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Jameel Lawson v. James Mcgrady

February 7, 2013


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


Presently before this court is a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 by Jameel Lawson and Respondents' response. Lawson, who is currently incarcerated in the Retreat State Correctional Institution in Hunlock Creek, Pennsylvania, challenges his incarceration for third degree murder and a related firearms charge. For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.


On October 12, 2006, Lawson entered a negotiated guilty plea to third degree murder and a firearms offense.*fn1 Pursuant to that plea, Lawson admitted to shooting and killing the victim after a bar fight on December 30, 2005. Lawson also agreed to forego litigating a defense motion to suppress the statement he had given to police after his arrest. (N.T. 5/11/09, at 9-12). In exchange, the Commonwealth agreed, among other things, to nolle prosse a first degree murder charge and the possibility of the death penalty. He was sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 20 to 40 years of imprisonment on the murder charge and 5 to 10 years of imprisonment for the weapons charge. Lawson did not file a direct appeal.

On March 2, 2007, Lawson filed a pro se petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Con. Stat. § 9541, et seq. Counsel was appointed and subsequently filed an amended petition alleging:

1. his guilty plea was unlawfully induced because trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to file a motion to suppress inculpatory statements Lawson gave to police detectives; and

2. trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to file a motion for reconsideration of sentence or a post-sentence motion to withdraw guilty plea.

After holding an evidentiary hearing, the PCRA dismissed Lawson's petition as frivolous. The Superior Court affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief on March 29, 2010. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Lawson's petition for allowance of appeal on September 9, 2010.

On January 25, 2011,*fn2 Lawson filed this pro se petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus presenting the following issues:

1. counsel was ineffective by improperly advising him that he had no chance of having his suppression motion granted thereby inducing him to plead guilty;

2. counsel was ineffective by failing to adequately explain the consequences of entering a guilty pleas and by telling him that, if he did not take the plea, he had no chance at an evidentiary hearing;

3. counsel was ineffective by advising him that self-defense was not a viable defense in Pennsylvania; and

4. because he did not "actively employ" a firearm, he pled guilty to conduct that was not a crime.

Respondents have filed a response arguing that Lawson's claims are procedurally defaulted and/or meritless.


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. Voluntariness of Plea

Lawson claims that his guilty plea was invalid due to ineffective assistance of counsel. To comport with the Fifth Amendment, a defendant's plea of guilty must be voluntary and intelligent. Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238 (1969). The "long standing test for determining the validity of a guilty plea is 'whether the plea represents a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternative courses of action open to the defendant.'" Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56 (1985) (quoting North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 31 (1970)). A guilty plea may be constitutionally infirm if defendant failed to understand the constitutional rights he was waiving by pleading guilty or had an incomplete understanding of the charges lodged against him. Henderson v. Morgan, 426 U.S. 637, 645 n.13 (1976). In McCarthy v. United States, 394 U.S. 459, 464-667 (1969), the Supreme Court held that the most efficient method of insuring the intelligent, voluntary nature of a guilty plea is through the colloquy between the trial judge, the defendant, and the defendant's attorney. Such a colloquy should establish that the defendant understood the nature of the charges, his right to a jury trial, the acts sufficient to constitute the offense for which he is charged, and the permissible range of sentences. Boykin, 395 U.S. at 244 n.7.

A habeas petitioner challenging the voluntary nature of his or her guilty plea faces a heavy burden. Zilich v. Reid, 36 F.3d 317, 320 (3d Cir. 1994). "[T]he representations of the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor at [a plea] hearing, as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings. Solemn declarations made in open court carry a strong presumption of verity." Id. (citing Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 74-74 (1977)).

The governing standard as to whether a plea of guilty is voluntary for purposes of the Federal Constitution is a question of federal law, but "questions of historical fact, including inferences properly drawn from such facts, are in this context entitled to the presumption of correctness accorded state court factual findings." Parke v. Raley, 506 U.S. 20, 35 (1992) (citing Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422, 431-32 (1983)). The presumption applies to findings of fact by the trial and appellate courts of the state, both explicit and implicit. Id. at 36. A habeas petitioner has ...

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