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Briley v. Delbalso

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 4, 2019

THERESA DELBALSO, et al., Respondents

          Brann Judge




         Pending before the Court is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Ronald Briley, an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, currently housed at the State Correctional Institution-Mahonoy, where he is serving a 35-years to life for second-degree murder. Upon consideration of the petition, the Commonwealth's response, and the underlying record of Briley's criminal and post-conviction proceedings, it will be recommended that the petition be denied.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         The circumstances of this case are tragic, borne out of a senseless act of unspeakable violence that Ronald Briley committed when he was a young teenager.

         On February 6, 1996, Briley, then 14, along with another juvenile, Jeremy Enaire, and Lee Smith, age 19, entered Sun's Market, a grocery store owned by Mr. and Mrs. Chong Kwak, located on 16th Street in Harrisburg. Briley and his friends proceeded to rob this couple at gunpoint. A videotape that captured the incidents on that day revealed that after emptying the cash register of $70, the three assailants turned to leave the store. For reasons known only to Briley, he decided to stop before exiting, turned, and shot Mr. Kwak in the head.

         Mrs. Kwak was treated at the scene for shock and was transported to a local hospital for care before recovering. Mr. Kwak suffered grave injuries and went into a coma. He spent the next 16 years in hospitals and nursing homes. He never regained consciousness.

         Briley was tried as an adult for his role in this crime and he admitted to the robbery and the shooting. In 1997, following a non-jury trial in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, the court sentenced him to a total of 20 to 41 years in prison on the charges of aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery and carrying a firearm without a license.

         16 years later, on June 22, 2011, Mr. Kwak died. A forensic pathologist determined that the cause of death was complications from the gunshot wound inflicted by Briley. Thus, some 16 years after Briley's senseless shooting of Kwak, this act became the instrument of Kwak's demise. Briley was subsequently charged with first- and second-degree murder for this slaying.

         The Dauphin County District Attorney presented Briley with two options: (1) plead guilty to second-degree murder and agree to a negotiated term of 25-years to life, with credit for time already served; or (2) enter an open plea of guilty to second-degree murder, with the understanding that the sentencing judge would determine an appropriate sentence, which would be a term not less than 20-years to life. (Doc. 13, Ex. A, Memorandum Opinion, pp. 7-15.) Following a lengthy colloquy before the court on November 4, 2013, during which the prosecutor carefully and thoroughly explained the terms of the plea agreements being offered, and the consequences that would flow from entering a guilty plea, Briley clearly and unequivocally indicated his intention to accept the second option and entered an open guilty plea to second-degree murder for killing Chong Kwak. The court found that Briley “made a voluntary, knowing and intelligent choice of the open plea option presented on the record, and a similarly voluntary, knowing and intelligent entry of a plea of guilty to the charge of second degree murder.” (Id. at 15.)

         Judge Todd Hoover ordered that a pre-sentence investigation be performed by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, and deferred sentencing until November 20, 2013. At sentencing, the court considered a number of factors before announcing the sentence, including: the gravity of the crime and its impact upon Mr. Kwak's family; statements from Mr. Kwak's son who attested to the pain and sadness they endured throughout many years while their father and husband lie comatose, and then their pain upon acceptance of his death; Briley's young age at the time of the offense, and the fact that a 19 year-old provided him with the gun he used; the important interests of rehabilitation and public safety; and Briley's checkered disciplinary history as an inmate, which included multiple assaults, destruction of property, fighting, making threats, refusing to obey orders, and using abusive or threatening language. (Id. at pp. 3-4.) Having weighed these various considerations, the court exercised its discretion to impose a sentence of 35-years to life, granting Briley credit for time served from February 7, 1996, for a total credit of 14 years, 3 months, and 2 days.

         Five days later, Briley moved to have his sentence modified or otherwise to withdraw his guilty plea. In a detailed opinion issued on February 11, 2014, Judge Hoover denied the motions. The court first recounted the tragic choices and events that resulted in Briley's conviction for murder, before proceeding to explain the basis for the sentence that was imposed, which the court found no reason to reconsider.

         With respect to Briley's motion to withdraw his guilty plea - which was based solely on his dissatisfaction with the sentence he received - the court was likewise unpersuaded, since Briley had made what the court found to be a voluntary, knowing and intelligent choice to plead guilty pursuant to the terms of the open plea deal he had been offered, and the record did not otherwise reflect a manifest injustice that would permit the plea to be set aside. (Doc. 13, Ex. A, Memorandum Opinion.) In the trial court's ruling, Judge Hoover quoted Briley's plea colloquy, which was extensive, and which the court found provided ample basis to conclude that Briley's guilty plea was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary. (Id., at pp. 7-15.)

         Briley filed a timely direct appeal from the judgment of sentence, and in an opinion issued on November 5, 2014, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed. (Doc. 13, Ex. B.)

         On January 26, 2015, Briley filed a pro se motion for post-conviction relief under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). On February 6, 2015, PCRA counsel was appointed, who advised Briley in a Turner/Finley[2] letter that she believed his claims to be meritless. In his petition, Briley argued that his trial counsel was ineffective by inducing him to enter his guilty plea and for failing to obtain habeas corpus relief. Additionally, Briley argued that the Commonwealth failed to demonstrate that his actions actually caused Mr. Kwak's death. (Doc. 13, Ex. C.)

         On November 13, 2015, the PCRA court issued a notice pursuant to Rule 907 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure indicating its intention to dismiss the petition for failing to raise any issues of genuine merit. On December 9, 2015, the PCRA court dismissed the petition. (Doc. 13, Ex. D.) Briley appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of the PCRA petition on August 26, 2016, and in so doing addressed the merits of Briley's claims. (Doc. 13, Ex. E.) Briley did not petition the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for allowance of appeal.

         On October 24, 2016, Briley filed another PCRA petition with the trial court. (Doc. 13, Ex. F.) In the petition, Briley argued that his sentence of 35-years to life violated the United States Supreme Court's decisions in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, -- U.S. --, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). Briley maintained that his conviction and sentence for Mr. Kwak's murder somehow also violated the Ex Post Facto Clause of the United States Constitution. He also argued that his conviction should be set aside in light of his discovery of new evidence that was unavailable at the time he pled guilty.

         The PCRA court dismissed this petition, finding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the claims because they were untimely filed, and further finding that his argument regarding newly discovered evidence lacked merit. (Doc. 13, Ex. G.) Briley appealed this order to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which affirmed in a decision issued on December 12, 2017, finding that Briley's second PCRA petition was untimely and therefore properly dismissed. Commonwealth v. Briley, No. 91 MDA 2017, 2017 WL 6330655 (Pa. Super. Ct. Dec. 12, 2017).

         Briley initiated the instant federal habeas corpus proceedings by filing a petition for relief on October 18, 2016, shortly before he filed his second petition for PCRA relief with the trial court. (Doc. 1.) The Commonwealth responded to the petition on March 15, 2017. The matter was referred to the undersigned on January 9, 2019.


         A. Habeas Relief Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 - The Legal Standard

         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 . . . .

28 U.S.C. § 2254.

         As the statutory text implies, the standard that state prisoners must meet in order to obtain habeas corpus relief is exacting. See Dunn v. Colleran, 247 F.3d 450, 468 (3d Cir. 2001) (“Habeas corpus . . . is an ‘extraordinary remedy' reserved for defendants who were ‘grievously wronged' by the criminal proceedings.” (quoting Calderon v. Coleman, 525 U.S. 141, 146 (1998))). Indeed, federal courts may consider a § 2254 petition “only on the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Federal habeas relief therefore does not lie for violations of state law that lack a constitutional dimension. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991) (“[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions.”); Priester v. Vaughn, 382 F.3d 394, 402 (3d Cir. 2004).

         The same principles that inform the standard of review in habeas petitions also call upon federal courts to give appropriate deference to the factual findings and legal rulings made by the state courts in the course of state criminal proceedings. This deference mandated by § 2254 has two critical components. Under § 2254(d), habeas relief is not available for any claim that has been adjudicated on its merits in the state courts unless it can be shown that the decision was either: (1) “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States”; or (2) “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) and (2). Applying this deferential standard of review, federal courts frequently decline invitations by habeas petitioners to second-guess the considered views of the state trial and appellate courts. See Rice v. Collins, 546 U.S. 333, 338-39 (2006); see also Warren v. Kyler, 422 F.3d 132, 139-40 (3d Cir. 2006); Gattis v. Snyder, 278 F.3d 222, 228 (3d Cir. 2002).

         Noting that these standards are intentionally difficult to meet, the Supreme Court has underscored that the language “clearly established Federal law” for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) encompasses only the holdings of Supreme Court decisions, and that an “unreasonable application of those holdings must be objectively unreasonable, not merely wrong; even clear error will not suffice.” White v. Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014). In addition, the determination of a factual issue by a state court is presumed to be correct unless the petitioner can show by clear and convincing evidence that this factual finding was erroneous. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). This presumption in favor of the correctness of state court factual findings has been extended to a variety of factual findings made in the course of criminal proceedings. See Demosthenes v. Baal, 495 U.S. 731, 734-35 (1990) (deferring to state court's finding of petitioner's competency); Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111, 117 (1983) (per curiam) (same). Factual findings in these regards must be presumed to be correct unless the petitioner can show by clear and convincing evidence that these factual findings were erroneous. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1).

         B. Procedural Standards for Habeas Relief

         1. Exhaustion ...

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