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Earls v. Superintendent Sci-Huntingdon

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 25, 2019



          C. Darnell Jones, J.

         I. Introduction

         On November 19, 2010, Petitioner Anthony Wayne Earls (“Petitioner”) was convicted in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit first degree murder, carrying a firearm without a license, and possession of an instrument of crime. (No. CP-23-CR-0004736-2009; Trial Tr. 82-83, Nov. 19, 2010.) On February 11, 2011, Petitioner was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for first degree murder; as well as a consecutive term of 240 to 480 months' imprisonment for conspiracy; a consecutive term of 30 to 60 months' imprisonment for carrying firearms without a license; and, a concurrent term of 9 to 36 months' imprisonment for possession of an instrument of crime. (Ct. Com. Pl. Crim. Docket 3-4, 11.)

         Petitioner now seeks habeas relief from his state court convictions. Pursuant to Local Civil Rule 72.1.IV(c), the matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). Judge Rice issued an R&R denying Petitioner's request for relief (ECF No. 11), in response to which Petitioner filed Objections. (ECF No. 16.) For the reasons set forth below, Petitioner's Objections shall be overruled.

         II. History

         A. Factual Background

         The following facts are supported by evidence presented at trial:

         On March 19, 2009, two masked individuals entered Gino's Pizza in Chester, Pennsylvania and opened fire. (Trial Tr. 55, Nov. 12, 2010.) Fard Simms was shot and killed. (Trial Tr. 55-56, Nov. 12, 2010.) On August 6, 2009, after a witness claimed Petitioner had confessed to the crime and another witness identified him as one of the shooters, a warrant was issued for Petitioner's arrest. (Trial Tr. vol. 2 186, 214, 234-36, Nov. 16, 2010.) Petitioner was arrested on June 16, 2010 and was charged with murder, conspiracy, carrying a firearm without a license, and possession of an instrument of crime via Information filed on September 8, 2010. (App. Vol. 1 at 43, 47-55.)

         On October 8, 2010, Petitioner motioned to have his case severed from that of his co-defendant, Charles Smith. (App. Vol. 1 at 57-65.) The Severance Motion was grounded in concerns about the testimony of Braheem Scott, a witness who alleged that Smith had confessed to the murder in two separate conversations between the men. (App. Vol. 1 at 67 n.3.) In the first conversation, Scott alleged Smith told him that both he and Petitioner had shot the victim. In the second, Scott alleged Smith stated he shot the victim and Petitioner fled the area immediately prior to the shooting. (App. Vol. 1 at 67 n.3.)

         In his Motion for Severance, Petitioner argued that Scott's statements were inconsistent and only admissible in Smith's trial because under Pennsylvania law, while any reference to Petitioner that inculpated him in Scott's first statement would be subject to redaction, the references to Petitioner in the second statement would not. (App. Vol. 1 at 60-61.) As such, Petitioner argued that he would be prejudiced by the statements, as the unredacted second statement would serve to reveal that he was the alleged co-shooter referenced in the first statement. Petitioner believed this would violate both his right to confront witnesses and his right to a fair trial. (App. Vol. 1 at 61.) Petitioner's counsel, William Wismer, subsequently withdrew that Motion after the state agreed to redact both of Scott's statements to avoid any mention of Petitioner. (App. Vol. 1 at 67.)

         Before Petitioner's case proceeded to trial, the District Attorney offered him a plea deal. (Trial Tr. 14, Nov. 15, 2010.) Although Wismer initially misunderstood the applicable sentencing guidelines and misinformed Petitioner when they discussed the terms of the plea deal, Wismer subsequently discussed the accurate sentencing guidelines with Petitioner. (Trial Tr. 14-17, Nov. 15, 2010.) Petitioner elected to reject the plea offer, and in so doing, he informed the court that he believed he had had a “full and fair opportunity to talk privately to Mr. Wismer” about the plea offer and its various consequences, and that he was satisfied with Wismer's representation. (Trial Tr. 15-21, Nov. 15, 2010.)

         During the trial, which began in November 2010, the Commonwealth presented various witnesses who testified to seeing two shooters enter Gino's Pizza. (Trial Tr. vol. 1, 12, 83-86, 155-57, Nov. 16, 2010) The Commonwealth also presented Scott as a witness, and he testified that Petitioner's co-defendant, Smith, said an “other person” accompanied Smith and “also pulled a gun out and also started shooting.” (Trial Tr. vol. 1, 89-90, Nov. 16, 2010.) While Scott was cross-examined by Smith's counsel, Wismer did not cross-examine Scott. (Trial Tr. vol. 1, 95-122, 132, Nov. 16, 2010.)

         Shreeda Dawson, Smith's ex-girlfriend, was also a witness for the Commonwealth. Dawson testified to separate conversations she allegedly had with both Smith and Petitioner, wherein they both confessed to being involved with the shooting at Gino's. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 186, 235-41, Nov. 16, 2010.) Dawson testified that Smith told her he had shot someone at Gino's. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 186, Nov. 16, 2010.) Dawson testified that a few days later, after Smith had been arrested, she took a car ride with Petitioner and he asked her why Smith had been arrested. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 219-220, Nov. 16, 2010.) During her testimony about her conversation with Petitioner, Dawson mentioned Smith by name, even though her testimony was only to be offered against Petitioner. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 219-220, Nov. 16, 2010.) The jury was then excused, and the court directed Dawson as follows:

Ms. Dawson, as I believe you discussed previous[ly] with Mr. Miller, with regard to certain testimony there's things you're permitted to say and other things you aren't permitted to say. . . . In recounting conversations you supposedly had with Mr. Earles [sic], you are not in any way, shape or form to refer to Mr. Smith, be it as Mr. Smith, be it as Charles, be it as Chuck, be it as Gees . . . and any other way. Do you understand this? . . . If answering requires you to note mention of another person, you are to refer to such just as that, the other person. You understand?

(Trial Tr. vol. 2, 228-29, Nov. 16, 2010.) Dawson agreed. (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 229, Nov. 16, 2010.) She then testified that Petitioner told her he was at Gino's “with another individual and that. . . . him and the individual shot the victim.” (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 235-36, Nov. 16, 2010.) The prosecutor asked how Petitioner was involved in the murder, and Dawson said that “[h]is involvement was that he shot the victim because the victim stole his car.” (Trial Tr. vol. 2, 240-241, Nov. 16, 2010.)

         During his closing statement, the District Attorney referenced Dawson's testimony and said: “I don't know why [Smith and Petitioner] felt the need to get down on their knees and confess. But just because these two guys are stupid and they both confessed to [Dawson] doesn't mean she's lying.” (Trial Tr. 178, Nov. 18, 2010.)

         The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict for both Petitioner and Smith. (Trial Tr. 82-83, Nov. 19, 2010.) Petitioner was sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2011. (Ct. Com. Pl. Crim. Docket at 3-4, 11.) Petitioner subsequently moved for a new trial, as well as Judgment of Acquittal and/or Arrest of Judgment, arguing the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and that the court abused its discretion by: (1) granting the Commonwealth's Motion in Limine permitting the introduction of evidence that was related to Petitioner being a victim of robbery; and, (2) charging the Jury regarding flight as consciousness of guilt. (App. to Resp't's Br., Vol. 1 at 73-75.) The court denied his post-trial motion on July 15, 2011. (App. to Resp't's Br., Vol. 2 at 5-6.)

         B. Procedural Background

         i. Direct and Collateral Appeals

         Petitioner filed a direct appeal of his conviction in July 2011, arguing that the jury's guilty verdicts were against the weight of the evidence, and that the trial court had abused its discretion by failing to grant him a new trial. Commonwealth v. Earls, 1982 EDA 2011, at 6 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 19, 2012). The Superior Court affirmed his conviction and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court subsequently denied review in May 2013. Commonwealth v. Earls, 68 A.3d 907 (Pa. 2013).

         In January 2014, Petitioner filed a pro se petition for relief under Pennsylvania's Post-Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 9541, et seq. (“PCRA”) raising multiple claims of trial counsel ineffectiveness. (Ct. Com. Pl. Crim. Docket at 16.) The PCRA Court appointed counsel to represent Petitioner; however, appointed counsel ultimately filed a Turner/Finley “no-merit” letter and sought permission to withdraw from the case. (App. to Resp't's Br., Vol. 4, ECF 10-5, at 33-50.) Petitioner then sought permission to proceed pro se and filed an amended petition in March 2016. (Ct. Com. Pl. Crim. Docket at 18.) In October 2016, the PCRA Court denied the petition, finding all of Petitioner's claims meritless. (Ct. Com. Pl. Crim. Docket at 18.) Although Petitioner filed a notice of Appeal, he failed to file a Statement of Matters Complained of on Appeal pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b) (“1925(b) Statement”) as ordered by the PCRA Court. Commonwealth v. Earls, 175 A.3d 375 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017). In July 2017, the Superior Court affirmed the PCRA Court's finding that Petitioner waived all his claims based on his failure to file a 1925(b) Statement. Commonwealth v. Earls, 3408 EDA 2016, PRCA App. Dkt. at 4. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Petitioner's request for review in March 2018. Commonwealth v. Earls, 182 A.3d 449 (Pa. 2018). In April 2018, Petitioner timely filed the instant habeas petition. (Habeas Pet., ECF 1.)

         ii. Habeas Petition

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Petitioner timely filed a pro se habeas action in federal court on April 12, 2018 (“Petition”), alleging the following instances of ineffective assistance of counsel:

1. Failure to cross-examine Scott and failure to object to the redacted testimony offered at trial;
2. Failure to sever Petitioner's trial from that of his co-defendant, Smith;
3. Failure to adequately prepare for Petitioner's trial;
4. Failure to inform Petitioner about the details of the plea deal offered by the District attorney;
5. Failure to move for a mistrial after Dawson broke the redaction agreement; and,
6. Failure to object to prosecutorial misconduct, or the prosecution's use of two conflicting theories of the crime.

(Pet. 5-12.)

         In response, the Delaware County District Attorney argued that Petitioner's claims were procedurally defaulted by virtue of Petitioner's failure to file a 1925(b) Statement with the PCRA Court and by virtue of the Superior Court having deemed his claims waived on appeal. In addition, the District Attorney argued that notwithstanding the procedural default, all of Petitioner's claims were meritless.

         Upon review of Petitioner's claims in conjunction with the record, United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice issued an R&R, in which he recommended dismissal of all claims presented by Petitioner. As referenced above, Petitioner has objected to Judge Rice's R&R, and the Commonwealth has ...

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