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Speight v. Beard

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 7, 2017

MELVIN SPEIGHT Petitioner
v.
JEFFREY BEARD, et al. Respondents

          MEMORANDUM OPINION INTRODUCTION

          NITZA I. QUIÑONES ALEJANDRO, U.S.D.C.J.

         Petitioner Melvin Speight (“Petitioner”), a Pennsylvania state prisoner, filed a counseled petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2254, later amended, in which he asserts seventeen claims for relief. [ECF 8 and 31].[1] The matter was initially filed as a death penalty case. However, once the death penalty aspect of the petition was no longer contested, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. §636(b) and Local Civil Rule 72.1.IV(c), the amended petition was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). [ECF 110].[2] Magistrate Judge Caracappa issued an R&R, which recommended that the amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus be denied as to the guilt phase of Petitioner's claim and, by agreement of the parties, be granted with respect to Petitioner's death sentence. [ECF 115]. Petitioner filed extensive objections to the R&R, [ECF 120], to which Respondents have responded. [ECF 126]. The issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

         Upon a thorough and independent review of the state record, the relevant court filings, and a de novo review of Petitioner's objections, for the reasons set forth below, this Court overrules Petitioner's objections, approves and adopts the R&R, and denies the petition for a writ of habeas corpus as to the guilt phase of Petitioner's trial. With respect to Petitioner's sentence of death, upon agreement of the parties (as described herein), Petitioner's death sentence is vacated, and Petitioner is to be re-sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. Petitioner's corresponding motion for discovery and motion for oral argument are denied.

         BACKGROUND

         The relevant evidence underlying Petitioner's conviction on numerous offenses was summarized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as follows:

Testimony at trial established that at approximately 9:00 p.m. on August 31, 1992, Gary Carson, Allen Carson, William Wilson, Neal Carter and David Scott (referred to collectively as “Carson's group”) were drinking beer at the corner of Wyalusing and Conestoga Streets in Philadelphia when they observed a man in an orange jumpsuit, known as “Inky Man, ” approach the corner along Conestoga Street and wave as if signaling to persons further up the street. Indeed, in response to Inky Man's signal, appellant and three other men, Shannon Faison, Lamar Douglas and Cornell Bennet, also known as “Junior” (referred to collectively as “appellant's group”), suddenly appeared at the corner and approached the group. Gary Carson testified that in the weeks preceding the encounter, one of the members of the appellant's group, Bennet, had repeatedly warned him to stay away from that particular corner because his presence was interfering with the drug operation Bennet ran at that location.
Upon appellant's group's arrival at the corner, Faison said to Carson's group, “What's up with my man's corner?” However, before anyone could respond, appellant and his cohorts produced firearms and started firing at Carson's group. At the time of the shooting, appellant's group was standing on the sidewalk between Carson's group and the curb.
William Wilson was shot ten times, including a fatal shot to the left chest which pierced his heart and punctured his right lung. Four of the shots hit Wilson from behind. Wilson was pronounced dead at the scene. Neal Carter was shot three times from behind, including a fatal shot which pierced his heart. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital. Allen Carson was shot once in the back, severing his spine and permanently paralyzing him. Gary Carson was shot eight times, but survived. Only David Scott was not hit. A ballistics expert testified that at least three and possibly four different firearms were used in the attack.
Gary Carson and Allen Carson both testified that appellant was standing between Faison and Bennet, but they did not know if he had a gun. David Scott testified that the person standing between Faison and Bennet had fired a gun, although he could not identify who that person was.
The day following the shooting, Gary Carson identified Bennet from a photographic array. A week later, he also identified Faison and Douglas from photographic arrays. Finally, on September 18, 1992, Gary Carson identified appellant as the fourth assailant from a photographic array. An arrest warrant was obtained on that date and officers went to appellant's house to arrest him. However, appellant's mother told the officers that appellant was working in Baltimore and she did not know how to reach him. As a result, appellant was listed as a fugitive in the National Crime Information Computer network. Appellant was arrested on a fugitive warrant in Mansfield, Massachusetts on September 25, 1992. At the time of the murders, appellant had a full head of hair, but when he was arrested his head was completely shaved.

Commonwealth v. Speight, 677 A.2d 317, 320-21 (Pa. 1996).

         On June 24, 1993, a jury in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, convicted Petitioner of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of criminal conspiracy to commit murder, and one count of possession of an instrument of crime. Following the penalty phase of the trial, the jury imposed a sentence of death on each murder conviction. At the conclusion of trial, trial counsel was granted permission to withdraw and new counsel was appointed. Petitioner's new counsel filed post-verdict motions attacking the judgment and, following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied Petitioner's motions and formally imposed the jury's sentence. On May 20, 1996, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Petitioner's conviction and judgment of sentence on direct appeal. Speight, 677 A.2d at 328. The United States Supreme Court denied a petition for writ of certiorari on February 18, 1997. Speight v. Pennsylvania, 519 U.S. 1119 (1997).

         In the interim, on January 15, 1997, Petitioner filed a timely pro se petition for collateral review under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §9541 et seq. (“First PCRA Petition”). PCRA counsel was appointed, who filed an amended petition, a supporting memorandum of law, and a supplemental memorandum of law. After Petitioner expressed dissatisfaction with his first court-appointed attorney, new counsel was appointed. Petitioner's second appointed PCRA counsel filed amended and supplemental pleadings on Petitioner's behalf. On December 12, 2000, the PCRA court denied relief as to Petitioner's convictions but granted a new penalty hearing. The Commonwealth moved for reconsideration and, in an opinion dated April 3, 2001, the PCRA court reversed itself and held that Petitioner was not entitled to a new penalty hearing. Petitioner appealed, and on July 22, 2004, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Petitioner's First PCRA Petition. Commonwealth v. Speight, 854 A.2d 450, 454 (Pa. 2004).

         On August 30, 2004, Petitioner filed motions in this Court for the appointment of counsel and a stay of execution, both of which were granted. [ECF 1, 3]. On July 1, 2005, Petitioner filed a timely, counseled petition for a writ of habeas corpus. [ECF 8]. On January 13, 2006, Petitioner filed a motion to stay the instant federal proceedings pending the exhaustion of his state court remedies, [ECF 16]; the motion was granted on February 9, 2006. [ECF 18].

         On January 12, 2006, Petitioner filed a second petition for post-conviction relief (“Second PCRA Petition”) alleging a violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). Following an evidentiary hearing, the PCRA court denied the Second PCRA Petition on April 26, 2007. Petitioner appealed, and on December 28, 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the denial of relief, finding that Petitioner's Second PCRA Petition was untimely. See Commonwealth v. Speight, 986 A.2d 759 (Pa. 2009).

         Following the reactivation of the federal habeas proceedings, Petitioner filed an amended petition for writ of habeas corpus, [ECF 31], and a memorandum of law in support. [ECF 70]. On November 2, 2011, Petitioner filed a motion for discovery, [ECF 38], which was denied, without prejudice, on December 22, 2011. [ECF 49]. Petitioner has since filed a second motion for discovery, [ECF 99], and a motion for oral argument on the discovery motion, [ECF 111], which are disposed of herein.

         As stated, Petitioner asserts seventeen claims in his habeas petition.[3] On December 22, 2014, Respondents filed their response in opposition, [ECF 94], and advised this Court that they would:

not [] contest a conditional grant of relief as to [Petitioner's] death sentence as part of the Court's final order disposing of [Petitioner's] claims attacking the guilt phase of [Petitioner's] trial, on the understanding that this will not be understood or argued to constitute a concession that any of [Petitioner's] claims have merit. The respondents also confirmed that although a condition of relief would, in principle, permit the Commonwealth to seek a new capital sentencing proceeding in state court, the Commonwealth will not do so. Thus, even if this Court denied relief as to [Petitioner's] claims challenging his convictions, i.e., the guilty phase of his trial, his death sentence would be vacated and the Commonwealth will not seek a new capital sentencing proceeding in connection with this case.

[See ECF 94 at p. 10 n. 11]. As such, Respondents did not address any of Petitioner's claims that challenged his sentence.

         The Magistrate Judge issued a comprehensive and soundly reasoned 70-page R&R in which she recommended that this Court deny relief to all of Petitioner's claims challenging his conviction for first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy to commit murder, aggravated assault, and related weapons possession offenses, and conditionally grant relief as to his death sentence. [ECF 115]. Petitioner filed objections to the R&R, [ECF 120], to which Respondents have responded. [ECF 126]. Petitioner also filed a notice of supplemental authority, [ECF 127], to which Respondents have responded. [ECF 128].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Where objections to an R&R are filed, the court must conduct a de novo review of the contested portions of the R&R, see Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(C)), provided the objections are both timely and specific. Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 6-7 (3d Cir. 1984). In making its de novo review, a court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the factual findings or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1). Although the review is de novo, the statute permits the court to rely on the recommendations of the magistrate judge to the extent it deems proper. United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 675-76 (1980); Goney, 749 F.2d at 7. Objections which merely rehash an argument presented to and considered by a magistrate judge are not entitled to de novo review. Becker v. Tennis, 2011 WL 2550544, at *1 n.3 (E.D. Pa. June 23, 2011) (declining to address contentions included in petitioner's objections, concluding that they are “nothing more than a restatement of the underlying claims contained in his petition”) (citing Morgan v. Astrue, 2009 WL 3541001, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2009)); see also Nghiem v. Kerestes, 2009 WL 960046, at *1 n.1 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 3, 2009) (declining to engage in additional review of objections where the objections merely re-articulated all the claims and theories for relief that were addressed and dismissed by the magistrate judge).

         As laid out in the R&R, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) amended the standards for reviewing state court judgments raised in federal habeas corpus petitions filed under 28 U.S.C. §2254. Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 195 (3d Cir. 2000). AEDPA increased the deference federal courts must give to the factual findings and legal determinations of the state courts. Id. at 196. In accordance with §2254(d), a habeas corpus petition may only be granted if the state court's 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).

         To establish that the state court decision was “contrary to” federal law, “it is not sufficient for the petitioner to show merely that his interpretation of Supreme Court precedent is more plausible than the state court's; rather, the petitioner must demonstrate that Supreme Court precedent requires the contrary outcome.” Matteo v. Superintendent, SCI Albion, 171 F.3d 877, 888 (3d Cir. 1999). Similarly, a federal court may only find a state court decision to be an “unreasonable application” of federal law if the decision, “evaluated objectively and on the merits, resulted in an outcome that cannot reasonably be justified under existing Supreme Court precedent.” Id. at 890. Further, factual determinations made by the state court are “presumed to be correct.” 28 U.S.C. §2254(e)(1). However, a petitioner may rebut this presumption with “clear and convincing evidence” of the state court's error. Id. Consequently, a habeas petitioner “must clear a high hurdle before a federal court will set aside any of the state court's factual findings.” Mastracchio v. Vose, 274 F.3d 590, 597-98 (1st Cir. 2001). As the Supreme Court has observed, this standard is “difficult to meet and highly deferential.” Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 180 (2011).

         In order to seek federal habeas relief, a petitioner must first exhaust the remedies available in state court. See 28 U.S.C. §2254(b)(1) (“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 unless it appears that - (A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State . . .”). To meet this exhaustion requirement, a petitioner must “fairly present his claim in each appropriate state court . . . thereby alerting that court to the federal nature of the claim.” Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004). If a state court has refused or would refuse to review a claim based on a state procedural rule that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment, the court may deny that claim as procedurally defaulted. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 729, 731-32 (1991); Lark v. Sec't Pa. Dept. of Corrections, 645 F.3d 596, 611 (3d Cir. 2011); Johnson v. Pinchak, 392 F.3d 551, 556 (3d Cir. 2004). A federal court may consider the merits of a procedurally defaulted claim only if “the petitioner establishes ‘cause and prejudice' or a ‘fundamental miscarriage of justice' to excuse the default.” Holloway v. Horn, 355 F.3d 707, 715 n.3 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750).

         A claim is procedurally defaulted when “a state court declined to address a prisoner's federal claims because the prisoner failed to meet a state procedural requirement.” Coleman, 501 U.S. at 730. Federal review of the claim, however, is available if the procedural rule that the state court applied to bar a federal claim was not “independent” and “adequate.” Albrecht v. Horn, 485 F.3d 103, 115 (3d Cir. 2007). A state procedural rule is not adequate to bar federal review on habeas if it was not firmly established and regularly followed by the state courts at the time it was applied. Lark, 645 F.3d at 611. Whether a procedural rule “was firmly established and regularly applied is determined as of the date the default occurred, and not as of the date the state court relied on it, because a petitioner is entitled to notice of how to present a claim in state court.” Albrecht, 485 F.3d at 115.

         DISCUSSION

         Here, Petitioner offers twelve objections (with various subparts) to the Magistrate Judge's R&R. Petitioner's objections, however, largely reiterate the arguments he presented to, and that were thoroughly considered and rejected by the Magistrate Judge. Petitioner, through appointed counsel, submitted over 200 pages of arguments in support of the seventeen claims he asserted in his habeas petition, all of which were comprehensively addressed in the Magistrate Judge's 70-page R&R. Notwithstanding the rehashing of these claims, Petitioner's objections will be addressed.

         Objection One - Application of Martinez and Trevino to this Case

         As set forth in the R&R, the Magistrate Judge found that many of Petitioner's claims were procedurally defaulted because they had either never been fairly presented to the state courts or were only raised in a Second PCRA petition which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found was untimely and, therefore, procedurally barred. Petitioner acknowledges that many of his current federal habeas claims were not fairly presented to the state courts on either direct appeal or post-collateral appeal. Petitioner argues, however, that these otherwise procedurally defaulted claims are subject to a narrow exception to the procedural default doctrine recognized in Martinez v. Ryan, 132 S.Ct. 1309 (2012), and Trevino v. Thaler, 133 S.Ct. 1911 (2013), and that the Magistrate Judge erred in concluding otherwise. This Court disagrees, and finds that the Magistrate Judge addressed, at length, the applicability of the Martinez and Trevino decisions and correctly determined that the narrow exception therein does not apply to Petitioner.

         In Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722 (1991), the United States Supreme Court held that ineffectiveness of state post-conviction counsel cannot satisfy the “cause” requisite for overcoming a procedural default because there is no federal constitutional right to counsel on post-conviction review. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750-54. In Martinez, the Supreme Court carved out a “narrow” and “limited” exception to the rule in Coleman, and held that where state law requires claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel to be raised for the first time in a collateral proceeding, a federal habeas petitioner may be able to establish “cause” sufficient to overcome a procedural default of a “substantial” claim of trial counsel's ineffectiveness if the collateral appeal counsel was also ineffective. Martinez, 132 S.Ct. at 1315-21. The Martinez exception, however, only applies when post-conviction collateral relief proceedings were the first opportunity to raise claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Id. In Trevino, “the Supreme Court clarified that the Martinez rule applied not only to states that expressly denied permission ...


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