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Derrick Stevens v. Jeffrey A. Beard

January 5, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sanchez, J.


Derrick Stevens filed a petition for habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging he was denied the appointment of new counsel and effective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In a Report and Recommendation (Report) issued November 30, 2010, United States Magistrate Judge David Strawbridge recommended this Court affirm Stevens's conviction and sentence. Stevens raises eight objections to the Report, seven of which essentially repeat verbatim issues presented to the Magistrate Judge in the petition. Because Stevens has failed to show a violation of clearly established law or manifest injustice, this Court overrules his objections and adopts the Report.


On March 14, 1997, two masked gunmen entered Squire's Pharmacy in South Philadelphia with the intention of robbing the small drugstore. During the course of the robbery, the 16-year-old stock boy, Christopher Brinkman, was shot and killed. The gunmen escaped on foot with $60 from the cash register. Albert Thomas turned himself into the police a few days later upon hearing he was wanted for questioning, and identified Stevens as the second gunman. The following day, Stevens surrendered to the police and was charged with murder, robbery, aggravated assault, and criminal conspiracy.

Thomas and Stevens were tried together during a ten-day trial in state court beginning on February 11, 1998. Several police and eye witnesses testified at trial to the events during and following the robbery. For example, Margie Combs, who was driving by Squire's Pharmacy immediately following the incident, identified Thomas and Stevens as the masked gunmen. Thomas "Bunky" Broaster, a friend of Stevens, testified about an argument between Thomas and Stevens concerning a robbery, and also testified that he threw Stevens's gun into the Schuylkill River at Stevens's request. Stevens also took the stand in his own defense and claimed he was visiting friends in the nearby Tasker Public Housing Project during the time of the robbery.

On March 6, 1998, Stevens was found guilty of first degree murder, two counts of robbery, aggravated assault, and criminal conspiracy. Stevens received a life sentence for the murder charge, and concurrent sentences of 10 to 20 years for the remaining charges. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed his conviction, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocator.

On November 10, 2004, Stevens filed a pro se petition for collateral relief under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa. C.S. Ann. § 9541 et seq. The PCRA court denied Stevens's petition, and the Superior Court affirmed. On May 14, 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied discretionary review. Stevens filed the instant pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on August 28, 2009, raising ineffective assistance of counsel claims. Magistrate Judge Strawbridge reviewed the petition and issued a Report recommending Stevens's conviction be upheld. Stevens raises eight objections to the Report.


A district court reviews specific and timely objections raised by a party to a Magistrate Judge's Report de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3) ("The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to."); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674-75 (1980). De novo review is not required, however, when a party's objections merely rehash the claims raised before the magistrate judge. Morgan v. Astrue, No. 08-2133, 2009 WL 3541001, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2009) (holding arguments previously presented to a magistrate judge for consideration are not entitled to de novo review (citing Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984))). This stems from a desire to promote judicial efficiency because duplicative review would weaken the effectiveness the magistrate system contributes to the judicial process. Goney, 749 F.2d at 6. Seven of the eight objections raised by Stevens are duplicative of the claims presented to Magistrate Judge Strawbridge. Nevertheless, out of an abundance of extreme caution, this Court will briefly address each of the petitioner's objections.

A writ of habeas corpus may be granted only if a petitioner can show the adjudication of a claim "resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law" 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). The "clearly established Federal law" limitation requires a federal habeas court to "deny relief that is contingent upon a rule of law not clearly established [by the United States Supreme Court] at the time the state conviction became final." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 380 (2000). With regard to the "contrary to, or unreasonable application of," requirement, "state-court judgments must be upheld unless, after the closest examination of the state-court judgment, a federal court is firmly convinced that a federal constitutional right has been violated." Id. at 389; see also Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 197 (3d Cir. 2000) (same). Analysis under this requirement focuses on whether the State's application of Supreme Court precedent was "objectionably unreasonable." Renico v. Lett, 130 S. Ct. 1855, 1862 (2010) (citation omitted). This strong deference to the state court's application of federal law "creates a substantially higher threshold for obtaining relief under de novo review." Id. (citation omitted).

Prior to filing an application for a writ of habeas corpus, a petitioner must exhaust all available state remedies. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). The petitioner is thus required to "fairly present" the federal claim to the state court to provide the state with "the opportunity to pass upon and correct alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights." Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365 (1995) (internal quotations omitted). Where a petitioner has "defaulted his federal claims in state court pursuant to an independent and adequate state procedural rule, federal habeas review of the claims is barred" unless the petitioner can show "cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or demonstrate that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice." Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991). To establish cause for a procedural default, a prisoner must demonstrate that "some objective factor external to the defense impeded counsel's efforts to comply with the State's procedural rule." Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 486, 488 (1986) (citing Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107 (1982), for proposition that counsel's failure to raise a factual or legal claim is insufficient to meet the "cause for default" requirement).

When analyzing a habeas petition, a federal court should defer to a state court's interpretation of state law. See Wilson v. Corcoran, 131 S. Ct. 13, 16 (2010) ("It is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions." (citation omitted)); Swarthout v. Cooke, 131 S. Ct. 859, 861 (2011) ("[F]ederal habeas relief does not lie for errors of state law." (citation omitted)). Indeed, a federal court does not have the power to reverse a conviction based on wrongly interpreted state law. Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 71-72 (1991). Rather, the appropriate analysis for the federal court is "whether the [interpretation of the state law] by itself so infected the entire trial that the resulting conviction violates due process." Id. at 72 (holding a wrongly applied state jury instruction was not reversible by the federal court under habeas corpus review (quoting Cupp v. Naughten, 414 U.S. 141, 147 (1973))); see also Swarthout, 131 S. Ct. at 861 (holding deprivation of a state-created liberty interest must comport with the Due Process Clause which requires "fair procedures for its vindication"). Absent a violation of "the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States," a state court's interpretation of state law is not reviewable by a federal court under a habeas corpus review. Corcoran, 131 S. Ct. at 16; see also 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

The Court turns now to the objections raised by Stevens. First, Stevens argues the trial court violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by failing to conduct a hearing on his pre-trial motion for the appointment of new counsel and by not granting the motion. Pet'r's Objections to Report and Recommendation § III.A (Pet'r's Objections). Stevens raised this claim before Magistrate Judge Strawbridge, and this Court agrees his finding that the claim was procedurally defaulted. Report at 8. Stevens failed to present this claim to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, thereby denying the court an opportunity to review the trial court's decision. When a petitioner has not "fairly presented"or exhausted a claim in state court, habeas relief is granted only upon a showing of "cause for the default and actual prejudice" or "a fundamental miscarriage of justice." Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750. Because Stevens fails to show either, this claim is barred from federal habeas corpus review, and his objection is therefore overruled.

Stevens's remaining seven objections all allege ineffective assistance of counsel. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are governed by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 685-86 (1984), and require two components for reversal of conviction. "First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient," so as to violate the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Id. An attorney's performance is measured against "prevailing professional norms." Id. at 687-88. The court's analysis is deferential towards counsel, with a "strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689. Second, "the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense," thereby depriving the defendant of a fair and ...

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