United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
Lisa Pupo Lenihan United States Magistrate Judge
Petitioner Corey Sidberry (“Petitioner”) has filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (“the Petition”) challenging his judgment of sentence entered on January 23, 2008, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, for Criminal Attempt (Homicide); Aggravated Assault; Criminal Conspiracy (Homicide and/or Aggravated Assault); and Violation of the Uniform Firearms Acts (VUFA): Person not to Possess Firearm and Carrying a Firearm Without a License. For the following reasons, the Petition will be denied and a Certificate of Appealability will also be denied.
I. Facts of the Crime
The facts of the crime, as set forth in the Trial Court Opinion dated July 28, 2008, are as follows:
William Love, Jr. (“William”) . . . testified to being shot in the back by the person he identified as [Corey]. William went to the C&M Bar in McKees Rocks with his brother, Aaron Love, and another friend . . . . At the bar, the men ran into several acquaintances, including Lloyd Sidberry, who is Corey’s brother, and Omar Harris (“Omar”), who was a codefendant in the initial trial. A fight broke out at the bar between Aaron Love and Lloyd Sidberry. William testified that shortly after the fight broke up, Lloyd and Omar left the bar first, and the others left shortly thereafter. William, Aaron, and their friend began walking home on Broadway Street. William stated that after passing two dark cars, he heard someone whose voice he recognized as [Corey’s] say “Yo, hand me that burner.” Just before being shot in the back, William testified that he saw Omar in the vehicle and that Omar handed Corey the gun. William was shot in the back. Aaron Love, who was present, refused to give a statement to the police. He testified that he could not see the face of the shooter, only the body.
Commonwealth v. Sidberry, 30 A.3d 552 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2011) (footnotes omitted).
Petitioner was tried along with his co-defendant, Omar Harris. After a jury trial, he was convicted as charged. On January 23, 2008, the trial court sentenced Petitioner to a prison term of 180 months to 360 months on the charge of Criminal Attempt (Homicide), and to no further penalty on the remaining charges. Petitioner filed post-sentence motions, which the trial court denied on April 4, 2008. He appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed his judgment of sentence on September 8, 2009. Commonwealth v. Sidberry, 986 A.2d 1265 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2009) (Table).
On October 30, 2009, Petitioner filed a pro se petition under Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). The PCRA court appointed him counsel and approved payment to a defense investigator. On June 25, 2010, however, Petitioner’s attorney filed a motion to withdraw as counsel under Turner and Finley (“No Merit Letter”). Permission to withdraw was granted, and Petitioner was given twenty days to respond to the court’s intention to dismiss his petition. On July 30, 2010, the petition was dismissed. An appeal followed, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the denial of PCRA relief on May 27, 2011. Commonwealth v. Sidberry, 30 A.3d 552 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2011) (Table).
Petitioner filed the instant Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus with this Court on July 6, 2011. (ECF No. 1.) On December 22, 2011, Petitioner requested that the case be held in abeyance while he finished exhausting a claim of actual innocence in the state courts. (ECF No. 13.) That request was granted on January 5, 2012.
Petitioner filed a second PCRA petition with the trial court on December 20, 2011. On its face, the petition was untimely, having been filed more than one year after his judgment of sentence became final. 42 Pa.C.S. § 9545(b). Petitioner alleged, however, that his petition met the timeliness exception for newly-discovered facts that could not be ascertained with the exercise of due diligence, and that he asserted it within sixty days of acquiring the information. Specifically, he alleged that he had recently discovered that Ms. Dawnae Jones witnessed the shooting and that she would testify that the shooter was Petitioner’s brother, Lloyd Sidberry, and that Petitioner was not present at the crime scene.
On December 29, 2011, the PCRA court issued notice of its intent to dismiss the petition without a hearing as time-barred. Petitioner filed objections to the notice, but the court dismissed the petition as untimely on January 27, 2012. Petitioner filed an appeal, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the petition did in fact satisfy the newly-discovered facts exception to § 9545’s one-year time bar. Additionally, the court held that an evidentiary hearing was necessary to allow the PCRA court to assess the credibility of Ms. Jones’s testimony. Commonwealth v. Sidberry, 60 A.3d 582 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2012) (Table).
Upon remand, the PCRA court appointed counsel. An evidentiary hearing was held on September 19, 2012, where Ms. Dawnae Jones was the sole witness. Following the hearing, the parties submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. On March 14, 2013, the PCRA court issued its notice of intent to dismiss the petition and subsequently dismissed it on April 3, 2013. Petitioner timely appealed, but the Superior Court agreed with the PCRA court that Ms. Jones’s testimony would not have altered the outcome of the trial. Commmonwealth v. Sidberry, 100 A.3d 293 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013) (Table).
Petitioner’s request for allowance of appeal was denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on August 7, 2014. Commonwealth v. Sidberry, 165 WAL 2014 (Pa. Aug. 7, 2014). He moved to reopen this case on October 27, 2014. (ECF No. 15.)
II. Standard of Review
A. AEDPA and State-Court Deference
Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, “[t]he Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Errors of state law are not cognizable in a federal habeas action. See, e.g., Priester v. Vaughn, 382 F.3d 394, 402 (3d Cir. 2004) (“Federal courts reviewing habeas claims cannot ‘reexamine state court determinations on state-law questions.’”) (quoting Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991)).
In describing the role of federal habeas proceedings, the United States Supreme Court noted:
[I]t must be remembered that direct appeal is the primary avenue for review of a conviction or sentence…. The role of federal habeas proceedings, while important in assuring that constitutional rights are observed, is secondary and limited. Federal courts are not forums in which to relitigate state trials.
Barefoot v. Estelle, 436 U.S. 880, 887 (1983). In 1996, Congress enacted AEDPA, which “modified a federal habeas court’s role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas ‘retrials’ and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002). AEDPA “requires federal courts collaterally reviewing state proceedings to afford considerable deference to state courts’ legal and factual determinations.” Lambert v. Blackwell, 387 F.3d 210, 234 (3d Cir. 2004); see also Lewis v. Horn, 581 F.3d 92, 109-18 (3d Cir. 2009). AEDPA reflects the view that habeas corpus is a “‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, ’ not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332, n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment)).
State court findings of fact have always been accorded considerable deference in federal habeas corpus cases filed by state inmates. As the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has explained:
It is a well-established principle of federal law that state trial judges deserve substantial deference.
Face to face with the living witnesses, the original trier of the facts holds a position of advantage from which appellate judges are excluded. In doubtful cases, the exercise of his power of observation often proves the most accurate method of ascertaining the truth . . . how can we say he is wrong? We never saw the witnesses.
Nara v. Frank, 488 F.3d 187, 201 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting United States v. Oregon Medical Society, 343 U.S. 326, 339 (1952), which was quoting Boyd v. Boyd, 169 N.E. 632 (N.Y. 1930)). AEDPA continued that substantial deference. Section 2254(e)(1), as amended by AEDPA, expressly provides that “a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct. The [petitioner] shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1) (emphasis added).
AEDPA also requires that federal habeas corpus courts give substantial deference to the legal determinations of the state court when it has adjudicated a claim on the merits. This standard of review is codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) and it provides:
(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to 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 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).
Thus, AEDPA circumscribes a federal habeas court’s review of a state prisoner’s constitutional claim when the state court adjudicated that claim on the merits and denied it. For the purposes of § 2254(d), a claim has been “adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings” when a state court has made a decision that finally resolves the claim based on its substance, not on a procedural, or other, ground. See, e.g., Richter, 131 S.Ct. at 784-85; Robinson v. Beard, 762 F.3d 316, 324 (3d Cir. 2014). “Section 2254(d) applies even where there has been a summary denial.” Cullen v. Pinholster, __ U.S. __, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1402 (2011) (citing Richter, 131 S.Ct. at 786).
Finally, when a federal court is analyzing a claim under the standard set forth in § 2254(d), its review is limited to the record that was before the state court when it adjudicated the claim. As the Supreme Court recently reiterated:
Although state prisoners may sometimes submit new evidence in federal court, AEDPA’s statutory scheme is designed to strongly discourage them from doing so. Provisions like §§ 2254(d)(1) and (e)(2) ensure that “[f]ederal courts sitting in habeas are not an alternative forum for trying facts and issues which a prisoner made insufficient effort to pursue in state proceedings.”
[Williams, 529 U.S. at 437; Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 131 S.Ct. 770, 787 (2011)] (“Section 2254(d) is part of the basic structure of federal habeas jurisdiction, designed to confirm that state courts are the principal forum for asserting constitutional challenges to state convictions”);
Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 90, 97 S.Ct. 2497, 53 L.Ed.2d 594 (1977) ...