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McClain v. Commissioner of Correction

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

February 26, 2019

TAJAH S. MCCLAIN
v.
COMMISSIONER OF CORRECTION

          Argued November 27, 2018

         Procedural History

         Amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Tolland and tried to the court, Sferrazza, J.; judgment denying the petition; thereafter, the court denied the petition for certification to appeal, and the petitioner appealed to this court. Appeal dismissed.

          Jennifer B. Smith, assigned counsel, with whom, on the brief, was Samuel A. Greenberg, assigned counsel, for the appellant (petitioner).

          Rocco A. Chiarenza, assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were John C. Smriga, state's attorney, C. Robert Satti, Jr., supervisory assistant state's attorney, and Emily Dewey Trudeau, assistant state's attorney, for the appellee (respondent).

          Prescott, Bright and Bishop, Js.

          OPINION

          BISHOP, J.

         The petitioner, Tajah S. McClain, appeals following the denial of his petition for certification to appeal from the judgment of the habeas court denying his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On appeal, the petitioner claims that the habeas court abused its discretion in denying his petition for certification to appeal and improperly rejected (1) his claim that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance, and (2) his claim of actual innocence. We conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the petition for certification to appeal and, accordingly, dismiss the petitioner's appeal.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of this appeal. After a jury trial, the petitioner was convicted of murder with a firearm in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-54a (a) and 53-202k, assault in the first degree with a firearm in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-59 (a) (5) and 53-202k, and carrying a pistol without a permit in violation of General Statutes § 29-35 (a). The petitioner received a total effective sentence of sixty-five years incarceration. This court's opinion in the petitioner's direct appeal; see State v. McClain, 154 Conn.App. 281, 283-84, 105 A.3d 924 (2014), aff'd, 324 Conn. 802, 155 A.3d 209 (2017); sets forth the following facts: ‘‘On July 17, 2010, a group of more than ten people were drinking alcohol in the area known as ‘the X,' located behind the Greene Homes Housing Complex in Bridgeport [Greene Homes]. Shortly before 5:22 a.m., the victim, Eldwin Barrios, was sitting on a crate when all of a sudden the [petitioner] and at least two other men jumped on him, and started punching and kicking him. The victim kept asking them why they were hitting him, but no one answered. The [petitioner] then was passed a chrome or silver handgun and he fired one shot, intended for the victim. The bullet, however, struck one of the other men in the back of the leg. The man who had just been shot yelled, ‘you shot me, you shot me, why you shot me,' to which the [petitioner] replied, ‘my bad.' As this was happening, the victim got up and tried to run away, but the [petitioner] fired several shots at him. Three of the [petitioner's] shots hit the victim-one in the leg, one in the arm, and one in the torso-at which point, the victim fell to the ground and died.

         ‘‘The [petitioner] was arrested three days after the murder. Following a jury trial, the [petitioner] was convicted and sentenced to a total effective sentence of sixty-five years incarceration.'' (Footnote omitted.) This court affirmed the petitioner's conviction on direct appeal. Id., 283.[1] Thereafter, our Supreme Court affirmed this court's judgment. State v. McClain, 324 Conn. 802, 805, 155 A.3d 209 (2017).

         On September 3, 2013, the petitioner, in a self-represented capacity, filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On April 1, 2016, the petitioner, represented by counsel, filed the operative amended petition. In the amended petition, the petitioner alleged that (1) his constitutional right to the effective assistance of trial counsel was violated, (2) his right to due process was violated by the state's failure to disclose or otherwise correct false testimony, pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), and (3) he was actually innocent. By memorandum of decision issued on May 11, 2017, the habeas court denied the amended petition, concluding that the petitioner did not meet his burden of proving a Brady violation, did not prove that he was prejudiced by his trial counsel's performance, and did not prove his actual innocence. The court thereafter denied the petition for certification to appeal from its decision. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as necessary.

         We begin by setting forth the applicable standard of review. ‘‘Faced with a habeas court's denial of a petition for certification to appeal, a petitioner can obtain appellate review of the dismissal of his petition for habeas corpus only by satisfying the two-pronged test enunciated by our Supreme Court in Simms v. Warden, 229 Conn. 178, 640 A.2d 601 (1994), and adopted in Simms v. Warden, 230 Conn. 608, 612, 646 A.2d 126 (1994). First, he must demonstrate that the denial of his petition for certification constituted an abuse of discretion. . . . To prove an abuse of discretion, the petitioner must demonstrate that the [resolution of the underlying claim involves issues that] are debatable among jurists of reason; that a court could resolve the issues [in a different manner]; or that the questions are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further. . . . Second, if the petitioner can show an abuse of discretion, he must then prove that the decision of the habeas court should be reversed on the merits. . . . In determining whether there has been an abuse of discretion, every reasonable presumption should be given in favor of the correctness of the court's ruling . . . [and] [r]eversal is required only where an abuse of discretion is manifest or where injustice appears to have been done.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Peeler v. Commissioner of Correction, 161 Conn.App. 434, 442- 43, 127 A.3d 1096 (2015).

         ‘‘In determining whether the habeas court abused its discretion in denying the petitioner's request for certification, we necessarily must consider the merits of the petitioner's underlying claims to determine whether the habeas court reasonably determined that the petitioner's appeal was frivolous.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Mercado v. Commissioner of Correction, 183 Conn.App. 556, 561, 193 A.3d 671, cert. denied, 330 Conn. 918, 193 A.3d 1211 (2018).

         I

         The petitioner first claims that the habeas court abused its discretion by denying his certification to appeal from its decision regarding the petitioner's claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Specifically, the petitioner claims that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to present (1) a third-party culpability defense and (2) evidence of an initial segment of a video recorded police interview of a state's witness that the petitioner alleges exists. In response, the respondent, the Commissioner of Correction, argues, in relevant part, that the habeas court properly denied the petition for a writ of habeas corpus because the petitioner failed to establish that he was prejudiced by an alleged deficiency in his trial counsel's performance. We agree with the respondent.

         ‘‘The habeas court is afforded broad discretion in making its factual findings, and those findings will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous. . . . Historical facts constitute a recital of external events and the credibility of their narrators. . . . Accordingly, [t]he habeas judge, as the trier offacts, is the sole arbiter of the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony. . . . The application of the habeas court's factual findings to the pertinent legal standard, however, presents a mixed question of law and fact, which is subject to plenary review.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Antwon W. v. Commissioner of Correction, 172 Conn.App. 843, 849, 163 A.3d 1223, cert. denied, 326 Conn. 909, 164 A.3d 680 (2017).

         ‘‘The petitioner's right to the effective assistance of counsel is assured by the sixth and fourteenth amendments to the federal constitution, and by article first, § 8, of the constitution of Connecticut. In Strickland v. Washington, [466 U.S. 668');">466 U.S. 668, 687, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984)], the United States Supreme Court established that for a petitioner to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, he must show that counsel's assistance was so defective as to require reversal of [the] conviction. . . . That requires the petitioner to show (1) that counsel's performance was deficient and (2) that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. . . . Unless a [petitioner] makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction . . . resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable. Because both prongs . . . must be established for a habeas petitioner to prevail, a court may dismiss a petitioner's claim if he fails to meet either prong. Accordingly, a court need not determine the deficiency of counsel's performance if consideration of the prejudice prong will be dispositive of the ineffectiveness claim. . . .

         ‘‘With respect to the prejudice component of the Strickland test, the petitioner must demonstrate that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the [petitioner] of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.

         . . . It is not enough for the [petitioner] to show that the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceedings. . . . Rather, [t]he [petitioner] must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome. . . . When a [petitioner] challenges a conviction, the question is whether there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the fact finder would have had a reasonable doubt respecting guilt.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Weinberg v. Commissioner of Correction, 112 Conn.App. 100, 106-107, 962 A.2d 155, cert. denied, 291 Conn. 904, 967 A.2d 1221 (2009).

         Because the habeas court in the present case determined that the petitioner had not proven that he was prejudiced by the performance of his trial counsel without reaching the deficiency prong, ‘‘our focus on review is whether the court correctly determined the absence of prejudice.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Mercado v. Commissioner of ...


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