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Kenneth Williams v. Donald T. Vaughn

January 11, 2011


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



Petitioner Kenneth Williams ("Williams") is serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford for the murder of truck driver Edward Miller. After exhausting his remedies in state court, Williams filed a counseled Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus ("Petition") in this Court on December 14, 2009.*fn1 United States Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells submitted to the Court a Report and Recommendation dated September 29, 2010 ("R & R") in which she recommended that all of Williams's habeas claims be denied.

Presently before the Court are Williams's Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. Williams objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusions with respect to all four claims in his Petition. For the reasons that follow, the R & R is approved and adopted in full, petitioner's objections are overruled and all of petitioner's claims are denied with prejudice without an evidentiary hearing.


The facts of this case are described in detail in the R & R. The Court will not repeat them in this Memorandum except as is necessary to explain its rulings on Williams's objections.


Williams's Petition raises four claims. The first two relate to an unusual hearing held before then-Chief Justice Robert Nix of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shortly before the beginning of Williams's trial. Williams alleges the hearing violated both his Sixth Amendment right to counsel and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The last two claims relate to the performance of Williams's trial counsel. In those claims, Williams asserts that the financial and time constraints placed on his attorney amounted to a total deprivation of counsel under the standard enunciated in United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984). In the alternative, Williams contends that those same constraints led his attorney to render ineffective assistance under the standard set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The Magistrate Judge recommended denying Williams relief on all four claims, and Williams objected to all four of the Magistrate Judge's conclusions. The Court will address each of Williams's objections in turn.

A. Hearing Before Chief Justice Nix: Deprivation of Counsel Williams objects to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the Court deny habeas relief on his claim that he was denied counsel at a "critical stage" of the proceedings when he went unrepresented at the off-the-record hearing before Chief Justice Nix. Specifically, Williams alleges that the hearing was "critical" because Chief Justice Nix effectively set the trial date, leaving his new trial counsel with less than a month to prepare a capital defense.

1. Did Chief Justice Nix Set the Trial Date?

The R & R comprehensively sets forth the factual background of the hearing before Chief Justice Nix. In summary, Chief Justice Nix held an off-the-record hearing on August 20, 1985, with the prosecutor and three members of the Lehigh County Public Defenders Office to address an emergency petition from the defenders asking that their entire office be removed from the case. Williams was unrepresented at the hearing but had already expressed his preference that the defenders be replaced. Judge James Diefenderfer, who presided over Williams's trial, had previously granted the motion of one defender to withdraw as Williams's counsel but appointed two others in his place.

At the hearing, Chief Justice Nix made it clear that the defenders' request would be granted if it came before the full Supreme Court and directed the parties to tell Judge Diefenderfer that he would be reversed if he did not reconsider his decision. Judge Diefenderfer then issued an order removing the public defenders and delaying trial for less than a month. He later refused to grant Williams's new counsel a further continuance of the trial.

On the record before it, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Chief Justice Nix's actions did not "foreclose the possibility of a continuance." Commonwealth v. Williams, 950 A.2d 294, 309 (Pa. 2008). Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), if a claim is adjudicated in state court, the federal court must defer to the state court's factual determinations unless the decision "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)(2).

Williams contends that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision was unreasonable and objects to the Magistrate Judge's determination to the contrary. As the Magistrate Judge found, however, there was ample evidence supporting the conclusion that Chief Justice Nix did not set the trial date. (See, e.g., NT 5/16/2000 at 134-35 (testimony of public defender present at hearing with Chief Justice Nix, agreeing that "the only issue Justice Nix became involved with was whether or not [the defenders] office should get out of the case").) The Magistrate Judge thus correctly concluded that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision was reasonable, and Williams's objections on this issue are ...

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