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Michael Serge v. Superintendent

August 29, 2012


Hon. Martin C. Carlson Hon. John E. Jones III



This matter is before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") of Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson, (doc. 20), filed on June 1, 2012, which recommends that we: (1) deny the Petitioner Michael Serge's ("Petitioner" or "Serge") petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on the merits, and (2) not issue a certificate of appealability.

Petitioner filed objections to the R&R on June 14, 2012, (doc. 23), and Respondents the Superintendent of State Correctional Institution ("SCI") -Albion, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, and the District Attorney of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania ("Respondents") filed an answer to Petitioner's objections on June 20, 2012. (Doc. 27). Accordingly, this matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, we shall overrule the Plaintiff's objections and adopt the R&R in its entirety.


A. Review of Magistrate Judge's R&R

When objections are filed to the report of a magistrate judge, the district court makes a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674-75 (1980). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations. Id. Although the standard of review is de novo, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) permits whatever reliance the district court, in the exercise of sound discretion, chooses to place on a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 674-75; see also Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 275 (1976); Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. Habeas Petitions

As Magistrate Judge Carlson noted in his R&R, federal court may "entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). In Reed v. Farley, the Supreme Court recognized that by limiting habeas relief to state conduct which violates "the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States," section 2254 places a high threshold on the court, and such relief will only be granted to state prisoners in those instances where the conduct of state proceedings resulted in a "fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice" or which was completely inconsistent with rudimentary demands of procedure. 512 U.S. 339, 354 (1994).

However, the Third Circuit has highlighted that when making this determination, a federal court is "not mandated to retry the case and substitute its own verdict." Lambert v. Blackwell, 387 F.3d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 2004). Furthermore, state court factual decisions are "entitled to deference" and the habeas corpus petition will not be granted as long as the state proceedings were "well-supported[,] . . . fair . . . [and] not infected by material error or injustice." Id. The United States Supreme Court has recently recognized that:

"it is the responsibility of the jury -- not the court -- to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial. A reviewing court may set aside the jury's verdict on the ground of insufficient evidence only if no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury." . . . on habeas review, "a federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court. The federal court instead may do so only if the state court decision was 'objectively unreasonable.'"

Coleman v. Johnson, 2012 WL 1912196 (U.S. May 29, 2012) (internal citations omitted). In addition, the Third Circuit has emphasized the significant nature of a state error required to grant a petition for habeas corpus concerning a state determination that is contrary to federal law:

A state-court decision is "contrary to" clearly established federal law if the state court (1) "contradicts the governing law set forth in [the Supreme] Court's cases" or (2) "confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a [different] result." A state-court decision "involve[s] an unreasonable application" of clearly established federal law if the state court (1) "identifies the correct governing legal rule from [the Supreme] Court's cases but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular . . . case"; or (2) "unreasonably extends a legal principle from [Supreme Court] precedent to a new context where it should not apply or unreasonably refuses to extend that principle to a new context where it should apply."

Lambert, 387 F.3d at 234 (internal citations omitted).

Finally, when reviewing a petition for challenges to factual determinations, "[s]section 2254(d)(2) mandates the federal habeas court to assess whether the state court's determination was reasonable or unreasonable given [the evidence relied upon by the state court]." Id. at 235. Section 2254(e)(1) provides that "a determination of a factual issue made by a state court shall be presumed to be correct" and a petitioner must rebut "the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." § 2254(e)(1). In commenting on the interplay between these two sections, the Lambert court stated:

[T]he language of § 2254(d)(2) and § 2254(e)(1) implies an important distinction: § 2254(d)(2)'s reasonableness determination turns on a consideration of the totality of the "evidence presented in the state-court proceeding," while § 2254(e)(1) contemplates a challenge to the state court's individual factual determinations, including a challenge based wholly or in part on evidence outside the state trial record.

Lambert, 387 F.3d at 235 (internal citations omitted). Still, notwithstanding the substantial deference afforded the factual findings of state courts, a federal court can disagree if it concludes that "the decision was unreasonable or that the factual premise was incorrect by clear and convincing evidence." Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 339-40 (2003).

C. State Court Evidentiary Rulings

Similarly, a federal court's review of whether a state court properly admitted evidence in accordance with its own laws "is no part of a federal court's habeas review of a state conviction." Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67 (1991). Moreover, "it is not the province of a federal habeas court to re-examine state-court determinations on state-law questions." Id. The Third Circuit has recognized that deference to a state court's evidentiary ruling is particularly appropriate given the substantial discretion states possess to establish rules of evidence applicable to their criminal proceedings. Lesko v. Owens, 881 F.2d 44, 51 (3d Cir. 1989). Consequently, "evidentiary errors of state courts are not considered to be of constitutional proportion unless the error deprives a defendant of fundamental fairness in his criminal trial." Bisaccia v. Attorney Gen. of State of N.J., 623 F.2d 307, 312 (3d Cir. 1980). Additionally, even if a trial court's admission of evidence was erroneous to the level of offending the ...

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