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Chester v. Horn

United States District Court, Third Circuit

October 8, 2013



C. DARNELL JONES, II, District Judge.

I. Introduction

On May 20, 1988, Petitioner Frank Chester (hereinafter "Petitioner") and his co-defendant Richard Laird, were convicted by a jury in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas of first-degree Murder, Aggravated Assault, Kidnapping, Unlawful Restraint, False Imprisonment, Possession of Instruments of Crime, and Criminal Conspiracy. On May 21, 1988, the same jury sentenced both Petitioner and Laird to death.

Following his conviction, Post-Verdict Motions were filed on behalf of Petitioner and were denied by the court on June 29, 1989. On August 23, 1989, two new attorneys were appointed to represent Petitioner and through his new counsel, Petitioner appealed his conviction and sentence to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On March 20, 1991, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed judgment of sentence and on November 12, 1991, the United States Supreme Court denied Petitioner's Petition for Writ of Certiorari.

On April 17, 1996, Petitioner, represented by his fourth attorney, filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") with the trial court. On September 2, 1997, said Petition was ultimately dismissed. Petitioner appealed the dismissal and on June 24, 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's denial of Petitioner's PCRA petition.

On August 16, 1999, Petitioner filed a pro se Habeas Corpus Petition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Counsel was appointed and on February 5, 2001, Petitioner was granted an extension until April 30, 2001 to file an Amended Habeas Corpus Petition. However, on February 8, 2001, Petitioner filed a second PCRA petition in state court, alleging that a conflict of interest by trial counsel resulted in ineffective assistance.

On April 27, 2001, Petitioner filed an Amended Petition for Habeas Corpus Relief. Per the July 24, 2001 Order of the Honorable James T. Giles (ret.), said action was stayed pending final resolution of the outstanding state claim, which was ultimately denied as untimely. On March 21, 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the PCRA Court's decision dismissing Petitioner's second PCRA petition.

On November 3, 2008, Petitioner's habeas matter was transferred to this Court.[1] Additional briefing was submitted and on February 8, 2010, the Commonwealth requested that this Court "[ ] affirm Petitioner's convictions for Second Degree Murder and the remaining counts, and remand the case to the trial court permitting the Commonwealth the option of re-sentencing Petitioner on the counts for which he stands convicted and/or providing Petitioner with a new trial on First Degree Murder followed by a new sentencing hearing if convicted." (Doc. No. 62 at 3). In an Opinion dated February 28, 2011 (Doc. No. 71), this Court vacated Petitioner's First Degree Murder conviction and death sentence, granted Petitioner an evidentiary hearing on his Conflict of Interest claim, and deferred disposition of the remaining guilt-phase issues pending resolution of same, since the granting of relief on the Conflict issue could potentially render the others moot. Petitioner sought and was granted additional discovery and after further briefing, arguments, and a hearing, this Court denied relief on Petitioner's Conflict of Interest Claim in a Memorandum dated May 22, 2013 (Doc. No. 135). Petitioner sought and was denied Leave to Appeal and on June 18, 2013, both sides were ordered to jointly prepare a list of what they believed to be the remaining issues for this Court's disposition. (Doc. No. 139). Counsel submitted a list of eight (8) issues (Doc. No. 140) and were Ordered to provide a short supplement to their original filings on each. (Doc. No. 141). On August 15, 2013, counsel for Petitioner informed this Court that Mr. Chester no longer wished to pursue any of the remaining claims except for the severance issue. Supplemental briefing was provided by the parties (Doc. Nos. 143 & 144), rendering Petitioner's final issue ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, relief on this claim will be denied.

II. Discussion

Petitioner contends that the trial court's failure to sever his trial from that of his co-defendant resulted in a constitutionally infirm conviction in violation of his right to a fair trial. Petitioner's argument is based on the claim that he and his co-defendant presented "purely antagonistic defenses." (Doc. No. 143 at 2). Respondents argue that this claim is procedurally defaulted because Petitioner did not raise the severance issue as a constitutional violation in state court and that the trial court's decision not to sever the trials was proper. (Doc. No. 144 at 2).

a. Procedural Default and Exhaustion

Petitioner never presented this claim to the state courts as a federal constitutional issue. On direct appeal, citing state cases which discussed severance in the context of Pa.R.Crim.P. 219(d), Petitioner raised this claim as a state law issue and it was addressed on the merits. During PCRA review, the claim was not presented at all. However, this claim is exhausted as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would now conclude that Petitioner's federal claim was waived and thus defaulted under the procedural rule announced in Albrecht. [2]

Because Petitioner's claim was considered by the state court on the merits, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act's ("AEDPA") deference standard applies to this Court's review of the merits determination. Rolan v. Coleman, 680 F.3d 311, 321 (3d Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. ...

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