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Smith v. Commissioner Of Correction

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 23, 2017

LAWRENCE SMITH, Petitioner,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF CORRECTION, [1] Respondent.

          RULING DENYING PETITION FOR WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS

          Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

         The 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.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A 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).

         Section 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; or
(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).

         Clearly 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).

         A 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).

         When 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.” Id.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In 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.

         On 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.

         On or 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.

         On 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.

         Smith 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.

         Smith 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.

         On 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).

         Smith 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).

         Smith 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.

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         During 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.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Smith 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.

         A. Speedy Trial

         Smith 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.

         The Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that the following additional facts and procedural history were relevant to its ...


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