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Ramos v. Lawler

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


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 Maldonado without Diaz's guilty plea, meaning that the admission of the guilty plea was not prejudicial in the latter regard. Accordingly, Magistrate Judge Smyser recommended that we grant the instant petition as it relates to the conspiracy to commit murder charge.

III. DISCUSSION

Petitioner is proceeding under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. That statute states, in pertinent part, "An application for 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--(I) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(1) (1996). Here, the "clearly established Federal law" which undergirds Petitioner's habeas claim is the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. In articulating the standard of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the Supreme Court of the United States stated, "[A] defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient, and that this prejudiced the defense." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 51, 521 (2003) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)).*fn10 Having taken cognizance of this standard, and for the reasons chronicled above, Magistrate Judge Smyser concluded that Attorney Laguna was ineffective in his representation of Petitioner with regard to the conspiracy to commit murder charge, meaning that the instant petition should be granted to that extent and denied in all other respects.

Both the Petitioner and Respondents object to the R&R. The Petitioner claims that Attorney Laguna's conduct prejudiced him and was ineffective as to all charges, meaning that the instant petition should be granted in all respects. Conversely, the Respondent contends that Attorney Laguna did not provide ineffective assistance, meaning that the petition should be denied in all regards. We shall address these contentions and the merits thereof seriatim.

A. Petitioner's Objections

In the first instance, Ramos contends that the instant petition should be granted because the introduction of Diaz's guilty plea constituted reversible error and therefore bespeaks Attorney Laguna's deficiency as trial counsel. Specifically, Ramos agrees with the R&R to the extent that it suggests that Attorney Laguna's actions rendered him ineffective with respect to the conspiracy to commit murder charge; however, Petitioner also claims that Attorney Laguna's actions rendered him ineffective with regard to the aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault charges. In support of this claim, he notes that the Confrontation Clause provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him." U.S. CONST. amend VI. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that it is a violation of the Confrontation Clause to admit into evidence inculpatory statements of a co-defendant when that co-defendant does not testify at trial. United States v. Bruton, 391 U.S. 123, 125 (1968). In Commonwealth v. Maleno, 407 A.2d 51 (Pa. Super. 1979), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania further stated that evidence of the mere fact of a co-defendant's guilty plea violated the Confrontation Clause. See Maleno, 407 A.2d at 52 (holding that admitting evidence of a guilty plea for purposes of establishing unavailability was indistinguishable, for the purposes of the Confrontation Clause, from admitting the substance of the guilty plea). Consequently, Petitioner asserts that he should be awarded a new trial because Attorney Laguna opened the door for the jury to hear evidence regarding Diaz's guilty plea without having the opportunity to cross-examine him, which allegedly evinces Attorney Laguna's deficiency as trial counsel.

While this argument is appealing on its face, further consideration of the applicable case law reveals that it is unavailing. As the Superior Court of Pennsylvania noted in its denial of Petitioner's PCRA petition, "absent a showing to the contrary, we presume that jurors follow the court's instructions." (Rec. Doc. 29, Ex. P, pp. 6-9) (citing Commonwealth v. Robinson, 864 A.2d 460, 513 (Pa. 2004)). In the matter sub judice, the trial judge instructed the jury that they should not consider Diaz's guilty plea as substantive evidence against Ramos.*fn11 There is no record evidence indicating that the jury improperly considered Diaz's guilty plea as substantive evidence of Ramos' guilt as to the assault charges.*fn12 Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that Ramos would have been acquitted on the assault charges if the references to Diaz's guilty plea, and the substance therein, were never made.*fn13

Consequently, since we can detect no appreciable prejudice to Ramos on the assault charges,*fn14 we will overrule Petitioner's objections insofar as his ineffective counsel argument is grounded in the Confrontation Clause.

As an alternative argument for Attorney Laguna's ineffectiveness on the assault charges, Petitioner appeals to the elements of the substantive charges and the trial evidence adduced in relation thereto. In Pennsylvania, a person commits aggravated assault if he "attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life." 18 Pa. C.S. § 2702(a)(1). "Malice is a crucial element of aggravated assault, and is established when there is a 'wickedness of disposition, hardness of heart, cruelty, recklessness of consequences, and a mind regardless of social duty . . . .'" Commonwealth v. McClendon, 874 A.2d 1223, 1229 (Pa. Super. 2005) (internal citations omitted).*fn15

The record evidence at Ramos' trial indicated that on the night of the incident in question, Ramos and Diaz punched Maldonado in concert before Ramos restrained Maldonado while Diaz punched and stabbed him in the back. We believe that participating in the intentional beating and stabbing of a defenseless victim constitutes "extreme indifference to human life" and therefore qualifies as aggravated assault. Further, the R&R indicates Ramos himself testified that on the night of the beating he and Diaz resolved to "get" Maldonado and subsequently ventured to Maldonado's home. From this testimony and the acts that occurred upon Ramos' and Diaz's arrival at Maldonado's home, we believe a reasonable jury could conclude that Ramos and Diaz entered into an agreement to assault Maldonado, intended to do so, and carried through on this intent upon their arrival. Accordingly, based on above testimony alone, we believe that a reasonable jury could conclude that Ramos and Diaz were guilty of aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. This conclusion is drawn from evidence independent of Diaz's guilty plea. Therefore, it is our determination that the entry of the reference to the guilty plea at Ramos' trial did not prejudice Ramos with regard to his conviction for aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, as he most likely would have been convicted of those crimes even in the absence of the guilty plea's entry into evidence. Petitioner would have us find that the introduction of the guilty plea so poisoned the well that we must disregard the other, considerable evidence of his guilt on these charges. We decline to do so. It is our belief that Ramos suffered no actual prejudice relative to the assault charges as a result of the references to Diaz's guilty plea, and the substance contained therein. Therefore, we shall overrule Petitioner's objections in their entirety.

B. Respondents' Objections

Respondents argue that Attorney Laguna's conduct did not rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel relative to the conspiracy to commit murder charge because his strategy in eliciting the testimony related to Diaz's guilty plea was reasonable, and since no prejudice inured from eliciting that testimony as there is no evidence that the jury disobeyed the jury instruction related to it.*fn16 We cannot agree.

As the Superior Court noted, and as asserted at the PCRA hearing, Attorney Laguna's conduct was premised on his beliefs that: (I) a conspiracy was evident from the trial testimony; (II) it was important for the jury to hear that another individual (Diaz) was responsible for the stabbing;*fn17 and (III) Maldonado was vague in responding to questions asking him to identify the individual that stabbed him.

As Magistrate Judge Smyser noted in his R&R, the evidence of conspiracy to murder, exclusive of Diaz's guilty plea, was dubious at best. (See Rec. Doc. 24 p. 29). There was no direct testimony that Ramos and Diaz had entered into a common plan or scheme to murder Maldonado.*fn18 There likewise was no circumstantial evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that such a plan was consummated.*fn19 These conclusions are underscored by the prosecution's closing argument, which relied heavily, if not exclusively, on Diaz's guilty plea to establish the common plan or scheme necessary to support a conspiracy charge.*fn20

Accordingly, we believe that Attorney Laguna's conclusion that the trial evidence clearly established a conspiracy was unreasonable as it related to the murder conspiracy.

Further, while it was reasonable to adduce evidence that attributed the stabbing to someone other than Ramos,*fn21 Attorney Laguna's decision to use the Diaz guilty plea as the conduit for such evidence was premised on the belief that Maldonado could not unambiguously and convincingly identify the individual who stabbed him. However, a review of the trial transcript, and in particular Attorney Laguna's cross-examination of Maldonado, belies this belief:

Q [Laguna]: So that's what happened. So Charlie [Ramos] punches you. You guys were fighting. At some point he gets you down or he has you in some kind of headlock or he has you and it is at that point when you feel this stuff on your back that according to you, Gabriel Rosa-Diaz stabbed you?

A [Maldonado]: Yes.

Q: Charlie never stabbed you?

A: No. (Rec. Doc. 14 Ex. 4, p. 73).This excerpt establishes that Maldonado was not equivocal or vague in identifying the individual who stabbed him, meaning that eliciting information regarding Diaz's guilty plea to establish the same was unnecessary. However, the mere fact that eliciting the testimony was unnecessary does not, by itself, render Attorney Laguna's conduct ineffective.His actions rose to the level of ineffective assistance not because they were unnecessary in light of his objective to gain an acquittal on the attempted murder charge, but because they directly opened the door for the prosecution to elicit evidence that would have never been heard by the jury and that directly inculpated Ramos in a conspiracy to murder Maldonado, a crime for which, as noted, there was little additional evidence of guilt.*fn22

For the foregoing reasons, we believe that there are sufficient facts to rebut the presumption of correctness inuring to the Superior Court's determination that Attorney Laguna's conduct was not unreasonable. In fact, it is our opinion that Attorney Laguna's conduct was deficient and unreasonable because he failed to exercise the customary skill and knowledge of a competent defense attorney.

However, this determination alone does not render Attorney Laguna's conduct ineffective. In order to arrive at that conclusion, we need to determine whether his unreasonable conduct prejudiced the Petitioner.

We again note that there is a presumption that a jury will obey a jury instruction. However, this is only a presumption and can be rebutted by record evidence and the circumstances of the case. As we have already noted, there was little or no evidence, absent Diaz's guilty plea, to establish the common plan or scheme necessary to sustain a conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. Accordingly, we have stated our opinion that a reasonable jury would not have inferred from this evidence alone the common plan or scheme necessary to convict Ramos of conspiracy to murder Maldonado. The fact that the jury returned a guilty verdict on the conspiracy to commit murder charge indicates that it necessarily and improperly considered Diaz's guilty plea as substantive evidence against Ramos.*fn23

Our determination that an acquittal on this charge was likely in the absence of evidence related to Diaz's guilty plea renders Attorney Laguna's actions in introducing such evidence prejudicial to Ramos on the conspiracy to commit murder charge.

Since we have determined that Attorney Laguna's conduct was both unreasonable and prejudicial to Ramos with regard to the conspiracy to commit murder charge, we believe that Attorney Laguna provided ineffective assistance with regard to that charge.*fn24 We will therefore overrule Respondent's objections in their entirety and enter the following Order.


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