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Atwell v. Lane

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 10, 2017

JOSEPH WILLIAM ATWELL, Petitioner,
v.
JAY LANE, ACTING SUPERINTENDENT, PA ATTORNEY GENERAL et al., Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM

          Hon. John E. Jones III Judge

         Petitioner Joseph William Atwell (“Petitioner” or “Atwell”), a prisoner currently confined at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, Pennsylvania, files the instant petition (Doc. 1) for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, following affirmance of his convictions for First Degree Murder and Conspiracy, Kidnapping and Conspiracy, and related weapon offenses. For the reasons that follow, the petition for writ of habeas corpus will be denied.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Following a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Pike County, Pennsylvania, Atwell was convicted of First Degree Murder, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2502(a.), Kidnapping, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2901(a)(3), two counts of conspiracy, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 903(a)(1), one count of firearms not to be carried without a license, 18 Pa.C.S.A. §6106(a)(1), and possessing instruments of crime, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 907(c). (Doc. 23-19, p. 2, n. 1). In a separate bench trial, he was convicted of persons not to possess firearms, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 6015(a)(1). (Id.) On June 24, 2010, he was sentenced to life imprisonment plus an aggregate sentence of not less than 41 years nor more than 104 years. (Doc. 23-19, p. 3).

         The Superior Court, in considering Atwell's appeal from his Judgment of Sentence, adopted the following factual and procedural background set forth in the trial court's opinion:

In May of 2007, [Joseph Atwell] was operating a substantial cocaine distribution operation out of his home in Forks Township, Northampton County. Jesus Rosario-Torres and Norman “Carolina” Domenech were two of his associates who aided in this operation. During the early morning hours of May 31, 2007, Atwell, Torres and Domenech were at Atwell's house. Atwell and Torres told Domenech that the three of them needed to go do a job. They drove in Atwell's car to the wooded entrance of the Bear's Den Hunting Club in Porter Township, Pike County. Atwell, Torres and Domenech exited the vehicle and proceeded on foot some distance away from the road. Atwell and Torres then shot Domenech multiple times and left him at the scene.
Domenech's body was subsequently discovered by a group of men visiting the Bear's Den Hunting Club. The resulting investigation led police to Atwell, who home was Domenech's last known address[, ] and eventually to Torres. They were both charged with murder in the first degree [and related charges].
The Commonwealth filed appropriate notices of its intent to try Torres and Atwell jointly and its intention to seek the death penalty in both cases. A jury trial was held over seven days beginning on April 29, 2010. The jury convicted both defendants of Murder in the First Degree, Conspiracy to Commit Murder in the First Degree, Kidnapping and Conspiracy to Commit Kidnapping. [Atwell was also convicted of possessing a firearm without a license, persons not to possess a firearm and possession of an instrumentality of crime.]
The penalty phase of the trial occurred over four days. Upon deliberating for several hours, however, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision and expressed to the trial court that further deliberations would be unproductive. The trial court determined that the jury was hopelessly deadlocked and imposed a sentence of life imprisonment on both Torres and Atwell for the crime of murder in the first degree. On the remaining charges, Torres received a total aggregate sentence of not less than 30 years nor more than 60 years [and Atwell received a total aggregate sentence of not less than 41 years nor more than 104 years.]
Torres filed a post-sentence motion which the trial court denied. He then filed a timely notice of appeal on August 12, 2010. [Atwell filed a timely notice of appeal on July 22, 2010].

(Doc. 23-19, pp. 2-3). Atwell sought review of the following issues in his direct appeal to the Superior Court:

1. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in failing to grant Atwell's motion to sever with respect to both the guilt and penalty phases of trial?
2. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in allowing the Commonwealth to introduce as evidence various guns and controlled substances?
3. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in not allowing Atwell to acquire medical records of the Commonwealth's key witness, Megaly Echevarria (“Echevarria”) pertaining to an emergency mental health hospitalization?
4. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in not allowing Atwell to question Echevarria about a recent emergency mental health hospitalization?
5. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in not allowing Atwell to question Echevarria regarding continue criminal activity and other incidents of conduct?
6. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion in allowing the Commonwealth to introduce as evidence a pistol that was not the murder weapon?
7. Did the trial court err and abuse its discretion by refusing to read Atwell's proposed jury instruction concerning the introduction of gun and drug evidence?

(Doc. 23-16, pp. 36, 37). The Superior Court affirmed Atwell's Judgment of Sentence on September 13, 2011. (Doc. 23-19).

         Thereafter, he filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal seeking review of only a few of the issues he initially raised. He questioned “[w]hether the Pennsylvania Superior Court erred by upholding the conviction of the Petitioner for murder in the first degree, and various lesser charges, where such conviction occurred during a joint trial with a co-defendant, which trial should have been severed both as a result of prejudice during trial and potential prejudice during the penalty phase of the proceedings[, ]” and asserted that “[t]he Pennsylvania Superior Court erred by upholding the conviction of the Petitioner for murder in the first degree, and various lesser charges, where such conviction was based on the admission of numerous items of prejudicial evidence.” (Doc. 23-20, pp. 7, 10, 15). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the Petition for Allowance of Appeal on February 1, 2012. (Doc. 23-21).

         Atwell timely filed a Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) petition pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-9546. Appointed counsel twice amended the petition. (Doc. 23-26, p. 2). The second amended petition contained four claims alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Claims one and two concerned trial counsels' advice on plea offers. (Id.) The third issue raised trial counsels' failure to object to the introduction into evidence of a “White Resistance Manual.” (Id.) The final issue pertained to trial counsels' failure to call Echevarria's treating psychiatrist to challenge her competency and credibility. (Id.) Following a full hearing, the PCRA court denied the petition on March 14, 2014. (Doc. 23-26). Atwell appealed, raising the identical issues he raised in the PCRA court. (Doc. 23-27, p. 19). On February 13, 2015, the Superior Court affirmed on the basis of the PCRA court's opinion. (Doc. 23-29). He sought review of the identical ineffective assistance of counsel claims in his Petition for Allowance of Appeal. (Doc. 23-30, pp. 10, 11). The Supreme Court denied the petition on August 12, 2015. (Doc. 23-31).

         Thereafter, Atwell pursued relief in federal court.

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED IN FEDERAL PETITION

         The instant petition for federal habeas relief was filed on August 13, 2015. (Doc. 1). Atwell seeks relief on the following grounds:

1. “Severance of trial from Co-defendant, Jesus Rosario-Torres.”
2. “Introduction of controlled substances from prior arrest which were not part of the allegations against the [Petitioner] and for which he was already serving time.”
3. “Introduction of a pistol, which was not the Murder Weapon as well as the story of its hiding by a separate Co-Defendant, Dawn Atwell. Evidence could NOT be tied to the [Petitioner].” (emphasis in original).
4. “Introduction of several guns at trail which were NOT part of the allegations against [Petitioner], and for which he was already convicted and serving time.” (emphasis in original).
5. “Not allowing the [Petitioner] to acquire records pertaining to a recent Mental Health Hospitalization sustained by the Commonwealth's primary witness, Megaly Echevarria.”
6. “[The trial court did] [n]ot allow[ ] the [Petitioner] to adequately question the Commonwealth's primary witness, Megaly Echevarria, regarding a recent Mental Health hospitalization.”
7. “[The trial court did] [n]ot allow[ ] the [Petitioner] to question Megaly Echevarria regarding her continued criminal activity, and her other relevant incidents of conduct, after the time of the incidents involved in the criminal information against the [Petitioner].”
8. “[The trial Court [r]efus[ed] to read a proposed jury instruction provided by the [Petitioner] concerning the effect of the Guns and Drugs introduced at trial and how the Jury could, and could NOT, use such evidence in determining the guilt or innocence of the [Petitioner].” (emphasis in original).
9. “Counsel misadvised [Petitioner] with respect to plea deals prior to and during trial.”
10. “Counsel failed to advise [Petitioner] of certain plea offers before and during trial and instead unilaterally rejected plea offers without [Petitioner's] concent [sic].”
11. “Counsel fail[ed] to object to the admission of the ‘White Resistance Manual'.”
12. “Counsel fail[ed] to call Megaly Echevarria's treating psychiatric doctors to testify at [Petitioner's] trial, despite being the key witness and having a questionable psychiatric history.”

(Doc. 1, pp. 9-22).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is the proper mechanism for a prisoner to challenge the “fact or duration” of his confinement. Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-99 (1973). Petitioner's case is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub.L.No. 104-132, 110 ...


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