United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
J. PAPPERT, JUDGE
29, 2017, Thomas Ceraul filed a pro se petition for
a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
(Pet., ECF No. 1.) On March 23, 2018, Magistrate Judge
Marilyn Heffley issued a Report and Recommendation
(“R&R”) recommending that the petition be
denied (ECF No. 11). Ceraul objected to the R&R (ECF No.
16). After thoroughly reviewing the record, Magistrate Judge
Heffley's R&R and Ceraul's objections, the Court
overrules various objections and adopts the R&R with
respect to the issues it addresses. The Court refers the case
to Judge Heffley for a Report and Recommendation on the
remaining issues outlined below.
Court reviews de novo the specific portions of the
R&R to which a party objects. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1); see also Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d
193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011). For the portions of the R&R to
which no objections are made, the Court reviews the R&R
for clear error. Harris v. Mahally, No. 14-2879,
2016 WL 4440337, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2016). The Court
should, as a matter of good practice, “satisfy itself
that there is no clear error on the face of the record in
order to accept the recommendation.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)
advisory committee notes. The Court “may accept,
reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or
recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).
relevant facts are set forth in Judge Heffley's R&R
and need not be repeated here other than that Ceraul was
convicted of several counts of statutory sexual assault and
involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (as well as other
charges) and sentenced to 586 to 1, 992 months in prison for
engaging in intercourse with J.S., a minor, on four separate
occasions. (See Opinion at 1, Commonwealth v.
Ceraul, No. CP-48-CR-2630-2012 (Northampton Cty. Ct.
Com. Pl. Mar. 28, 2016); Opinion at 1 - 3, Commonwealth
v. Ceraul, No. 1642 EDA 2016 (Pa. Super. Ct. Dec. 16,
2016).) Ceraul lodges a number of objections to the
recitation of the facts of his underlying criminal conduct,
all of which the Court reviewed de novo and
overrules in light of the trial record.
petition advances two grounds for relief. (See Pet.
at 5, 7.) Ceraul asserts that his trial counsel was
ineffective because he failed to impeach J.S. (1) by
producing prison records showing that he was incarcerated
during the timeframe J.S. stated the assaults occurred and
(2) by questioning her about allegations she made against
other men for similar conduct during the same time period.
(Pet. at 5, 7.) Ceraul contends that such questioning would
have raised doubts about J.S.'s “credibility and
truthfulness.” (Pet. at 7.)
prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, not
only does the petitioner have to show that counsel's
performance was deficient, but also “that the deficient
performance prejudiced the defense, ” which requires
showing “that counsel's errors were so serious as
to deprive the defendant of a fair trial[.]”
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).
To make this showing, the petitioner “must show that
there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's
unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would
have been different.” Id. at 694. A reasonable
probability is “a probability sufficient to undermine
confidence in the outcome” id., and
“[t]he likelihood of a different result must be
substantial, not just conceivable, ” Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 112 (2011).
Heffley addressed whether Ceraul's counsel was
ineffective for failing to impeach J.S. with evidence that
Ceraul was incarcerated during the timeframe that the victim
alleged the assaults occurred. (R&R at 6.) In so doing,
she discussed the PCRA and Pennsylvania Superior Court
opinions which analyzed Ceraul's argument that trial
counsel was ineffective for failing to impeach J.S. with
evidence of her prior inconsistent statements about the date
of the first assault. (See Opinion at 4,
Commonwealth v. Ceraul, No. CP-48-CR-2630-2012
(Northampton Cty. Ct. Com. Pl. Mar. 28, 2016)
(“Defendant first contends that Attorney Goodrich was
ineffective in his cross-examination of the victim in this
matter, J.S., because he ‘never attempted to impeach
J.S. with the discrepancy between the dates of offenses she
testified to at trial and the dates of offenses she testified
to at the preliminary hearing.'”); Opinion at 5 -
7, Commonwealth v. Ceraul, No. 1642 EDA 2016 (Pa.
Super. Ct. Dec. 16, 2016).) Although at trial J.S. testified
that the first assault occurred at some point between April
2008 and April 2009 (Feb. 5, 2013 Trial Tr. at 55-56),
the preliminary hearing she testified that the first assault
occurred between January and April 2009 (Objs. at 3). At
trial, Ceraul's counsel presented evidence that Ceraul
was incarcerated from December 2008 through February 2010
(Feb. 5, 2013 Trial Tr. at 160) and argued in closing that
Ceraul was thus “absolutely unavailable in the most
significant way[, ]” (Feb. 6, 2013 Trial Tr. at 15-16).
However, counsel did not impeach J.S. with her preliminary
Heffley concluded, and after a de novo review the
Court agrees, that Ceraul was not prejudiced by this alleged
error. At trial, his son Thomas Ceraul Jr. testified that he
and his father picked up J.S. on at least three occasions,
that J.S. looked disheveled and exhausted after returning
from being in the house with his father and that his dad told
him he “fucked that bitch.” (Feb. 4, 2013 Trial
Tr. at 93- 94.) Further, the investigating officer John
Hoadly testified that Ceraul confessed to engaging in sexual
intercourse with J.S. on three occasions and told him that
J.S. “actually asked to be fucked in the ass, tied up
with computer tape, [and] choked[.]” (Id. at
121-22.) In light of this overwhelming evidence of guilt,
which corroborated J.S.'s account of events, the
supposition that trial counsel should have impeached J.S. on
the exact dates of the subject conduct does not raise a
substantial likelihood that the jury would have reached a
objects to Judge Heffley's R&R stating that she
mischaracterized his claims. (Objs. at 1.) Specifically,
Ceraul asserts that his current habeas petition is based on
trial counsel's alleged failure to present evidence of
additional periods of incarceration. (Objs. at 3
(arguing that counsel “never checked to see if [he] was
incarcerated any more of 2008 or 2010 which [he] was”);
Pet. at 5 (failure to use prison documents that were
available at the time of trial).) Ceraul's argument thus
appears to be that trial counsel was ineffective for failing
to investigate and impeach J.S. with further prison records
which would have shown that the assaults “could not
have occurred.” (Pet. at 5.) Judge Heffley ...