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Brooks v. Gilmore

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 11, 2017

BASIL BROOKS, Petitioner,


          Gerald Austin McHugh, United States District Judge.

         The requirement that a criminal conviction be based upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt has its roots in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and “plays a vital role in the American scheme of criminal procedure, ” as “a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error.” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 363-64 (1970). It is a principle of particular importance where the evidence of guilt can fairly be questioned, and a principle that lies at the heart of this petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Petitioner Basil Brooks was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving life without parole following a trial at which reasonable doubt was explained to the jury through an emotionally charged hypothetical, which asked the jurors to analogize their deliberations to making a decision about life-saving medical treatment for a loved one when only a single option exists. Because I am convinced that the use of this hypothetical improperly elevated the level of doubt necessary to secure an acquittal, Petitioner is entitled to a new trial.

         I. Underlying Facts

         Just after midnight on December 18, 2005, at the intersection of 54th Street and Columbia Avenue, two men ran up behind Derrick Jones and shot him dead. Angelo Slaughter, the sole eyewitness to the crime, has testified that Petitioner was one of those men. The other man has never been identified.

         At trial, the Commonwealth presented no physical evidence of Petitioner's guilt, but instead relied on the testimony of the purported eyewitness, Slaughter. Slaughter testified that he was eating Chinese food in his car on the night of the shooting, and that the victim, Jones, came up to him and asked to borrow a gun. Slaughter declined to lend Jones a weapon, and then watched two men run up to Jones, shooting as they ran. Slaughter identified one of these men as Petitioner.

         Slaughter, however, was certainly a questionable witness. He gave police two contradictory statements about the murder. In his original statement, he named an entirely different person as the perpetrator. Only because “the cops just kept bothering [him], ” he told the jury, did he ultimately “g[i]ve up” and make a second statement naming Petitioner as the man who committed the crime. NT 10/4/07 at 88. Slaughter also initially failed to identify Petitioner in a photo array, selecting two other black males before finally landing on Petitioner. Id. at 181- 82. Finally, at Petitioner's preliminary hearing, Slaughter then reversed course again, testifying that his statement against Petitioner was a lie. Id. at 183.

         Slaughter was under court supervision at the time of trial, had two open cases in a nearby county, id. at 98, and when he witnessed the shooting, he was high on Xanax and “buzzed” on alcohol. Id. at 99-100. He had been charged with carjacking, robbery, and weapons offenses in 2005, and though these charges were pending when he gave both his statements to police about this case, they were dismissed for lack of prosecution on March 28, 2006-just weeks after he gave the second statement. And while there was other evidence that Petitioner had both motive and opportunity to commit the crime, and the motive evidence was corroborated by a police witness, Slaughter's testimony was the lynchpin of the case.

         In fall 2007, the jury convicted Petitioner of first-degree murder and related offenses. He is serving a sentence of life without parole.

         II. Procedural History

         Petitioner filed timely post-sentence motions after trial, which were denied. He appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which affirmed the judgment of his sentence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied allocatur (discretionary review). In 2011, Petitioner filed a pro se PCRA petition, which was later amended by counsel.

         The Amended PCRA Petition raised five claims for relief, all of which sounded in ineffective assistance of counsel. Petitioner claimed his trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to (1) impeach Slaughter and another witness with their criminal histories, (2) request a Kloiber instruction, (3) object to the jury instruction on reasonable doubt, (4) object to the judge's decision to close the courtroom during voir dire, and (5) object to the trial judge's exclusion of Petitioner for portions of voir dire. The PCRA court dismissed these claims without a hearing, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court again denied review, and Petitioner filed this timely petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

         I have the benefit of a well-reasoned Report and Recommendation of a Magistrate Judge, who concluded that relief should be denied. I will adopt that R&R as to all of Petitioner's remaining[1] challenges, except his challenge to the jury instruction on reasonable doubt.

         III. Standard of Review

         A. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

         Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), I must defer to state court decisions on the merits of a federal habeas claim. Because the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled on the propriety of the reasonable doubt instruction, its conclusion must be afforded AEDPA deference. AEDPA dictates that a federal court can only overrule a state court decision when it is “contrary to” or involves “an unreasonable application of” clearly established Supreme Court law, or where it involves an “unreasonable determination of the facts.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)-(2). This standard is “difficult to meet… because it was meant to be, ” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102 (2011), but even under AEDPA, habeas corpus remains “a safeguard against imprisonment of those held in violation of the law, ” calling for “vigilant and independent” federal court review, id. at 86, 91. “Even in the context of federal habeas, deference does not imply abandonment or abdication of judicial review. Deference does not by definition preclude relief.” Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003).[2]

         B. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Petitioner's claim to relief for this defective jury instruction sounds in ineffective assistance of counsel. The standard for evaluating this claim is set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under Strickland, Petitioner must show: (1) that counsel performed deficiently, i.e., that his conduct fell below “an objective standard of reasonableness, ” id. at 688; and (2) prejudice, i.e., that confidence in the result of the original proceeding is undermined due to counsel's deficiency, id. at 694. Strickland prejudice is established where, but for the effect of counsel's errors, there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have had a reasonable doubt with respect to the defendant's guilt. Hinton v. Alabama, 134 S.Ct. 1081, 1089 (2014); Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695.

         IV. Discussion

         Petitioner claims his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the instruction defining reasonable doubt for the jury. Because this ineffectiveness claim hinges on the constitutionality of the instruction, I will first address whether the instruction was proper, then address whether counsel's assistance was effective, and finally review the Pennsylvania Superior Court's disposition of this claim, applying the deferential standard outlined in 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d).

         A. The trial court instruction defining reasonable doubt violated Petitioner's Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law.

         The burden-of-proof instruction at Petitioner's trial began without issue. The trial judge employed a near-verbatim passage from the Pennsylvania Suggested Standard Jury Instruction: “A reasonable doubt is a doubt that would cause a careful, sensible person, a reasonably careful and sensible person, to hesitate or to refrain from acting upon a matter of the highest importance to their own affairs or to their own interests.” NT 10/09/07 at 149. After this proper introduction, however, the judge interrupted with the following analogy:

It's helpful to think about reasonable doubt in this manner. Let's say, and I know that each one of you does have someone that you love very much, a spouse, a significant other, a child, a grandchild. Each one of you has someone in your life who's absolutely precious to you. If you were told by your precious one's physician that they had a life-threatening condition and that the only known protocol or the best protocol for that condition was an experimental surgery, you're very likely going to ask for a second opinion. You may even ask for a third opinion. You're probably going to research the condition, research the protocol. What's the surgery about? How does it work? You're going to do everything you can to get as much information as you can. You're going to call everybody you know in medicine: What do you know? What have you heard? Tell me where to go. ...

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