United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
Austin McHugh, United States District Judge.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
2007, the jury convicted Petitioner of first-degree murder
and related offenses. He is serving a sentence of life
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.
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
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 challenges, except his challenge to the
jury instruction on reasonable doubt.
Standard of Review
The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of
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
Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
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.
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).
The trial court instruction defining reasonable doubt
violated Petitioner's Fourteenth Amendment right to due
process of law.
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
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. ...