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Garrett v. McGinley

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 3, 2019

THOMAS MCGINLEY, et al. Respondents.

          Brann Judge



         I. Introduction

         Isiah Garrett is a convicted double murderer who has filed two federal habeas corpus petitions with this court. Garrett v. McGinley, No. 4:17-cv-1574; Garrett v. McGinley, No. 4:17-cv-2054. In these habeas corpus petitions Garrett invites us to embrace an extraordinary proposition. According to Garrett he has twice been the victim of cruelly unjust coincidences, in that he was on two separate occasions convicted of murders he did not commit in trials which were fundamentally unfair.

         The facts suggest otherwise. In contrast to Garrett's claims, the evidence appears to reveal that Garrett participated in two murders in the span of three weeks. The crimes for which Garrett is now convicted are remarkably similar. They all took place in a short span of time. Each killing involved gunshot wounds to the victims, and in each instance the evidence of Garrett's guilt was clear and compelling.

         Moreover, in both cases juries that heard the evidence convicted Garrett of his role in these slayings. Furthermore, in both cases Garrett then had a full and fair opportunity to seek post-conviction relief in state court, both through direct appeals and through state PCRA litigation. However, in each case Garrett's efforts were unavailing, since the state courts found that Garrett's murder convictions were amply sustained by the evidence, and Garrett had received fair trials with the assistance of competent defense counsel.

         Finally, in each instance, Garrett has pursued federal habeas corpus relief in a tardy and feckless fashion following the conclusion of his state court litigation, filing untimely federal habeas corpus petitions which raised seemingly meritless claims.

         Set against this backdrop, for the reasons discussed in greater detail below, we recommend that this petition for writ of habeas corpus be denied.

         II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

         Before the court is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by the petitioner, Isiah Garrett, a state inmate currently serving two life sentences in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”) at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township.[1] After a jury trial in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas in December 2011, Garrett was convicted of second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and possession of a firearm with the manufacturer number altered. The charges arose out of the shooting death of Abdul Hakeem Shabazz on December 7, 2010.

         The pertinent facts of the instant case were aptly summarized by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in its decision affirming the petitioner's conviction and sentence:

On December 6, 2010, Abdul Hakeem Shabazz reported to 911 that he had been shot and, on December 7, 2010, he was pronounced dead. The death resulted from gunshot wounds and the manner of death was ruled a homicide. The West Hazleton Police Department requested that the Pennsylvania State Police assist them in investigating the homicide.
As a result of the December 6, 2010 homicide, on December 10, 2010, the Pennsylvania State Police, including the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), arrived at the home of Petitioner's father and repeatedly announced their presence and possession of a search warrant via both a public address system and at the door of the residence. (See Trial Court Findings of Fact, 12/05/11, at 2 ¶¶ 7, 10). When no one opened the door, the SERT entered the premises using a battering ram. Trooper Jody Radziewicz and Corporal Houck conducted a search of the second floor bedroom, where they encountered Petitioner.
The troopers instructed Petitioner to show them his hands, but he instead abruptly stood up and moved in their direction. In response, Corporal Houck used his shield to push Petitioner away from them. Petitioner hit his head on the shield, sustaining a half-inch laceration over his eye. Medics accompanying the SERT team attended to Petitioner's injury, but he refused treatment. As part of the standard procedure for securing a location and because the search was “high risk, ” the troopers placed flex cuffs on Petitioner. (Id. at 3 ¶ 15).
After police executed the search warrant and secured the location, Petitioner was free to go. However, he volunteered to go to the Allen Township Police Department for questioning. A member of the Pennsylvania State Police in Bloomsburg accompanied Petitioner to the police station where Detective Lieutenant Daniel Yursha of the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office conducted Petitioner's interview. Upon reaching the interview room, the handcuffs Petitioner wore while in the police vehicle were removed and he was told he was free to leave at any time.
At approximately 6:42 a.m., Detective Yursha read Petitioner his Miranda warnings, at which time he stated that he wanted to speak with Attorney Brian Walk. Thereafter, Detective Yursha stayed with Petitioner for approximately one hour, during which time he did not ask any questions about the homicide and the tone of the conversation between the detective and Petitioner was “cordial.” (Id. at 4 ¶ 31). The laceration over Petitioner's eye was “crusty, ” but not bleeding. (Id. at 4 ¶ 30).
Later, Petitioner tapped the window of the interview room to get the attention of Pennsylvania State Trooper Kent Lane and asked what was going on. Trooper Lane summoned Trooper James Surmick and, at approximately 1:15 p.m., both officers went into the interview room. Petitioner agreed to speak with them about the homicide in spite of having indicated earlier that he would not speak with Detective Yursha. At this point, because of evidence discovered over the course of the morning, Petitioner would no longer have been free to leave had he requested to do so and the troopers again gave Petitioner his Miranda warnings. Petitioner signed the Miranda waiver form, waiving his right to counsel, and gave a statement.
On November 7, 2011, the court held a hearing on all pre-trial motions in this matter, including Petitioner's motion to suppress his December 10 2010 statement to the police. On December 5, 2011, the court denied Petitioner's motion to suppress and, on December 12, 2011, the case proceeded to a jury trial. On December 15, 2011, the jury convicted Petitioner of the aforementioned charges. On March 1, 2012, the court sentenced Petitioner to life in prison.

Commonwealth v. Garrett, No. 649 MDA 2012 (Pa. Super. Ct. July 15, 2013) (Doc. 11-1, at 89-92).

         Garrett appealed his conviction and sentence, arguing that the trial court should have suppressed his statement to the police and challenging the sufficiency of the evidence. The Superior Court affirmed Garrett's conviction and sentence on July 15, 2013. The court found that the trial court properly denied Garrett's suppression motion because Garrett waived his rights announced by the Supreme Court of the United States in Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), before giving a statement to police. (Doc. 11-1, at 95-96). Further, the court found that Garrett waived his sufficiency of the evidence challenge because he did not raise it in his Rule 1925(b) statement on appeal. (Id., at 97).

         Garrett filed a timely petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9541 et seq., on June 20, 2014, raising several claims, including a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel for counsel's failure to secure a ballistics expert for trial. (Doc. 11-1, at 99). After a hearing, the PCRA petition was dismissed, and the Superior Court affirmed on April 18, 2017. (Doc. 11-2, at 38, 65).

         The instant habeas corpus petition was filed on November 9, 2017, some five months after Garrett's PCRA appeal was dismissed. (Doc. 1). In his petition, Garrett raises three grounds which he believes entitle him to relief: (1) the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress his statements to the police; (2) trial counsel was ineffective for failing to secure a ballistics expert at trial; and (3) ineffective assistance of PCRA counsel. (Id.) The respondents have filed a response to the petition, arguing that the petition is time-barred, and that Garrett's claims are meritless. (Doc. 11).

         Because we conclude that Garrett's petition is barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and further, that his claims are without merit, we will recommend that the petition be denied.

         III. Standard of Review

         A. State Prisoner Habeas Relief-The Legal Standard.

         (1) Substantive Standards

         In order to obtain federal habeas corpus relief, a state prisoner seeking to invoke the power of this Court to issue a writ of habeas corpus must satisfy the standards prescribed by 28 U.S.C. § 2254, which provides in part as follows:

(a) The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.
(b) (1) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted unless it appears that-
(A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies available in the courts of the State;
(2) An application for a writ of habeas corpus may be denied on the merits, notwithstanding the failure of the applicant to exhaust the remedies available in the courts of the State.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(a) and (b).

         As this statutory text implies, state prisoners must meet exacting substantive and procedural benchmarks in order to obtain habeas corpus relief. At the outset, a petition must satisfy exacting substantive standards to warrant relief. Federal courts may “entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). By limiting habeas relief to state conduct which violates “the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States, ” § 2254 places a high threshold on the courts. Typically, habeas relief will only be granted to state prisoners in those instances where the conduct of state proceedings led to a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice” or was completely inconsistent with rudimentary demands of fair procedure. See e.g., Reed v. Farley, 512 U.S. 339, 354 (1994). Thus, claimed violations of state law, standing alone, will not entitle a petitioner to § 2254 relief, absent a showing that those violations are so great as to be of a constitutional dimension. See Priester v. Vaughan, 382 F.3d 394, 401-02 (3d Cir. 2004).

         (2) Deference Owed to State Courts

         These same principles which inform the standard of review in habeas petitions and limit habeas relief to errors of a constitutional dimension also call upon federal courts to give an appropriate degree of deference to the factual findings and legal rulings made by the state courts in the course of state criminal ...

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