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Frank Robert Chester v. Commissioner Martin Horn

February 28, 2011


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


I. Introduction

On May 20, 1988, Petitioner Frank Chester (hereinafter "Petitioner" or "Chester"), along with his co-defendant Richard Laird ("Laird"), was convicted by a jury in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment, possession of instruments of crime, and criminal conspiracy. On May 21, 1988, the same jury sentenced both Petitioner and Laird to death.

At trial, Petitioner was represented by Thomas Edwards, Jr., Esquire ("Edwards"). Prior to the commencement of Petitioner's criminal trial, Edwards was arrested in Bucks County for Driving under the Influence of Alcohol ("DUI"). On September 15, 1988, Edwards was placed in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition ("ARD") program by the Honorable Edward G. Biester, Jr. ("Biester"); the same judge who presided over Petitioner's criminal trial and sentencing.

Following his conviction, Petitioner, still represented by Edwards, filed Post-Verdict Motions. These motions were denied by Judge Biester on June 29, 1989.

On August 23, 1989, John Fioravanti, Esquire ("Fioravanti") and Gregg Blender, Esquire ("Blender") of the Bucks County Public Defender's Office were appointed to represent Petitioner. Petitioner, through his new counsel, appealed his conviction and sentence to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On March20, 1991, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of sentence and on November 12, 1991, the United States Supreme Court denied Petitioner's Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

On April 17, 1996, Petitioner, represented by Jeffrey Francis Orchard, Esquire ("Orchard"), filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"). On September 2, 1997, the petition was ultimately dismissed by Judge Biester. Represented by Mark Lancaster, Esquire ("Lancaster") and Orchard, Petitioner appealed said decision and on June 24, 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA court's denial of Petitioner's PCRA petition.

On August 16, 1999, Petitioner filed a pro se Habeas Corpus Petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Counsel was appointed and on February 5, 2001, Petitioner was granted an extension to file an Amended Habeas Corpus Petition until April 30, 2001. However, on February 8, 2001, Petitioner filed a second Post Conviction Relief Act petition in state court, alleging that a conflict of interest by trial counsel resulted in ineffective assistance.

On April 27, 2001, Petitioner filed an Amended Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief. Per the July 24, 2001 Order of the Honorable James T. Giles, said action was stayed pending final resolution of the outstanding state claim, which Judge Biester ultimately denied as untimely. On March 21, 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA Court's decision dismissing Petitioner's second PCRA petition.

On November 3, 2008, Petitioner's habeas matter was transferred to this Court.*fn1

Additional briefing was submitted and on February 8, 2010, the Commonwealth requested that this Court "[ ] affirm Petitioner's convictions for Second Degree Murder and the remaining counts, and remand the case to the trial court permitting the Commonwealth the option of re-sentencing Petitioner on the counts for which he stands convicted and/or providing Petitioner with a new trial on First Degree Murder followed by a new sentencing hearing if convicted." (Doc. No. 62 at 3.)

On March 22, 2010, the parties appeared before this Court to discuss the Commonwealth's concession regarding Petitioner's First Degree Murder conviction and sentence, as well as to present arguments primarily pertaining to Petitioner's conflict of interest claim.*fn2 Subsequent to said hearing, supplemental briefing was submitted, rendering this matter ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

Preliminarily, this Court opines that in light of the decision in Laird v. Horn, 414 F.3d 419 (3d Cir. 2005), and as conceded to by Respondent, Petitioner's conviction and sentence on first degree murder charges must be vacated. Accordingly, all guilt phase and sentencing issues related to Petitioner's First Degree Murder conviction, are necessarily rendered moot. With regard to Petitioner's remaining claims, this Court finds that an evidentiary hearing on the conflict of interest issue is warranted and that disposition of all remaining claims prior to said hearing would be premature, as they too may be rendered moot if Petitioner is ultimately granted a new trial on the basis of his conflict claim.

A. Conflict of Interest

Petitioner alleges an actual conflict of interest by Attorney Edwards in representing him, because Edwards himself was being prosecuted on criminal charges by the same District Attorney's office during the preparation for and trial of Petitioner's case.*fn3

Through ample citation to both federal law, as well as specific provisions of the federal constitution, Petitioner exhausted his conflict claim in state court. Although the state court had sufficient notice that a federal constitutional claim was being presented, it declined to reach the claim's merits because it found the claim to be untimely under 45 Pa.C.S.A. § 9545(b)(1).

The prosecution is constitutionally required to turn over all evidence that is material to guilt or punishment, or the impeachment of a Commonwealth witness, even if the evidence is only known to members of the police department. See Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). In the case at bar, the failure to inform Petitioner about his attorney's unrelated arrest does not violate Brady, as it was not material to Petitioner's guilt or punishment and did not involve impeachment evidence. As such, Mr. Edwards's arrest cannot be deemed "exculpatory." Accordingly, this Court finds Petitioner's Brady claim unavailing.

However, for reasons which follow, the § 9545(b)(1) statute of limitations does not bar Plaintiff's late claims. Inasmuch as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to adjudicate Petitioner's claim on the merits, this Court's review is de novo. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(limiting the grant of the writ "with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings"). See also Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d ...

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