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Stevens v. Eckard

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 12, 2018

ROBERT J. STEVENS, Petitioner,
v.
SUPERINTENDENT ECKARD, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MATTHEW W. BRANN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. BACKGROUND

         Robert J. Stevens, an inmate presently confined at the State Correctional Institution, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, (SCI-Huntingdon), filed this pro se habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. SCI-Huntingdon Superintendent J. A. Eckard has been deemed to be the sole Respondent in this matter. Service of the petition was previously ordered.

         Stevens was arrested and charged with multiple crimes stemming from two purported incidents of physical and sexual abuse against his girlfriend. During the first incident on September 10, 2009, Petitioner used his vehicle to strike the victim's vehicle. Following his release on bail on January 14, 2010, Stevens went to the victim's house in violation of the conditions of his release and subjected her to physical and sexual assault. Stevens then transported the victim against her will to a neighboring state. The charges stemming from the two incidents were subsequently consolidated for trial. On November 2, 2010, Stevens was found guilty of aggravated assault, kidnapping, rape, burglary, robbery, and related offenses following a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County, Pennsylvania. The Petitioner was sentenced to an aggregate forty-six (46) to ninety-two (92) year term of imprisonment on June 15, 2011.

         Following a direct appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, Petitioner's conviction and sentence were affirmed on March 7, 2013. See Commonwealth v. Stevens, 69 A.3d 1284 (Pa. Super. 2013). Stevens' direct appeal contended that the trial court erred by allowing State Trooper Slavin to provide expert testimony about blood spatter patterns and by refusing to allow the victim to be cross examined regarding her history of consensual bondage with Stevens. There is no indication that Petitioner requested further review from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

         Stevens subsequently sought collateral relief pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Following the appointment of counsel and submission of an amended petition, Petitioner's PCRA action was denied by the trial court on June 9, 2014. The Superior Court affirmed the denial of PCRA relief. See Commonwealth v. Stevens, 121 A.3d 1142 (Pa. Super. April 27, 2015).

         In his PCRA appeal, Stevens raised claims that the trial counsel's failure to file a pre-trial motion to sever and a motion under the Rape Shield Law amounted ineffective assistance of counsel. See id., p. 29. The Superior Court found that the failure to file a motion to sever did not prejudice Stevens since evidence relating from the first incident was relevant and properly admitted to show motive for the second incident. The Superior Court further determined that the failure to file a Rape Shield related motion for the purpose of allowing cross-examination of the victim regarding prior consensual bondage with the Petitioner was not prejudicial. The Superior Court concluded that since it was the Commonwealth's theory of the case that the sexual assault occurred after the victim lost consciousness due to a physical assault by Stevens, any evidence of prior consensual bondage was rendered irrelevant.

         Ground One of Stevens' pending petition claims entitlement to federal habeas corpus relief on the basis that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to question the victim regarding alleged prior, consensual sexual bondage. Petitioner maintains that this line of questioning would have been admissible if his trial counsel had pursued a motion under the Pennsylvania Rape Shield Law with respect to the Commonwealth's claim that the victim had been beaten, bound and raped. Petitioner adds that the trial court and Superior Court papered over this claim by determining that the evidence was not relevant because the Commonwealth alleged that the victim had been bound and raped after being beaten unconscious.

         Stevens further alleges that trial counsel was deficient for not seeking production of a receipt from a New Jersey hotel signed by the victim which was in possession of the Commonwealth and would have undermined the kidnapping charge. It is also asserted that PCRA counsel's performance was deficient for not raising a claim that Petitioner was convicted and sentenced under two different subsections of the same statute.

         Ground Two contends that the Commonwealth's opening and closing statements constituted prosecutorial misconduct because the prosecutor misrepresented certain facts, including statements regarding the conduct and character of the victim. It is also alleged that the Commonwealth ignored and failed to produce evidence (hotel receipt) which would undermine the kidnaping charge; introduced inadmissible photographs and testimony of prior bad acts; allowed false and leading testimony by the victim; failed to preserve or withheld exculpatory physical evidence; neglected to provide defense counsel with a summary of an expert witness's findings; used hearsay testimony; and falsely charged the Petitioner with kidnaping as well as multiple counts of rape. Stevens adds that trial counsel erred by not objecting to, or preserving for appeal, the above listed acts of prosecutorial misconduct. Furthermore, it is alleged that PCRA counsel was equally ineffective for not raising the above claims.

         Ground Three contends that there was insufficient evidence presented at trial to support Stevens' conviction. Petitioner adds that the prosecution overcharged him with multiple crimes in an effort to inflame the jury. Stevens also reiterates his claims that the performances of both trial and PCRA counsel were deficient. See Doc. 2, p. 12.

         Ground Four sets forth additional ineffective assistance claims that trial counsel failed to investigate, properly prepare for trial, and challenge the pre-sentence report. See Id. at p. 14 -21. It is specifically alleged that counsel failed to retain an investigator to photograph and collect evidence from the crime scene. It is also alleged that counsel failed to adequately cross examine Commonwealth witnesses, including the victim and a state police trooper; neglected to file pretrial motions to suppress evidence and sever; object to the introduction of prior bad acts testimony; retain a forensics expert; and depose all witnesses.

         Ground Five maintains that state correctional officials refused to grant Stevens access to seven (7) electronic discs containing video and audio recordings relating to his criminal case. As a result, Petitioner maintains that his ability to collaterally attack his conviction was impeded.

         II. ...


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