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Christian Thomas v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


December 21, 2012

CHRISTIAN THOMAS, PETITIONER,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.

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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On September 9, 2010, Petitioner Christian Thomas filed a petition for habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, *fn1 seeking relief from state court sentences for rape, indecent assault, and multiple counts of armed robbery and burglary charged in seven separate criminal informations. The crimes were committed during a crime spree when Thomas was fourteen and fifteen years old. Thomas was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to a total of 65-to-150 years in prison, *fn2 with eligibility for parole at age 83. *fn3

Thomas's pro se petition raised four grounds for relief: 1) his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment, under Graham v. Florida *fn4 ; 2) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek dismissal of certain charges pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 600 ("Rule 600"); 3) trial counsel was ineffective for permitting Thomas to enter unknowing and involuntary guilty pleas; and 4) the trial court imposed a sentence longer than that required by the state sentencing guidelines, and imposed consecutive rather than concurrent sentences without adequate justification. The petition was referred to Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice for a Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), pursuant to the Court's Local Rule 72.1. The Sentence Imposed Violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution Before issuing his R&R, Magistrate Judge Rice appointed counsel to brief the Eighth Amendment issue on Thomas's behalf, and both parties filed supplemental briefs examining the applicability of Graham to Thomas's sentence. On June 4, 2012, after briefing was completed, Magistrate Judge Rice held oral argument. At that oral argument, Respondents, apparently acknowledging that the Supreme Court's decision in Graham may apply to term-of-year sentences which are effectively life-sentences, informed Magistrate Judge Rice that they agreed that Thomas's sentence should be vacated and the matter remanded to the state trial court for resentencing pursuant to Graham. *fn5 Accordingly, on June 5, 2012, Magistrate Judge Rice issued the R&R recommending that Thomas's petition be granted and the matter remanded for resentencing consistent with Graham.

Neither party has objected to this recommendation for resentencing, and the Court agrees that the sentences should be vacated and the cases remanded to the state court for resentencing consistent with Graham.

In Graham, the Supreme Court addressed a categorical challenge to the imposition of life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of crimes other than homicide. *fn6 The Supreme Court noted the infrequency with which life sentences are actually imposed on juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicides, even in jurisdictions where such sentences are permitted by law, and concluded that a national consensus has developed against such sentences. *fn7 The Supreme Court also found that juveniles have diminished moral culpability, citing psychological and neurological research showing substantial differences between juvenile and adult minds and, in particular, differences in the parts of the brain responsible for behavioral control. *fn8 The Supreme Court noted that it is difficult, even for experts, to differentiate juveniles whose crimes reflect "transient immaturity" from those whose crimes reflect "irreparable corruption," and concluded that a "life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity" and "forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal" despite juveniles' increased receptivity to rehabilitation. *fn9 In addressing the penological justifications, the Supreme Court held that "[w]ith respect to life without parole for juvenile non-homicide offenders, none of the goals of penal sanctions that have been recognized as legitimate-retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation-provides an adequate justification." *fn10 Thus, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits sentencing individuals who were under 18 years of age at the time of the offense, and who were convicted of non-homicide crimes, to life in prison without parole. *fn11

Most relevant to Thomas's case, in which the state court did not impose a life sentence without parole, but rather a term-of-years sentence under which Thomas is not eligible for parole until age 83 (an age more than a decade beyond his life expectancy), the Supreme Court in Graham held that the states must give juvenile defendants "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." *fn12 Other courts faced with facts similar to the facts in this case have concluded that a sentence imposed upon a non-homicide juvenile offender is unconstitutional under Graham if it provides no meaningful opportunity for parole during the offender's lifetime, even if that sentence is a term-of-years sentence and not a formal life without parole sentence, and this Court agrees with that position. *fn13

This Court does not believe that the Supreme Court's analysis would change simply because a sentence is labeled a term-of-years sentence rather than a life sentence if that term-of-years sentence does not provide a meaningful opportunity for parole in a juvenile's lifetime. The Court's concerns about juvenile culpability and inadequate penological justification apply equally in both situations, and there is no basis to distinguish sentences based on their label. To find otherwise would degrade the holding of the Supreme Court. Therefore, this Court finds that the sentence imposed in this case, though a term-of-years sentence, violates Graham as it provides no meaningful opportunity to obtain release, based upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation, during Thomas's expected lifetime. Accordingly, the Court finds that the sentence imposed amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Trial Counsel Was Not Ineffective for Failure to File a Rule 600 Motion to Dismiss In addition to the Graham issue, Thomas's petition raised three other grounds for relief. Magistrate Judge Rice rejected each of these three grounds as non-cognizable or meritless in his thorough and well-reasoned R&R. Where a habeas petition, such as the one in this case, is referred to a magistrate judge for an R&R pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), a district court judge conducts a de novo review "of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made" and "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." *fn14 Thomas requested appointment of counsel to assist him in filing objections, which the Court granted, *fn15 and counsel filed an objection to one claim Judge Rice had found meritless. For the reasons set forth below, the Court overrules Thomas's single objection to the R&R.

Thomas "objects to the R&R's conclusion that the Pennsylvania Superior Court was not unreasonable in its application of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), when it ruled that Mr. Thomas's trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to file a Rule 600 motion." *fn16

Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 ("Rule 600") requires state criminal trials to be held within 365 days from the date the complaint is filed, subject to tolling and excludable time. *fn17

Plaintiff argues that four of the seven criminal informations which were the subject of his second, June 3, 2003, guilty pleas were not timely prosecuted pursuant to Rule 600, and that his counsel was ineffective for failing to file a motion to dismiss certain charges against him on that basis prior to the entry of his June 3, 2003 guilty pleas. *fn18 Plaintiff raised this Rule 600 argument in a PCRA petition, and the PCRA court rejected it. Thomas appealed to the Superior Court, which found that Thomas's June 3, 2003 guilty plea hearing was timely under Rule 600 with regard to two of the informations (charging four counts of robbery, one count of burglary, and one count of rape). However, the Superior Court acknowledged that the June 3, 2003 guilty plea hearing was outside the Rule 600 time period on the remaining five criminal bills of information. Nevertheless, the Superior Court held that because those five bills of information were consolidated *fn19 with the two that were timely prosecuted, there was no Rule 600 violation. *fn20 In its ruling, the Superior Court relied upon its decision in Commonwealth v. Selenski, *fn21 which held that when charges are consolidated, formally or informally, the tolling attributable to any charge also tolls all related charges. Having found no Rule 600 violation in Thomas's case, the Superior Court concluded that trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to raise the meritless issue before the trial court.

Thomas appealed the Superior Court's ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reserved ruling on Thomas's petition pending its ruling in Selenski, which had also been appealed. Once it had affirmed the Superior Court's ruling in Selenski, *fn22 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Thomas's petition for review.

In his habeas Petition to this Court, Thomas argues that the Superior Court misinterpreted Rule 600 in his case, wrongly found that all seven criminal informations against him were timely prosecuted, and, based on this error, failed to find that counsel was ineffective for failing to file a Rule 600 dismissal motion on the informations which were not timely prosecuted.

A federal court may not grant habeas relief if the claims were "adjudicated on the merits in state court" unless the state court decision "was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States" or "was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding." *fn23 Thus, in reviewing the ruling of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, this Court must apply a deferential standard of review. *fn24

For the reasons set forth in the R&R, the Court cannot find that the Superior Court was unreasonable in denying Thomas's ineffective assistance of counsel claim under Strickland's deferential standard. The Court adopts the well-reasoned analysis set forth in the R&R on this issue, and agrees that Thomas has failed to show that the Superior Court's ruling "was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement." *fn25 Furthermore, this Court agrees with the R&R's conclusion, that "even if the Superior Court misapplied or failed to follow Rule 600, [this Court] may not second guess the state court's interpretation of its own procedural rules in the context of habeas review. Based on the Superior Court's conclusion that Thomas had no meritorious claim under Rule 600 at the time of his second guilty plea, Thomas has not--and cannot--demonstrate that trial counsel's failure to raise such claims was unreasonable." *fn26

For the foregoing reasons, the Court overrules the objection and approves and adopts the R & R. As the parties agreed, and the R & R recommended, the Court will remand the case to the state court for re-sentencing in light of this Opinion and the Supreme Court's holdings in Graham.

An appropriate order follows.


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