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Charlton v. Wakefield

February 25, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Paradise Baxter United States Magistrate Judge

Magistrate Judge Baxter


I. Introduction

In January 2004, Petitioner James Christopher Charlton was tried in the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County for the April 1991 murder of Rebecca Bain. It was the second time the Commonwealth tried him for Bain's murder. His first trial ended in October 2003 in a mistrial with a hung jury. On January 12, 2004, the jury empaneled for his second trial found him guilty of first-degree murder. The trial court subsequently sentenced him to the mandatory term of life in prison without parole.

Pending before this Court is a Petition For a Writ of Habeas Corpus Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 [Document No. 7], in which Petitioner raises the following three claims: (1) his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the police seized several items that were later admitted at trial, including a pair of bloodstained jeans, pursuant to an illegal search; (2) his constitutional right to an impartial jury was violated due to minorities being under-represented on the jury array; and (3) his verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

II. Relevant Background

On April 14, 1991, Bain's dead body was discovered in her apartment. She way lying on her back in a pool of blood. (1/6/04 Trial Tr. at 36).*fn2 Dr. Adbuaas Shakir, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, testified at Petitioner's subsequent trial that Bain died of asphyxiation due to compression of her neck. (10/1/03*fn3 Trial Tr. at 175). He explained that "could mean strangulation, could mean any of [sic] any way in which there's a compression of the neck which results in preventing her from breathing and preventing oxygen into the blood from going to the brain." (Id. at 176). Dr. Shakir also found deep incised wounds of the vaginal area and several "superficial incised wounds [were] seen radially oriented around the anus." (Id. at 182-83). He opined that these wounds were inflicted either after death or shortly before death when Bain was in a state of shock, as determined from the lack of evidence of struggle. (Id. at 185, 191). There were also several other findings of trauma, including bruises on the neck, chest, clavicle, and both thighs. (Id. at 183-84).

It was estimated that Bain was killed on Saturday, April 13 or Sunday, April 14, 1991. The police interviewed several individuals that they believed had been at Bain's apartment on those dates. Petitioner was among those interviewed and police suspected that he murdered Bain during an attempted robbery. The Commonwealth initially was unable to gather sufficient evidence to proceed to trial against him, however. It first charged him with Bain's murder in September 1992, but withdrew the charge. It charged him again in 1993, only to withdraw the charge for the second time.

Approximately eleven years after Bain's murder, the results of new and more advanced DNA testing on the bloodstained jeans linked Petitioner to the murder. Additionally, Amy Pencille, who in 1993 had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for her role in the killing of Bain, gave investigators a statement implicating Petitioner. In June 2002, armed with the new evidence to support its case, the Commonwealth filed a third criminal complaint charging Petitioner with Bain's murder. The trial court appointed James Pitonyak, Esq., and Anthony Logue, Esq., to represent him. The Commonwealth notified the defense that it would be seeking the death penalty.

Petitioner filed an omnibus pretrial motion that included a motion to suppress several of the items that the police had seized, including the bloodstained jeans, on the basis that the items had been obtained pursuant to an illegal search. (SCR Nos. 10, 24-25). A suppression hearing was held on February 4, 2003. (See Suppression Hr'g Tr.). On February 26, 2003, the trial court issued an Order denying the motion to suppress. (SCR No. 26).

Prior to a pretrial conference on August 14, 2003, Petitioner's counsel filed a motion to stay, for discovery regarding jury selection, and to dismiss the array of jurors (8/14/03 Pretrial Conf. Tr. at 13-20). It was alleged that the jury selection system in Erie County systematically under-represented and discriminated against minority citizens. Peter Freed, the deputy court administrator, testified at the pretrial conference and explained how the jury source lists and arrays are composed. (Id. at 16-18). At the end of the pretrial conference, the trial court denied Petitioner's motion, holding "there is nothing that points to the process as being unfair. The process is constitutional. It is fair.... We will look at the array when the array comes in, then we will deal with any other issues, like Batson [v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986)]*fn4 as they come up[.]" (Id. at 21). It does not appear that defense counsel raised the issue again during the jury selection process conducted on September 29 and 30, 2003.

On October 6, 2003, the jury announced that it was deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. Thereafter, the Commonwealth withdrew its intent to seek the death penalty. Petitioner's second trial commenced on January 5, 2004, with the selection of a new jury. Defense counsel did not raise a challenge to the jury array.

At trial, the Commonwealth contended that one factor that proved Petitioner's guilt was that Bain's blood was on his jeans. Through several witnesses and exhibits, it established that during the investigation of Bain's homicide detectives from the Erie County Police Department discovered several bags and boxes containing Petitioner's personal items. Among the items seized were the jeans stained with blood that was later determined through DNA testing to be Bain's blood. To prove that the bloodstained jeans belonged to Petitioner, the Commonwealth called Wayne Harbison, who testified that he and Petitioner had made arrangements for Petitioner to move into his apartment. (1/8/04 Trial Tr. at 132-34). Harbison stated that Petitioner had moved "a few bags [and] a few boxes" into the apartment. Later, Harbison decided that he did not want Petitioner to move in with him and so he asked him to move his belongings out, which Petitioner failed to do. (Id. at 134). Subsequently, the police contacted Harbison as part of the Bain murder investigation. In the course of Harbison's conversation with the police, he reported that Petitioner's belongings were still in his apartment. On May 1, 1991, at Harbison's request, the police accompanied Harbison to his apartment. At that point, the police discovered the items left there by Petitioner, including the pair of bloodstained jeans. (Id. at 136-37).

To further establish that the jeans belonged to Petitioner, the Commonwealth introduced photographs of Harbison's apartment, the actual items seized from the apartment, and testimony from the police investigators indicating that there were several identifying items of Petitioner's personal property found in the bags and boxes seized. (Id. at 27-28, 174-85). Detective James D. Washburn stated that he tagged the items of Petitioner's personal property found in boxes seized from the apartment and brought them back to the police station. He identified several items found in the bags and boxes seized, including: papers with Petitioner's name and different addresses; an address book containing the business card of Detective Kuhn, who had given Petitioner that card earlier in the course of the investigation; and two prescriptions from a Rite Aid pharmacy both prescribed with Petitioner's name on the label. (Id. at 180-86).

The Commonwealth then offered expert testimony and reports to establish that the blood on Petitioner's jeans was Bain's blood. Dr. Jason Kokoszka, a molecular geneticist with a Ph.D. in genetics and molecular biology, was qualified as an expert witness for the Commonwealth. (Id. at 77-80). He testified that the jeans were stained with the blood from more than one person, and explained that:

[S]ometimes when you have a mixture, you have one component of that mixture which is present in much, much higher amounts than the other components. And that was the situation here. When you have a component present in higher amounts, your about to call that [sic] what is called a "primary profile" or a "major contributor." We were able to do that, and we identified a female profile as a major contributor. And that profile happened to match the profile we obtained from M. Bain.

And we also detected what's called "secondary types" or "minor types" present in much, much lower amounts. And [Petitioner] could not be excluded as being a possible source of those minor types.

(Id. at 88). Dr. Kokoszka further explained that to say someone "could not be excluded" was different than finding that someone was a match, as it was much less of a statistical certainty. The DNA sample, from which Petitioner could not be excluded, would be present in about 1 in every 300 unrelated African-Americans. (Id. at 90-94, 101). Finally, Dr. Kokoszka testified that Harbison could be excluded as a whole from being a contributor to the DNA sample taken from the bloodstained jeans. (Id. at 93-94).

In addition to the physical and scientific evidence linking Petitioner to Bain's murder, the Commonwealth also offered the testimony of Amy Pencille.*fn5 She testified that she and Petitioner went to Bain's apartment to collect money from her. (1/7/04 Trial Tr. at 91). According to Pencille, Bain voluntarily allowed them into her apartment. Then, Bain and Petitioner walked into the bedroom. Pencille said that she remained in the living room for about twenty-five minutes. When Petitioner came out of the bedroom, Pencille testified, he had ...

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