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Jose Gonzalez v. Jeffrey Beard

September 28, 2012

JOSE GONZALEZ
PETITIONER
v.
JEFFREY BEARD, ET AL. RESPONDENTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. William Ditter, Jr., J.

MEMORANDUM

Presently before this court is a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 by Jose Gonzalez, Respondents' answer and Gonzalez's reply. Gonzalez is currently incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution in Somerset, Pennsylvania. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:

After a jury trial, Gonzalez was found guilty of murder in the first degree, conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree, and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault.*fn1 On March 11, 2005, Gonzalez was sentenced to life imprisonment and a concurrent term of 20-40 years.

Gonzalez filed a direct appeal arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the judgment of sentence on August 8, 2006. Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 1431 MDA 2005 (Pa. Super. Aug. 8, 2006) (unpublished memorandum). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Gonzalez's petition for allowance of appeal on December 29, 2006. Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 747 MAL 2006 (Pa. Dec. 29, 2006).

On October 9, 2007, Gonzalez filed a pro se petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Con. Stat. § 9541, et seq. Appointed counsel filed an amended PCRA petition on June 9, 2008. After the court held an evidentiary hearing on June 23, 2008, appointed counsel filed a brief in support of Gonzalez's amended PCRA petition on July 28, 2008. The PCRA court denied Gonzalez's petition as meritless on December 31, 2008. Upon PCRA review, the Pennsylvania Superior Court characterized Gonzalez's four (4) claims as "founded upon a single asserted premise that prior counsel were ineffective for failing to understand the legal principle that an accomplice, as well as a coconspirator, must individually possess a specific intent to kill to be held liable for a murder of the first degree committed by another." Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 180 MDA 2009, at 3 (Pa. Super. Oct. 19, 2009) (unpublished memorandum). The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the denial of PCRA relief on October 19, 2009. Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 180 MDA 2009 (Pa. Super. Oct. 19, 2009). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Gonzalez's petition for allowance of appeal on May 27, 2010. Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 855 MAL 2009 (Pa. May 27, 2010).

Gonzalez filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus on September 10, 2010,*fn2 claiming:

1) the evidence at trial was insufficient to support his convictions; and

2) the jury instructions for accomplice liability and first degree murder unconstitutionally relieved the state's burden of proof.

Respondents have filed an answer to Gonzalez's habeas petition asserting that Gonzalez is not entitled to federal habeas relief because his claims are procedurally defaulted and/or meritless. Gonzalez has filed a reply thereto.

DISCUSSION:

A. Standard of Review

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"), a petition for habeas corpus may only be granted if (1) the state court's adjudication of the claim resulted in a decision contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, "clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States;" or if (2) the adjudication resulted in a decision that 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)(1)-(2).

The Supreme Court expounded upon this language in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000). In Williams, the Court explained that "[u]nder the 'contrary to' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than [the Supreme] Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts." 529 U.S. at 412-413 (quoted in Hameen v. Delaware, 212 F.3d 226, 235 (3d Cir. 2000)). The Court in Williams further stated that "[u]nder the 'unreasonable application' clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case." Id. at 413. The "unreasonable application" inquiry requires the habeas court to "ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable." Id. at 409. "In further delineating the 'unreasonable application of' component, the Supreme Court stressed that an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of such law and a federal habeas court may not grant relief unless that court determines that a state court's incorrect or erroneous application of clearly established federal law was also unreasonable." Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 196 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Williams, 529 U.S. at 411).

1. Sufficiency of the Evidence

Gonzalez first argues that the evidence produced at trial was insufficient to sustain his conviction for first degree murder, conspiracy to commit first degree murder, and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. It has long been established that due process requires that a person can only be convicted of the crime with which he is charged by proof of every element of the criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.*fn3 Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 316 (1979); In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970); Davis v. United States, 160 U.S. 469, 488 (1895). Claims challenging the sufficiency of the evidence "face a high bar in federal habeas proceedings because they are subject to two layers of judicial deference." Coleman v. Johnson, _ U.S. _ , 132 S.Ct. 2060, 2062 (2012) (per curiam). As the Supreme Court has explained:

First, on direct appeal, "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." And second, 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.'"

Id. (citing Cavazos v. Smith, 565 U.S. 1, 132 S.Ct. 2, 4 (2011) (per curiam)) (citation omitted).

In reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, a court must determine "whether, after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1083-84 (3d Cir. 1983) (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319) (emphasis in original); see also McDaniel v. Brown, _ U.S. _ , 130 S.Ct. 665, 673 (2010). The task of resolving differences in the testimony, weighing the evidence, and drawing reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts is reserved for the factfinder and is beyond the scope of federal habeas sufficiency review. Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319. However, "the minimum amount of evidence that the Due Process Clause requires to prove the offense is purely a matter of federal law." Johnson, 132 S.Ct. at 2064. In the instant case, I conclude that the state courts' application of the state court equivalent of the Jackson standard was within the bounds of reasonableness.*fn4

a. First Degree Murder

In order to sustain a finding of first-degree murder under Pennsylvania law, "the evidence must establish that (1) a human being was unlawfully killed; (2) the person accused is responsible for the killing; and (3) the accused acted with a specific intent to kill." Commonwealth v. Mitchell, 902 A.2d 430, 444 (Pa. 2006) (citing 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2502(a); Commonwealth v. Spotz, 759 A.2d 1280, 1283 (2000)). "Specific intent to kill can be established through circumstantial evidence such as the use of a deadly weapon upon a vital part of the victim's body."*fn5 Id.

As previously noted, Gonzalez was found guilty of first degree murder as an accomplice. Commonwealth v. Gonzalez, No. 180 MDA 2009, at 3 n.2 (Pa. Super. Oct. 19, 2009) (unpublished memorandum); App. to Answer to Pet., at A391 n.2. The crux of Gonzalez's argument is that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict him of first degree murder because there was no evidence of his specific intent to kill the victim. Under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 306(c), a person can be an accomplice with respect to the commission of a particular crime only if that person has "the intent of promoting or facilitating" the commission of "that crime."*fn6 The Commonwealth need not ...


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