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Elias v. Coleman

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 9, 2017

CRAIG ELIAS, Petitioner,
v.
BRIAN COLEMAN, Warden SCI-Fayette and THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Lisa Pupo Lenihan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Petitioner Craig Elias (“Elias” or “Petitioner”) has filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (“Petition”) seeking relief from his January 22, 2004 judgment of sentence of life imprisonment after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping, and one count each of robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, and abuse of a corpse.[1] For the following reasons, the Petition will be denied.

         I. Facts of the Crime

         As stated by Judge Manning in his Opinion dated December 29, 2005, the facts of the crime are as follows:

. . . . The defendants and the victims, Anthony Brownlee and Andrew Jones, had known each other for several years prior to the incidents that gave rise to this case. The defendants attended Mount Lebanon High School together.
Henkel had known Brownlee since they were both approximately 15 and defendants Lischner and Elias became acquainted with him through Henkel. Jones was a friend of Brownlee. Brownlee and Jones supplied Henkel with marijuana and cocaine. Eventually, the victims and the defendants Henkel and Elias worked together selling drugs. In February 2002 Henkel leased 220 Sycamore Street in the Mount Washington area of Pittsburgh to be used by him and his friends to stash drugs and money and to use for drug transactions. Two safes were installed in the home by Henkel, Elias and Jones. Henkel, Elias and Jones all had keys to the house.
On March 22, 2002 Brownlee was with Jones when Jones received a call on his cell phone. Jones told Brownlee that the call was from Henkel; that the house on Sycamore Street had been robbed and that Henkel wanted Jones to meet him at the Parkway Center Mall. They proceeded to a pool hall at the mall where Jones received another call from Henkel. When the call ended, Jones told Brownlee that he had to go to the Sycamore house and asked him to come along. Reluctantly, Brownlee agreed and they drove to Sycamore Street.

         At about the same time, the defendants met Matthew Henkel, Jared's brother, outside a convenience store to retrieve duct tape that Matthew had been asked to bring. The defendants took the duct tape from Matthew Henkel and drove to Sycamore Street and met Brownlee and Jones, who had arrived several minutes earlier. All five spent some time discussing the safes that were discovered missing from the residence and speculating a[s] to who may have taken them. Brownlee, Elias and Henkel then went upstairs to where the safes had been. After a short discussion, Henkel returned downstairs and Elias asked Brownlee who he thought had stolen the safes. When Brownlee responded that he did not know, Elias punched him, knocking him to the floor. Elias jumped on Brownlee and began to strike him about the head and upper body.

         Brownlee was then thrown or dragged down the steps and placed in the kitchen, where Jones was being held face down on the floor by Lischner. Henkel and Lischner bound Jones' hands and feet with duct tape. Elias did the same to Brownlee. The victims were both then carried upstairs and placed in separate bedrooms. Over the course of the next several hours, Brownlee was interrogated by all three defendants. Elias would beat him and threaten him, demanding that he tell them where the safes were. When he would leave, Henkel and Lischner would question him. Three times, Elias choked him with a rope, nearly to unconsciousness. Eventually, Brownlee convinced them to allow him to call a friend, Scott Carlin, and have him retrieve $4, 000.00 that Brownlee had hidden at his home and bring it to Sycamore Street. The defendants agreed and assured Brownlee that if he gave them the money, they would allow him and Jones to leave.

         Brownlee called Carlin and asked him to retrieve the money. Carlin did, and left the money in the car that Jones and Brownlee had driven to Sycamore Street. It was retrieved by one of the defendants. After receiving the money, however, they refused to allow Brownlee and Jones to leave. More money was demanded. Brownlee told the defendants that he had more money buried in his basement, but that he would have to get it himself. Elias said that he did not believe him and resumed beating him. At one point, he lifted Brownlee up with a rope wrapped around his neck. Brownlee feigned passing out and Elias stopped choking him. When Elias told him that if they did not get the money, no one would be able to help him, Brownlee offered to go get the money from his basement. Elias left the bedroom and Lischner came in and removed the duct tape. He told Brownlee that he would be leaving with Henkel to get the money.

Sometime prior to Lischner unbinding Brownlee Jared Henkel called his brother Matthew and asked him to borrow a pick-up truck and bring it to the Sycamore residence. While Matthew Henkel was waiting for his friend to drop off the truck, he received another call from his brother who asked that he obtain bags of cement. Matthew Henkel telephoned his father to ask for money to purchase the bags of cement but his father refused to provide the money. Eventually, the friend arrived with the pick-up truck in front of that address. He entered the residence where he saw Jared Lischner and Craig Elias. He observed Craig Elias repeatedly traveling up and down the stairs. He also noted that Elias had rubber gloves on. At one point, his brother Jared came down the steps holding one of Andy Jones' shoes. Jared Henkel took it outside and compared it to a shoe print on the snow outside a broken back window. It appeared that the defendants were trying to determine if the window had been kicked out from inside or outside of the house. He recalled his brother commenting that “it was an inside job.” During his time in the house, Matthew Henkel saw defendants, Lischner and Elias, frequently travel up and down the steps. He said, however, that his brother remained with him on the first floor throughout the entire time. The prosecutor then asked:
Q: What happened?
A: My brother came over to me and stated that Andy was too dangerous to let go and he was taking Tony out, but Andy would be too dangerous, he would come after me, come after the family, and that we would never be able to be safe.
Q: Where were the other defendants when your brother started making these statements to you?
A: They were standing right there.
Q: Tell us everything you remember about what anybody, yourself included, did or said when defendant Henkel began this topic, began making those statements.
A: I agreed with him as well did Craig and Jared Lischner. We were all in agreement.
Q: You agreed that what?
A: That Andy was a very dangerous person, that if he was let go, he would come back to seek revenge.
Q: Tell us anything else that you remember about the conversation.
A: I remember stating that they couldn't kill both of them and that they needed to let Tony go. He wasn't a risk. He wasn't going to go to the Police. He was a drug dealer. I said that. I said that I didn't think Tony was a threat, but I did agree that Andy was.
Q: Do you remember what defendant Elias was saying during this period?
A: He was in agreement.
Q: Do you remember what defendant Lischner said?
A: He was also in agreement.
After this conversation ended, Jared Henkel pretended that he received a phone call. He then had Matthew Henkel open and shut the front door to make it appear as if Matthew Henkel had just arrived. Jared Henkel then went up and returned with Anthony Brownlee. While Jared Henkel was upstairs getting Brownlee, Craig Elias told Matthew Henkel to get weights from his father's house and bring them back with him. He then went outside and, a short time later, his brother and Anthony Brownlee followed and entered the pick-up truck. Defendants Lischner and Elias were still in the house, with Andrew Jones, when Matthew Henkel left the Sycamore Street address.
Matthew Henkel drove to his house where he, his brother and Anthony Brownlee entered. His brother and Anthony Brownlee went upstairs while he went downstairs, retrieved the 50 pound weight, took it out to the pick-up truck, and then drove back to the Sycamore Street address. He parked in front of the street and then attempted to enter the front door but found it locked. He knocked and Craig Elias let him into the house and asked him to come upstairs because he had to show him something. Henkel followed him upstairs and observed Andrew Jones lying on his left side in the one bedroom. His legs and hands were bound and he had a plastic bag over his face. Craig Elias told him he had to wrap the body. Matthew Henkel asked Elias “is he alive, ” to which Elias responded, “what the fuck do you think.” They then wrapped Andrew Jones' body in garbage bags. Elias told Henkel to bring the pick-up truck around to the side of the house. He did so, and they loaded the body of Andrew Jones into the back of the pick-up truck.
At approximately the same time that Matthew Henkel had arrived at the Sycamore Street address with the white pick-up truck the first time, defendant Elias called a friend, Michael Latusek, and asked him if he would help him burn a car for insurance. Latusek testified that he and Elias had discussed burning their cars for the insurance money in the past, although they never actually did it. Latusek asked to meet with Elias in person to discuss this rather than talking about it over the phone. Latusek then drove to his apartment located on Mary Street on the Southside. As he approached, he saw Jared Lischner walking on the sidewalk a few feet from his house. He stopped and picked Lischner up and asked where Elias was. Lischner indicated that he was at a friend's house. Lischner asked Latusek to help him burn a car that had already been taken to a wooden area. Latusek agreed to allow Lischner to use his car but did not want to go with him. Latusek asked Lischner to drop him off at a friend's house while Lischner left to burn the car. According to Latusek, he was dropped off at his friend's house while Lischner took his vehicle for approximately an hour. When Lischner returned with Latusek's car, Latusek noticed the odor of gasoline or a similar substance emanating from Lischner. Latusek then drove with Lischner and his friend to Mt. Lebanon where Lischner was dropped off at Jared Henkel's residence.
After Elias and Matthew Henkel had loaded Andrew Jones' body in the back of the pick-up truck, Matthew Henkel drove the pick-up truck and followed Elias in his car to the Southside where Elias dropped the car off. Elias then got in the pick-up truck and told Matthew Henkel to drive toward Parkway. They stopped at a Lowe's Home Improvement Center located in Robinson Towne Center. Elias gave Matthew Henkel some money and instructed him to go into the Lowes and buy chains and locks. Elias did the same, although they checked out separately. Their appearance at the Lowes was recorded on a surveillance camera. When they left the Robinson Towne Center, they drove through West Virginia to Steubenville, Ohio. During this drive, Matthew Henkel heard Craig Elias speaking on the phone with someone. When that call ended, Elias turned to Henkel and said, “it's been burned.” Further on during the drive, Matthew Henkel asked Elias if “Andy had said anything.” Craig Elias stated that Andy said, “Craig, you are killing me.” Elias told Matthew Henkel that he responded, “I know.” Upon arriving at the Steubenville area, they found a bridge that both agreed was a good place to dispose of Mr. Jones' body. They drove across the bridge and looked for an isolated area in Steubenville. When they found it, they exited the vehicle and wrapped Jones' body with the chains and also used the chains to affix the 50 pound weight to his body, sitting it on his chest. They then returned to the bridge and, when it was sufficiently deserted, threw Andrew Jones into the Ohio River.
Shortly after his release, Anthony Brownlee contacted Andrew Jones' family trying to locate him. Eventually, Mr. Jones' disappearance was reported to the police as was the involvement of the three defendants in that disappearance. They were arrested and charged with Kidnapping, Robbery, and other offenses involving the abduction of Brownlee and Jones. When Andrew Jones' body was discovered in the Ohio River, the charge of Criminal Homicide was added. During the investigation into the disappearance of Andrew Jones and the abduction of Andrew Brownlee, Matthew Henkel agreed to become a cooperating witness and lead the police to the area where he and Craig Elias disposed of Andrew Jones' body.

(Resp't Ex. 14, ECF No. 11-6, pp.8-14) (internal citations to record omitted).

         II. Relevant Procedural Background

         On October 14, 2003, Petitioner, Jared Henkel[2] and Jared Lishner[3] appeared before Judge Jeffrey A. Manning and proceeded to a jury trial. Petitioner was represented at trial by Attorney Duke George (“Mr. George”), Jared Henkel was represented by Attorney Thomas R. Ceraso (“Mr. Ceraso”), and Jared Lischner was represented by Attorney Patrick J. Thomassey (“Mr. Thomassey”). The Commonwealth was represented by Assistant District Attorney Thomas F. Merrick (“ADA Merrick”). On October 21, 2003, the jury returned its verdict finding Petitioner guilty of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping, and one count each of robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault and abuse of a corpse.[4] (Resp't Exs. 1-6, ECF Nos. 11-1, 11-2.) On January 22, 2004, all three defendants were sentenced to an aggregate judgment of sentence of life imprisonment. (Resp't Ex. 8, ECF Nos. 11-3, 11-4.)

         On June 16, 2004, Petitioner filed a direct appeal through Attorney Caroline M. Roberto (“Attorney Roberto”).[5] (Resp't Ex. 12, ECF No. 11-5, pp.13-33.) Judge Manning issued his Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a) Opinion on December 29, 2005. (Resp't Ex. 14, ECF No. 11-6.) Petitioner's appeal was docketed in the Pennsylvania Superior Court at 174 WDA 2004, (Resp't Ex. 15, ECF No. 11-7, pp.1-7), and, on June 14, 2006, during the pendency of the appeal, Petitioner, along with Henkel and Lischner, filed a petition for remand pursuant to Rule 720 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure and a motion for stay during pendency of the petition for remand. (Resp't Exs. 16 & 17, ECF No. 11-7, pp.8-18.) Attached to each of their petitions and motions was a signed and sworn affidavit from Diane Henkel, the mother of Matthew and Jared, wherein she attested that she hypnotized Matthew in June or early July of 2003, and that while Matthew was hypnotized, she asked him a number of questions about the kidnapping and murder in order to help him accept his memories and come to terms with the fact that it was not his fault. Jared Henkel alleged that his brother Matthew's story to investigators drastically changed after he was hypnotized. The Pennsylvania Superior Court denied the petitions and motions without prejudice, thereby allowing them to raise the hypnotism issue anew in their briefs and at oral argument. (Resp't Ex. 18, ECF No. 11-7, p.19.) After reviewing the briefs, the Superior Court remanded the matter by Order dated March 2, 2007, instructing the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Matthew Henkel was hypnotized by his mother and, if he was, to determine when the hypnosis was induced and what specific portions of Matthew's testimony were elicited by the hypnosis. (Resp't Ex. 22, ECF No. 12-2, pp.15-20.)

         The evidentiary hearing was held before Judge Manning on June 5-7, 2007, during which time the trial court heard testimony from, among others, Matthew, his mother, and various experts on hypnotism. (Resp't Exs. 23-28, ECF Nos. 12-3 - 12-10, 13-1 - 13-8.) Following the hearing, Judge Manning issued an Addendum to his Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a) Opinion, in which he found that Matthew Henkel had not been hypnotized by this mother after the evidence demonstrated that “Mrs. Henkel had no training or experience in the practice of inducing hypnotic trance in others.” (Resp't Ex. 29, ECF No. 14-1.) Elias, Henkel and Lischner each filed briefs challenging the trial court's factual findings, and in a Memorandum issued on November 14, 2007, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the judgment of sentence of all three men. (Resp't Ex. 33, ECF No. 14-4, pp.11-26.) Their application for reargument en banc was denied on January 23, 2008. (Resp't Ex. 35, ECF No. 14-8, p.1.) On February 22, 2008, Petitioner, through Attorney Roberto, filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal (“PAA”) in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania docketed at 115 WAL 2208. (Resp't Exs. 36, 37, ECF Nos. 14-8 - 14-12.) On August 25, 2008, the Supreme Court denied the PAA. (Resp't Ex. 38, ECF No. 14-13.)

         On March 31, 2009, Petitioner filed a pro se petition pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”). (Resp't Ex. 39, ECF Nos. 15-1, 15-2.) On July 8, 2009, Petitioner, through Attorney Roberto, filed an Amended PCRA Petition. (Resp't Ex. 40, ECF No. 15-3, pp.1-7.) On January 11, 2010, Petitioner, through Attorney Roberto, filed an Amended PCRA Petition to Join Co-Defendant Lischner's Selected Issues. (Resp't Ex. 43, ECF No. 15-3, pp.13-16.) An evidentiary hearing was held for all three defendants on January 31, 2011. (Resp't Ex. 48, ECF No. 15-6 - 15-8.) On February 17, 2012, Judge Manning filed his Opinion, wherein he denied Petitioner PCRA relief. (Resp't Ex. 50, ECF No. 15-6, pp.16-33.)

         On March 6, 2012, Petitioner, through Attorney Roberto, filed a Notice of Appeal, which was docketed in the Pennsylvania Superior Court at 438 WDA 2012. (Resp't Exs. 51, 54, ECF Nos. 15-10, 15-11 pp.10-14.) On August 22, 2012, Judge Manning issued an Order of Court which adopted his February 17, 2012 Opinion and its reasons for denying relief on the claim for which Petitioner was granted an evidentiary hearing. (Resp't Ex. 53, ECF No. 15-11, pp.8-9.) On October 23, 2013, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a Memorandum Opinion affirming the denial of PCRA relief. (Resp't Ex. 58, ECF No. 16-7.) Application for reargument en banc was denied on December 24, 2013. (Resp't Ex. 60, ECF No. 16-9, p.1.) On January 22, 2014, Petitioner, through Attorney Roberto, filed a PAA in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, (Resp't Ex. 62, ECF Nos. 16-10, 16-11), which was docketed at 47 WAL 2014. (Resp't Ex. 61, ECF No. 16-9, pp.2-4.) The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the PAA on May 15, 2014. (Resp't Ex. 64, ECF No. 16-12, p.2.)

         Petitioner, through Attorney Chris Rand Eyster, filed the instant Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus on October 2, 2014. (ECF No. 1.) Respondents filed their Answer on December 3, 2014. (ECF Nos. 10-16.) Petitioner filed a Brief in Support of his Petition on September 30, 2015. (ECF No. 31.) The matter is now ripe for review.

         III. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), a federal habeas court may overturn a state court's resolution of the merits of a constitutional issue only if the state court decision was “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The Supreme Court of the United States, in Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362 (2000), discussed the analysis required by § 2254(d)(1):

[Under the “contrary to” clause], a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by this Court on a question of law or if the state court decides a case differently than this Court has on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. Under the “unreasonable application” clause, a federal habeas court may grant the writ if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from this Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.

Id. at 1498. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, consistent with the Williams v. Taylor interpretation, set forth in Matteo v. Superintendent, SCI-Albion, 171 F.3d 877 (3d Cir. 1999), cert. denied 528 U.S. 824 (1999), a two-tier approach to reviewing § 2254(d)(1) issues:

First, the federal habeas court must determine whether the state court decision was “contrary to” Supreme Court precedent that governs the petitioner's claim. Relief is appropriate only if the petitioner shows that “Supreme Court precedent requires an outcome contrary to that reached by the relevant state court.” O'Brien [v. Dubois], 145 F.3d [16], 24-25 [1st Cir. 1998)]. In the absence of such a showing, the federal habeas court must ask whether the state court decision represents an “unreasonable application” of Supreme Court precedent; that is, whether the state court decision, evaluated objectively and on the merits, resulted in an outcome that cannot reasonably be justified. If so, then the petition should be granted.

Id. at 891. The phrase “clearly established Federal law, ” as the term is used in Section 2254(d)(1) is restricted “to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta of [the United States Supreme Court] decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 365. Under the “unreasonable application” clause,

a federal habeas court may not grant relief simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.

Id. If a petitioner is able to satisfy the requirements of § 2254(d)(1), then the state court decision is not entitled to deference under AEDPA and the federal habeas court proceeds to a de novo evaluation of the constitutional claim on the merits. See Tucker v. Superintendent Graterford SCI, 677 F. App'x 768, 776 (3d Cir. 2017) (citing Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 953 (2007) (“When . . . the requirement set forth in § 2254(d)(1) is satisfied[, ] [a] federal court must then resolve the claim without the deference AEDPA otherwise requires.”). Indeed, the Third Circuit recently explained that,

[w]hile a determination that a state court's analysis is contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law is necessary to grant habeas relief, it is not alone sufficient. That is because, despite applying an improper analysis, the state court still may have reached the correct result, and a federal court can only grant the Great Writ if it is “firmly convinced that a federal constitutional right has been violated, ” Williams, 529 U.S. at 389, 120 S.Ct. 1495. See also Horn v. Banks, 536 U.S. 266, 272, 122 S.Ct. 2147, 153 L.Ed.2d 301 (2002) (“[w]hile it is of course a necessary prerequisite to federal habeas relief that a prisoner satisfy the AEDPA standard of review . . . none of our post-AEDPA cases have suggested that a writ of habeas corpus should automatically issue if a prisoner satisfies the AEDPA standard”). Thus, when a federal court reviewing a habeas petition concludes that the state court analyzed the petitioner's claim in a manner that contravenes clearly established federal law, it then must proceed to review the merits of the claim de novo to evaluate if a constitutional violation occurred. See Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 174, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 182 L.Ed.2d 398 (2012).

Vickers v. Superintendent Graterford SCI, 858 F.3d 841, 848-89 (3d Cir. 2017) (internal footnote omitted).

         The AEDPA further provides for relief if an adjudication “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)(2). Under § 2254(d)(2), a state court decision is based on an “unreasonable determination of the facts” if the state court's factual findings are “objectively unreasonable in light of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding, ” which requires review of whether there was sufficient evidence to support the state court's factual findings. See Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003). Within this overarching standard, of course, a petitioner may attack specific factual determinations that were made by the state court, and that are subsidiary to the ultimate decision. Here, § 2254(e)(1) comes into play, instructing that the state court's determination must be afforded a presumption of correctness that the petitioner can rebut only by clear and convincing evidence. Lambert v. Blackwell, 387 F.3d 210, 235 (3d Cir. 2004).

         IV. Discussion

         Petitioner raises two claims in his Petition. First, he claims that the state court's refusal to order a competency hearing or a psychiatric examination of Commonwealth witness Matthew Henkel, and its denial of his request to access Matthew Henkel's psychiatric records, violated his rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Second, Petitioner claims that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance when he advised him not to testify rendering his waiver of that right unknowing and unintelligent. Respondents concede that these two claims have been fully exhausted in the state courts and therefore are not procedurally defaulted. As such, they will be reviewed pursuant to AEDPA's extremely deferential standard of review set forth supra.

         A. Competency and psychiatric records of ...


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