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LaRose v. Maldonado

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 16, 2016

JOHN LaROSE, Petitioner,



         Petitioner Jose Pagan brings this action for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. He is serving a sentence of twenty years of imprisonment following his conviction in a Connecticut state court of multiple charges stemming from his sexual abuse of a child. He now raises several grounds to challenge his conviction, including that he received ineffective assistance of counsel both at trial and in his first state habeas proceeding, that the trial court made improper evidentiary determinations, that the trial court should have directed a verdict in his favor, and that the admission of evidence turned over by his wife violated his constitutional rights because she was an agent of the state. Because it is clear that petitioner‘s claims are unreviewable or that Connecticut state courts did not unreasonably apply federal law in rejecting them, I will deny the petition.


         In June 2001, petitioner twice sexually abused a child. Once he forced her to perform oral sex on him, and then later that month he forced her to have vaginal intercourse with him. In December 2001, he offered to pay her $100 a month to have sex with him.

         Petitioner was tried before a jury on two counts of first degree sexual assault and one count of second degree sexual assault. The jury convicted him on all charges. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal, id., and he has filed multiple state petitions for writs of habeas corpus that have been denied. See Docs. #11-8, #11-10, #11-19. Petitioner has now filed the instant federal habeas corpus petition that raises several claims.


         Federal courts have very limited authority to overturn state court convictions. A state court defendant who seeks relief by way of a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 must show that his state court conviction was rendered by means of a very clear violation of federal law-i.e., that the state court‘s adjudication of his claims "(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States, " or that it "(2) 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)(1)-(2); see also Chrysler v. Guiney, 806 F.3d 104, 118 (2d Cir. 2015) (reviewing governing standard).

         This is a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings, which demands that state-court decisions be given the benefit of the doubt." Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011). As the Supreme Court has more recently explained, "[w]hen reviewing state criminal convictions on collateral review, federal judges are required to afford state courts due respect by overturning their decisions only when there could be no reasonable dispute that they were wrong." Woods v. Donald, 135 S.Ct 1372, 1376 (2015) (per curiam).

         Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Petitioner first argues that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel both at trial and for his first habeas petition. I will consider this claim only as to his trial counsel, because petitioner did not have a constitutional right in the first instance to the representation of counsel for his state habeas proceedings. See Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 555-57 (1987).

         A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is reviewed in light of the well-established, two-part standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). First, a defendant must show deficient performance-that counsel‘s conduct "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" established by "prevailing professional norms"-and, second, a defendant must show that this deficient performance caused prejudice. Id. at 687-88.

         As to the showing of deficient performance, "[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel‘s performance must be highly deferential, " and "a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel‘s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance" and that "the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy." Id. at 689. As to the showing of prejudice, there must be a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel‘s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. The Strickland test itself is deferential to the strategic choices of counsel, and when a Strickland claim is presented by way of a state court prisoner‘s federal petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a federal court‘s review of an ineffective assistance claim becomes "doubly deferential" to the determinations of trial counsel and the state courts. See Woods, 135 S.Ct. at 1376 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Petitioner appears to raise two ineffective assistance claims. He does not make clear in his petition what the factual bases are for his claims beyond the bare statement that "[m]y lawyers failed to bring witness and documents forward during my trials and habeas petitions." Doc. #1 at 9. Based on the record at his state habeas hearings, he seems to argue principally that he received ineffective assistance because his lawyers failed to call as witnesses his brother, Louis LaRose, and Jessica Ramirez, a friend of the victim‘s. According to petitioner, LaRose would have testified that when petitioner went to visit him over Christmas, it was not because he was fleeing the state. He also claims that Ramirez would have testified that she was at petitioner‘s house with the victim and two young men on the night of June 2.

         Petitioner raised these claims in his state habeas cases, and both witnesses-La Rose and Ramirez-testified before the second habeas judge. The first habeas judge correctly identified the Strickland standard, and found that, even assuming for the sake of argument that the attorney‘s performance was deficient, there was no plausible prejudice to petitioner from the failure to call LaRose. Doc. #11-10 at 15-17. The second habeas judge, delivering an oral ruling, did not explicitly identify the Strickland standard, but his discussion of the issues-which concluded that the testimony would not have been helpful and that petitioner‘s habeas counsel had not acted deficiently-makes clear that he was appropriately applying the prongs of Strickland in rejecting petitioner‘s claims. My review of the record similarly confirms that the state judges made no unreasonable factual determinations in reaching these conclusions. I therefore conclude-in light of the highly deferential standard that applies to review of such claims-that the state ...

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