United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
YVETTE KANE, District Judge.
Before the Court is Magistrate Judge Schwab's Report and Recommendation (Doc. No. 36) addressing Petitioner Vegas Gibson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (Doc. No. 1), and Petitioner's objections to four of Magistrate Judge Schwab's recommendations (Doc. No. 39). For the reasons that follow, the Court will adopt the Report and Recommendation (Doc. No. 36), overrule Petitioner's objections (Doc. No. 39), and deny Petitioner's habeas corpus petition (Doc. No. 1).
Petitioner, a state prisoner at State Correctional Institute - Dallas, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 on December 7, 2012. (Doc. No. 1.) Petitioner was convicted in the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, reckless endangering, and illegal possession of a firearm on July 26, 2005. (See Doc. No. 1 at 1.) Thereafter, Petitioner filed a direct appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, alleging that he was prejudiced by the prosecutor's statement that Petitioner's co-defendant Jason Williams was permitted to "run wild with whatever answer" he wanted to give. (Doc. No. 14-8 at 7, 10-14.) The Superior Court determined that the prosecutor's statement did not constitute error. (Doc. No. 14-10 at 5.)
Petitioner then filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which was denied on April 25, 2007. (Doc. No. 14-18 at 3.) On February 4, 2008, Petitioner filed a petition for post-conviction relief pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). The PCRA court held an evidentiary hearing in March 2010, and ultimately denied Petitioner's petition. (Doc. No. 14-15.) Petitioner appealed the denial, and on November 9, 2011, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court's ruling. (Doc. No. 14-17.)
On December 7, 2012, Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to Section 2254 in this Court. (Doc. No. 1.) Petitioner presents fourteen grounds for relief, including eleven claims for ineffective assistance of counsel, one claim that the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose a key witness's criminal history, one claim that the trial court erred by failing to "properly colloquy" Petitioner at his arraignment, and one claim that the cumulative effect of the prosecutor's alleged misconduct rendered Petitioner's trial fundamentally unfair. (Id. at 7-27.) After the Court appointed Petitioner counsel and ordered supplemental briefing, Petitioner withdrew four claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, as well as his claim that the cumulative effect of the prosecutor's alleged misconduct rendered Petitioner's trial fundamentally unfair. (See Doc. No. 24 at 10.) Petitioner also consolidated two of his remaining ineffective assistance claims. (Id.) Thus, Petitioner's remaining claims include seven claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, one claim that the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose a key witness's criminal history, and one claim that the trial court erred by failing to "properly colloquy" Petitioner at arraignment.
On June 16, 2014, Magistrate Judge Schwab issued a Report and Recommendation, wherein she recommended that the Court deny Petitioner's Section 2254 petition. (Doc. No. 36 at 65.) On June 30, 2014, Petitioner filed timely objections to four of Magistrate Judge Schwab's recommendations. (Doc. No. 39.) The Court will address the Report and Recommendation and Petitioner's objections in turn.
A. Petitioner's ineffective assistance of counsel claims
When a petitioner brings a claim for federal habeas relief on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel, the petitioner must establish that the state court decision was "contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, " or "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). A state court's decision is contrary to clearly established federal law "if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth in [United States Supreme Court] cases, " or "if the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at [an opposite result.]" Williams v. Taylor , 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000).
Generally, to demonstrate that counsel was ineffective, a petitioner must meet the two-part test established by the United States Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington , 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The first prong requires a petitioner to "show that counsel's performance was deficient, " by establishing that "counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment." Id . In evaluating counsel's conduct, the Court adopts a "strong presumption" that the attorney's performance was reasonable. Id. at 687, 689.
The second prong of the Strickland test requires a petitioner to establish that "the deficient performance prejudiced the defense" by showing that "counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive [Petitioner] of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable." Id . To show prejudice, a defendant must establish that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. In assessing whether Petitioner has stated a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, "a court can choose to address the prejudice prong before the ineffectiveness prong and reject an ineffectiveness claim solely on the ground that the defendant was not prejudiced." Rolan v. Vaughn , 445 F.3d 671, 678 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Strickland , 466 U.S. at 668). Finally, "[t]here can be no Sixth Amendment deprivation of effective counsel based on an attorney's failure to raise a meritless claim." United States v. Sanders , 165 F.3d 248, 253 (3d Cir. 1999).
However, where a Section 2254 petition is based on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, "[t]he pivotal question is whether the state court's application of the Strickland standard was unreasonable... [which] is different from asking whether defense counsel's performance fell below Strickland's standard." Harrington v. Richter , 131 S.Ct. 770, 785 (2011). "A state court must be granted a deference and latitude that are not in operation when the case involves [direct] review under the Strickland standard itself, " see id., and thus federal habeas review of ineffective assistance of counsel claims are "doubly deferential." Cullen v. Pinholster , 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1403 (2011).
Petitioner asserts the following ineffective assistance of counsel claims in his Section 2254 petition: (1) against trial counsel for failing to object to the prosecutor's purported statements regarding Petitioner's self-defense claim and post-arrest silence during closing argument; (2) against trial counsel for counsel's failure to investigate, develop, and present evidence in support of Petitioner's self-defense claims, including the criminal background of a key witness for the prosecution; (3) against trial counsel for failing to object to the trial court's refusal to allow Petitioner to testify about his knowledge of a key witness's history of violence, and against appellate counsel for not presenting the same on appeal; (4) against trial counsel for failing to object to the prosecutor's purported statements that "shifted" the burden of proof during closing argument; (5) against trial counsel for failing to investigate and call character witnesses willing to testify on Petitioner's behalf; (6) against trial counsel for failing to object and move for mistrial when the prosecutor "intentionally" misstated evidence and "vouched" for two witnesses during closing argument; and (7) against trial counsel for failing to object, to move not ...