United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
M. FAITH ANGELL, Magistrate Judge.
Presently before this court is a pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus filed, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2254, by a state prisoner. Petitioner Robert Baker is currently incarcerated at SCI-Graterford in Graterford, Pennsylvania, where he is serving a term of imprisonment of eighteen and one-half (18 ½) to thirty-seven (37) years for third-degree murder, violation of the Uniform Firearms Act, and possessing an instrument of crime. For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Mr. Baker's habeas claims be denied and dismissed without an evidentiary hearing.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The PCRA Court summarized the background of this case as follows:
The shooting arose from an argument over drug dealing and territory. [Baker] and decedent knew each other and lived near each other in the Norris Housing Projects... in the City of Philadelphia. The two were also drug dealers whose territories frequently overlapped, and the night before the shooting, July 8, 2000, [Baker] confronted Ykeem Jackson, who sold drugs for the decedent... and assaulted him for encroaching on his territory. The next afternoon, at approximately 4 p.m., ... [Baker], while driving his gray Nissan Maxima, was tapped in the back by decedent driving a red, Pontiac Bonneville, and the two men parked and exited their cars in the middle of the block.
After exchanging words, [Baker] fought decedent for about five minutes, with decedent beating him handedly, when Ykeem Jackson's older brother Kareem walked up to the two men and told decedent, You don't have to fight him ([Baker]). I'll fight for my brother.' [Baker] responded to Jackson, What you think, you're all going to jump me?' and reached under the driver's seat of his car and pulled out a silver revolver.
[Baker's] friend Daryl Furlow ran up to [Baker] and attempted to calm him down, giving decedent and Jackson time to walk away... Furlow calmed him down and convinced him to put his gun away, when decedent re-emerged from [an] empty lot... and started walking up the street [but] away from [Baker].
Furlow stopped decedent in the middle of the block and began talking to him, when [Baker] got back into his car, and drove up within ten feet of where the two men stood. Furlow yelled to [Baker], Don't shoot! Don't shoot!' [Baker] shouted, What you think[, ] I won't kill you motherfucker?', then fired three times at decedent, missed with his first shot, hit decedent in the right thigh with the second shot and in the head as he fell to the ground. [Baker] then drove around the corner... firing three more times... and sped away. Decedent was... rushed to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
After the shooting, [Baker] did not seek medical treatment in Philadelphia. Rather, he sought help from his brother, Monty Campbell, who testified that [Baker] showed up at his door bleeding and said he had been in a gunfight. Campbell, seeking to avoid the police, drove [Baker] to Charlottesville, Virginia where their mother lived. There, [Baker's] step-father took him to the emergency room at the University of Virginia where their mother lived. When asked how he received the injury, [Baker] told the intake physician he had been shot while messing around with a friend and a gun.' However, [Baker] left the hospital before receiving treatment when told that the police would need to question him concerning the nature of his injury. From there, [Baker] fled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he stayed for several months before eventually returning to Philadelphia, where he was arrested at his brother's apartment on March 8, 2001... pursuant to a warrant.
PCRA Court Opinion, 4/16/12, at 2-4 (citations to notes of testimony omitted).
Baker was tried in a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, which commenced on November 1, 2001. PCRA Court Opinion, 4/16/12, at 1. Following the trial, Baker was convicted of third-degree murder, violation of the Uniform Firearms Act, and possessing an instrument of crime in the shooting death of seventeen year-old Tyrone "Eib" Learnier. Id. On March 26, 2002, Baker was sentenced to an eighteen and one-half (18 ½) to thirty-seven (37) year term of imprisonment. Id. Baker's motion to reconsider was denied, and he filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court on April 23, 2002. Id. The Superior Court denied Baker's appeal. Commonwealth v. Baker , 2304 EDA 2011, slip op. at 3 (Pa.Super. 2013). Subsequently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Baker's petition for allowance of appeal. Id.
Baker filed a timely PCRA petition on March 27, 2009. PCRA Court Opinion, 4/16/12, at 2. In the petition, he alleged that his trial counsel was ineffective for agreeing to redact portions of his medical records from the University of Virginia Hospital. Id. at 4-5. Baker argued that the redacted portions of his medical records were crucial to his self-defense theory, because they are the only existing pieces of medical evidence that show he sustained a gunshot wound at the time of the murder. Id. The PCRA court dismissed Baker's petition without a hearing. Id.
Baker filed a timely appeal from the PCRA Order to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. PCRA Court Opinion, 4/16/12, at 4-5.On January 11, 2013, the Superior Court affirmed the PCRA order. Baker, 2304 EDA 2011, slip op. at 6-7. The court concluded that Baker's claim of ineffectiveness of counsel had no merit because the use of medical records as evidence of a medical opinion or diagnosis is not allowable under Pa. R.E. 803(4). Id. According to the court, Baker would not have been able to use his medical records to support his self-defense theory even if trial counsel had not agreed to the redaction. Id. Baker filed a petition for allowance of an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Baker's appeal was subsequently denied. Commonwealth v. Baker, 64 A.3d 274 (Pa. 2013).
On or about October 29, 2013, Baker filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and an accompanying Memorandum of Law. In his petition, Baker asserts that his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated because: (1) the trial court erred in permitting the prosecution to introduce evidence that Baker sold drugs in the community where the murder had occurred; (2) the trial court erred in permitting the prosecution to elicit from an eyewitness the claim that she had been the subject of threats and bribes in advance of trial; (3) the trial court erred in permitting a prosecution witness to offer opinion testimony about how she felt when she witnessed the murder; (4) his trial counsel was ineffective for stipulating to the redaction of petitioner's medical records, which contained exculpatory evidence supporting his claim of self-defense; (5) his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the trial court's progression charge to the jury; (6) his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object when the prosecution vouched for the credibility of its witness in its closing argument; (7) his post-conviction counsel was ineffective for failing to raise a claim for ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to object when the prosecution vouched for the credibility of its witness in its closing argument; and (8) the cumulative effects of the these errors made petitioner's conviction and sentence unconstitutional. Baker's Pet. at 8-9.
In its response, the Commonwealth contends that Baker's petition should be denied with prejudice, asserting that: (1) Baker's first three claims are premised on alleged errors of state law that cannot be relitigated in federal court; (2) the Pennsylvania Superior Court reasonably rejected Baker's claim that the trial counsel erred by agreeing to redact inadmissible information from his medical records; (3) Baker's remaining claims are barred because he never presented them to the state courts and cannot do so now; and (4) Baker is not entitled to a certificate of appealability. Commonwealth's Resp. at 7-18.
A. Trial Court Errors
1. Standard of Review
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), signed into law on April 24, 1996, significantly amended the laws governing habeas corpus petitions. Section 2244(d) of AEDPA placed "new constraint[s] on the power of a federal habeas court to grant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus with respect to claims adjudicated on the merits in state court." Woodford v. Garceau, 538 U.S. 202, 206 (2003) (quoting Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000)). AEDPA precludes habeas relief on:
any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in state court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim -
(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the ...