United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
David Russell Danner, Petitioner, Pro se, Coal Township, PA.
For District Attorney Bradford Co., Respondent: Albert C. Ondrey, Bradford County District Attorney's Office, Towanda, PA.
SYLVIA H. RAMBO, United States District Judge.
Petitioner David Russell Danner (" Danner" ), who is presently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, Pennsylvania, initiated this action on May 17, 2011, by filing a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, as amended August 18, 2011. (Doc. 11.) In the petition, Danner challenges his 2008 conviction and sentence in the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County, Pennsylvania (" trial court" or " Bradford County court" ). For the reasons that follow, the petition will be denied.
On April 24, 2008, Danner was found guilty of rape, sexual assault, and indecent
assault following a jury trial in the Bradford County court. ( See Doc. 22-8 at 8 (Respondents' Reproduced Record).) As stated by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in its decision affirming the PCRA court's denial of post-conviction collateral relief: " The charges stemmed from allegations Danner, while on a hunting trip, engaged in sexual intercourse with his then 15 year old daughter." (Doc. 22-9 at 45; Commonwealth v. Danner, No. 2144 MDA 2008, 988 A.2d 716 (Pa. S.Ct. Nov. 17, 2009).) On August 4, 2008, the trial court sentenced Danner to an aggregate term of imprisonment of 11 to 22 years. ( See Doc. 22-8 at 1, Sentencing Order.) Danner was represented by counsel at trial and sentencing. ( See Doc. 22-8 at 2-22.)
Danner did not file a direct appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. On September 9, 2008, Danner filed a counseled petition for post-conviction collateral relief under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act (" PCRA" ), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § § 9541-9546, as amended on October 31, 2008. ( See Doc. 22-8 at 33-43.) In his PCRA petition, Danner set forth several claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, claiming that (1) trial counsel failed to object to the prosecution's leading questions, and (2) trial counsel failed to present witnesses to rebut the victim's testimony.  ( See id. )
On November 11, 2008, the trial court, now sitting as the PCRA court, issued an order noticing its intention to dismiss the PCRA petition. (Doc. 22-8 at 44-45.) However, before a final order was entered, Danner filed a notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court on December 10, 2008. ( See Doc. 13 ¶ 1(g).) A second notice of appeal was filed on March 17, 2009, due to procedural confusion arising from Pennsylvania's Rules of Criminal Procedure. ( Id. ¶ 1(h).) The appeals were consolidated by Superior Court order dated May 15, 2009. ( Id. ¶ 1(I).) Danner raised the following issues on appeal: 
I. Was trial counsel ineffective for failure to call and secure witness to testify at the trial on behalf of [Danner]?
II. Was trial counsel ineffective during the course of the trial for not objecting to numerous leading questions by the prosecution?
(Doc. 22-9 at 46.)
On November 17, 2009, the Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court decision. ( See id. at 44-50.) Danner filed a petition for allowance of appeal, raising the following issues:
I. The Superior Court committed error when it did not address an issue finding that it was not raised in the PCRA petition when in fact it was and was part of the Reproduced Record.
II. The Superior Court's decision was not in accord with the standards set forth by this Court when evaluating ineffectiveness of Trial Counsel when credibility is at issue.
III. The Superior Court has set an unreasonable and unconstitutional burden on the Petitioner when stating that in order to prove prejudice the Petitioner
must prove that the Commonwealth could not have entered evidence in a correct manner, specifically the Petitioner would have to prove what the Commonwealth[']s witnesses would have said if they had not been asked leading questions but questioned properly.
(Doc. 22-10 at 2.) The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur on May 19, 2010. (Doc. 22-11 at 21.)
On May 17, 2011, Danner filed his original habeas petition. (Doc. 1.) By order dated July 27, 2011, the court directed Danner to file one all-inclusive habeas petition raising all grounds for relief.  (Doc. 8.) Thereafter, Danner filed his amended petition on August 18, 2011. (Doc. 11.) On September 19, 2011, the court issued an order directing service of the amended petition. (Doc. 12.) On October 19, 2011, Respondents responded to the petition. (Doc. 13.) Danner filed his reply on November 17, 2011. (Doc. 17.) On August 3, 2012, the court directed Respondents to file a complete copy of the state court record, (Doc. 21), which followed on September 5, 2012, (Doc. 22). After the court received further briefing from the parties in accordance with a January 10, 2013 order, (Doc. 27), this matter is now ripe for disposition.
A. Timeliness of the Habeas Petition
In their answer to the petition, as a threshold matter, Respondents first argue that the instant § 2254 petition is barred by the one-year statute of limitations set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). Upon review, the court finds that the petition has been timely filed.
The court may " entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in 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). A petition filed under § 2254 must be timely filed under the stringent standards set forth in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (" AEDPA" ), Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996). See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). A state prisoner requesting habeas corpus relief pursuant to § 2254 must adhere to a statute of limitations that provides, in relevant part, as follows:
(d)(1) A 1-year period of limitation shall apply to an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court. The limitation period shall run from the latest of -
(A) the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review;
* * *
(2) The time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending shall not be counted toward any period of limitation under this subsection.
28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)-(2); see Jones v. Morton, 195 F.3d 153, 157 (3d Cir. 1999). Thus, under the plain terms of § 2244(d)(1)(A), a state court criminal judgment does not become final until appeals have been exhausted or the time for appeal has expired. See Nara v. Frank, 264 F.3d 310, 314 (3d Cir. 2001).
In the instant case, after being found guilty by a jury, Danner was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 11 to 22 years by the Bradford County court on August 4, 2008. Danner did not file a direct appeal. Therefore, his conviction became final on September 8, 2008.  See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9545(b)(3) (" judgment becomes final at the conclusion of direct review, including discretionary review in the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, or at the expiration of time for seeking the review" ). The one-year period for the statute of limitations commenced running as of that date, and expired on September 8, 2009. Hence, the federal petition, which was filed on May 17, 2011,  appears to be untimely. However, the court's analysis does not end there. Consideration of both statutory and equitable tolling, if necessary, must be undertaken.
With respect to statutory tolling, section 2244(d)(2) tolls the statute of limitations with respect to the " time during which a properly filed application for State post-conviction or other collateral review with respect to the pertinent judgment or claim is pending." 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2). On September 9, 2008, Danner filed a PCRA petition in the Bradford County court. While a properly-filed PCRA petition will toll the running of AEDPA's statute of limitations, an improperly-filed PCRA petition does not have the same effect. See Tinker v. Moore, 255 F.3d 1331, 1333 (11th Cir. 2001) (" 'properly filed' state-court [post-conviction] petitions must be 'pending' in order to toll the limitations period. Thus, a state court petition like Tinker's that is filed following the expiration of the federal [AEDPA] limitations period cannot toll that period because there is no period remaining to be tolled." ) (some internal quotations omitted), reh'g denied, 273 F.3d 1123 (11th Cir. 2001).
The federal limitations period in the instant case expired on September 8, 2009. However, prior to this date, Danner filed a PCRA petition in the Bradford County court on September 9, 2008. As a result, the statute of limitations became tolled at that point. Prior to his filing date, the statute began running on September 8, 2008, the date his conviction became final. It was tolled on September 9, 2008, when Danner timely filed his PCRA petition. At that time, one day had elapsed. On May 19, 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Danner's petition for allowance of appeal, at which time the statutory tolling ceased to apply and the § 2244(d)(1) filing deadline resumed. Thus, the filing deadline for the instant habeas petition expired on or about May 18, 2011 (May 19, 2010 plus the 364 days remaining on the statute prior to tolling by filing of PCRA petition). Based on the foregoing, since the instant petition was filed on May 17, 2011, it is clear that Danner filed his action within the requisite one-year statutory deadline, and the petition is timely. 
B. Claims Presented in the Habeas Petition
Now that it is clear that the habeas petition is timely, it is next necessary to determine whether Danner's claims presented in his habeas petition have been adequately exhausted in the state courts and, if not, whether the circumstances of his case are sufficient to excuse his procedural default. The claims Danner raises as grounds for relief are: (1) he is actually innocent of the charges of which he was convicted and sentenced, (2) counsel at the preliminary hearing, trial, sentencing, and PCRA proceedings were ineffective,  (3) the prosecutor withheld discovery from Danner's trial counsel in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963),
(4) the prosecutor violated Danner's due process and equal protection rights when he asked leading questions of witnesses and made erroneous arguments supporting Danner's guilt to the jury, (5) the Pennsylvania Superior Court denied his right to fair and impartial appellate review by reviewing the PCRA court's notice of intent to dismiss without a hearing rather than remanding to the PCRA court for a further decision, and (6) he was denied his right to a fair and impartial jury. (Doc. 11.) In their answer to Danner's petition, Respondents contend the following: (1) only certain of Danner's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel were presented in the state courts and therefore all other claims should be dismissed as unexhausted or procedurally defaulted, and (2) Danner's exhausted claims of ineffective assistance of counsel should be denied. (Doc. 14.)
For purposes of discussion, the court will first discuss exhaustion and procedural default as to Danner's claims, followed by a discussion on the merits of any surviving claims.
1. Exhaustion and Procedural Default
The provisions of the federal habeas corpus statute at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b) require a state prisoner to exhaust available state court remedies before seeking federal habeas corpus relief.  To comply with the exhaustion requirement, a state prisoner first must have fairly presented his constitutional and federal law issues to the state courts through direct appeal, collateral review, state habeas proceedings, mandamus proceedings, or other available procedures for judicial review. See, e.g., Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351, 109 S.Ct. 1056, 103 L.Ed.2d 380 (1989); Doctor v. Walters, 96 F.3d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53, 130 S.Ct. 612, 175 L.Ed.2d 417 (2009); Burkett v. Love, 89 F.3d 135, 137 (3d Cir. 1996). Moreover, a petitioner must present every claim raised in the federal petition to the state's trial court, intermediate appellate court, and highest court before exhaustion will be considered satisfied.  O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144 L.Ed.2d 1 (1999). The petitioner has the burden of establishing that the exhaustion requirement has been met. Ross v. Petsock, 868 F.2d 639, 643 (3d Cir. 1999); O'Halloran v. Ryan, 835 F.2d 506, 508 (3d Cir. 1987).
Exhaustion is not a jurisdictional limitation, however, and federal courts may review the merits of a state petitioner's claim prior to exhaustion when no appropriate state remedy exists. Christy v. Horn, 115 F.3d 201, 206 (3d Cir. 1997); Doctor, 96 F.3d at 681; Carter v. Vaughn, 62 F.3d 591, 594 (3d Cir. 1995). Nevertheless, a petitioner shall not be deemed to have exhausted state remedies if he has
the right to raise his claims by any available state procedure. 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (c).
Turning to procedural default, if a petitioner presents unexhausted habeas claims to a federal court, but state procedural rules bar further state court review, the federal court will excuse the failure to exhaust and treat the claims as exhausted. Wenger v. Frank, 266 F.3d 218, 223 (3d Cir. 2001); Lines v. Larkins, 208 F.3d 153, 160 (3d Cir. 2000); see Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 297-98, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989). Although deemed exhausted, such claims are considered procedurally defaulted. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 749, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640 (1991); Lines, 208 F.3d at 160.
A federal habeas court cannot review the merits of procedurally defaulted claims unless the petitioner demonstrates either: (1) " cause" for the procedural default and " actual prejudice" as a result of the alleged violation of federal law; or (2) failure to consider the claims will result in a " fundamental miscarriage of justice." See McCandless v. Vaughn, 172 F.3d 255, 260 (3d Cir. 1999); Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750; Caswell v. Ryan, 953 F.2d 853, 857, 861-62 (3d Cir. 1992). To satisfy the first exception, a petitioner must show: (1) cause for his failure to raise his claim in state court; and (2) prejudice to his case as a result of that failure. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750. To demonstrate " cause" for a procedural default, the petitioner must show that something " external" to the defense impeded the petitioner's efforts to comply with the state's procedural rule. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 488, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 91 L.Ed.2d 397 (1986). Once " cause" has been successfully demonstrated, a petitioner must then prove " prejudice." " Prejudice" must be something that " worked to [petitioner's] actual and substantial disadvantage, infecting his entire trial with error of constitutional dimensions." Id. at 494.
Alternatively, a federal court may excuse a procedural default when the petitioner establishes that failure to review the claim will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. See Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 192-93 (3d Cir. 2000). A credible allegation of " actual innocence" constitutes a " miscarriage of justice" that enables a federal court to hear the merits of otherwise procedurally defaulted habeas claims. Hubbard v. Pinchak, 378 F.3d 333, 338 (3d Cir. 2004). The fundamental miscarriage of justice exception, as defined by the United States Supreme Court, is confined to cases of actual innocence as compared to legal innocence, where the petitioner can show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in light of new evidence. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 327, 115 S.Ct. 851, 130 L.Ed.2d 808 (1995). " To be credible," a claim of actual innocence must be based on reliable evidence not presented at trial. Id. at 324.
a. Claim One - Actual Innocence
In his first claim for habeas relief, Danner claims that he is actually innocent of the charges of which he was convicted and sentenced. Also set forth within this claim are a number of assertions with respect to ineffective assistance of counsel.
To the extent that Danner is raising a stand-alone claim of actual innocence, such a claim must be denied because it is not cognizable in federal habeas. Albrecht v. Horn, 485 F.3d 103, 121-22 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Herrera v. Collins,
506 U.S. 390, 113 S.Ct. 853, 122 L.Ed.2d 203 (1993)).  However, a credible claim of actual innocence can act as a " gateway" through which a federal habeas petitioner may pass to have an otherwise procedurally barred constitutional claim considered on the merits. See Schlup, 513 U.S. at 315 (quoting Herrera, 506 U.S. at 404). Thus, the court will consider whether Danner has presented new evidence of his actual innocence in order to establish a miscarriage of justice that would allow this court to reach the merits of any of his barred sub-issues scattered throughout his habeas petition, such as the ineffectiveness sub-issues he raises in this Claim One.
Under the two-prong standard for showing a fundamental miscarriage of justice, a petitioner first must " support his allegations of constitutional error with new reliable evidence - whether it be exculpatory scientific evidence, trustworthy eyewitness accounts, or critical physical evidence - that was not presented at trial." Schlup, 513 U.S. at 324. The evidence is new " only if it was not available at trial and could not have been discovered earlier through the exercise of due diligence." Amrine v. Bowersox, 238 F.3d 1023, 1028 (8th Cir. 2001). Second, once such evidence is presented, a petitioner must show that " it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence." Schlup, 513 U.S. at 327. As stated more recently by the Supreme Court:
[T]he standard is demanding and permits review only in the " extraordinary" case. At the same time, though, the Schlup standard does not require absolute certainty about the petitioner's guilt or innocence. A petitioner's burden at the gateway stage is to demonstrate that
more likely than not, in light of the new evidence, no reasonable juror would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt-- or, to remove the double negative, that more likely than not any reasonable juror would have reasonable doubt.
House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518, 538, 126 S.Ct. 2064, 165 L.Ed.2d 1 (2006) (citations omitted). In the habeas context, " 'actual innocence' means factual innocence, not mere legal insufficiency." Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 623, 118 S.Ct. 1604, 140 L.Ed.2d 828 (1998). When considering a claim of actual innocence, a district court may " consider how the timing of the submission and the likely credibility of the affiants bear on the probable reliability of that evidence." Schlup, 513 U.S. at 331-32.
In his petition, the new evidence Danner submits in support of his claim of actual innocence is four affidavits, as well as correspondence Danner had after trial with his daughter, the victim, and with appellate counsel. (Doc. 11 at 37-53.) The court will address this evidence as two sets - the first set is three affidavits of family members, and the second set is evidence relating to the victim's alleged recantation.
With respect to the first set of evidence, the first affidavit is an undated joint affidavit of Pamela Y. Hoff, Danner's cousin, and her husband, Gaylen E. Hoff. (Doc. 11 at 37-38.) The second affidavit is a December 29, 2010 joint affidavit of Carl and Judy Muffley, Danner's in-laws. ( Id. at 39.) The third affidavit is an undated affidavit of Laurie Danner, Danner's wife and the victim's step-mother. ( Id. at 40-41.) In all three affidavits, the affiants assert that they observed Danner's daughter soon after the incident and had no indication that she was in distress or had suffered a sexual assault or trauma. ( Id. at 37, 39, 40.) Both the Hoffs and Laurie Danner assert that they do not believe the crime happened. ( Id. at 37, 40.) All affiants also assert that they informed Danner's trial counsel that they were available and willing to testify at trial. ( Id. ) In fact, Judy Muffley testified at trial that she observed Danner's daughter when she and Danner came back from the hunting trip, at which point she stated that she was excited to be moving in with her father. (Doc. 22-6 at 40.) Even excluding the fact that Judy Muffley did testify at trial, none of these affidavits provides sufficient support to make this an " extraordinary" case worthy of the fundamental miscarriage of justice label. See House, 547 U.S. at 537 (holding actual innocence requires substantive review only in extraordinary cases). Importantly, these affidavits do not directly contradict the victim's testimony. There is no evidence that these family members were present at the time of the crime. Accordingly, their opinions as to guilt or innocence are insufficient to justify substantive review despite procedural default. Further, at most, like Judy Muffley's trial testimony, the affiants' testimony could serve as impeachment testimony, attacking the credibility of the victim. As such, Danner has not demonstrated here that, " more likely than not, in light of the new evidence, no reasonable juror would find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." House, 547 U.S. at 538.
Turning to Danner's new evidence relating to the victim's recantation, Danner has submitted the affidavit of Lorrie Danner, his mother, dated June 24, 2011. (Doc. 11 at 43-44.) She asserts that in either late 2009 or early 2010, she met with the victim, her granddaughter, who told her that she had lied about the sexual assault because she did not want to move away from her friends. ( Id. at 43.) She also told her grandmother that she wanted to " change
her story" but the District Attorney told her that if she did, she " could go to jail." ( Id. ) Finally, she suggested to her grandmother that they travel together to visit her father in prison, but Lorrie Danner refused. ( Id. at 44.) In addition to this affidavit, Danner also submits several letters written by the victim to her father in March and April 2010. ( Id. at 45-48.) In these letters, the victim writes, inter alia, that she misses her father and would like to visit him, but does not mention wanting to recant her trial testimony on the sexual assault.  ( See id. ) Finally, Danner submits correspondence he had with his appellate counsel regarding his PCRA petition and other appeal efforts from October 2008 through July 2010. ( Id. at 49-53.) In an October 2008 correspondence, Danner states that he would like his daughter's recantation recorded for his state collateral proceedings. ( Id. at 49.) However, there is nothing attached containing such a recantation, and, in fact, Danner's counsel writes in 2010 that he has not heard back from the victim regarding a recantation. ( Id. at 53.)
Initially, the court recognizes that recantation testimony is inherently untrustworthy. " The cases are legion that courts look upon recantations with great suspicion." United States v. Williams, 70 F.Appx. 632, 634 (3d Cir. 2003). Even so, viewing this evidence offered by Danner in total, it is apparent that Danner was asserting that the victim would provide a recantation as far back as October 2008, before Danner filed his amended PCRA petition. ( See Doc. 22-8 at 33-43.) However, the victim's alleged recantation was never submitted to the state courts, either in the PCRA proceedings or on further appeal. In fact, other than the account of Danner's mother, the record before this court does not contain a recantation from the victim herself. As such, the court finds that, on this record where the " new evidence" of Danner's actual innocence was available to Danner to present to the state courts but he failed to do so, Danner has procedurally defaulted his claim of actual innocence. See, e.g., Dejan v. United States, 208 F.3d 682, 687 (8th Cir. 2000) (" We therefore find that Dejan's actual innocence claim on the dismissed drug count has itself been procedurally defaulted" ); cf. Edwards v. Carpenter, 529 U.S. 446, 453, 120 S.Ct. 1587, 146 L.Ed.2d 518 (2000) (holding that " an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim asserted as cause for the procedural default of another claim can itself be procedurally defaulted" ). Stated otherwise, Danner's claim of actual innocence offered to excuse his procedural default of any constitutional claims in this Claim One is itself procedurally defaulted, and thus Danner cannot establish a miscarriage of justice as to excuse procedural default. See Dorsey v. Wilson, Civ. No. 07-509, 2008 WL 2952892, at *11 (W.D. Pa. July 30, 2008) (holding " [i]f a claim of cause to excuse procedural default can itself be procedurally defaulted, we fail to see why a claim of actual innocence offered to excuse a procedural default cannot also itself be procedurally defaulted, at least in the situation where both the claimed new evidence was available to a petitioner as was a state procedural means by which to
bring the claim of new evidence to the state courts" ).
Finally, to the extent that Danner suggests that his claims should be addressed on the merits solely because they are meritorious, notwithstanding the fundamental interests that the doctrine of procedural default serves, the court still cannot address his claims on the merits. As the Supreme Court declared, " [w]ithout any new evidence of innocence, even the existence of a concededly meritorious constitutional violation is not in itself sufficient to establish a miscarriage of justice that would allow a habeas court to reach the merits of a barred claim." Schlup, 513 U.S. at 316. As this court is bound by Schlup, Danner's unexhausted and procedurally defaulted claims cannot be addressed on the merits on the basis of a miscarriage of justice exception.
b. Claim Two - Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
In his second claim for habeas relief, Danner claims that he received ineffective assistance of counsel throughout his criminal and post-conviction proceedings by the two counsel he obtained for such proceedings, Patrick Bierne, Esquire, and Richard Wilson, Esquire. (Doc. 11 at 33.) More specifically, Danner raises forty-three (43) sub-issues with respect to ineffective assistance. ( See Doc. 11 at 11-24.) Upon review, the court concludes that Danner has exhausted only two related issues: (1) whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to call witnesses at trial to testify on his behalf; and (2) whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to numerous leading questions by the prosecution. ( See Doc. 22-9 at 46.) Notably, these two issues are not stand-alone claims presented in the instant habeas petition. Rather, Danner scatters references to these two exhausted issues throughout his six grounds for relief stated in this habeas petition. However, citing these two issues as argument in support of the overlying habeas claim does not mean that Danner has fully exhausted that overlying claim.  Therefore, because these two issues most logically fall within the expansive Claim Two, relating to ineffectiveness of all of Danner's counsel, the court will address the merits of these two issues as sub-issues of Claim Two, infra.  The remaining sub-issues are unexhausted because they were not raised in the state courts. Further, because it appears that any second PCRA petition filed by Danner would be untimely, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9545(b) (petition must be filed within one year of the date judgment becomes final), these sub-issues are procedurally defaulted.
Despite this procedural default, Danner seeks to have these sub-issues reviewed on the merits. Therefore, the court will now discuss whether Danner has demonstrated either cause and actual prejudice, or a fundamental miscarriage of justice, so as to excuse procedural default of these sub-issues. See McCandless, 172 F.3d at 260. Initially, as noted supra, Danner's sub-issues with respect to
ineffectiveness of PCRA counsel are not cognizable because he cannot claim constitutionally ineffective assistance of PCRA counsel. See supra note 7, at 10; 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 752-53, 111 S.Ct. 2546, 115 L.Ed.2d 640 (1991) (no constitutional rights to effective assistance of counsel in state post-conviction proceedings). However, in response to the court's January 10, 2013 order (Doc. 27) directing the parties to further brief any procedural default of Danner's habeas claims, Danner cites Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309, 182 L.Ed.2d 272 (2012), in his challenge to PCRA counsel's ineffectiveness.  Under Martinez, inadequate assistance of counsel at initial-review collateral proceedings " may establish cause" for procedural default of a trial counsel ineffectiveness claim. Id. at 1315; see also Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750 (allowing federal review of defaulted claim if petitioner can " demonstrate cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law" ). This holding creates an exception to procedural default in states, such as Pennsylvania, where claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel generally must be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding, rather than on direct appeal. See Martinez, 132 S.Ct. at 1320; Commonwealth v. Grant, 572 Pa. 48, 813 A.2d 726, 738 (Pa. 2002) (" [A]s a general rule, a petitioner should wait to raise claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel until collateral review." ). Under Martinez, " a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, counsel was ineffective." Martinez, 132 S.Ct. at 1320. Therefore, if Danner's PCRA counsel was ineffective for failing to raise substantial claims of trial counsel ineffectiveness during the PCRA proceedings, it would constitute cause to excuse procedural default of those claims, and permit review here. See id. A " substantial" underlying claim is a claim that has " some merit." Id. at 1318-19.
The procedurally defaulted claims of trial counsel ineffectiveness that Danner would like this court to review on the merits are as follows:  (1) Attorneys Bierne and Wilson failed to disclose to the trial court their conflicts of interest and bias against Danner based on Attorney Bierne's familial relationship with the District Attorney and the Bradford County Jury Commissioner, (Doc. 11 at 11); (2) trial counsel failed to investigate and prepare defenses for all stages of the criminal proceedings, including failing to obtain phone records of Danner and his grandmother, reports and evaluations on the victim's statements to authorities, the victim's school records, and other forensic evidence, ( Id. at 11-15, 18-20); (3) trial counsel failed to cross-examine witnesses at the preliminary hearing and to confirm that the testimony was being properly recorded, ( Id. at 12-13); (4) trial counsel failed to object to the prosecutor's remarks made during trial about the victim's school counselor asking Danner to pick up the
victim from school, the Bible,  and Danner's comment to the victim that " the Devil is laughing at me," ( Id. at 14-16); (5) Attorney Wilson was ineffective when he stated to the jurors at trial that they " already heard some of the evidence outlined by [the District Attorney]," ( Id. at 14); (6) trial counsel failed to request that the jury be polled after the verdict was announced, ( Id. at 14); (7) trial counsel failed to continue their representation of Danner after he fired them after trial, ( Id. at 15); (8) trial counsel failed to inform the jury that the victim did not report the rape to her mother directly, " acted in every way that would be inconsistent with a victim," ( Id. at 16), and failed to object to the trial court's instruction that a delay in making a complaint should be considered in judging the victim's credibility, ( Id. at 16-17); (9) trial counsel failed generally to object to and move to strike testimony of various witnesses, including the victim and her mother, ( Id. at 16, 18, 20-21); (10) trial counsel failed to object to the use of jurors who had served on a panel in another criminal case with similar charges the day before Danner's trial, ( Id. at 21); (11) trial counsel failed to challenge the seating of a juror with hearing problems, ( Id. at 21); and (12) trial counsel failed to challenge " potential jurors with bias," ( Id. ).
To establish these ineffectiveness claims, Danner first " must show counsel's performance was deficient," meaning " counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the 'counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment." Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Second, he must show " the deficient performance prejudiced the defense," meaning counsel's " errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial." Id. To meet this prong, Danner must demonstrate " a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. at 694. This is an objective inquiry. Breakiron v. Horn, 642 F.3d 126, 145 (3d Cir. 2011). " Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction or . . . sentence resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable."  Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.
Upon review, the court concludes that Danner has failed to demonstrate that any of these sub-issues are " substantial," so as to prove PCRA counsel's ineffectiveness. See Martinez, 132 S.Ct. at 1318-19. Initially, the court notes that two of Danner's sub-issues are belied by the state court record, or are simply nonsensical. Specifically, with respect to Danner's second sub-issue that his trial counsel failed to obtain various documents, evaluations and reports in preparation for trial, the state court docket indicates that the trial court issued
several orders for the furnishing of various relevant records to defense counsel prior to trial. (Doc. 22-8 at 6-7.) Further, in an omnibus pretrial motion filed by trial counsel, counsel acknowledged receipt of discovery such as the information, police criminal complaints, and witness statements. (Doc. 22-2 at 4.) With respect to Danner's seventh sub-issue that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to represent him after he fired both counsel, this claim fails as it is nonsensical. Without any allegations related to why Danner fired his counsel or any assertions of mental incompetence on the part of the defendant,  the court will not grant relief on a claim that hired counsel was ineffective after their representation of their client had concluded.
With respect to his first sub-issue, Danner fails to allege any facts to support a conclusion that a familial relationship between Attorney Bierne and the District Attorney and the Jury Commissioner altered the outcome of the trial. Rather, he makes a conclusory assertion that the very fact of these relationships per se prejudiced him. In addition, with respect to his twelfth sub-issue, Danner fails to allege any facts to support a conclusion that any potential jurors had bias against him. While he generally points to Jurors Five, Six, and Twelve, he does not specify how these jurors displayed bias against him. Relative to both sub-issues here, the court cannot grant relief based on vague and conclusory allegations. Zettlemoyer v. Fulcomer, 923 F.2d 284, 298 (3d Cir. 1991).
With respect to his third sub-issue, initially the court concludes that Danner has failed to allege facts to demonstrate that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at the preliminary hearing based on counsel's failure to cross-examine witnesses. At the preliminary hearing, two witnesses were called - the victim and her grandmother. ( See Doc. 22-1 at 7.) Danner's counsel did, in fact, cross-examine the victim. ( Id. at 25-39.) Further, the prosecutor asked of the victim's grandmother her address and what her relationship was with the victim and Danner. ( Id. at 41.) Based on this very brief identification testimony, defense counsel did not cross-examine. ( Id. ) Upon review of this record, Danner has failed to establish deficient performance on the part of counsel. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 668. Further, he is unable to show that, but for counsel's failure to cross-examine the grandmother, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different. Id. Turning to his other allegation relating to the preliminary hearing, Danner suggests that counsel was ineffective for failing to ensure that the hearing was properly recorded. The record reveals that the court monitor noted in her transcript that any of the inaudible and/or unintelligible portions were caused by the witness and counsel not speaking loudly enough to be recorded properly. ( Id. at 6.) Here, even if it had been error for counsel not to ensure the proper recording, it was harmless error. Under both state and federal law, deficiencies in a preliminary hearing are harmless where the prosecution presents enough evidence at trial to send the case to a jury. See Commonwealth v. Hess, 489 Pa. 580, 414
A.2d 1043, 1048 (Pa. 1980)
(" If in fact it is determined at trial that the evidence of the Commonwealth is sufficient to be submitted to the jury, then any deficiency in the [preliminary hearing] would have been harmless." ); see also United States v. Voigt, 89 F.3d 1050, 1068 (3d Cir. 1996) (" [E]rror arising from the district court's failure to hold an independent evidentiary hearing . . . is unquestionably harmless . . . [when] trial testimony . . . provided the district court with a sufficient evidentiary record." ). In this case, the Commonwealth presented enough evidence to send the case to the jury. Therefore, trial counsel was not ineffective for failing to confirm that the testimony was being properly recorded, as it would have been a meritless issue. See United States v. Sanders, 165 F.3d 248, 253 (3d Cir. 1999) (holding counsel cannot be deemed ineffective for failing to raise a meritless claim).
With respect to Danner's fourth sub-issue related to various remarks made by the prosecutor at trial, the court notes that in order for a prosecutorial misconduct claim to warrant federal habeas relief, the prosecutor's comments must have " so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process." Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 180, 106 S.Ct. 2464, 91 L.Ed.2d 144 (1986) (citing Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 94 S.Ct. 1868, 40 L.Ed.2d 431 (1974)). A prosecutorial misconduct claim must be examined in " light of the record as a whole" in order to determine whether the conduct " had a substantial and injurious effect or influence" on the jury's verdict. Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 638, 113 S.Ct. 1710, 123 L.Ed.2d 353 (1993). In the Third Circuit, this inquiry involves examining " the prosecutor's offensive actions in context and in light of the entire trial, assessing the severity of the conduct, the effect of the curative instructions, and the quantum of evidence against the defendant." Moore v. Morton, 255 F.3d 95, 107 (3d Cir. 2001). Upon review, the court finds that even assuming that the prosecutor's remarks related to (1) Danner picking up the victim from school after the incident, (2) the Bible containing accounts of rape, and (3) the victim's testimony that Danner stated after the incident, " the Devil is laughing at me," were improper, taken as a whole, these remarks were not so egregious that Danner was deprived of a fair trial. Therefore, counsel's failure to object does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
As to Danner's sub-issues five, eight and nine, Danner fails to explain how the ineffectiveness asserted in any of these sub-issues shows prejudice, or stated otherwise, would have altered the outcome of the trial. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. Specifically, in light of the record demonstrating that trial counsel based its defense on Danner's alleged innocence and an attack of the credibility of the victim, Danner's allegations with respect to trial counsel's failure to make statements in support of his defense (sub-issues five and eight), failure to object to a trial court instruction that had the potential to benefit Danner, as it addressed the credibility of the victim (sub-issue eight), and failure to object to or move to strike testimony of the victim and her mother (sub-issue nine), do not satisfy a showing of prejudice, see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687, or are too vague so as to prevent the court from meaningfully addressing them, see Zettlemoyer, 923 F.2d at 298.
As to Danner's sub-issue ten and eleven, relating to the seating of jurors, again Danner cannot show prejudice. The record reflects that prior to opening statements,
a juror with hearing problems voiced his concerns, and the trial court promptly rearranged the jurors in order to place that juror in a position where he could clearly hear the proceedings. (Doc. 22-3 at 13.) Also, at the beginning of its charge to the jury following the close of testimony, the trial court recognized that some of the jurors served on a jury the previous day in a case with similar charges. (Doc. 22-7 at 9.) The court stated that some of the instructions would be the same, but stressed that " it's a separate case, separate instructions." ( Id. ) In his petition, Danner ignores these curative actions taken by the trial court in both instances, and rather simply attempts to raise the issues based on their very existence in the record. Without more, and in light of the record, Danner has not made a showing of prejudice based on any failure to object or other ineffectiveness here. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.
Finally, with respect to Danner's sub-issue six related to polling the jury, the court notes that defendants do not have a federal constitutional right to poll the jury. United States v. Beldin, 737 F.2d 450 (5th Cir. 1984). Further, counsel does not render ineffective assistance by failing to poll a jury where there is nothing in the record to indicate that any juror was uncertain of the verdict, United States v. Costa, 691 F.2d 1358, 1364 (11th Cir. 1982); nor does counsel render ineffective assistance by declining to have the jury polled individually without first consulting with the defendant, United States v. Gerardi, 586 F.2d 896, 899 (1st Cir. 1978). Even if " unwise . . . in hindsight, (such a choice) does not constitute constitutionally-deficient representation under the reasonably competent assistance standard." Id. Here, trial counsel had no reason to believe that the verdict was anything less than unanimous, and their decision not to seek an individual poll does not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. Further, Danner cannot show that, but for counsel's failure to poll the jury, there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 668.
In sum, and based on the foregoing discussion, because Danner has failed to establish that his relevant underlying trial counsel ineffectiveness claims are " substantial," the alleged PCRA counsel ineffectiveness cannot constitute cause to excuse procedural default of his underlying claims under Martinez. Nor has Danner been able to establish a miscarriage of justice if these sub-issues to this claim in his habeas petition are not considered by the court. See Section II.B.1.a, at 15-22.
c. Claim Three - Brady Violation
In his third claim for habeas relief, Danner claims that the prosecutor failed to provide discovery materials to Danner and his counsel " at a meaningful time," in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). More specifically, Danner claims that the prosecutor failed to produce at trial the police officers and Children & Youth Services (" CYS" ) personnel who authored the reports and evaluations supporting the charges against Danner.  In their answer, Respondents argue that this claim was not presented to the state courts, and thus it is unexhausted and should not be considered by this court.
After a review of the record, it is apparent that this claim was not raised in
the state courts and, therefore, is unexhausted. Further, because it appears that any second PCRA petition filed by Danner would be untimely, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9545(b) (petition must be filed within one year of the date judgment becomes final), this issue is procedurally defaulted. Turning to whether procedural default can be excused, Danner does not allege cause for his default here, much less prove it, and therefore the court need not consider whether there would be prejudice if this claim was not considered. To the extent that Danner alleges that failure to consider this claim would result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice, the court has already determined that Danner has not made this showing to excuse procedural default. See Section II.B.1.a, at 15-22.
d. Claim Four - Prosecutor Leading Questions
In his fourth claim for habeas relief, Danner claims that the prosecutor violated his rights by asking leading questions of the witnesses at trial. This stand-alone claim of prosecutorial misconduct was not raised in the state courts and, therefore, is unexhausted. Further, because it appears that any second PCRA petition filed by Danner would be untimely, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9545(b) (petition must be filed within one year of the date judgment becomes final), this claim is procedurally defaulted. However, the court will address this claim in ...