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Miller v. Lamas

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 4, 2018

MARIROSA LAMAS, et al., Respondents.


          Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         This case arises out of a brutal home invasion burglary involving the petitioner, Gary Miller, and a co-defendant, Rodney Bible, which took place in Perry County some 17 years ago. The chilling details of this crime were described by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the decision affirming Miller's conviction and sentence in the following terms:

According to the affidavit of probable cause, the charges against Miller arose out of a home invasion burglary perpetrated by Miller and Rodney Bible during the early morning hours of December 22, 2000. On that date, Trooper James E. Albert of the Pennsylvania State Police responded to a 911 call at the home of J.H., his wife, A.H., and their five minor children. At the scene, J.H. told Trooper Albert that he had been awakened by his wife telling him that there were two men in their bed room. J.H. recognized Bible, but did not know Miller, whom Bible called "Alex" during the course of the incident. J.H. related that Bible was holding the couple 's nine-year old son, who had been stripped naked, with a knife at his throat. Bible then ordered J.H. to leave the bedroom, go downstairs to the kitchen, and tell Miller where the family kept their money, After showing Miller where the money (approximately $527) was kept, Miller took J.H. to the garage at knife point and tied him with a garden hose and bailing twine. Miller then asked J.H. for the keys to the family 's van and demanded that J. H. tell him where the family kept duct tape so that Miller and Bible could use it to bind and gag the other members of the family. Fearing for the safety of his family if he refused, J. H. complied and Miller left. After approximately five minutes, J.H. was able to free himself and flee to a barn where he called 911. A.H. told Trooper Albert that she observed Bible bind and gag four of the couple's children with duct tape. She also stated that she had been forced to write a check for the remainder of the money in the family 's checking account to give to Miller. The couple's daughter, E.H. told Trooper Albert that while her mother was with Miller, Bible sexually assaulted one of the children, S.H., a six year old girl, and urinated on her before binding and gagging her. Bible then removed S.H. from the family's residence in their van.
Soon after Miller and Bible left the home in the family 's van, they encountered two troopers who were responding to the 911 call who pursued the van. At one point the van stopped and the troopers left their vehicle. The van was then driven in reverse into the patrol car, causing the door of the patrol car to strike one of the troopers and knock him to the ground. In response, the troopers fired their weapons in an effort to stop the van. The van sped away and another pursuit ensued. The chase ended when the van left the roadway and struck an open foundation, causing the kidnapped victim, S.H., to suffer a broken arm.
Trooper Albert interviewed Miller at a hospital where he had been taken following the incident. During that interview, Miller confessed to his involvement in the events described above and explained that he had met Bible at a homeless shelter.

(Doc. 79-1, pp. 1-2.)

         In the wake of this violent home invasion, Miller was charged with multiple counts of robbery, conspiracy, burglary, kidnaping, interference with custody of children, terroristic threats, and unlawful restraint. Presented with this compelling evidence tying Miller to these crimes, which included eyewitness accounts of the victims, police, and Miller's own confession, Miller's court-appointed attorney sought a competency evaluation of the defendant from a psychologist, Dr. Schneider, prior to proceeding to trial, or entering into any plea disposition of these charges. In April and May of 2001, Dr. Schneider twice opined that Miller was competent to stand trial or enter an informed plea to these charges. (Doc. 79-1, n. 12.) Counsel then negotiated a plea agreement for Miller. Under the terms of this plea agreement, Miller agreed to plead guilty to three counts of robbery; one count of conspiracy to commit robbery; one count of robbery of a motor vehicle; one count of burglary; one count of kidnaping; one count of interference with the custody of children; one count of theft by unlawful taking; three counts of terroristic threats; and two counts of unlawful restraint. As part of this plea agreement Miller also expressly agreed to the imposition of a sentence of 20-to-40 years imprisonment and the Commonwealth agreed to dismiss the remaining charges pending against Miller, which included four additional counts of robbery, four additional counts of terroristic threats, and five additional counts of unlawful restraint. (Doc. 15-5, plea colloquy; Doc. 79-1, pp. 3-4.)

         On June 15, 2001, Miller pleaded guilty to these charges pursuant to the terms of this plea agreement. (Doc. 15-5.) At the time of this guilty plea, Miller's defense counsel described the efforts that he had undertaken to confirm Miller's mental competence, and underscored the findings of Dr. Schneider that Miller was competent to plead guilty. (Doc. 15-5, p.31.) The court and counsel then engaged in a colloquy with Miller to ensure that he understood his rights in connection with his guilty plea, and the penalties he faced as a result of this plea. (Id.) Miller's responses to the questions posed by the court and counsel confirmed and underscored his competence, since those responses were consistently alert and appropriate. (Id.) Moreover, in the course of this colloquy Miller acknowledged his satisfaction with the performance of his counsel, stating that counsel had been available to him throughout these proceedings and affirming that counsel stood ready to try this case on Miller's behalf. (Id., pp. 34-5.) Miller's plea colloquy also provided a considered rationale for Miller's decision to plead guilty, his “distinct desire not to put the victims through anything else.” (Id.) Miller also executed a written plea colloquy which thoroughly outlined his rights, the penalties he potentially faced, and reaffirmed Miller's decision to plead guilty in this case. (Doc. 15-5, pp. 23-26.)[1]

         Following the entry of these guilty pleas, Miller's case proceeded to sentencing on July 12, 2001. At that time Miller received the 20-to-40 year sentence agreed upon by Miller and the Commonwealth in the plea agreement entered into by the parties in this case. Following this sentencing, and in anticipation of appeals, the trial judge filed a memorandum on August 24, 2001, which observed that the court was “not aware of any allegations of ineffectiveness of counsel, ” and stated that given the strength of the case against Miller and his co-defendant “Defense counsel have done an excellent job for their client in limiting the sentence.” (Doc. 15-5, p.21.)

         Miller pursued a direct appeal of his conviction and sentence. At the heart of this direct appeal were some of the issues which Miller now reprises many years later in this federal habeas corpus petition, allegations that his guilty plea was fundamentally flawed; that he was not competent to plead guilty; and that his counsel was ineffective in his representation of Miller. (Doc. 15-5.) On April 24, 2002, the Pennsylvania Superior Court entered an opinion affirming Miller's conviction and sentence. In that decision the Superior Court specifically considered, and rejected, Miller's contention that there were fundamental flaws in his guilty plea that now compelled the court to vacate that plea and sentence. On this score, while acknowledging technical flaws in the plea colloquy, the appellate court went on to observe that:

In the present case, Miller is a high school graduate who was deemed to be competent and able to assist in decisions regarding his defense. He was represented by counsel prior to and throughout his guilty plea. He expressed at the colloquy that he desired to plead guilty in order to save the victims of his crimes the additional trauma of a trial. The details of the crimes to which he pled guilty were set forth in the information and in the report of the pre-sentence investigation. Miller confessed to the crimes after his apprehension and, after his guilty plea, set forth some of the details regarding the offenses in a hand-written letter to the trial court. Most significantly, Miller does not claim that he is innocent of the charges to which he pled guilty or that he did not understand the factual basis for the crimes to which he was pleading guilty. Indeed, Miller does not argue that his plea was not knowing or voluntary. Instead, Miller argues only that the colloquy was technically defective. Such a claim is not sufficient to grant Miller relief.

(Doc. 15-15, pp.7-8.)

         Miller filed a timely Petition for Allowance of Appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, appealing this decision affirming his conviction and sentence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied this petition on September 24, 2002, (Doc. 15-14), thus concluding Miller's direct appeal of this guilty plea conviction.

         What then followed were some fifteen years of halting, sporadic post-conviction litigation of this guilty plea by Miller in state and federal court. According to Miller, this post-conviction litigation began nearly one year after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court entered its September 24, 2002 order refusing to re-examine the Superior Court decision affirming Miller's conviction and sentence. Specifically Miller alleges that on September 19, 2003, he mailed a state post-conviction relief act petition to the Perry County Court of Common Pleas for filing. (Doc. 15-13.) However, Miller avers that due to a dispute about his in forma pauperis status, the clerk did not file his post-conviction petition until October 23, 2003. (Doc. 15-12.) Miller then tendered an amended post-conviction petition to the state court in February of 2004. (Doc. 15-2.) On March 24, 2004, the state trial court entered an order which deemed Miller's petitions to be timely filed, and indicated that the petitions would be considered by the court. (Doc. 15-11.)

         Some six years then passed. In 2010 these post-conviction proceedings regained momentum when Miller filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court on January 11, 2010. (Doc. 1.) After Miller filed a Notice of Election with respect to this petition, we ordered the Commonwealth to respond to the petition on April 21, 2010. (Doc. 8.) The Commonwealth then initially responded to this petition, arguing in part that Miller had not fully exhausted his state court remedies prior to proceeding into federal court. (Docs. 14 and 15.) A series of filings then ensued, as we endeavored to ascertain the status of the state court post-conviction proceedings. (Docs. 16-36.)

         In fact, it appears that after some delays, the state courts began to actively pursue consideration of the state post-conviction relief act petition on May 24, 2010, shortly after receiving this federal court show cause order. (Tr. 15-9.) Informed of the renewed action on this pending and unresolved state post-conviction relief act petition, on February 3, 2011, we recommended that this court stay and hold in abeyance Miller's federal habeas corpus petition pending the final resolution of these pending state post-conviction proceedings. (Doc. 37.) The district court adopted this recommendation on March 8, 2011, (Doc. 39), and pursuant to this court's order the parties have kept us informed of the progress of these state court proceedings for the past five years. (Docs. 42-80.)

         In the course of these state post-conviction relief act proceedings, counsel was appointed to represent Miller, and evidentiary hearings were conducted on October 11, 2011, November 10 and 15, 2011, May 4, 2012, and May 28, 2014. (Docs. 83-1 through 83-14.) At these hearings, the state courts heard testimony from Miller's court-appointed counsel detailing the strength of the government's case, counsel's efforts to confirm Miller's mental competence, the findings of Dr. Schneider that Miller was competent to proceed with this criminal case, and the considerations which led Miller to plead guilty in 2001. (Id.) The state trial court also provided Miller with ample opportunity to attempt to develop his principal post-conviction claim; namely, his argument that he was not competent to enter a guilty plea and his counsel was ineffective in failing to recognize his lack of mental competence.

         On this score, these lengthy evidentiary proceedings provided little support for Miller's post-conviction contentions, but added to the evidence undermining those claims. Thus, the evidence revealed that Miller's state trial counsel did conduct an inquiry into Miller's mental competence, and secured a forensic examination of Miller by a psychologist, Dr. Schneider in April of 2001. That examination, which was the only evaluation of Miller conducted at the time of his guilty plea, found that Miller was competent to proceed to trial and make informed decisions regarding whether to plead guilty in this case.

         In an initial effort to undermine this competency determination, as part of his state post-conviction proceedings in the Fall of 2011 Miller attempted to present a second expert witness, Dr. De Carle. This effort was, on balance, unavailing and ultimately reaffirmed that Miller was mentally competent at the time of his state guilty plea in June of 2001. As the Pennsylvania Superior Court later explained:

Dr. De Carle testified he evaluated Miller on June 2, 2011, and he prepared a written evaluation on that day as to Miller's competency retrospective to 2000. N.T., 11/ 10/ 11, at 18. In his June 2, 2011, written evaluation, he opined that "there were significant deficiencies in [Miller's) competency to stand trial as well as his ability to understand the complete process ... in 2001." Id. Dr. De Carle indicated that his opinion was based, in part, on information available to him that was referenced back to ten years. N.T., 5/ 4/ 12, at 20. He testified that, in his report, he "stated there was a limitation in terms of my evaluation when I met with [Miller] [ in] that I didn't have a lot of objective information as to what his memory was like [at the time he pled guilty]." Id. at 23 . Following Dr. De Carle's PCRA testimony on direct-examination, the Commonwealth sent Dr. De Carle additional information, which had not been provided to him by Miller. Id. at 20-23, 28-29. On cross-examination, Dr. De Carle admitted the information altered his opinion in that "[i]t does become clear that [Miller's] ability to recall memories at [the point he pled guilty] was reasonably intact." Id. at 23. Also, he noted the additional Information "helped to identify that [ Miller] knew that Mr. Prosser was an individual that was working on his behalf, that could help him[, ] and [Miller] was able [ ] to convey what his wishes were through that person, Mr. Prosser. " Id. at 33. Dr. De Carle admitted that the additional information clarified some missing points for him and provided evidence that Miller was competent to stand trial. Id. at 35.

(Doc. 79-1, pp. 12-13, n. 13.) Thus, far from undermining the contemporaneous conclusion of Dr. Schneider in 2001 that Miller was competent to stand trial and plead guilty, Dr. De Carle's 2011 testimony ultimately confirmed this finding of competence on Miller's part.

         Two and one half years later, in May of 2014, Miller was eventually able to present the testimony of a third expert, Dr. John Mitchell Hume, to support his contention that he was not competent to plead guilty in June of 2001, and that his counsel was ineffective in failing to recognize this lack of mental competence on his part. In summary Dr. Hume testified that he:

[E]valuated Miller on October 8, 2013. N.T., 5/28/14, at 10, 18. He testified at the PCRA hearing that Miller told him he had been sexually abused as a child and, when Bible sodomized him, it brought back painful memories, leading Miller to be "reduced to following [Bible's] orders [ .]" 36. Dr. Hume testified that he disagreed with Dr. Schneider's opinion that Miller was competent when he entered his guilty plea. Id. at 60. Dr. Hume opined that Miller was "under the control of [Bible, ]" and this altered his mental state. Id. at 99. Dr. Hume opined that Miller was not competent at the time he entered his guilty plea. Id. at 105-09. Dr. Hume based his opinion, in part, on a document entitled "The life of Gary Needham[.]" Id. at 101-03.

(Doc. 79-1, p. 13.)

         Presented with this competing evidence relating to the question of Miller's competence at the time of his state court guilty plea, on January 8, 2016 the state trial court entered an opinion in support of its order denying Miller's state post-conviction relief act petition. In the course of ruling on this matter, the state trial court directly addressed these competing medical opinions and found the opinions expressed by Drs.

         Schneider and De Carle to deserve greater weight than the views announced by Dr. Hume some twelve years after Miller's guilty plea. As the state trial and appellate courts later explained:

In a letter dated April 3, 2001, Dr. Schneider indicated that [Miller) was competent to stand trial. [ N.T., 10/ 11/ 11, at 46. ] Dr. Schneider was the medical professional that evaluated [Miller] closest in time to the incident while the other doctors evaluated [Miller] many years after the incident, which is one of the [main] reasons his testimony was given significant weight. The [PCRA] court ha[s] utilized Dr. Schneider numerous times before this case and it is reasonable for the [c]ourt to rely on his [opinions] regard ing [Miller's] evaluation. After Dr. [De Carle's] initial evaluation of [Miller], which was ten years after [Miller's] plea, the Commonwealth provided Dr. [De Carle] with information that was not initially provided to him. [(N.T., 5/4/12, at 2.)] After reviewing these materials, which included reports from the time of the incident, it became clear to Dr. [De Carle] that [Miller's] ability to recall memories was reasonably intact. Id. at 23[.] It appears that [Miller] attempted to deceive the [ PCRA] court by not supplying Dr. [De Carle] (Miller's own expert) with all of the pertinent documents. The [PCRA] court has found no reason to discredit the testimony of Dr. [De Carle], although he ultimately became unavailable for further proceedings after [Miller] attempted to sue him. The [PCRA] court allowed for the evaluation of [Miller] by Dr. Hume after two doctors had already deemed [Miller] competent during the time of the incident and during the adjudication of the case. Dr. Hume evaluated [Miller] many years after [Miller] had tendered the guilty plea and many of the documents that he relied upon for [Miller's] evaluation were not previously utilized during this case. Many of the materials are suspect. There is a particular piece of evidence that was concerning to the [PCRA] court: a document en titled "The Life of Gary Neeham, " allegedly written by Jenny Landis Steward. Dr . Hume was not able to confirm who actually authored this document but gave weight to information within the writing regarding [Miller] being behind developmentally at a young age and being sexually abused as a child.
There were statements by several doctors within this piece of writing that are uncorroborated. . . . During the cross-examination of Dr. Hume, it was confirmed that there is no evidence to establish that [Miller] was sexually assaulted during the night of the incident, although in a letter he wrote to the [PCRA] court, he claims that [Bible] sodomized him. The letter stated, "Without warning, he nailed me. I landed backwards very hard." District Attorney Chenot pointed out [this description] would not be consistent with the physics of sodomization. . . .These types of inconsistencies within Dr. Hume's testimony are what led [the PCRA] court to the conclusion that some of the evidence Dr. Hume relied upon during his evaluation of [Miller] were not validated . This, along with the fact that the two previous doctors evaluated [Miller] much closer to the time of the incident, caused the [PCRA] court to place more weight on the testimony of Dr. Schneider and Dr. [De Carle].

(Doc. 79-1, pp. 14-15.)

         Having made these factual determinations regarding Miller's competence, the state trial court concluded that Miller received effective assistance from his trial counsel, and ...

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