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Coffee v. Harry

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 3, 2018

NEGII COFFEE, Petitioner
v.
LAUREL HARRY, Respondent

          MEMORANDUM

          RICHARD P. CONABOY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Background

         Negii Coffee, an inmate presently confined at the McKean Federal Correctional Institution, Bradford, Pennsylvania (FCI-McKean), initiated this pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. This matter was initiated while Coffee was incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Service of the Petition was previously ordered.

         Petitioner was charged with a general count of murder with respect to the shooting death of John Bruno. An initial trial on the charge in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas ended in a mistrial on August 19, 2009. Prior to the beginning of his retrial, Petitioner entered a guilty plea on May 17, 2011, to a charge of third degree murder Following his plea Coffee was sentenced to a five and one half (5 ½) to twenty (20) year term of imprisonment. Following a direct appeal, Petitioner's conviction was affirmed. See Commonwealth v. Coffee, 613 Pa. 658 (2011) (Table). Petitioner also unsuccessfully sought relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).[1] See Commonwealth v. Coffee, 50 A.3d 658 (Pa. Super 2012)(Table).

         Coffee's pending action challenges the legality of his guilty plea on the grounds that he was provided with ineffective assistance of counsel. Specifically, Petitioner asserts his plea was based upon representations from his trial counsel that he would only receive a three (3) to six (6) year term of imprisonment. In support of his claim, Petitioner has provided a notarized affidavit from his trial counsel. The affidavit provides that prior to the beginning of opening statements in Coffee retrial, the Petitioner expressed fears to his trial counsel about proceeding to trial and indicated a willingness to accept a three to six year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

         Based upon the sentiments expressed by his client, trial counsel states that he engaged in a chambers discussion with the prosecution attorney and trial judge regarding Coffee's proposal. According to the affidavit, the prosecution informed trial counsel that the Commonwealth would not agree to a 3-6 year term.

         Trial counsel states that he then suggested the option that Petitioner could enter an open plea. In response, the trial court judge allegedly responded “that's no problem I can do that.” Doc. 1-2, p. 12. After the meeting concluded, the affidavit asserts that trial counsel spoke with his client and expressed that it was his understanding “based upon the Judge's comments and everything that had transpired.... This [a 3-6 year sentence] is what you will get.” Id., p. 7.

         Coffee concludes that he is entitled to federal habeas corpus relief because the misinformation provided to him by his trial counsel undermines the voluntary nature of his guilty plea.

         Discussion

         It is initially noted that the Respondent concedes that this matter is timely filed and that Coffee has fully exhausted his state court remedies with respect to his pending claim. However, Respondent argues that Coffee's action should be dismissed because he has failed to establish that his plea counsel provided ineffective assistance. See Doc. 19, p. 16.

         Standard of Review

         “The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 modified a federal habeas court's role in reviewing state prisoner applications in order to prevent federal habeas ‘retrials' and to ensure that state-court convictions are given effect to the extent possible under law.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 693 (2002).

         Specifically, when a federal-law issue has been adjudicated on the merits by a state court, the federal court reverses only when the decision was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the United States Supreme Court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).[2] See generally, Knowles v. Mirzayance, U.S. 111, 114 (2009); Gattis v. Snyder, 278 F.3d 222, 234 (3d Cir. 2002); Moore v. Morton, 255 F.3d 95, 104-05 (3d Cir. 2001). The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the “contrary to” and “unreasonable application” clauses of § 2254(d)(1) have independent meaning. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 404-405 (2000). As explained in Bell, 535 U.S. at 694:

A federal habeas court may issue the writ under the ‘contrary to' clause if the state court applies a rule different from the governing law set forth in our cases, or if it decides a case differently than we have done on a set of materially indistinguishable facts. . . . The court may grant relief under the ‘unreasonable application' clause if the state court correctly identifies the governing legal principle from our decisions but unreasonably applies it to the facts of the particular case. . . . The focus of the ...

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