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Reginald Spearman. v. David A. Varano

July 12, 2011

REGINALD SPEARMAN.
PETITIONER
v.
DAVID A. VARANO, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA- TOM CORBETT RESPONDENTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Conner)

MEMORANDUM

Petitioner Reginald Spearman ("petitioner"), a Pennsylvania state inmate, initiated this action with the filing of a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his 2005 Court of Common Pleas of Pike County convictions for burglary, aggravated assault and criminal trespass. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.

I. Background & Procedural History

In considering petitioner's direct appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania set forth the following facts of record in their July 14, 2006 opinion:

On the night of December 31, 2003, Timothy Halliday and Samantha Gallagher held a party at their residence. Christopher and Michael Jahn, twin brothers who were home on leave from the United States Marine Corps, were both in attendance. N.T., 3/14/05, at 29-31. Appellant and Jennifer Spearman, brother and sister, were also present at the party. Id. at 31.

Near midnight, a confrontation ensued among Appellant, Jennifer, Paul Grey, and other members of the party. N.T., 3/14/05, at 33, 74, 100. Appellant claimed someone had taken money from him. There was evidence presented that Paul Grey had pushed Samantha Gallagher, prompting Christopher Jahn's involvement in the argument with Appellant. Id. at 34. Shortly thereafter, Samantha Gallagher, the hostess, asked Appellant and Paul Grey to leave. After allegedly pushing another female outside, Appellant was hit in the face by Christopher Jahn, knocking him into Grey's car. Id. at 35, 55, 57, 75. As Appellant and Grey were driving away from the residence, Timothy Halliday punched out the windshield of Grey's car. Id. at 75-76.

Some time later that same evening, Appellant, Jennifer, Paul Grey, and several unknown individuals returned to the residence. N.T., 3/14/05, at 37-38, 77, 116. They were told they were not allowed to enter the residence by "D.J.," a person not identified in the record. Id. at 76. The Jahns, Timothy Halliday, and Samantha Gallagher saw Appellant and Jennifer re-enter the house. They also saw Appellant carrying a large pipe. Id. at 37-38, 116. There was also evidence that Appellant encouraged or directed everyone to attack Christopher Jahn. Id. at 77. When Appellant held the pipe ready to strike Christopher Jahn, Michael Jahn grabbed Appellant and held him while Christopher took away the pipe and hid it. Id. at 37-38, 101, 116-117. The pipe was retrieved by the police and entered into evidence.

A large group of unidentified men had also entered the dwelling with the Spearmans and Grey. N.T., 3/14/05, 37-38. Evidence was presented that the men possessed bats, knives, and a gun. Id. at 39, 77, 118. A second confrontation ensued resulting in a violent brawl where both Michael and Christopher Jahn incurred wounds from unknown cutting instruments. Id. at 45. Both victims could not identify their assailant, and had not seen the cutting instrument or who had used it. Id. at 45. No witness claimed he or she saw Appellant or Jennifer with a weapon, after the pipe had been taken away from Appellant. Id. at 57-58, 66, 79, 119. While an unknown individual held down Christopher Jahn, Jennifer kicked Jahn while yelling at him for hitting Appellant, her brother. Id. at 43, 80. Michael Jahn received several stitches to repair the wounds to his neck and face. Id. at 121-122. Christopher Jahn received 32 stitches to repair the wounds to his back. Id. at 45. (Doc. 1, at 1-3.)

The following procedural history was detailed in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania's September 28, 2009, opinion addressing the appeals of petitioner and his sister Jennifer Spearman: Appellants, brother and sister, were convicted of burglary, aggravated assault (2 counts) and criminal trespass following a joint jury trial. Appellants' convictions stemmed from an altercation that took place at a New Year's Eve party, whereat Christopher and Michael Jahn were stabbed following a fight between themselves, Appellants, and other individuals. Robert Bernathy, Esquire, represented Appellants jointly at trial. As a result of their convictions, Reginald was sentence to 10 to 25 years of incarceration, and Jennifer was sentenced to 8 to 25 years incarceration.

Appellants appealed their judgments of sentence unsuccessfully to this Court, and, thereafter, unsuccessfully petitioned our Supreme Court for allowance of appeal. After the record was returned to the trial court, Appellants retained post-conviction counsel and filed timely PCRA petitions with the Pike County Court of Common Pleas. In the PCRA petitions, Appellants asserted, inter alia, that their judgments of sentence were constitutionally infirm because Attorney Bernathy labored under a conflict of interest due to his dual representation of Appellants. The PCRA court conducted a hearing on Appellants' petitioner, and, ultimately, denied the petitions. (Doc. 2, at 28.) In his appeal of the PCRA court's decision, petitioner raised the following pertinent ineffective assistance of counsel claims:

I. Did [Reginald] receive ineffective assistance due to trial counsel's dual representation of [Appellants], where:

(A) Given the manifest differences in the Commonwealth's evidence against [Appellants], it was impossible for trial counsel to provide [Reginald] with unconflicted zealous representation;

(B) Trial counsel's advice to [Jennifer] that she would have to "acknowledge what Reginald did" in order to receive a lenient pre-trial offer from the Commonwealth placed the interests of counsel's clients in irreconcilable conflict; and

(C) Counsel's dual representation at sentencing placed counsel in a situation where he could not fervently advocate for leniency on behalf of [Jennifer], without highlighting [Reginald's] allegedly greater degree of culpability.

(Doc. 2, at 38.) The superior court concluded that all appellants' claims failed and affirmed the orders of the PCRA court. Petitioner filed a petition for allowance of appeal with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which was denied.*fn1 He filed the instant petition on December 10, 2009, seeking review of the above-listed ineffective assistance of counsel claims.

II. Standards of Review

A habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a prisoner to challenge the "fact or duration" of his confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-499 (1973). "[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-8 (1991). Rather, federal habeas review is restricted to claims based "on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-8; see also Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 41 (1984); Johnson v. Rosemeyer, 117 F.3d 104 (3d Cir. 1997).

Before a federal court can review the merits of a state prisoner's habeas petition, it must determine whether the petitioner has met the requirements of exhaustion. Relief cannot be granted unless all available state remedies have been exhausted, or there is an absence of available state corrective process, or circumstances exist that render such process ineffective to protect the rights of the applicant. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1). The exhaustion requirement is grounded on principles of comity in order to ensure that state courts have the initial opportunity to review federal constitutional challenges to state convictions. See Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 192 (3d Cir. 2000). In the case at hand, it is undisputed that the issues raised by petitioner have been fully exhausted.

Once a court is satisfied that the exhaustion requirement has been met, and a merits review of a claim is warranted, as is the case here, section 2254(d) of Title 28 of the United States Code provides, in pertinent part, that an application for a writ of habeas corpus premised on a claim previously adjudicated on the merits shall not be granted unless the decision is contrary to, or involves an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, or is 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). AEDPA thus limits a federal court's authority to grant habeas relief when a state court has previously considered and rejected the federal claim on the merits.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently set forth the following analyses applicable ...


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