On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 00-cv-00802). District Judge: Honorable Bruce W. Kauffman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Circuit Judge.
Before: SMITH, FISHER and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges.
In this appeal, we are presented with the difficult task of considering a Pennsylvania death row inmate's challenges to his conviction and sentence, stemming from a trial that occurred over twenty-five years ago. Appellant Reginald Lewis filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court seeking relief from his judgment of conviction and sentence. The District Court denied Lewis relief from his conviction, rejecting his arguments that the Commonwealth's use of peremptory strikes violated Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), that his counsel was ineffective during the guilt phase of his trial, and that the Commonwealth suppressed exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). But the District Court was persuaded by Lewis's arguments that his counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance at the penalty phase of his trial and therefore granted relief to Lewis from his death sentence. Because we conclude that the District Court committed several errors in its analysis of this claim, we will vacate its order granting sentencing relief, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We will affirm the District Court in all other respects.
At approximately 6:30 p.m. on November 21, 1982, Christopher Ellis was brutally stabbed nine times by a man wielding a butcher knife in the Oxford Bar, located on Oxford and Sixth Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The stabbing was observed by all of the patrons of the bar, including the group that accompanied Ellis to the bar to celebrate the birthday of one of the members. Following the incident, the police showed each of the witnesses a photo-array of eight pictures, one of which depicted Lewis, and each witness identified Lewis as the person who committed the murder. Subsequently, when the police arrested Lewis for shoplifting from a department store, he had assumed the name of Booker T. Beatty, Jr. While still in police custody on that charge, Lewis was arrested pursuant to an outstanding warrant and charged with the murder of Christopher Ellis.
A. Trial and Direct Appeal
Over the course of the trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, the prosecution produced six eye-witnesses who identified Lewis as the individual they had seen commit the murder. Each witness had been familiar with Lewis as a person who "hung around" the neighborhood. They all knew him by his first name only, "Reggie" or Reginald. There was also testimony that frequently Lewis was seen wearing clear lens, "schoolboy" glasses prior to the incident, similar to the glasses dropped by the assailant at the scene of the murder. One witness testified that immediately prior to the stabbing Lewis and Ellis were arguing over a five dollar debt Ellis allegedly owed Lewis. The bartender testified that the assailant was a previous customer at the bar and had a girlfriend named Stephanie, who was pregnant at the time and lived on the 1600 block of Marshall Street in Philadelphia. The Commonwealth produced Lewis's fiancée, Stephanie McCorey, who testified she was pregnant at the time of the incident and had previously resided at 1610 N. Marshall Street. The bartender also testified that Lewis approached him the next day and told him not to mention Lewis's name with regard to the incident. In defense, Lewis maintained he was in San Diego visiting his brother, Michael, at the time of the incident. In support of this claimed alibi defense, Lewis produced his brother and other family members to corroborate the story.
On August 1, 1983, the jury found Lewis guilty of first-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime. During the penalty phase,*fn1 the Commonwealth sought to establish the aggravating circumstance of "a significant history of felony convictions involving the use or threat of violence to the person," see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9711(d)(9), offering evidence of Lewis's 1973 aggravated assault conviction in Philadelphia, and his 1976 first-degree murder and felony assault convictions in Camden, New Jersey. Lewis in turn testified in an attempt to downplay his culpability and minimize the violence of his prior convictions, and his counsel, in closing argument, emphasized Lewis's youth at the time of the prior offenses. After approximately one hour of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict, finding one aggravating circumstance and no mitigating circumstances, and sentencing Lewis to death on the first-degree murder conviction.
Lewis, represented by new counsel, filed a direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which, on December 22, 1989, affirmed his judgment of conviction and sentence. Commonwealth v. Lewis, 567 A.2d 1376 (Pa. 1989) (Lewis I). In his direct appeal, Lewis raised a number of arguments, including a challenge to the Commonwealth's use of peremptory strikes during jury selection. Although Lewis did not cite Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), which the United States Supreme Court decided during the pendency of Lewis's direct appeal, he included a short argument in his brief under the heading "Defendant Was Denied His Constitutional Right To A Fair Trial By A Jury Of His Peers By The Improper Use of Peremptory Challenges By The Commonwealth," which stated the following:
"Appellant wishes to preserve this argument and alleges the Commonwealth unfairly and improperly used its peremptory challenges to exclude members of Appellant's race (Black) from the jury. Counsel requests this issue be remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine the validity of the assertion."
(App. at 1891.) In rejecting Lewis's Batson claim, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted Lewis's "failure to identify specific veniremen or specific parts of the record in support of his allegation," and reasoned that "absent a prima facie showing of improper use of peremptory challenges by the Commonwealth, this claim could not provide a basis . . . to vacate the judgment of sentence." Lewis I, 567 A.2d at 1381 n.3. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the remainder of Lewis's arguments, none of which is relevant to the current appeal.
B. State Post-Conviction Proceedings
On August 7, 1995, almost six years after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Lewis's conviction and sentence on direct appeal, Lewis filed a timely pro se petition for post-conviction relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9541 et seq.*fn2 In this petition, Lewis argued that his counsel was ineffective at the guilt phase of his trial for failing to object during voir dire to what he alleged was the Commonwealth's discriminatory use of peremptory strikes. Additionally, Lewis argued that his counsel was ineffective at the penalty phase of his trial for conducting "no investigation geared toward the penalty hearing" and for presenting "no information regarding [his] mental illness." On November 20, 1995, counsel was appointed to represent Lewis in his PCRA proceeding, and on April 10, 1996, Lewis's counsel filed an amended PCRA petition, followed by a supplemental amended petition and memorandum of law filed on June 18, 1996. On January 15, 1997, the PCRA court issued a ten-day notice of dismissal of Lewis's petition. In response, Lewis's current counsel, who had assumed representation of him, filed objections to the proposed dismissal. In Lewis's objections to the notice of dismissal, he expanded on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase, and he also argued that the Commonwealth violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), by not providing exculpatory evidence of certain bus tickets allegedly located in a briefcase he was carrying at the time of his arrest.
On February 7, 1997, the PCRA court denied Lewis's petition without conducting a hearing. Lewis appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, elaborating on the arguments he raised before the PCRA court and also adding to his arguments a claim that his trial counsel was ineffective at the guilt phase of his trial for failing to adequately prepare alibi witnesses and for failing to investigate a defense of self defense. On January 19, 2000, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Lewis's petition, holding: (1) the Batson claim was previously litigated on direct appeal and could not be reconsidered; (2) the ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt phase claim was waived because it was raised for the first time on appeal from the PCRA court's dismissal of Lewis's petition; (3) the Brady claim failed because the bus ticket did not support an alibi defense as there was no indication of a date of travel and the briefcase containing the ticket was not in the custody of the police; and (4) the ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase claim failed because the record did not support Lewis's contention that he suffers from brain damage or serious mental illness. Commonwealth v. Lewis, 743 A.2d 907 (Pa. 2000) (Lewis II). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected several other arguments raised by Lewis, none of which are relevant to the instant appeal.
C. Federal Habeas Proceedings
In September 2000, Lewis filed the present petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging sixteen separate grounds for relief, only some of which the District Court reached.*fn3 Lewis v. Horn, 2006 WL 2338409 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2006). In reviewing Lewis's Batson claim, the District Court applied the deferential standard set forth in § 2254(d) and concluded that "the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reasonably applied Batson in determining that [Lewis] failed to make a prima facie claim of discriminatory jury selection." Id. at *13. The District Court also rejected Lewis's argument that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise the Batson claim in a professionally reasonable manner on direct appeal, concluding that "[b]ecause [Lewis] cannot establish a prima facie case under Batson, his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to raise this claim must also fail." Id. at *12 n.12. The District Court also denied Lewis's request for an evidentiary hearing on the Batson claim under § 2254(e)(2) because of Lewis's failure to develop the factual record necessary to support this claim. Id. at *14. In support of these conclusions, the District Court observed that Lewis had "failed to object to any of the Commonwealth's peremptory challenges on the basis that they were being exercised in a racially discriminatory manner," and also noted that there was "no record of the racial make-up of the venire," and no "record of the race of those stricken jurors nor any indication as to the racial composition of the jury that tried and sentenced [Lewis]." Id. at *13-14.
Turning to Lewis's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel at the guilt phase of his trial, the District Court exercised de novo review, reasoning that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's refusal to reach the issue because of waiver was not an independent and adequate ground for declining to address the merits of the claim in light of Pennsylvania's relaxed waiver doctrine in capital cases, which was in effect at the time of Lewis's alleged procedural default. Id. at *4, *14 n.14. The District Court determined that Lewis's "contention that the failure of the alibi defense was the result of trial counsel's lack of preparation is not supported by the record," and therefore concluded that his counsel's presentation of the alibi defense "did not fall below an objective standard of reasonableness as defined by Strickland [v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984)]." Id. at *15. The District Court also concluded that Lewis's counsel did not perform deficiently by making a strategically reasonable choice "not to present a theory of self-defense that would be factually inconsistent with and thereby undermine the credibility of [Lewis's] alibi defense." Id. at *16.
Next, the District Court reviewed Lewis's Brady claim, applying § 2254(d)'s deferential standard to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision on the merits of this issue. Id. at *16 n.15. The District Court denied the claim, explaining that "this Court cannot conclude that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unreasonably applied the principals [sic] of Brady to this claim" and that Lewis "has not demonstrated that the state court unreasonably determined the facts based on the evidence." Id. at *17. Notwithstanding its conclusions, the District Court granted a certificate of appealability to Lewis as to these three guilt phase claims. Id. at *19.
As for Lewis's ineffective assistance of counsel at the penalty phase claim, the District Court stated that "the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reached the merits of this claim," and consequently it would "apply [§ 2254(d)'s] deferential standard of review." Id. at *5 n.6. The District Court determined: "The evidence that [Lewis] has presented, both in the PCRA courts and in his habeas proceedings, reveals that he does in fact suffer from a host of mental health issues, many of which may be attributable to his deeply troubled family background." Id. at *6. Consequently, the District Court concluded that "there can be no reason, strategic or otherwise for trial counsel's failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence." Id. at *11. Because of this, the District Court held that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unreasonably applied the Strickland and Terry Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000) standards in assessing whether Lewis's "trial counsel rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance at the sentencing phase." Id. While noting that "[t]he Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not reach the prejudice inquiry," id. at *12 n.10, the District Court determined that Lewis was prejudiced by his counsel's performance at the penalty phase of his trial, reasoning that "[h]ad the jury heard the evidence regarding [Lewis's] life history and the conclusions reached by some of the mental health experts, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have found the mitigating circumstances to outweigh the aggravating circumstances." Id. at *12. As a result of these conclusions, the District Court granted Lewis's writ of habeas corpus and "direct[ed] that he either be given a new sentencing hearing or sentenced to life imprisonment." Id. Because the District Court granted relief to Lewis on this ground, it declined to reach his other claims for relief from his sentence.
Following the District Court's decision, Lewis timely appealed and the Commonwealth cross-appealed.
The District Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2254 and 2241, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291 and 2253. Because the District Court ruled on Lewis's habeas petition without conducting an evidentiary hearing, our review of its legal conclusions is plenary. Duncan v. Morton, 256 F.3d 189, 196 (3d Cir. 2001). Accordingly, we will "review the state courts' determinations under the same standard that the District Court was required to apply." Thomas v. Horn, 570 F.3d 105, 113 (3d Cir. 2009). Following the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), habeas relief cannot be granted by a federal court on a claim that was "adjudicated on the merits" in state court unless the adjudication "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 "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). "[F]or the purposes of [§] 2254(d), a claim has been 'adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings' when a state court has made a decision that finally resolves the claim based on its substance, not on a procedural, or other, ground." Thomas v. Horn, 570 F.3d at 117. But when "the state court has not reached the merits of a claim thereafter presented to a federal habeas court, the deferential standards provided by AEDPA . . . do not apply." Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). "In such an instance, the federal habeas court must conduct a de novo review over pure legal questions and mixed questions of law and fact, as a court would have done prior to the enactment of AEDPA." Id. Additionally, regardless of whether a state court reaches the merits of a claim, a "federal habeas court must afford a state court's factual findings a presumption of correctness and . . . the presumption applies to factual determinations of state trial and appellate courts." Fahy v. Horn, 516 F.3d 169, 181 (3d Cir. 2008).