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Laboy v. Pa State Attorney General

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 7, 2017

ROBERTO LABOY, Petitioner
v.
PA STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL, et al., Respondents

          MEMORANDUM

          SYLVIA H. RAMBO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On September 26, 2016, the Court received and docketed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus submitted pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, by Petitioner Roberto Laboy. (Doc. No. 1.) Laboy is currently incarcerated at the Albion State Prison. Respondents filed a response to the petition on March 3, 2017 (Doc. No. 10), after being directed by this Court. Petitioner has not filed a traverse and his time to do so has passed. Accordingly, this matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, the petition will be denied.

         I. Statement of the Case

         A. Procedural History

         On May 10, 2011, after the conclusion of a jury trial, the jury found Laboy guilty of, inter alia, murder in the second degree and conspiracy to commit robbery. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, No. CP-38-CR-979-2006 (C.C.P. Lebanon Cnty.); (Doc. No. 10-3; 10-13). On July 27, 2011, the trial court sentenced Laboy to life imprisonment without parole plus a concurrent term of ten to twenty years based upon these two convictions. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, CP-38-CR-979-2006 (C.C.P. Lebanon Cnty.); (Doc. No. 10-4). Laboy filed post-sentence motions, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions and in the alternative, the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation. (Doc. No. 10-8). The trial court denied his post-sentence motions on January 6, 2012. (Id.)

         Laboy appealed the July 27, 2011 judgment of sentence to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, raising two issues: (1) Whether a Brady violation was committed by the Commonwealth at trial when the Commonwealth failed to provide an expert report and witness cooperation information to the defendant; and (2) Whether the defendant should be acquitted because the evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he took part in the assault for which he was convicted. (Doc. No. 10-13.) On September 11, 2012, the Superior Court affirmed Laboy's judgment of sentence. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, No. 211 MDA 2012 (Pa. Super. Ct.); (Doc. No. 10-13.)

         Laboy then sought an allowance of appeal with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania which was denied on March 14, 2013. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, No. 778 MAL 2012 (Pa.); (Doc. No. 10-15.) On May 7, 2013, Laboy filed a petition for Post-Conviction Relief pursuant to the Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9541 et seq. (Doc. No. 10-16.) In his PCRA petition, Laboy alleged ineffective assistance of trial counsel because: (1) trial counsel prevented him from testifying at his jury trial; (2) trial counsel failed to fully investigate [his co-defendant's] statements prior to trial and failed to attempt to have the murder weapon retrieved from the quarry; and (3) trial counsel failed to seek removal of two jurors who were familiar with certain individuals potentially involved in the case. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, No. CP-38-CR-979-2006 (C.C.P. Lebanon Cnty.); (Doc. No. 10-22.) After hearings on the PCRA petition were conducted on April 28, 2014 and May 12, 2014, the PCRA court denied Laboy's petition on November 20, 2014. Id. Laboy appealed the denial of his PCRA petition to the Superior Court which was denied on October 21, 2015. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, No. 2166 MDA 2014 (Pa. Super. Ct.); (Doc. No. 10-27.) Laboy's subsequent petition for allowance of appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was denied on March 22, 2016. Commonwealth of Pa. v. Laboy, No. 872 MAL 2015 (Pa.); (Doc. No. 10-29.) Laboy's instant petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 followed.

         B. Habeas Claims Presented

         Laboy's petition raises the following claims:

1. Whether the Commonwealth committed a Brady violation;
2. Whether Laboy's convictions were based upon sufficient evidence;
3. Whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate his co-defendant's statements, failing to investigate two jurors, and providing erroneous legal advice;
4. Whether the verdict was against the weight of the evidence;
5. Ineffective assistance of appellate counsel; and
6. Violation of Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel by PCRA counsel for failing to raise ineffective assistance of trial counsel claims at his PCRA proceeding.

(Doc. No. 1.)

         II. Standard of Review

         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, 498-499 (1973). “[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.” Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991). Rather, federal habeas review is restricted to claims based “on the ground that [petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); Estelle, 502 U.S. at 67-68; see also Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37, 41 (1984); Johnson v. Rosemeyer, 117 F.3d 104 (3d Cir. 1997).

         III. Background

         It is first necessary to determine whether Laboy's claims presented in his habeas petition are cognizable in a federal habeas proceeding and whether they have been exhausted in the state courts and, if not, whether the circumstances of his case are sufficient to excuse his procedural default.

         A. Claim 4 - Non-Cognizable

         In Laboy's fourth claim, he alleges that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. (Doc. No. 1.) Laboy did not raise this claim on direct appeal.

         The United States Supreme Court recognizes that a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a conviction implicates the Due Process Clause. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (1979) (establishing standard). Inasmuch as a sufficiency of the evidence claim implicates a federal constitutional right, it provides a potential basis for federal habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. An assertion that a state conviction is against the weight of the evidence adduced at trial, however, does not implicate the Constitution in the same manner. As the Supreme Court explored in Tibbs v. Florida, 457 U.S. 31 (1982), a reviewing court hearing such a claim sits as a “thirteenth juror” and disagrees with the jury's resolution of the conflicting testimony. It has long been established that the federal courts have no authority to grant habeas relief based on such grounds inasmuch as weight claims infringe upon the prerogative of the jury to assess credibility. In Marshall v. Lonberger, 459 U.S. 422 (1983), the Supreme Court declared that “28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) gives federal habeas courts no license to redetermine credibility of witnesses whose demeanor has been observed by the state trial court, but not by them.” Marshall, 459 U.S. at 434.

         In accordance with the above, federal courts on 2254 review have routinely dismissed “weight of the evidence” claims as non-cognizable. See Young v. Kemp, 760 F.2d 1097, 1105 (11th Cir. 1985) (observing that “[a] federal habeas court has no power to grant habeas corpus relief because it finds that the state conviction is against the ‘weight' of the evidence.”); Carter v. Parker, Civ. No. 13-4260, 2014 WL 3964924, at *38 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 12, 2014) (quoting Young v. Kemp for this proposition); Middleton v. Tennis, Civ. No. 10-548, 2011 WL 6224626, n.2 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 13, 2011); Wright v. Pennsylvania, Civ. No. 10-264, 2011 WL 10582593, *5 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 4, 2011); Hatcher v. DiGuglielmo, Civ. No. 08-3572, 2009 WL 3467957, *4 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 26, 2009); Willis v. Varner, Civ. No. 03-1692, 2004 WL 1109780, *10 (E.D. Pa. May 13, 2004).

         Accordingly, the Court must conclude that habeas relief is not available as to Laboy's weight of the evidence claim and this claim will be denied.

         B. Exhaustion and Procedural Default

         The provisions of the federal habeas corpus statute at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b) require a state prisoner to exhaust available state court remedies before seeking federal habeas corpus relief. To comply with the exhaustion requirement, a state prisoner first must have fairly presented his constitutional and federal law issues to the state courts through direct appeal, collateral review, state habeas proceedings, mandamus proceedings, or other available procedures for judicial review. See, e.g., Castille v. Peoples, 489 U.S. 346, 351(1989); Doctor v. Walters, 96 F.3d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Beard v. Kindler, 558 U.S. 53 (2009); Burkett v. Love, 89 F.3d 135, 137 (3d Cir. 1996). Moreover, a petitioner must present every claim raised in the federal petition to the state's trial court, intermediate appellate court, and highest court before exhaustion will be considered satisfied. O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 845 (1999). The petitioner has the burden of establishing that the exhaustion requirement has been met. Ross v. Petsock, 868 F.2d 639, 643 (3d Cir. 1989); O'Halloran v. Ryan, 835 F.2d 506, 508 (3d Cir. 1987).

         Exhaustion is not a jurisdictional limitation, however, and federal courts may review the merits of a state petitioner's claim prior to exhaustion when no appropriate state remedy exists. Christy v. Horn, 115 F.3d 201, 206 (3d Cir. 1997); Doctor, 96 F.3d at 681; Carter v. Vaughn, 62 F.3d 591, 594 (3d Cir. 1995). Nevertheless, a petitioner shall not be deemed to have exhausted state remedies if he has the right to raise his claims by any available state procedure. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(c).

         Turning to procedural default, if a petitioner presents unexhausted habeas claims to a federal court, but state procedural rules bar further state court review, the federal court will excuse the failure to exhaust and treat the claims as exhausted. Wenger v. Frank, 266 F.3d 218, 223 (3d Cir. 2001); Lines v. Larkins, 208 F.3d 153, 160 (3d Cir. 2000); see Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 297-98 (1989). Although deemed exhausted, such claims are considered procedurally defaulted. Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, 749 (1991); Lines, 208 F.3d at 160.

         A federal habeas court cannot review the merits of procedurally defaulted claims unless the petitioner demonstrates either: (1) “cause” for the procedural default and “actual prejudice” as a result of the alleged violation of federal law; or (2) failure to consider the claims will result in a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.” See McCandless v. Vaughn, 172 F.3d 255, 260 (3d Cir. 1999); Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750; Caswell v. Ryan, 953 F.2d 853, 857, 861-62 (3d Cir. 1992). To satisfy the first exception, a petitioner must show: (1) cause for his failure to raise his claim in state court; and (2) prejudice to his case as a result of that failure. Coleman, 501 U.S. at 750. To demonstrate “cause” for a procedural default, the petitioner must show that something “external” to the defense impeded the petitioner's efforts to comply with the state's procedural rule. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 488 (1986). Once “cause” has been successfully demonstrated, a petitioner must then prove “prejudice.” “Prejudice” must be something that “worked to [petitioner's] actual and substantial disadvantage, infecting his entire trial with error of constitutional dimensions.” Id. at 494. Alternatively, a federal court may excuse a procedural default when the petitioner establishes that failure to review the claim will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. See Werts v. Vaughn, 228 F.3d 178, 192-93 (3d Cir. 2000).

         1. Claim 5 - Ineffective Assistance of Appellate Counsel

         In claim five of his petition, Laboy contends that his direct appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to thoroughly “investigate [his] case in [its] entirety and [to] submit a thorough substantial brief to the appellant courts.” (Doc. No. 1.) To comply with the exhaustion requirement of 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Laboy was required to present all of his federal habeas claims to the Pennsylvania courts in his direct appeal or in his PCRA proceeding. He has not done so with regard to claim five. Accordingly, this Court must now determine whether Laboy has any other available state court remedy through which he can present his unexhausted claims to the Pennsylvania courts.

         Under the PCRA, a petitioner may bring a second PCRA petition only if it is filed within one year of the date the judgment becomes final unless the petition alleges facts that meet one of the requirements set forth in § 9545(b)(1), which Laboy has not. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9545(b)(1). The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has held that the PCRA's timeliness requirements are mandatory and jurisdictional in nature; thus, no court may properly disregard or alter them in order to reach the merits of the claims raised in a PCRA petition that is filed in an untimely manner. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Murray, 753 A.2d 201, 202-03 (Pa. 2000).

         Consequently, Laboy is precluded from presenting his unexhausted claim in a second PCRA petition based on the time limitations set forth in the PCRA. These time limitations are an independent and adequate state law ground sufficient to invoke the procedural default doctrine for purposes of federal court review. See Lines v. Larkin, 208 F.3d 153, 165 (3d Cir. 2000). As set forth above, this Court may not review Laboy's defaulted claim unless he demonstrates cause and prejudice for his default or establishes a fundamental miscarriage of justice. McCandless, 172 F.3d at 260. Laboy neither argues cause and prejudice, nor the existence of a ...


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