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Smith v. Diguglielmo

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 9, 2018

RONALD L. SMITH, Petitioner,
v.
DAVID DIGUGLIELMO, THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF THE COUNTY OF PHILADELPHIA, and THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM

          DuBois, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This is a habeas corpus case brought by a state prisoner, Ronald L. Smith ("petitioner"), under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Petitioner‘s initial pro se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, filed on June 3, 2006 ("2006 Petition"), was denied by this Court by Order dated November 13, 2006. Thereafter, certain of petitioner‘s state appellate rights were reinstated by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Petitioner then exhausted his state court remedies and filed a Motion to Vacate Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) in this Court, which this Court granted, reinstating petitioner‘s 2006 Petition. Petitioner later filed an Amended/Supplemental Habeas Corpus Petition ("Supplemental Petition") with additional grounds for relief. Because the grounds for relief in petitioner‘s 2006 Petition and Supplemental Petition are either procedurally defaulted or lack merit, both Petitions are denied and dismissed.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Robbery and Murder of Roy Arms

         On September 2, 1992, petitioner arranged to have two friends, Steven Williamston and Tyron Hill, meet him at the apartment of his girlfriend, Secquoyah West, in preparation for a robbery of a variety store located in the basement of West‘s apartment building. Suppl. Resp. to Pet. for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Doc. No. 45 at 2. At petitioner‘s instruction, Williamston and Hill retrieved a shotgun from petitioner‘s home and brought it to West‘s apartment. Id. at 3.

         After assembling the shotgun and wiping it clean of fingerprints, petitioner sent Williamston and Hill to the basement of the building to rob the variety store, and they did so. Id. After emptying the store‘s cash register, Hill waited in the basement, just outside the store entrance. Id. at 4. When Roy Arms, the storeowner, peered through the store doorway, Hill shot him with the shotgun, fatally wounding him in the face and neck. Id. Once Hill and Williamston returned to West‘s apartment, petitioner took the shotgun, wiped it down, disassembled it, and hid it inside West‘s sofa and loveseat. Id.

         Three days after the murder, on September 5, 1992, police received a call from the apartment manager of West‘s apartment building. Opinion of the Court of Common Pleas (June 1996), Doc. No. 45-1 at 57. West had told the apartment manager that she feared to return to her apartment, as she believed petitioner would be there, armed with the shotgun. Id. Police entered West‘s apartment accompanied by the apartment manager to check "only for the presence of people." Id. at 58. Police did not seize any evidence, but then contacted West, who gave police a formal statement regarding the robbery and murder. Id.

         Petitioner was subsequently arrested on September 8, 1992. Id. at 61. Following his arrest, Smith received oral and written Miranda warnings. Id. After police confronted petitioner with information about his involvement in the robbery and murder, he waived his right to remain silent, admitted his participation in the robbery and murder, and signed a form consenting to a search of West‘s apartment. Id. at 59. When police arrived at the apartment, West also consented to the search, and police retrieved the shotgun petitioner had stored in West‘s sofa and loveseat. Id. at 59-60.

         B. Petitioner's Trial

         At trial, West and Williamston testified that petitioner used marijuana and cocaine prior to the robbery and murder, that he spoke of robbing the variety store prior to the incident, and that he had previously been seen with the shotgun used in the robbery and murder. Doc. No. 45-1 at 64-65. Defense counsel moved to suppress petitioner‘s statement to police, the physical evidence obtained from West‘s apartment, and the testimony of West and Williamston. Id. at 49. The trial court denied defendant‘s motions, concluding that petitioner had knowingly and voluntarily waived his constitutional rights and that physical evidence had been properly obtained through a search of West‘s apartment with her consent. Id. at 60. In ruling on post-trial motions, the trial court likewise concluded that it properly gave instructions limiting consideration of West and Williamston‘s testimony to the issue of the state of mind of the witnesses and their motivation. Id. at 64, 67. The trial court also concluded that petitioner‘s trial counsel could not have been ineffective for failing to object to admission of the testimony that petitioner had previously possessed the shotgun because there was no error in admitting the testimony. Id. at 67. Petitioner was convicted of murder in the first degree, robbery, possessing an instrument of crime, and criminal conspiracy. Doc. No. 45 at 8.

         C. Appeal and State Collateral Proceedings

         1. Direct Appeal

         Represented by new counsel, petitioner appealed his conviction to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which issued a decision on November 27, 1996. Opinion of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (Nov. 27, 1996), Doc. No. 45-1 at 44. On appeal, petitioner raised four issues: (1) admission of Smith‘s statement to the police; (2) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to object to references by the prosecution to the credibility of the Commonwealth‘s chief witness, petitioner‘s post-arrest silence, and petitioner‘s prior convictions; (3) ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to object to testimony that petitioner had previously possessed the shotgun; and (4) admission of West and Williamston‘s testimony regarding defendant‘s "prior bad acts, " including his use of marijuana and cocaine. Id. at 45; Opinion of the Court of Common Pleas (June 1996), Doc. No. 45-1 at 64. The Superior Court summarily affirmed the trial court on the first, third, and fourth issues. Id. at 45-46. The Superior Court concluded petitioner had waived the second issue because petitioner had failed to include it in his Statement of Matters Complained of on Appeal under Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(b). Opinion of the Superior Court, Doc. No. 45-1 at 46 (citing Commonwealth v. Forest, 629 A.2d 1032 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied petitioner‘s petition for allowance of appeal on April 29, 1997. Commonwealth v. Smith, 695 A.2d 785 (Pa. 1997).

         2. First PCRA Petition and Appeal

         Petitioner filed his first petition under the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Con. Stat. § 9541, on December 9, 1997, after which counsel was appointed to represent him. Opinion of the Court of Common Pleas (Dec. 13, 2000), Doc. No. 45-2 at 3. Counsel filed an amended petition, which raised four issues, only the first of which is relevant to the present Petitions: that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that the search of West‘s apartment was unlawful because it had been induced by threats and that appellate counsel was ineffective for not raising the issue on appeal. Id. at 4. The PCRA court denied this claim for relief on June 6, 2000, on the ground that Pennsylvania law prohibited petitioner from obtaining post-conviction relief by restating previously litigated claims as claims for ineffective assistance of counsel. Doc. No. 45 at 9; Doc. No. 45-2 at 5. The PCRA court denied the remainder of petitioner‘s claims-none of which are relevant to the Petitions pending in this Court-as well. Doc. No. 45-2 at 5-6.

         Petitioner appealed the PCRA court‘s decision, which the Superior Court dismissed on February 20, 2001, after petitioner‘s counsel failed to file a brief. Opinion of the Court of Common Pleas (May 31, 2002), Doc. No. 45-3 at 2. The record before this Court does not disclose whether petitioner filed a petition for allowance of appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

         3. Second and Third PCRA Petitions

         On April 3, 2001, petitioner filed a second PCRA petition represented by the same counsel, seeking "to reinstate [petitioner‘s] appellant rights." The Superior Court eventually denied the petition as "manifestly untimely, " reasoning that "the fact that Appellant‘s first PCRA appeal was dismissed due to counsel‘s failure to file a brief does not excuse the jurisdictional restraints of the PCRA." Opinion of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (Aug. 5, 2005), Doc. No. 45-4 at 5. Petitioner filed a pro se petition for allowance of appeal from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied on May 23, 2006. Commonwealth v. Smith, 899 A.2d 1123 (Pa. 2006).

         Six years later, following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in Commonwealth v. Bennett, 930 A.2d 1264, 1274 (Pa. 2007), petitioner filed a third PCRA petition on September 30, 2007, again seeking reinstatement of his appellate rights. Doc. No. 45 at 11. After an initial denial by the Court of Common Pleas, petitioner appealed pro se and the Superior Court reversed, reinstating petitioner‘s appellate rights. Commonwealth v. Smith, 35 A.3d 766 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2011).

         The Court of Common Pleas issued an Opinion nunc pro tunc on petitioner‘s amended, counseled petition, originally denied on June 6, 2000. Doc. No. 45-7. In his final appeal to the Superior Court, petitioner proceeded pro se. Opinion of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (June 8, 2016), Doc. No. 45-9 at 1. Petitioner raised five grounds on appeal: (1) "that [direct appellate] counsel was ineffective for failure to assert" the trial court erred in its finding of facts in admitting evidence obtained after "homicide detectives illegally and forcibly entered property without consent of any resident that leased the unit"; (2) "trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the trial court‘s charges to the jury on accomplice liability and first[-]degree murder"; (3) trial counsel was ineffective "for failing to object to the trial court‘s charges to the jury on criminal conspiracy"; (4) "the trial court erred in denying [Smith‘s] 1997 PCRA Petition without holding an evidentiary hearing"; and, (5) PCRA counsel was ineffective. Doc. No. 45-9 at 1 (alterations in original).

         The Superior Court rejected each of petitioner‘s claims in an opinion dated June 8, 2016. Doc. No. 45-9. In rejecting petitioner‘s first ground for relief, the Superior Court adopted the reasoning of the Court of Common Pleas in full. Doc. No. 45-9 at 4. The Court of Common Pleas rejected petitioner‘s first ground for relief, in part, as waived. Doc. No. 45-7 at 8. According to the Court of Common Pleas, petitioner waived this ground for relief by failing to "layer" his claim for ineffective assistance of appellate counsel with a showing that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the trial court‘s purported error-a required element to establish ineffective assistance of appellate counsel in a PCRA proceeding. Id. at 8 n.4 (citing Commonwealth v. McGill, 832 A.2d 1014, 1022 (Pa. 2003)).

         The Superior Court also rejected petitioner‘s second and third grounds for relief as waived because counsel failed to include the claims in petitioner‘s amended petition and under Pennsylvania law, any claims not included in a counseled, amended petition are deemed waived. Id. at 5. The Superior Court rejected petitioner‘s fourth ground for relief, because none of his claims presented a genuine issue concerning a material fact to warrant an evidentiary hearing. Finally, the Superior Court rejected petitioner‘s claim that his PCRA counsel was ineffective in pursuit of his first PCRA petition. Petitioner raised that issue for the first time on appeal, and under Pennsylvania law, "a PCRA petitioner cannot assert claims of PCRA counsel ineffectiveness for the first time on appeal." Id. at 8 (citing Commonwealth v. Henkel, 90 A.3d 16, 21-30 (Pa. Super. 2014)). Petitioner did not file a petition for allowance of appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.[1] Doc. No. 45 at 12.

         D. Federal Habeas Corpus Proceedings

         1. First Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under § 2254

         On June 30, 2006, following denial of his second PCRA petition, petitioner filed his first Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in this Court, pro se. In his Petition, petitioner raised five grounds for relief:

1. Petitioner‘s due process and equal protection rights were violated when the Commonwealth improperly interfered with his PCRA process by denying him assistance of counsel and denying his right to appeal;
2. The trial court erred when it denied petitioner‘s pretrial motion to suppress a statement obtained pursuant to an unconstitutional seizure;
3. Appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the trial court‘s findings of fact in admitting evidence ...

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