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Shabazz v. Burns

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 24, 2015

WALI SHABAZZ, Plaintiff,
SUPERINTENDENT BURNS, et al., Respondents.


EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, District Judge.

Wali Shabazz ("Petitioner") is a prisoner serving a life sentence at State Correctional Institution - Forest in Marienville, Pennsylvania. Petitioner filed an application seeking relief through a writ of habeas corpus ("Habeas Petition") pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, based on claims of an erroneous trial court instruction, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel. Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells ("Judge Wells") recommended denial of the Habeas Petition without an evidentiary hearing or certificate of appealability. Petitioner, proceeding pro se, now raises a number of objections to Judge Wells' recommendations. For the reasons that follow, the Court will adopt Judge Wells' Report and Recommendation ("R&R"), and will deny habeas relief.


The Pennsylvania Superior Court summarized the facts leading to Petitioner's conviction and sentence as follows:

The record reveals that at 5:30 p.m. on July 27, 2002, Kenneth Cuff was entertaining two guests in the living room of his home at 5064 Ogden Street in Philadelphia when the victim, Andre Thompson, who resided with Mr. Cuff, opened the door, sat down next to Mr. Cuff, and announced, "[t]hat doggone Wali is something else." N.T. Trial, 6/23/04, at 86. Approximately five minutes later, [Petitioner] burst through the front door carrying a large revolver and asked, "Where is he at?" Id. at 93. Mr. Cuff replied, "Who are you talking about?" Id. Without answering, [Petitioner] walked over to Mr. Thompson and struck him in the face with the revolver. Mr. Cuff backed away and watched as the two men struggled for control of the gun. [Petitioner] eventually broke free, stepped back, and fired one shot at close range, wounding Mr. Thompson in the abdomen. [Petitioner] fled the scene, and rescue personnel were summoned to the house.
Mr. Thompson was transported to the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania where he died approximately three hours later. An autopsy revealed that the victim bled to death because the bullet pierced several organs and a series of "major blood vessels, " resulting in massive blood loss. N.T. Trial, 6/25/04, at 29. The medical examiner also observed a laceration near Mr. Thompson's right eyebrow, which was consistent with an injury inflicted by a blunt object such as a steel handgun. Id. at 32-34.
During the ensuing investigation, Mr. Cuff gave police a physical description of [Petitioner], indicated that the shooter's name was "Wali, " and identified [Petitioner] from a photograph that was shown to him by Philadelphia Police Detective Matthew Myles. N.T. Trial, 6/23/04, at 45. [Petitioner] was subsequently arrested, and the case proceeded to a jury trial where Mr. Cuff provided an eyewitness account of the incident. In addition, Azeem Johns, a drug dealer who was in federal prison on a weapons charge, testified that [Petitioner] had admitted shooting a "crack fiend" inside Mr. Cuff's house because the man "had disrespected [Petitioner] in some type of way." N.T. Trial, 6/24/04, at 59-60. Based on this evidence, the jury convicted [Petitioner] of [burglary, second degree murder, and violating the Uniform Firearms Act], and the trial court imposed a life sentence for the murder conviction.

Commonwealth v. Shabazz, No. 3038 EDA 2006, slip op. at 1-3 (Pa.Super. Ct. Jan. 4, 2008) [hereinafter 2008 Super. Ct. Op.] (first alteration in original). Petitioner appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed his sentence on January 4, 2008. Id. at 9. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur on September 3, 2008. See Commonwealth v. Shabazz, No. 2668 EDA 2011, slip op. at 3 (Pa.Super. Ct. Mar. 19, 2013) [hereinafter 2013 Super. Ct. Op.].

On June 12, 2009, Petitioner filed a petition under the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9541-9546. Id. Petitioner's court-appointed counsel eventually filed a "no-merit" brief and a petition to withdraw, pursuant to Commonwealth v. Turner , 544 A.2d 927 (Pa. 1988) and Commonwealth v. Finley , 550 A.2d 213 (Pa.Super. Ct. 1988) (en banc). 2013 Super. Ct. Op. at 3. The PCRA court granted counsel's motion to withdraw and dismissed the PCRA petition on September 2, 2011. Id. at 4. Upon Petitioner's appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the PCRA court's decision on March 19, 2013. Id. at 14.

Petitioner filed his Habeas Petition on April 30, 2013, asserting the following claims: (1) due process violation based on the trial court's failure to provide a proper cautionary instruction; (2) prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument; (3) ineffective assistance of counsel ("IAC") on direct appeal, for failing to challenge the trial court's inadequate cautionary instruction; (4) IAC for failing to request a more comprehensive cautionary instruction; (5) IAC for failing to object to prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument; (6) IAC for failing to interview three witnesses prior to trial; and (7) due process violation based on the trial court's decision to admit into evidence testimony concerning Petitioner's uncharged drug dealing. See Mem. Supp. Habeas Pet. 12-45, ECF No. 8 [hereinafter Pet'r's Mem.].

In response, the Commonwealth asserts that all of Petitioner's claims are either procedurally defaulted or were reasonably resolved by the state court. See Resp. Opp. Habeas Pet. 6-24, ECF No. 23 [hereinafter Gov't's Resp.]. Petitioner filed a reply on September 8, 2014. Pet'r's Traverse, ECF No. 29 [hereinafter Pet'r's Reply]. Upon referral, Judge Wells issued a report and recommendation on September 17, 2014, advising the denial of the Habeas Petition on the merits without an evidentiary hearing and with no certificate of appealability. R&R 1, 19, ECF No. 30. Petitioner filed objections on December 3 and 11, 2014. Pet'r's Objections, ECF Nos. 34, 36.[2] The matter is now ripe for disposition.


The Court may refer an application for a writ of habeas corpus to a magistrate judge for a report and recommendation. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). A prisoner may object to the magistrate judge's report and recommendation within fourteen days after being served with a copy thereof. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); E.D. Pa. R. 72.1.IV(b). The Court must then "make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court does not review general objections. See Brown v. Astrue , 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011) ("We have provided that § 636(b)(1) requires district courts to review such objections de novo unless the objection is not timely or not specific." (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Court "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." § 636(b)(1). Thus, the Court will conduct a de novo review of those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which Petitioner objects.

On habeas review, the Court must determine whether the state court's adjudication of the claims was (1) contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law, or (2) based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).


Concluding that all of Petitioner's claims are either procedurally defaulted or were reasonably resolved by the state court, Judge Wells recommends that the Habeas Petition be denied without an evidentiary hearing, and with no certificate of appealability. R&R 18-19. Petitioner objects to Judge Wells' conclusions as to each of his seven claims.[3] Pet'r's Objections 6-8. The Court will treat each claim in turn - beginning with those that are, in fact, procedurally defaulted.

A. Unexhausted and Procedurally Defaulted Claims

A habeas petitioner must "exhaust[] the remedies available in the courts of the State" before obtaining habeas relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). Traditionally, exhaustion in Pennsylvania required a petitioner to fairly present a claim to the trial court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. See Evans v. Court of Common Pleas, Del. Cnty , 959 F.2d 1227, 1230 (3d Cir. 1992). However, as of a May 9, 2000, order issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, habeas petitioners are no longer required to seek allocatur from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to exhaust state remedies. See Lambert v. Blackwell , 387 F.3d 210, 233-34 (3d Cir. 2004).

If the state courts have declined to review the merits of a petitioner's claim based on his failure to comply with a state rule of procedure, the claim is procedurally defaulted. See Harris v. Reed , 489 U.S. 255, 262-63 (1989). Procedurally defaulted claims cannot be reviewed unless "the [petitioner] can demonstrate cause for the default and actual prejudice as a result of the alleged violation of federal law, or demonstrate that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice."[4] Coleman v. Thompson , 501 U.S. 722, 750 (1991) (emphasis added).

To demonstrate cause, a petitioner must show that "some objective factor external to the defense impeded [petitioner's] efforts to comply with the State's procedural rule." Id. at 753 (internal quotation marks omitted). Examples of cause include: (1) "a showing that the factual or legal basis for a claim was not reasonably available"; (2) a showing that "some interference by [state] officials... made compliance [with the state procedural rule] impracticable"; and (3) ...

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