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Williams v. Price

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 29, 2017

RONALD A. WILLIAMS, Petitioner
v.
JAMES PRICE, Respondent, and THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE PENNSYLVANIA, Additional Respondent

          OPINION

          David Stewart Cercone Senior United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         This matter is before the Court on remand from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in connection with a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 filed by Ronald A. Williams (“Williams” or “Petitioner”). In accordance with the remand order, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on April 2 and 3, 2012, the official transcript of which has been filed of record and considered by the Court. (Docket No. 131). The parties subsequently filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, and Williams filed a supplemental memorandum regarding the Supreme Court's recent decision in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, 137 S.Ct. 855 (2017). (Docket Nos. 141, 144, 145, 150, 151, 164). After careful consideration of the parties' submissions and the credible evidence of record, and for the following reasons, the Court concludes that Williams is not entitled to relief.

         II. Procedural History[1]

         Following a jury trial that occurred in 1985 in the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County, Pennsylvania, Williams was convicted of first-degree murder, for which he currently is serving a term of life imprisonment.[2] After unsuccessfully pursuing state post-conviction relief, Williams filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The District Court issued an order denying the petition and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals granted a certificate of appealability.

         On appeal, Williams argued that his right to an impartial jury was abridged because the state courts refused in post-trial proceedings to admit certain evidence of racial bias by members of the jury, which he had sought to introduce to show that jurors lied during voir dire when they denied racial prejudice. The state courts refused to consider the evidence based on the “no-impeachment” rule, which generally bars juror testimony for the purpose of impeaching a verdict. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that the state courts' refusal to receive some of the evidence violated Williams' clearly established constitutional rights and remanded the case to this Court for an evidentiary hearing at which he would “have the opportunity to introduce the improperly excluded evidence and to attempt to prove that a juror lied during voir dire.” Williams, 343 F.3d at 225.

         Following remand, Williams filed a motion to amend his habeas corpus petition, which Magistrate Judge Lisa Lenihan denied in an opinion and order dated September 15, 2009. (Docket No. 91). On January 14, 2010, Magistrate Judge Lenihan granted Williams' motion for partial reconsideration and permitted him to amend the petition to present a claim that certain jurors lied on voir dire when asked about racial bias (hereinafter, the “January 2010 order”). (See Docket No. 103). Specifically, the January 2010 order provided:

At the evidentiary hearing to be held in this case, Petitioner may present evidence to demonstrate that Jurors Geisler, Hancheck, Bowser and Juror Number Two lied on voir dire when asked about their racial biases, but this evidence may not include testimony by former jurors concerning discussions that occurred during deliberations or that pertain to the decision-making process.

Id. at 8.

         This Court held an evidentiary hearing on April 2 and 3, 2012, at which Williams presented testimony by the following witnesses: Sallie Lane, who was a trial witness for the prosecution; Rudolph Weaver, who was an alibi witness for the defense at trial; Paul Bowser, Robert Hancheck and Francis Geisler, who were trial jurors; Thomas Baughman, who was a co-worker of Bowser; Richard Goldinger, who was trial counsel for Williams' brother; Marc Caudel, who formerly was an investigator at the Federal Public Defender's Office; and Dr. Samuel Sommers, who is a social psychologist. Williams also sought to admit an affidavit dated May 31, 1988, by trial juror Judith Montgomery, who is now deceased. Respondents presented the testimony of Leo Kamphaus, who was trial Juror Number Two.

         Following the hearing, the parties submitted their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law (Docket Nos. 141, 144, 145) and responses thereto (Docket Nos. 150, 151). Williams also filed a supplemental memorandum regarding Pena-Rodriguez. (Docket No. 164). Accordingly, the matter has been fully argued and briefed and is ripe for disposition.

         III. Legal Standard

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), federal courts have jurisdiction to entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus “on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” Federal habeas relief may be granted “with respect to [a] claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court” if the adjudication “resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”[3] 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). The Supreme Court has emphasized that this standard is “difficult to meet.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014) (quoting Metrish v. Lancaster, 569 U.S. 351, 358 (2013)); see also Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (“This is a difficult to meet and highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.”) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         Under § 2254(d)(1), “clearly established federal law” means “the governing legal principle or principles set forth by the Supreme Court at the time the state court renders its decision.” Lockyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 71-72 (2003). It “refers to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta, of [the Supreme] Court's decisions as of the time of the relevant state-court decision.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 412 (2000). A state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if the state court (1) “applies a rule that contradicts the governing law” set forth in Supreme Court precedent or (2) “confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme] Court and nevertheless arrives at a result different” from that reached by the Supreme Court. Id. at 405-06. A state court decision is an “unreasonable application of federal law” if the state court “identifies the correct governing legal principle, ” but “unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Id. at 413.

         When this case was before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Williams pointed to McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548 (1984), as the Supreme Court precedent that the state courts contradicted or unreasonably applied. See Williams, 343 F.3d at 229. In McDonough, the losing parties in a federal civil suit argued that they were entitled to a new trial because a juror had failed to disclose material information in response to a question posed during voir dire. The Supreme Court held that “to obtain a new trial in such a situation, a party must first demonstrate that a juror failed to answer honestly a material question on voir dire, and then further show that a correct response would have provided a valid basis for a challenge for cause.” McDonough, 464 U.S. at 556.

         After considering whether certain evidence offered by Williams should have been considered by the state courts to determine whether a juror lied when questioned about racial bias, the Court of Appeals concluded that the case should be remanded for an evidentiary hearing at which Williams would have the opportunity to make the showing mandated by McDonough, [4] i.e., to attempt to prove that a juror lied during voir dire. See Williams, 343 F.3d at 225, 239.

         For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that Williams has not made the requisite showing because the evidence he presented does not demonstrate that Jurors Geisler, Hancheck, Bowser and Kamphaus failed to answer honestly on voir dire when asked about racial bias. Accordingly, Williams is not entitled to habeas relief.

         IV. Analysis

         During voir dire in Williams' 1985 trial, the trial court posed two questions concerning racial bias:

• Do you personally believe that blacks as a group are more likely to commit crimes of a violent nature involving firearms?
• Can you listen to and judge the testimony of a black person in the same fashion as the testimony of a white person, giving each its deserved credibility?

Williams, 343 F.3d at 226. All jurors who were selected to serve answered “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second question. Id.

         Williams maintains that the evidence he presented at the hearing establishes that one or more jurors harbored racial bias and did not provide honest answers when asked during voir dire about their ability to listen to and judge the testimony and credibility of a black person in the same fashion as a white person. Respondents argue that Williams produced no direct evidence that any of the four jurors in question lied during voir dire when asked about racial bias. According to Respondents, the evidence showed only that Geisler, Hancheck and Bowser had used racial slurs at times and places unrelated to the trial, but that does not establish that they lied under oath when they stated that they could be fair jurors.

         A. Pinholster Does Not Restrict This Court's Consideration of Evidence Presented by Williams in Determining Whether He is Entitled to Habeas Relief.

         A little over one year after the January 2010 order was issued, but one year prior to the evidentiary hearing, the Supreme Court held that “review under § 2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.” Pinholster, 563 U.S. at 181. “If a claim has been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, a federal habeas petitioner must overcome the limitation of § 2254(d)(1) on the record that was ...


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