United States District Court, D. Connecticut
RULING DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS
R. Underhill United States District Judge
petitioner, Lawrence Smith, is an inmate currently confined
at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield,
Connecticut. He brings this action pro se for a writ
of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254,
challenging his 2006 Connecticut conviction on one count of
murder, one count of felony murder, one count of conspiracy
to commit murder, one count of conspiracy to commit robbery
and one count of hindering prosecution. For the reasons that
follow, I deny Smith's petition.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
federal court will entertain a petition for writ of habeas
corpus challenging a state court conviction only if the
petitioner claims that his custody violates federal law or
the United States Constitution. See 28 U.S.C. §
2254(a). A claim that a state conviction was obtained in
violation of state law is not cognizable in federal court.
See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 68 (1991).
2254(d) “imposes a highly deferential standard for
evaluating state-court rulings and demands that state-court
decisions be given the benefit of the doubt.”
Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773 (2010) (citations
and internal quotation marks omitted). A federal court cannot
grant a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by a
person in state custody with regard to any claim that was
rejected on the merits by the state court, unless the
adjudication of the claim in state court either:
(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;
(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). “Th[at] standard . . . is
‘difficult to meet.'” Metrish v.
Lancaster, __U.S.__, 133 S.Ct. 1781, 1786 (2013).
established federal law is found in holdings-not dicta-of
Supreme Court decisions at the time of the state court
ruling. See Howes v. Fields, 565 U.S. 499, 505
(2012); Carey v. Musladin, 549 U.S. 70, 74 (2006).
Thus, “[c]ircuit precedent does not constitute
‘clearly established Federal law, as determined by the
Supreme Court.'” Parker v. Matthews, 567
U.S. 37, 48 (2012) (per curiam) (quoting 28 U.S.C. §
2254(d)(1)). The law may consist of either a
“generalized standard” or a “bright-line
rule designed to effectuate such a standard in a particular
context.” Kennaugh v. Miller, 289 F.3d 36, 42
(2d Cir. 2002).
decision is “contrary to” clearly established
federal law where the state court applies a rule different
from that held to be applicable by the Supreme Court, or
where the state court decides a case differently than the
Supreme Court on essentially the same facts. Bell v.
Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 694 (2002). A state court
“unreasonabl[y] appli[es]” Supreme Court law when
the court correctly identifies the governing law, but
unreasonably applies that law to the facts of the case, or
when it refuses to extend a legal principle clearly
established by the Supreme Court to circumstances intended to
be encompassed by the principle. See Davis v. Grant,
532 F.3d 132, 140 (2d Cir. 2008). It is not enough that the
state court decision is incorrect or erroneous. Rather, the
state court application of clearly established law must be
objectively “unreasonable”-a “substantially
higher” standard. See Schriro v. Landrigan,
550 U.S. 465, 473 (2007). A state prisoner must show that the
challenged court ruling “was so lacking in
justification that there was an error well understood and
comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility of
fairminded disagreement.” Harrington v.
Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).
reviewing a habeas petition, a federal court presumes that
the factual determinations of the state court are correct.
The petitioner has the burden of rebutting that presumption
by clear and convincing evidence. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 2254(e)(1); Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S.
170, 181 (2011) (standard for evaluating state-court rulings
where constitutional claims have been considered on the
merits is “highly deferential, ” affords
state-court rulings “the benefit of the doubt, ”
and is “difficult” for a petitioner to meet). In
addition, a federal court's “review under section
2254(d)(1) is limited to the record that was before the state
court that adjudicated the claim on the merits.”
2001, police officers arrested Smith in connection with the
murder of Juan Disla. See State v. Smith, 289 Conn.
598, 603 (2008). The State's Attorney initially charged
Smith with murder and other offenses. On May 31, 2001, at a
probable cause hearing, the State's Attorney filed a
substitute information charging Smith with conspiracy to
commit murder in violation of Connecticut General Statutes
§§ 53a-48(a) and 53a-54a and with kidnapping in the
first degree in violation of Connecticut General Statutes
§ 53a-92. See Id. at 603; Resp't's Mem.
Opp'n Pet. Writ Habeas Corpus, Doc. No. 14, App. C, at 9.
December 5, 2001, in response to Smith's motion for
speedy trial, the State's Attorney informed the court
that a material witness would be unavailable to testify
because he was asserting his Fifth Amendment privilege
against self-incrimination. See Smith, 289 Conn. at
604. The State's Attorney then entered a nolle
prosequi on each charge pending against Smith pursuant
to the missing witness provision of Connecticut General
Statutes § 54-56 and Connecticut Practice Book §
39-30. See Id. at 603. Smith moved to dismiss the
charges on the ground that he had been denied his right to a
speedy trial, but the trial judge denied the motion. See
Id. at 604. The State of Connecticut subsequently
released Smith from custody.
about March 10, 2005, a Meriden police detective executed a
warrant for Smith's arrest in connection with the murder
of Juan Disla. See id.; Resp't's Mem.
Opp'n Pet. Writ Habeas Corpus, Doc. No. 14, App. B, at 4.
On November 15, 2005, the State's Attorney filed a long
form information charging Smith with murder in violation of
Connecticut General Statutes §§ 53a-8(a) and
53a-54a(a), felony murder in violation of Connecticut General
Statutes §§ 53a-48(a) and 53a-54c, conspiracy to
commit murder in violation of Connecticut General Statutes
§§ 53a-48(a) and 53a-54a, conspiracy to commit
robbery in the first degree in violation of Connecticut
General Statutes §§ 53a-48(a) and 53a-134(a)(2) and
hindering prosecution in the first degree in violation of
Connecticut General Statutes § 53a-165(a)(5).
See Resp't's Mem. Opp'n Pet. Writ Habeas
Corpus, Doc. No. 14, App. B, at 10-11.
January 11, 2006, a jury in the Connecticut Superior Court
for the Judicial District of New Haven found Smith guilty of
all five criminal charges. See Id. at 41. On March
23, 2006, a judge sentenced Smith to a total effective
sentence of eighty years of imprisonment. See Id. at
41-42. On May 17, 2006, Smith's sentence was revised to
reflect a total effective sentence of seventy-five years of
imprisonment. See Id. at 8, 42.
appealed his convictions on two grounds. See Smith,
289 Conn. at 602. First, he claimed that the trial judge
violated his right to a speedy trial when he denied
Smith's motion to dismiss the charges against him.
See Id. at 604. Second, Smith asserted that the
trial judge violated his rights under the Confrontation
Clauses of both the federal and state constitutions (as well
as state evidentiary rules) when the judge admitted a
recording of a conversation between Smith's
co-conspirator and the co-conspirator's cellmate. See
Id. at 613-14. On November 25, 2008, the Connecticut
Supreme Court affirmed Smith's conviction. See
Id. at 633.
claims that he then filed a petition for certiorari seeking
review by the United States Supreme Court. He states that the
Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, but does not
provide a case citation or the date of the decision denying
the petition for certiorari. See Pet. Writ Habeas
Corpus, Doc. No. 1, at 4.
November 26, 2008, Smith challenged his conviction by filing
a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the
Connecticut Superior Court for the Judicial District of
Tolland at Rockville. See Pet. Writ Habeas Corpus,
Doc. No. 1, at 5. In a second amended petition filed on
September 13, 2011, Smith raised five grounds, including
claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel,
ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, and actual
innocence. See Resp't's Mem. Opp'n Pet.
Writ Habeas Corpus, Doc. No. 14, App. H, at 4-21. A Superior
Court judge held hearings on the claims in the second amended
petition on September 29 and October 17, 2011. See
id., App. P. On January 20, 2012, Smith's amended
petition was granted solely with respect to the ground that
trial counsel was ineffective in failing to advise Smith
regarding sentence review and in neglecting to file a motion
for sentence review. The Superior Court ordered that
Smith's right to sentence review be restored. With
respect to all other grounds, however, the court denied the
amended petition. See Smith v. Warden, 2012 WL
447640, at *8-*10 (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 20, 2012).
appealed the denial of the other four grounds in the amended
habeas petition. See Smith v. Comm'r of Corr.,
148 Conn.App. 517, 519 (2014). On March 4, 2014, the
Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed the decision of the
trial court. See Id. at 537. On May 21, 2014, the
Connecticut Supreme Court denied certification to appeal the
decision of the appellate court. See Smith v. Comm'r
of Corr., 312 Conn. 189 (2014).
filed the present federal petition on June 23, 2014. Pet.
Writ Habeas Corpus, Doc. No. 1. The Commissioner of
Correction has filed a memorandum in opposition to the
petition. Resp't's Mem. Opp'n Pet. Writ Habeas
Corpus, Doc. No. 14.
Smith's appeal of his conviction, the Connecticut Supreme
Court determined that the jury at Smith's trial
reasonably could have found the following facts:
On July 21, 2000, Robert Marrow and Jonathan Rivers, acting
on the orders of Miguel Estrella, a drug dealer in Meriden,
met the victim, Juan Disla, who was a rival drug dealer, at a
Dairy Queen in Meriden to rob him. During the course of the
robbery, Marrow shot the victim in the leg. Marrow contacted
Estrella for instructions and was told to drive to
[Smith's] house. Marrow and Rivers took the victim, whom
they had bound with duct tape, to [Smith's] house, where
Estrella and [Smith] removed money and cocaine from the
victim's vehicle. Thereafter, [Smith], Estrella, Rivers
and Marrow drove the victim to a remote location in a wooded
area in the Higganum section of Haddam, where the victim was
suffocated to death. The four men left the victim's body
in the woods and returned to Meriden. That evening, Estrella,
Marrow, Rivers and some friends drove the victim's car to
New York state and abandoned it on the highway, where it
eventually was vandalized.
The state also offered evidence, which [Smith] unsuccessfully
challenges in this appeal, to establish the following
additional facts. Two days after the murder, Estrella and
[Smith] returned to the location of the victim's body
with a chainsaw, plastic buckets and several containers of
acid. [Smith] used the chainsaw to dismember the body while
Estrella watched. [Smith] and Estrella then placed the body
parts in the buckets and covered them with acid to destroy
them. The petitioner subsequently disposed of any remains.
The victim's body was never recovered, and no
bloodstains, DNA or bones ever were found.
Smith, 289 Conn. at 602-03.
asserts the same two grounds that he raised on direct appeal
of his conviction and one of the grounds that he raised in
his state habeas petition. He argues that: (1) the trial
judge violated his right to speedy trial by denying
Smith's motion to dismiss the charges against him; (2)
the trial judge violated his rights under the Confrontation
Clause of the Sixth Amendment by permitting the prosecution
to introduce a tape-recorded conversation between one of
Smith's alleged co-conspirators and the
co-conspirator's cellmate; and (3) his trial counsel
violated his right to effective assistance of counsel by
failing to offer certain evidence and improperly advising
Smith not to testify at trial.
contends that the State of Connecticut violated his right to
speedy trial by permitting the threat of prosecution to hang
over him for more than three years after the nolle
prosequi in December 2001 before arresting him again in
2005. Thus, Smith argues that the trial judge erred in
denying his motion to dismiss the charges filed pursuant to
his arrest in 2005.
Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that the following
additional facts and procedural history were relevant to its