Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Labrake v. Stowitzky

September 3, 2009

DANIEL LABRAKE, PETITIONER,
v.
PAUL STOWITZKY, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yohn, J.

Memorandum

Presently before the court is petitioner Daniel LaBrake's motion for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. LaBrake is currently serving a term of ten to twenty years' imprisonment for the third-degree murder of his estranged wife and for possession of an instrument of crime. After conducting a de novo review of the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin, and upon consideration of petitioner's objections thereto, I will overrule petitioner's objections, adopt in substantial part the Report, and approve the Recommendation. I write separately only to address certain issues petitioner raised in his objections to the Report and Recommendation.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court adopted the trial court's statement of the facts, which provides:

At the time of the crime, [petitioner] and the victim, Roseann LaBrake, had been married for over twenty years. In the months leading up to the shooting, however, Mrs. LaBrake had become unhappy in the marriage and expressed her wish to separate. The evidence showed that, in the year leading up to the separation, Mrs. LaBrake had developed a relationship over the internet with a man in Missouri. It was upon being confronted with this relationship that she told [petitioner] she wanted to separate.

Less than a month prior to the shooting, Roseann LaBrake moved out of the marital home and established her own residence. Roseann first returned to the home May 2, 1998. On that occasion . . . [she] arrived with a police escort. . . . After [Roseann] entered the home, however, some disagreement arose concerning whether Roseann would be allowed to take certain photo albums and family videotapes. [Petitioner] refused to allow her to remove these items.

Officer [Gina] DeAngelo and her partner advised both parties that they would have to consult their respective attorneys concerning any disputed property, and only agreed upon items could be removed at that time. The officers further stated that they would be unable to supervise the entire process. Before they left, the victim [Roseann LaBrake] told the officers that [petitioner] kept a handgun in the house. Upon questioning, [petitioner] admitted that he kept a gun but that it was unloaded and the ammunition was kept in a different location from the firearm.

On the day of the murder, May 28, 1998, Roseann LaBrake returned to the marital home to pick up some personal belongings and to drop off some of [petitioner's]. Early that morning, [petitioner] had called Roseann and told her that she could come over after work to pick up the video camera and one or more of the family photo albums that had been a subject of dispute. Though she had an appointment at five o'clock in the afternoon and wanted to arrive at the house after that time, [petitioner] convinced her to come before her appointment. He stated that he didn't want their younger daughter, Michelle, to be home, because he didn't want her to hear them arguing.

The evidence showed that Roseann LaBrake entered the marital home at approximately 4:29 pm, carrying a box of items she had agreed to return to her husband. Less than five minutes later, she was dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. A second shot had lodged in one of the family photo albums that had been a subject of contention during her first return to the home.

At 4:32 pm, [petitioner] called 911 and reported the shooting, claiming that his wife had shot herself. He repeated this claim to a neighbor, Richard Holloran, who was the first person to arrive on the scene . . . .

Richard and Laurence Holloran were watching television when they heard two gunshots from next door, separated by a short pause. . . . Richard ran next door to investigate and met [petitioner] at his front door, where [petitioner] told Holloran that his wife had shot herself. Together, they went upstairs to the LaBrake's former bedroom, where Roseann lay dead in a pool of blood.

Gregory Meissler, an off-duty police officer, was across the street at his exwife's house [when he] observed Richard Holloran, with whom he was acquainted, running into the LaBrake house. Believing that there was some emergency, he crossed the street to investigate . . . .

Meissler entered the home and announced himself as a police officer, and Richard Holloran called him up to the bedroom. Upon entering the bedroom, Officer Meissler went over to Roseann LaBrake's body and determined that she was dead. He asked the [petitioner] where he was at the time of the shooting, and [petitioner] answered, "I don't remember." [Petitioner] also claimed not to remember whether he saw his wife shoot herself or whether he touched anything.

[Petitioner] was transported to the police station for questioning. Early the next morning, between 4:00 and 5:00 am, [petitioner] was released. Police Officer Stan Davis and his partner were directed to drive him home. During the ride, [petitioner] repeatedly blurted out "I can't believe they let me go." [These statements were not made in response to any questioning by Officer Davis or his partner.] Eventually, on the fourth or fifth repetition, Officer Davis told [petitioner] that if he didn't do anything he had nothing to worry about. [Petitioner] replied, "I have a lot to worry about." [Petitioner] then stated that he guessed he should get a lawyer, and Officer Davis concurred.

At trial, the defense advanced the theory that it was actually the victim who had the gun. According to this theory, after the victim had fired one shot at [petitioner], the two struggled for the gun, and Mrs. LaBrake was shot accidently during the struggle . . . . The jury rejected the defense theory . . . .

Commonwealth v. LaBrake, No. 523 EDA 2001, slip op. at 1-4 (Pa. Super. Ct. Sept. 5, 2003) (internal quotation omitted). When discussing the sufficiency of the evidence supporting petitioner's conviction, the trial court further detailed the evidence introduced at trial:

Significantly, the testimony suggests that the evidence at the scene was tampered with; that the gun was moved and the victim's body was arranged so as to suggest suicide.

In addition, [petitioner] made several contradictory and self-incriminating statements from the time of the shooting to early the next morning. Initially, he told the 911 operator and his neighbor that his wife shot herself. Shortly thereafter, when an off-duty police officer arrived on the scene, he claimed not to know what had happened. Then, while speaking to an emergency medical technician at the scene, he stated, "I did it. I did it." Some twelve hours later, while being driven home by police officers, he repeated[ly] blurted out, "I can't believe they let me go." Commonwealth v. LaBrake, No. 0245, slip op. at 9-10 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pleas Cr. Div. Mar. 7, 2002) (internal quotation omitted).

Ultimately, petitioner was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to serve ten to twenty years' imprisonment. After pursing both a direct appeal and post-conviction relief, petitioner timely*fn1 filed his habeas petition on January 17, 2007. On March 16, 2007, petitioner filed an amended habeas petition raising these eleven claims:

(1) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial because the prosecutor repeatedly commented on petitioner's failure to testify;

(2) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial because the prosecutor made inflammatory and prejudicial statements to the jury that were not supported by the facts of the case;

(3) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial because the prosecutor improperly cross-examined a defense witness through the introduction of a materially false statement;

(4) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial because the trial court failed to suppress certain of petitioner's statements to the police;

(5) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and his Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial because of the cumulative effect of the prosecutor's misconduct;

(6) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel because trial counsel failed to object to a jury instruction that shifted the burden of proof to the petitioner regarding his version of the events;

(7) petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel because trial counsel failed to object to a jury instruction "regarding the believability of witnesses because such instructions deprived petitioner of an accurate jury instruction as it relates to reasonable doubt";

(8) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel because trial counsel failed to object to a jury instruction regarding circumstantial evidence where the instruction "imposed burden on defense testimony to be 'truthful'";

(9) Petitioner's conviction was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel because "trial counsel failed to object to trial court's instruction on reasonable doubt wherein ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.