing.*fn5 Although Attorney Laguna never inquired as to the substance of the guilty plea, the prosecution took his line of questioning as opening the door to such matters.*fn6 Thereafter, the prosecutor elicited testimony that Diaz had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. As a result, the trial judge twice instructed the jury that Diaz's guilt should in no way bear on their determination of Ramos' guilt.*fn7 The jury returned a guilty verdict with regard to the conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, and assault charges.

After unsuccessfully filing a PCRA petition, Ramos filed the instant habeas petition, the merits of which were analyzed by the Magistrate Judge. After a review of the trial transcript, Magistrate Judge Smyser determined that Attorney Laguna's actions constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. In making this conclusion, Magistrate Judge Smyser noted that Attorney Laguna's perception that Maldonado was being vague in his trial testimony was not supported by the testimony itself, as Maldonado was "emphatically clear . . . that Diaz stabbed him." (Rec. Doc. 24 p. 19 (citing Rec. Doc 14., Ex. A, p.73)). Magistrate Judge Smyser noted that introducing evidence of Diaz's culpability for the stabbing in no way negated Ramos' culpability with regard to the conspiracy charges, and, in fact, opened the door for the prosecution to elicit testimony that was directly inculpatory to Ramos in relation to those charges.*fn8 (Rec. Doc. 24 pp. 20-21). The Magistrate Judge noted that without introduction of Diaz's guilty plea, there was little evidence to support the theory that the Diaz and Ramos conspired to kill Maldonado; however, with such evidence in the record, in order to acquit Ramos of that conspiracy charge, the jury "would have had to reject the out-of-court co-conspirator's implicit assertion, under oath [and despite the adverse effect on his own interest], that he and Ramos had actually [jointly] planned to murder Maldonado." (Id. 20).

Further, Magistrate Judge Smyser noted that Attorney Laguna's closing argument he made no exculpatory use of Diaz's guilty plea as it related to the conspiracy charges, whereas the prosecutor relied extensively, almost exclusively, on the same during his closing argument. (Id. p. 24). Although the trial court instructed that the substance of the guilty plea could not be used as evidence of Ramos' guilt, Magistrate Judge Smyser asserted that there could be no way of knowing whether the substance of the guilty plea affected the jury's deliberations. (See id. pp. 24-25). This inference was counted against Attorney Laguna in the R&R.*fn9 In light of all of the foregoing, Magistrate Judge Smyser concluded that, while Attorney Laguna had acted strategically in a manner he calculated would serve Ramos' interests, the strategy was in fact unreasonable. However, the Magistrate Judge opined that Attorney Laguna was ineffective only in relation to the conspiracy to commit murder charge, as there was ample evidence of a conspiracy to assault ...


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