United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
PUPO LENIHAN MAGISTRATE JUDGE
pending before the Court is a Petition for Writ of Habeas
Corpus (“Habeas Petition”) filed by Petitioner
William Lee Brown (hereinafter referred to as
“Appellant, ” or “Defendant”)
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. (ECF No. 3). Petitioner
challenges his judgment of sentence imposed after he was
convicted in a non-jury trial of one count of first-degree
murder, two counts of first-degree murder of an unborn child
and one count of third-degree murder. For the following
reasons, the Habeas Petition and a Certificate of
Appealability will be denied.
Pre-trial and Trial Proceedings
October 27, 2003, Petitioner was charged by criminal
information filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny
County, Pennsylvania, Criminal Division, with one court of
Criminal Homicide (18 Pa. C.S. § 2501(a)) and two counts
of Criminal Homicide of an Unborn Child (18 Pa. C.S. §
2604) in connection with the deaths of Tiffany Griffin and
her unborn twins. (Docket Sheet at CP-02-CR-13412-2003,
Res't Ex. 1, ECF No. 29-1, pp.1-23); (Criminal
Information at CC No. 200313412, Resp't Ex. 2, ECF No.
291, pp.24-29). The Commonwealth gave notice of its intention
to seek the death penalty. (Resp't Ex. 2, ECF No. 29-1,
January 6, 2004, Petitioner was charged by criminal
information filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny
County, Pennsylvania, Criminal Division, with one count each
of Criminal Attempt (Homicide) (18 Pa. C.S. § 901(a)),
Aggravated Assault (18 Pa. C.S. § 2702(a)(1)) and
Burglary (18 Pa. C.S § 3502), in connection with the
attempted murder of Carmen Griffin, the mother of Tiffany
Griffin. (Docket Sheet at CP-02-CR- 15665-2003, Resp't
Ex. 3, ECF No. 29-1, pp.30-46); (Criminal Information at CC
No. 200315665, Resp't Ex. 4, ECF No. 29-1, pp.47-51). As
a result of her injuries, however, Carmen Griffin died before
trial, so the Commonwealth sought and was granted permission
to withdraw the attempt and aggravated assault charges and
charge Petitioner with Carmen Griffin's homicide. The
criminal information was filed on April 8, 2005. (Docket
Sheet at CP-02-CR-04266-2005, Resp't Ex. 5, ECF No. 29-1,
pp.52-64); (Criminal Information at CC No. 200504266,
Resp't Ex. 6, ECF No. 29-1, pp.6569). The Commonwealth
again gave notice of its intention to seek the death penalty.
(Resp't Ex. 6, ECF No. 29-1, p.66).
September 8, 2005, attorney John Kent Lewis, Esquire, filed
an Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion seeking suppression of evidence
and pre-trial habeas corpus relief, and giving notice of
defendant's intention to pursue an insanity and/or mental
infirmity defense. (Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion, Resp't Ex.
7, ECF No. 29-1, pp.70-73). An Atkinshearing took
place before the Honorable Lawrence J. O'Toole on July
23, 2007, during which argument was presented by the defense
in an attempt to bar imposition of the death penalty on the
basis that Petitioner was mentally retarded. Petitioner was
represented at that hearing by attorney John Knorr, Esquire,
and John Elash, Esquire. The Commonwealth was represented by
Assistant District Attorney Lisa Pellegrini.
November 2007, the court appointed new counsel, attorney
Thomas N. Farrell, Esquire, to represented Petitioner at
trial, and Attorney Knorr was to continue to represent
Petitioner during the penalty phase.
February 28, 2008, a suppression hearing took place before
Judge O'Toole, with Attorney Farrell representing
Petitioner and ADA Pellegrini appearing on behalf of the
Commonwealth. The following day, Judge O'Toole denied the
defense's motion to suppress and request for pre-trial
habeas corpus relief. Judge O'Toole also denied the
defense's motion to bar the imposition of the death
penalty. (Orders, Resp't Ex. 8, ECF No. 29-1, pp.74-76).
case was reassigned to the Honorable Jeffrey A. Manning on
October 27, 2008.
March 31, 2009, Petitioner, represented by Attorney Knorr and
Attorney Farrell, appeared before Judge Manning and waived
his right to a jury trial. (Waiver of Jury Trial and
Explanation of Defendant's Right, Resp't Ex. 9, ECF
No. 29-1, pp.77-86).
April 7, 2009, Petitioner, represented by Attorney Knorr and
Attorney Farrell, appeared before Judge Manning for a
non-jury trial. ADA Pellegrini represented the Commonwealth.
On April 16, 2009, at the close of the trial, the court found
Petitioner guilty of first-degree murder for the death of
Tiffany Griffin, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder
for the deaths of her unborn children, and guilty of
third-degree murder for the death of Carmen Griffin. He was
acquitted of burglary.
28, 2009, in a separate proceeding, the court found that
mitigating circumstances were not outweighed by the
aggravating circumstances and therefore did not impose the
death penalty but sentenced Petitioner instead to three
consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the first-degree
murders of Tiffany Griffin and her unborn children. The court
also imposed a consecutive term of 20 to 40 years'
imprisonment for the third-degree murder of Carmen Griffin.
(Order of Sentences, Resp't Ex. 10, ECF No. 29-1,
pp.87-93). No. post-sentence motions were filed.
Direct Appeal Proceedings
11, 2009, Attorney Farrell filed a Notice of Appeal on
Petitioner's behalf only as to CP-02-CR-13412-2003, and
the appeal was docketed at Pennsylvania Superior Court docket
No. 1021 WDA 2009. (Superior Court Docket Sheet, Resp't
Ex. 11, ECF No. 29-2, pp.1-6). On January 19, 2010, Judge
Manning filed his Opinion pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of
Appellate Procedure 1925(a). (Resp't Ex. 12, ECF No.
29-2, p.7-18). By order dated July 13, 2010, Petitioner was
granted leave to amend the Notice of Appeal to include both
CP-02-CR- 15665-2003 and CP-02-CR-04266-2005. (Resp't Ex.
1, ECF No. 29-1, p.14). The Appellant's Brief was filed
on August 2, 2010 (Resp't Ex. 13, ECF No. 29-2,
pp.19-90), and the Appellee's Brief was filed on October
5, 2010 (Resp't Ex. 14, ECF No. 29-3, pp.1-59). On
February 25, 2011, the Superior Court issued a Memorandum
Opinion rejecting Petitioner's challenge to the
sufficiency of the evidence as to the homicide charges
involving Tiffany Griffin and her unborn children but
remanded the matter so that Judge O'Toole could make
findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to his
denial of Petitioner's pre-trial motion to suppress.
(Resp't Ex. 15, ECF No. 29-4, pp.1-9). On March 21, 2011,
in accordance with the remand, Judge O'Toole issued his
opinion. (Resp't Ex. 16, ECF No. 29-4, pp.10-14). A
supplemental brief was filed by Appellant on April 4, 2011
(Resp't Ex. 17, ECF No. 29-4, pp.15-32) and an amended
brief was filed by Appellee on May 25, 2011 (Resp't Ex.
18, ECF No. 29-4, pp.33-51). On June 16, 2011, the Superior
Court filed a second Memorandum Opinion, which affirmed
Petitioner's judgment of sentence. (Resp't Ex. 19,
13, 2011, Attorneys Farrell and Knorr filed a Petition for
Allowance of Appeal (“PAA”) in the Pennsylvania
Supreme Court (Resp't Ex. 21, ECF No. 29-5, pp.4-75),
which was docketed at No. 358 WAL 2011. (Pennsylvania Supreme
Court Docket Sheet, Resp't Ex. 20, ECF No. 29-5, pp.1-3).
The Commonwealth filed a “No Answer” Letter in
response to the PAA on July 15, 2011. (Resp't Ex. 22, ECF
No. 29-5, p.76). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the
PAA by Order dated October 25, 2011. (Resp't Ex. 23, ECF
No. 29-5, p.77).
13, 2012, Petitioner filed a pro se petition
pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act
(“PCRA”). (Resp't Ex. 1, ECF No. 29-1, p.15).
The PCRA court appointed attorney Ryan James, Esquire, who
filed an Amended PCRA Petition on behalf of Petitioner on
September 24, 2013. (Resp't Ex. 24, ECF No. 29-6,
pp.1-16). The Commonwealth filed its Answer on November 25,
2013. (Resp't Ex. 25, ECF No. 29-6, pp.17-58). On
February 13, 2014, Judge Manning issued a Notice of Intent to
Dismiss the Amended PCRA Petition. (Resp't Ex. 26, ECF
No. 29-6, pp.59-61). By order dated April 14, 2014, Judge
Manning dismissed the Amended PCRA Petition. (Resp't Ex.
27, ECF No. 29-6, pp.62-63). Three days later, on April 17,
2014, Attorney James filed a Reply Nunc Pro Tunc to
the PCRA court's Notice of Intent to Dismiss (Resp't
Ex. 28, ECF No. 29-6, pp.64-69), and he filed a Motion for
Reconsideration on May 5, 2014 (Resp't Ex. 29, ECF No.
29-6, pp.70-74). The PCRA court did not rule on that motion.
16, 2014, Attorney James filed a Notice of Appeal in the
Superior Court on Petitioner's behalf, which was docketed
at No. 801 WDA 2014. (Superior Court Docket Sheet, Resp't
Ex. 30, ECF No. 29-7, pp.1-4). The Brief for Appellant was
filed on December 15, 2014 (Resp't Ex. 31, ECF No. 29-7,
pp.5-41) and the Brief for Appellee was filed on January 14,
2015 (Resp't Ex. 32, ECF No. 29-81-62). On April 24,
2015, the Superior Court issued a Memorandum Opinion
affirming the denial of PCRA relief. (Resp't Ex. 33, ECF
No. 29-8, pp.63-79).
21, 2015, Petitioner filed a PAA in the Pennsylvania Supreme
Court (Resp't Ex. 35, ECF No. 29-9, pp.4-40), which was
docketed at No. 198 WAL 2015 (Resp't Ex. 34, ECF No.
29-9, pp.1-3). The Commonwealth filed a “No
Answer” Letter in response to the PAA on May 22, 2015
(Resp't Ex. 36, ECF No. 29-9, p.41), and the PAA was
denied by order dated December 7, 2015 (Resp't Ex. 37,
ECF No. 29-9, p.42).
October 8, 2015, while Petitioner's PAA was still pending
in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Petitioner filed a second
pro se PCRA petition. (Resp't Ex. 38, ECF No.
29-10, pp.1-10). On November 16, 2015, the PCRA court issued
a Notice of Intent to Dismiss the PCRA petition (Resp't
Ex. 39, ECF No. 29-10, pp.11-12), to which Petitioner filed a
response on December 11, 2015 (Resp't Ex. 40, ECF No.
29-10, pp.13-22). The PCRA court dismissed the petition on
December 22, 2015. (Resp't Ex. 41, ECF No. 29-10, p.23).
January 14, 2016, Petitioner filed his Habeas Petition and
Brief in Support thereof in this case. (ECF Nos. 1, 1-1).
They were docketed after Petitioner paid the filing fee on
February 5, 2016. (ECF Nos. 3, 4). Respondents filed their
Answer to the Habeas Petition on January 23, 2017. (ECF No.
29). Petitioner filed a Reply to the Respondents' Answer
on February 27, 2017 (ECF No. 32), and he filed two Addendums
to his Habeas Petition on January 24, 2018 and April 27,
2018, respectively (ECF Nos. 39, 40).
January 20, 2016, Petitioner filed a Notice of Appeal in the
Superior Court, which was docketed at No. 180 WDA 2016.
(Superior Court Docket Sheet, Resp't Ex. 42, ECF No.
29-10, pp.24-27). His Appellant Brief was filed on April 13,
2016 (Resp't Ex. 43, ECF No. 29-10, pp.28-60) and the
Brief for Appellee was filed on May 13, 2016 (Resp't Ex.
44, ECF No. 29-11, pp.1-37). On August 4, 2016, the Superior
Court affirmed the dismissal of Petitioner's second PCRA
petition. (Resp't Ex. 47, ECF No. 29-11, pp.55-60).
Petitioner did not file a PAA in the Pennsylvania Supreme
February 23, 2016, while the appeal of his second PCRA
petition was still pending in the Superior Court, and after
he filed his Habeas Petition in this case, Petitioner filed a
third pro se PCRA petition, which he titled
“Motion for Post Conviction DNA Testing.”
(Resp't Ex. 45, ECF No. 29-11, pp.38-53). The PCRA court
dismissed the Motion without prejudice on May 6, 2016.
(Resp't Ex. 46, ECF No. 29-11, p.54).
Standard of Review
to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996
(“AEDPA”), a federal habeas court may overturn a
state court's resolution of the merits of a
constitutional issue only if the state court decision was
“contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application
of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the
Supreme Court of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. §
2254(d)(1). The phrase “clearly established Federal
law, ” as the term is used in Section 2254(d)(1) is
restricted “to the holdings, as opposed to the dicta of
[the United States Supreme Court] decisions as of the time of
the relevant state-court decision.” Williams v.
Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 365 (2000).
petitioner is able to satisfy the requirements of §
2254(d)(1), then the state court decision is not entitled to
deference under AEDPA and the federal habeas court proceeds
to a de novo evaluation of the
constitutional claim on the merits. See Tucker v.
Superintendent Graterford SCI, 677 Fed.Appx.
768, 776 (3d Cir. 2017) (citing Panetti v.
Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 953 (2007) (“When . . .
the requirement set forth in § 2254(d)(1) is satisfied[,
] [a] federal court must then resolve the claim without the
deference AEDPA otherwise requires.”). Indeed, the
Third Circuit recently explained that,
[w]hile a determination that a state court's analysis is
contrary to or an unreasonable application of clearly
established federal law is necessary to grant habeas relief,
it is not alone sufficient. That is because, despite applying
an improper analysis, the state court still may have reached
the correct result, and a federal court can only grant the
Great Writ if it is “firmly convinced that a federal
constitutional right has been violated, ”
Williams, 529 U.S. at 389, 120 S.Ct. 1495. See
also Horn v. Banks, 536 U.S. 266, 272, 122 S.Ct. 2147,
153 L.Ed.2d 301 (2002) (“[w]hile it is of course a
necessary prerequisite to federal habeas relief that a
prisoner satisfy the AEDPA standard of review . . . none of
our post-AEDPA cases have suggested that a writ of habeas
corpus should automatically issue if a prisoner satisfies the
AEDPA standard”). Thus, when a federal court reviewing
a habeas petition concludes that the state court analyzed the
petitioner's claim in a manner that contravenes clearly
established federal law, it then must proceed to review the
merits of the claim de novo to evaluate if a
constitutional violation occurred. See Lafler v.
Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 174, 132 S.Ct. 1376, 182 L.Ed.2d
Vickers v. Superintendent Graterford SCI, 858 F.3d
841, 848-89 (3d Cir. 2017) (internal footnote omitted).
AEDPA further provides for relief if an adjudication
“resulted in a decision that 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)(2). Under § 2254(d)(2), a state
court decision is based on an “unreasonable
determination of the facts” if the state court's
factual findings are “objectively unreasonable in light
of the evidence presented in the state-court proceeding,
” which requires review of whether there was sufficient
evidence to support the state court's factual findings.
See Miller-El v. Cockrell, 537 U.S. 322, 340 (2003).
Within this overarching standard, a petitioner may attack
specific factual determinations that were made by the state
court, and that are subsidiary to the ultimate decision.
Here, § 2254(e)(1) comes into play, instructing that the
state court's determination must be afforded a
presumption of correctness that the petitioner can rebut only
by clear and convincing evidence. Lambert v.
Blackwell, 387 F.3d 210, 235 (3d Cir. 2004).
raises five claims for relief in his Habeas Petition: (1) the
Commonwealth failed to present sufficient evidence to support
the first-degree murder conviction, (2) the trial court erred
in denying the defense's pre-trial motion to suppress,
(3) the trial court erred in accepting Petitioner's
waiver of his right to a jury trial, (4) counsel was
ineffective for failing to call two alibi witnesses, and (5)
PCRA counsel was ineffective for failing to file a timely
second amended PCRA petition raising additional claims.
Petitioner also presents a sixth claim in his two addendums
asserting that DNA testing would prove his actual innocence.
Claim One: Sufficiency of the Evidence
first claim is that the Commonwealth failed to present
sufficient evidence to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he
had the specific intent to kill Tiffany Griffin. In state
court, Petitioner properly and fairly presented this claim in
his direct appeal proceedings and it was adjudicated on the
merits by the Superior Court. Therefore, this claim is deemed
exhausted for purposes of federal habeas review. The inquiry
before this Court is whether the Superior Court's
adjudication of this claim was contrary to, or involved an
unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law.
See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).
clearly established federal law to analyze a sufficiency of
the evidence claim is set forth in Jackson v.
Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 324 (1979), where the United
States Supreme Court held that “in a challenge to a
state conviction brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 . . .
the applicant is entitled to habeas corpus relief if it is
found that upon the record evidence adduced at the trial no
rational trier of fact could have found proof of guilty
beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a federal habeas corpus
proceeding where the sufficiency of the evidence is in
[T]he critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the
evidence to support a criminal conviction . . . does not
require a court to ask itself whether it believes
that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt . . . . Instead, the relevant question is
whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of
fact could have found the essential elements of the crime
beyond a reasonable doubt.
Jackson, 443 U.S. at 318-19 (internal citations
omitted) (emphasis in original). See also
Robertson v. Klem, 580 F.3d 159, 165 (3d Cir. 2009);
Orban v. Vaughn, 123 F.3d 727, 731-33 (3d Cir.
applying the Jackson standard, the reviewing court
must consider each substantive element of the criminal
offense at issue as defined under state law. Coleman v.
Jackson, 132 S.Ct. 2060, 2064 (2012); Jackson,
443 U.S. at 324, n.16. “While the elements of a
criminal conviction are to be defined by state law, a
reviewing court's determination of whether sufficient
evidence was produced to satisfy each element is governed by
federal law. Vaughter v. Folino, 2014 WL 1152540, at
*15 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 24, 2014) (citing Coleman, 132
S.Ct. at 2064).
Supreme Court has identified two scenarios where a state
court decision will fall into section 2254(d)(1)'s
“contrary to” clause. First, a state court
decision will be “contrary to” clearly
established federal law when the court “applies a rule
that contradicts the governing law set forth in [Supreme
Court] cases.” Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S.
362, 405 (2000). It set forth the following example where a
state court decision would be “contrary to”
Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the
familiar clearly established federal law governing
ineffective assistance of counsel claims.
If a state court were to reject a prisoner's claim of
ineffective assistance of counsel on the grounds that the
prisoner had not established by a preponderance of the
evidence that the result of his criminal proceeding would
have been different, that decision would be
‘diametrically different,' ‘opposite in
character or nature,' and ‘mutually opposed' to
our clearly established precedent because we held in
Strickland that the prisoner need only demonstrate a
‘reasonable probability that . . . the result of the
proceeding would have been different.'
Williams, 529 U.S. at 405-06 (internal citations
omitted). The Supreme Court said that a state court decision
will also be “contrary to” clearly established
federal law if it “confronts a set of facts that are
materially indistinguishable from a decision of this Court
and nevertheless arrives at a result different from our
precedent.” Id. at 406.
case, both the trial judge (in his Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a)
Opinion) and the Pennsylvania Superior Court applied a
well-known Pennsylvania test for evaluating a challenge to
the sufficiency of the evidence set forth by the Pennsylvania
Superior Court in previous decisions. See
(Resp't Ex. 12, ECF No. 29-2, p.10) (citing
Commonwealth v. Passmore, 857 A.2d 697, 706 (Pa.
Super. Ct. 2004). See also (Resp't Ex. 15, ECF
No. 29-4, pp.4-5) (citing Commonwealth v. King, 990
A.2d 1172, 1178 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2010). While neither state
court cited to Jackson, the Third Circuit has found
that the Pennsylvania test for sufficiency of the evidence
challenges is identical to the federal standard set forth in
Jackson. See Evans v. Court of Common
Pleas, Delaware County, 959 F.2d 1227, 1233 (3d
Cir. 1992) (“the formulation of the Pennsylvania test
for insufficiency of the evidence is almost identical to that
under federal law”). As such, the adjudication of this
claim by the Pennsylvania Superior Court was not contrary to
clearly established federal law.
“Unreasonable application of”
Court's next inquiry is whether the adjudication of
Petitioner's sufficiency of the evidence claim was an
unreasonable application of Jackson. The Supreme
Court has said that under the “unreasonable
application” clause of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1),
“a federal habeas court may not grant relief simply
because that court concludes in its independent judgment that
the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established
federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that
application must also be unreasonable.”
Williams, 529 U.S. at 411. The Supreme Court later
expanded on this interpretation of the “unreasonable
application” clause explaining that the state
court's decision must be “objectively unreasonable,
” not merely wrong; even “clear error” will
not suffice. Locklyer v. Andrade, 538 U.S. 63, 75
(2003). “As a condition for obtaining habeas corpus
from a federal court, a state prisoner must show that the
state court's ruling on the claim being presented in
federal court was so lacking in justification that there was
an error well understood and comprehended in existing law
beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”
Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).
been entitled to relief on this claim in his direct appeal,
Petitioner had to show that the evidence, viewed in the light
most favorable to the Commonwealth, was insufficient to
enable a fact-finder to find beyond a reasonable doubt that
he acted with the specific intent to kill Tiffany Griffin.
The Superior Court, as required, identified the elements of
first-degree murder and quoted the applicable statutory
language defining an “intentional killing.”
(Resp't Ex. 15, ECF No. 29-4, pp.3-4). It also noted the
defenses of ...