United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
C. CARLSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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 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.)
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.
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
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).
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.
Habeas Relief Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 - The Legal
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
(A) the applicant has exhausted the remedies
available in the courts of the State . . . .
28 U.S.C. § 2254.
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).
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).
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).
Procedural Standards for Habeas Relief