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Miller v. Giroux

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 22, 2015

SARITA MILLER
v.
NANCY GIROUX, et al.

ORDER

STEWART DALZELL, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 19th day of June, 2015, upon consideration of petitioner's pro se objections to Judge Henry S. Perkin's Report and Recommendation ("R&R") (docket entry # 28) and her letter docketed January 16, 2015 (docket entry # 27) in which she states that her objections were mailed late due to an error in the prison mailroom, and the Court finding that:

(a) On September 12, 2014 Judge Perkin filed an R&R recommending that Miller's petition for writ of habeas corpus be denied;

(b) On October 14, 2014, having received no objections from the petitioner, we approved and adopted Judge Perkin's Report;

(c) On November 7, 2014, the Clerk of Court docketed correspondence from the petitioner in which she stated that she had not received a copy of Judge Perkin's R&R, as a result of which we vacated our previous order and directed the Clerk of Court to send the petitioner a copy of the R&R;

(d) On November 24, 2014, the Clerk of Court docketed the petitioner's request for an extension of time in which to file objections, which we granted on November 26, 2014;

(e) On January 15, 2015, the Clerk of Court docketed petitioner's objections, which she mailed timely on January 7, 2015, and we consider them now;

(f) Recapping Miller's procedural history briefly: on October 15, 2004, she was sentenced to life imprisonment for the first-degree murder of Rita Nagel, and a concurrent term of eighteen years and three months to forty-one years for robbery, forgery, theft and related offenses arising from Miller's theft and use of Nagel's money and credit cards after the murder, R&R at 1-2;

(g) Thereafter, petitioner timely pursued her state-court remedies by filing post-sentencing motions and appealing to the Pennsylvania Superior Court averring (1) the insufficiency of the evidence proving her specific intent to kill Nagel; (2) trial-court errors related to the admission of evidence; (3) trial counsel's ineffectiveness for failing to object to the prosecution's characterization of her as a "predator" and for conceding her guilt in opening and closing statements; and (4) the prosecutor's allegedly improperly commented on her clothing, id.;

(h) On April 24, 2006, the Superior Court denied her appeal and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur on September 15, 2006, id. at 2-3;

(i) On October 19, 2007, petitioner filed a pro se petition for collateral relief pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), and her appointed counsel filed a no-merit letter and petition to withdraw pursuant to Commonwealth v. Finley, 550 A.2d 213 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1988), id.;

(j) The PCRA court dismissed the petition and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed that decision on March 21, 2012, id.;

(k) Miller's petition for allowance to appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied on October 29, 2012, and she filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 the following month, id.;

(l) In her petition, Miller raised the claims that: (1) the evidence was insufficient to establish that she could form the requisite intent; (2) the trial court erred in admitting photographs of the victim and crime scene; (3) the trial court erred in admitting allegedly prejudicial testimony of Miller's lesbian relationship with prosecution witness Naomi Moten; (4) the trial court abused its discretion in questioning prospective jurors in voir dire about Miller's Muslim attire; (5) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the prosecution's characterization of her as a "predator" in opening and closing statements; (6) trial counsel was also ineffective for conceding her guilt as part of his overall trial strategy; and (7) trial counsel erred in permitting testimony about other knives in the petitioner's possession, id. at 3-4;

(m) After reviewing the respondents' contentions that the asserted errors alleged only state-law violations and not Constitutional or federal law violations, and concluding that the remainder were procedurally defaulted or meritless, Judge Perkin correctly determined that petitioner should be denied relief with prejudice and her petition dismissed without an evidentiary hearing, id. at 1, 4;

(n) The Clerk of Court having docketed petitioner's objections pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C) and Local R. Civ. P. 72.1 (IV)(b), we will state Judge Perkin's conclusions before making the obligatory de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983);

(o) Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 ("AEDPA"), one serving a state sentence may not be granted a writ of habeas corpus 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 Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that 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), and the claim is exhausted, see Anderson v. Harless, 459 U.S. 4, 7 (1982);

(p) As is well-established, the AEDPA requires the reviewing federal court to defer to the state-court judgment "[a]s long as the reasoning of the state court does not contradict relevant Supreme Court precedent, " Priester v. Vaughn, 382 F.3d 394, 398 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal citations omitted); see also R&R at 5;

(q) As to Miller's first claim, Judge Perkin reviewed the testimony of witnesses to whom Miller described how she repeatedly hit the victim with a hammer after being refused money and then cut the victim's throat because "she just wouldn't die, " id. at 9, as well as Miller's contention that she had ingested too much cocaine to form the specific intent to kill, id. at 10, and he concluded that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient as a matter of Pennsylvania law to show that Miller had formed the requisite intent, as the Superior Court had earlier concluded, id. at 12-14;

(r) Likewise, Judge Perkin found that the trial court had properly exercised its discretion in admitting crime-scene photographs and did not deprive Miller of fundamental fairness during her criminal trial, id. at 18;

(s) With respect to Miller's contention that evidence of her intimate relationship with Naomi Moten (who testified that Miller described the actions to her) was improperly admitted, Judge Perkin concluded that the issue was one of evidentiary admissibility and therefore state law governs and, further, that there was no evidence Miller had been prejudiced by this evidence, as any jurors expressing discomfort with homosexuality were excluded, id. at 22;

(t) Judge Perkin also found meritless Miller's claim that she was prejudiced by evidence of her Muslim faith - a claim she presented on direct appeal that the reviewing court found meritless - particularly as her counsel posed the question at voir dire and there was voluminous testimony about Miller's non-Muslim sartorial appearance prior to trial, id. at 23-24;

(u) As to Miller's claim concerning her counsel's ineffectiveness in failing to object to the prosecution's description of her as a predator, the Superior Court concluded that the prosecutor's use of "predator" and "prey" was not so prejudicial or inflammatory as to warrant a mistrial or new trial under Pennsylvania law and it therefore rejected the ineffective assistance claim, and Judge Perkin deferred to that conclusion because petitioner could not show that the Superior Court's decision was either an erroneous or objectively unreasonable application of Sixth Amendment Supreme Court jurisprudence, id. at 28;

(v) As to the ineffectiveness of counsel's strategic concession of guilt, the Superior Court reviewed Miller's extensive March 17, 2005 testimony in a post-sentencing hearing at which she stated her counsel had told her he would try to convince the jury that she was guilty of something less than first or second degree murder, id. at 29, and concluded that trial counsel's strategy had a reasonable basis because Miller was faced with overwhelming forensic, physical and testimonial evidence of her guilt, id. at 30;

(w) Judge Perkin found no basis for concluding that the state court's determination was erroneous or that counsel was ineffective for failing to pursue a meritless claim, id. at 32;

(x) Finally, Judge Perkin reviewed Miller's claim that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence that, after Rita Nagel's murder, the petitioner owned a knife set that lacked one knife, id. at 34;

(y) Miller contends this evidence "had no link to the crime, " id., and raised the issue on direct appeal where the trial court, writing for the benefit of the Superior Court on appeal held the claim was meritless because the recovery of knives from the trunk of a Cadillac was relevant as the "evidence presented at trial established that the defendant stabbed Rita Nagel several times then discarded the knife in an abandoned lot near her girlfriend's house, " id. - and "[a]s such, [the] evidence [was] that the defendant was in possession of a knife which could have been one of the murder weapons, " id.;

(z) The Superior Court affirmed and, as before, Judge Perkin found that Miller raised no challenges rooted in Supreme Court principles in the state forum or here, and therefore this claim fails as well, id. at 35;

(aa) Miller objects to Judge Perkin's conclusions;

(bb) When a party objects to a Report and Recommendation, we make a de novo determination of those portions of the Report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made, and we may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), and we "may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions, " id.;

(cc) In addition to the objections she details to Judge Perkin's R&R, Miller contests his conclusion that her PCRA claims are "procedurally defaulted, meritless, or both, " R&R at 4, but does not identify which claims those are, Obj. at 4, and she seeks review of her PCRA claims which she details as (1) the forensic examination of the victim's body and evidence as to the sequence of injuries and cause of death, (2) the Commonwealth's alleged reliance on hearsay evidence to convict her in violation of her Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, while the trial court prohibited the defense from relying on hearsay, (3) the Commonwealth's failure to meet its burden of proof that Miller was guilty of murder in any degree, and (4) trial counsel's ineffectiveness, id. at 6, 7;

(dd) Miller seeks review of her PCRA issues or, in the event they have not been exhausted, a stay of the present proceeding so that she may return to state ...


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