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Nicolas v. Attorney General of State of Maryland

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 30, 2015

RICHARD A. NICOLAS, Petitioner,
v.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF MARYLAND, et al., Respondents.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RICHARD D. BENNETT, District Judge.

Petitioner Richard A. Nicolas, by counsel, has petitioned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for habeas corpus relief and challenges his 1997 conviction after a jury trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City for the first-degree murder of his two-year old daughter and a related handgun offense. On the evening of Friday, July 26, 1996, Richard Nicolas, an emergency medical technician ("EMT"), was in his car in Baltimore City with his two-year old daughter Aja. The evening ended in tragedy as Aja was killed by a gunshot wound to the head. It is undisputed in this case that Nicolas ran to a nearby Texaco gasoline station to call 911, as this was before cell phones were prevalent. By the time paramedics and police officers arrived at the scene, Aja was dead.

Nicolas was taken to the police station where he cooperated by consenting to questioning and to a search of his apartment. He told police authorities that he had taken Aja to see the movie "Pinocchio." Mr. Nicolas stated that while he was driving Aja home after the movie another driver bumped his car. After pulling over to the left side of a side street, the other vehicle pulled up along the passenger side of Nicolas' car and a heated argument ensued. Nicolas contended that as he exited and came around the back of his car, he heard a gunshot and the other car sped away. Despite his description of the events, Nicolas was ultimately charged with Aja's murder.

At his trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City which began on June 6, 1997, the State's theory was that Nicolas shot Aja in the car before the movie and then fabricated a story about road rage gone wrong.[1] This theory relied on the testimony of Dr. Dennis Chute, the State medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Aja; Dr. Chute suggested that the lividity pattern[2] on Aja's body showed that she had been dead for at least two hours before Nicolas called 911. Thus, the state reasoned Nicolas shot Aja around 7:45 p.m., giving him sufficient time to see the movie to create an alibi and dispose of the gun. Nicolas, however, testified that Aja was shot around 9:45 p.m. that evening. Nicolas was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life without parole, plus 20 years.

Sometime in 2008 or 2009, counsel representing Nicolas in his federal habeas corpus proceedings obtained documents under the Maryland Public Information Act, Maryland Code, General Provisions Art. §§ 4-101 to 4-601, [3] identifying two previously undisclosed witnesses, Jennifer McKinsey and Richard Benson. Both were guests at a Holiday Inn near where Aja was shot on July 26, 1996. When police interviewed Jennifer McKinsey on the day after the shooting, McKinsey said that she heard a loud popping sound like a gun shot around 9:45 p.m., Similarly, Richard Benson told police that he heard a loud sound like a car backfiring or exploding while in the hotel parking lot on July 26, 1996, at about 10:00 p.m., This timeline paralleled the time Nicolas testified his daughter was shot by someone in a second car. The Benson and McKinsey witness statements were not provided to defense counsel, and would have provided key and material information for his defense.

Petitioner's case, initiated nearly a decade ago, now comes before this Court for a third time, having been stayed on two prior occasions in order for Petitioner to return to the state courts for the purpose of exhausting all of his various claims. In his Amendment to, and Second Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of, Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 (ECF No. 145), Petitioner presently advances the following four habeas claims: (1) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to become sufficiently educated about lividity evidence and by failing to rebut the state's expert at trial; (2) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by requesting or failing to object to the court's dual inference instruction; (3) gunshot residue ("GSR") evidence admitted at trial is now recognized as unreliable; and (4) he was convicted in violation of his due process rights because favorable and material evidence, specifically the witness statements of Richard Benson and Jennifer McKinsey, were withheld in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) in which the Supreme Court held that supression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused violates due process of law.

The parties' submissions have been reviewed and this Court held a hearing on February 24, 2015. For the reasons that follow, Petitioner Richard A. Nicolas's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (ECF No. 1) along with his Amendment to, and Second Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of, Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. Specifically, the Petition is granted with respect to Petitioner's Brady claim, and it is denied with respect to all other claims. The failure of the State to provide the Benson and McKinsey witness statements to defense counsel prior to trial violated due process of law and calls into question the result of that trial, undermines confidence in its outcome, and did not result in a jury verdict worthy of confidence. Accordingly, Petitioner's conviction and sentence are VACATED, and the case is remanded to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City for a new trial.

BACKGROUND

In 1997, Nicolas was convicted of first degree murder and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence in connection with the death of his two-year old daughter Aja. The State's theory of the case was that Nicolas had killed his daughter in order to cash in on a life insurance policy and then attended a movie in order to create an alibi. Nicolas contended, however, that an unknown driver had bumped his car on the way home from the movie theater and that, after he pulled over and engaged in a heated altercation, the driver shot his daughter and drove off. At trial, an important piece of the State's evidence was the expert testimony of Dr. Dennis Chute, the Medical Examiner, who testified that the lividity (or pooling of blood) in Aja's left side and back indicated a time of death two hours earlier than Petitioner claimed. The State also relied upon evidence of gunshot residue on Petitioner's hands and various inconsistencies in Petitioner's story.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed Mr. Nicolas's convictions in an unreported opinion, Richard Nicolas v. State, No. 1485, Sept. Term, 1997 (filed December 21, 1998), and the Court of Appeals of Maryland denied a Petition for Writ of Certiorari on April 16, 1999. Mr. Nicolas filed pro se a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief on July 1, 1999, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, which was later supplemented with the help of the public defender's office. Following a hearing held on July 22, 2005, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City denied post-conviction relief on October 20, 2005. Mr. Nicolas's Application for Leave to Appeal was summarily denied by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals on November 30, 2005.

Mr. Nicolas, acting pro se, then filed a Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in this Court on October 10, 2006, raising multiple claims.[4] A review of the case by assigned counsel revealed additional issues that counsel believed could warrant post-conviction relief. Accordingly, Nicolas filed a motion to stay the proceedings in this Court so that these new claims could be exhausted in state court. On February 9, 2010, this Court granted Mr. Nicolas's motion to stay the proceedings. On March 12, 2010, Mr. Nicolas, through counsel, filed a Motion to Reopen Post-Conviction Case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, raising additional claims and facts that had not been presented in his initial post-conviction petition. In a written memorandum issued without a hearing, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Judge Stuart R. Berger presiding, denied Mr. Nicolas's Motion to Reopen Post-Conviction Case. On July 15, 2011, the Court of Special Appeals summarily denied Mr. Nicolas's Application for Leave to Appeal the denial of his Motion to Reopen Post-Conviction Case.

Mr. Nicolas then returned to this Court. Nicolas was granted discovery and thereafter submitted his First Supplemental Memorandum of Law in this Court. (ECF No. 116). In its Second Limited Answer to Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (ECR No. 117), the State argued that the use of new materials uncovered by this Court's in camera review of the State's files altered some of Mr. Nicolas's underlying habeas claims to the point where they were now unexhausted; the State suggested that the Maryland state courts should have an opportunity to evaluate his claims in light of the new evidence. After a hearing on the question of exhaustion, this Court issued an Order and Memorandum opinion on September 24, 2012 staying and holding the case in abeyance to permit Mr. Nicolas to exhaust his Brady and lividity (ineffective assistance of counsel) claims in State court, and granting Mr. Nicolas leave to amend his Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus to include his gunshot residue ("GSR") claim. (ECF Nos. 126 & 127)

Thus, on November 14, 2012, Mr. Nicolas filed a second Motion to Reopen Post Conviction Proceeding in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. A hearing was held on March 7, 2013. The Circuit Court denied Mr. Nicolas's Motion to Reopen on April 2, 2013, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals denied Mr. Nicolas' application for leave to appeal a year later on April 2, 2014. Mr. Nicolas then timely petitioned for a writ of certiorari in the Court of Appeals of Maryland, which the Court of Appeals denied on July 21, 2014.

Mr. Nicolas presently advances the following four habeas claims: (1) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to become sufficiently educated about lividity evidence and by failing to rebut the state's expert at trial; (2) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by requesting or failing to object to the court's dual inference instruction; (3) gunshot residue ("GSR") evidence admitted at trial is now recognized as unreliable; and (4) he was convicted in violation of his due process rights because favorable and material evidence, specifically the witness statements of Richard Benson and Jennifer McKinsey, were withheld in violation of Brady v. Maryland . Nicolas contends that he has now fully exhausted all of his habeas claims in State court, so they are now ripe for review in this Court.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

An application for writ of habeas corpus may be granted only for violations of the Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). The federal habeas statute at 28 U.S.C. § 2254 sets forth a "highly deferential standard for evaluating state-court rulings." Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333 n.7 (1997); see also Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447 (2005). This standard is "difficult to meet, " and requires federal courts to give state-court decisions the benefit of the doubt. Cullen v. Pinholster, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 131 S.Ct. 1388, 1398 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also White v Woodall, 2014 WL 1612424, * 4 (April 23, 2014, U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1697, quoting Harrington v. Richter, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 131 S.Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011) (state prisoner must show state court ruling on claim presented in federal court was "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.").

A federal court may not grant a writ of habeas corpus unless the state's adjudication on the merits: 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). A state adjudication is contrary to clearly established federal law under § 2254(d)(1) where the state court 1) "arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by [the Supreme] Court on a question of law, " or 2) "confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to [the Supreme Court]." Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000).

Under the "unreasonable application" analysis under § 2254(d)(1), a "state court's determination that a claim lacks merit precludes federal habeas relief so long as fairminded jurists could disagree' on the correctness of the state court's decision." Harrington, 131 S.Ct. at 786 (quoting Yarborough v. Alvarado, 541 U.S. 652, 664 (2004)). Thus, "an unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law." Id. at 785 (internal quotation marks omitted).

Further under § 2254(d)(2), "a state-court factual determination is not unreasonable merely because the federal habeas court would have reached a different conclusion in the first instance." Wood v. Allen, 558 U.S. 290, 301, 130 S.Ct. 841, 849 (2010). "[E]ven if reasonable minds reviewing the record might disagree about the finding in question, " a federal habeas court may not conclude that the state court decision was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. Id. "[A] a federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because [it] concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied established federal law erroneously or incorrectly." Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 773, 130 S.Ct. 1855, 1862 (2010).

The habeas statute provides that "a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct, " and the petitioner bears "the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence." 28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(1). "Where the state court conducted an evidentiary hearing and explained its reasoning with some care, it should be particularly difficult to establish clear and convincing evidence of error on the state court's part." Sharpe v. Bell, 593 F.3d 372, 378 (4th Cir. 2010). This is especially true where state courts have "resolved issues like witness credibility, which are factual determinations' for purposes of Section 2254(e)(1)." Id. at 379.

DISCUSSION

Mr. Nicolas presently advances the following four habeas claims: (1) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to become sufficiently educated about lividity evidence and by failing to rebut the state's expert at trial; (2) his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by requesting or failing to object to the court's dual inference instruction; (3) gunshot residue ("GSR") evidence admitted at trial is now recognized as unreliable; and (4) he was convicted in violation of his due process rights because favorable and material evidence, specifically the witness statements of Richard Benson and Jennifer McKinsey, were withheld in violation of Brady v. Maryland .

a) INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL - LIVIDITY

Petitioner argues that the state courts unreasonably concluded that his counsel was not ineffective for failing either to become educated about lividity or to call a rebuttal witness.[5] To state a Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must satisfy the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 671 (1984). See Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 477 (2000). The first, or "performance" prong, of the test requires a showing that defense counsel's representation was deficient and fell below an "objective standard of reasonableness." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688. There is a strong presumption that counsel's actions fell within the "wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 688-89. The second, or "prejudice" prong, requires that defendant demonstrate that his counsel's errors deprived him of a fair trial-a trial whose result is reliable. Id. at 687.

"Surmounting Strickland 's high bar is never an easy task, " as "the standard for judging counsel's representation is a most deferential one." Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 105 (2011). When the ineffective assistance issue arises in the context of a prisoner's challenge to a state court's application of Strickland under § 2254, the district court's review is even more deferential:

The standards created by Strickland and § 2254(d) are both highly deferential, and when the two apply in tandem, review is doubly so. The Strickland standard is a general one, so the range of reasonable applications is substantial. Federal habeas courts must guard against the danger of equating unreasonableness under Strickland with unreasonableness under § 2254(d). When § 2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel's actions were reasonable. The question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland 's deferential standard.

Harrington, 562 U.S. at 105 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

Keeping this "doubly" deferential standard in mind, the Court turns to the state courts' ruling that Petitioner's attorneys provided effective assistance with respect to the lividity issue. Petitioner asserts that his trial attorneys provided deficient performance because they failed to call a rebuttal witness when Dr. Chute provided expert testimony that directly contradicted Petitioner's theory of the case. Petitioner asserts that his trial counsel did not understand the import of Dr. Chute's testimony, and as a result, his attorneys only briefly cross-examined Dr. Chute because they were unprepared for his testimony.

Notably, the petitioner in Harrington made a similar argument, asserting that his attorney was caught off-guard by the prosecution's use of expert testimony and that his attorney should have consulted an expert in order to buttress his version of events. In that case, the Supreme Court noted: "Rare are the situations in which the wide latitude counsel must have in making tactical decisions will be limited to any one technique or approach. It can be assumed that in some cases counsel would be deemed ineffective for failing to consult or rely on experts, but even that formulation is sufficiently general that state courts would have wide latitude in applying it." Harrington, 562 U.S. at 106 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Hudson v. Lafler, Civ. No. 04-cv-74001-DT, 2006 WL 162541, at *4 (E.D. Mich. June 8, 2006) (denying ineffective assistance claim in § 2254 petition based upon counsel's alleged failure to adequately challenge prosecution's gunshot residue expert or to obtain an independent gunshot residue expert).

As in Harrington, the record in this case is sufficient to establish that the state court reasonably concluded that the performance of Petitioner's attorneys was not deficient with respect to the lividity issues. Petitioner first raised this ineffective assistance issue in his original petition for post-conviction relief; specifically, Petitioner asserted that Dr. Chute was incorrect when he testified that lividity could become fixed within two hours, and he argued that his counsel should have realized that the proper time frame was closer to four to six hours. Judge Allison reasonably rejected this argument, finding that it could not support a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel because an earlier time of death still contradicted Petitioner's theory of the case.

When Petitioner re-raised the lividity issue in his Motion to Reopen, Judge Berger noted that Petitioner's attorneys obtained several concessions from Dr. Chute on crossexamination and that one of Petitioner's attorneys had consulted a forensic pathologist before trial. In light of these findings, it was not unreasonable for Judge Berger to come to the conclusion that Petitioner had failed to satisfy the first Strickland prong because his attorneys' actions comported with a reasonable trial strategy. Instead of creating a battle of the experts, Petitioner's counsel cast doubt on Dr. Chute's testimony through crossexamination; indeed, counsels' decision to cast doubt is a trial strategy worthy of the usual deference. Cf. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 109 ("[I]t sometimes is better to try to cast pervasive suspicion of doubt than to strive to prove a certainty that exonerates."). Finally, because Judge Geller rejected Petitioner's claims in Petitioner's second motion to reopen for the same reasons as Judge Berger, this Court finds that Judge Geller's decision was reasonable as well.

Thus, after reviewing the state courts' opinions and the record in this case, it is clear that the state courts could have reasonably concluded that the performance of Petitioner's counsel was not deficient with respect to the handling of the lividity issues. Because Petitioner's claims arise under § 2254, this is all that is necessary to bar Petitioner's requested relief. Cf. Harrington, 562 U.S. at 105 ("When § 2254(d) applies, the question is not whether counsel's actions were reasonable. The question is whether there is any reasonable argument that counsel satisfied Strickland 's deferential standard.").

b) INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL - "DUAL INFERENCE" JURY INSTRUCTION

Petitioner argues that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because of his counsel's request for or failure to object to the "dual inference" instruction given by the trial court. The instruction given by the trial court read:

[I]n the discussion or consideration of circumstantial evidence, when you discuss it in the jury room, if you find that the evidence is equally consistent with innocence, as well as guilt, then you must find the defendant innocent. He is entitled to an inference of innocence if there is an equal finding of that which could be guilt or that which could be innocence.

According to the Petitioner, the Court of Appeals of Maryland found that the use of a functionally identical instruction constituted reversible error in Denson v. State, 628 A.2d 182 (Md. 1993);[6] therefore, Petitioner contends that his counsel's failure to object to and/or acquiescence to the instruction given constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.

Petitioner's claim relating to the dual inference instruction was originally addressed by the state court upon his original Motion for Postconviction Relief. Ruling from the bench, the state postconviction court refused to find ineffective assistance.[7]

This Court first notes that a state court's failure to adhere to state law, in and of itself, is insufficient to warrant habeas relief. See Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67 (1991) ("We have stated many times that federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law.'" (quoting Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U.S. 764, 780 (1990))). In this case, however, Petitioner has identified a federal right-his Sixth Amendment right to effective legal counsel-and has identified at least one case in which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that a habeas petitioner was entitled to relief where his attorney fails to object to a jury instruction that had been previously rejected by a state's high court. See Gray v. Lynn, 6 F.3d 265, 269 (5th Cir. 1993) ("[T]he failure by Gray's counsel to object to the erroneous instruction [on the elements of an attempted murder charge] cannot be considered to be within the wide range of professionally competent assistance." (internal quotation marks omitted)).[8]

This Court assumes arguendo that the failure to object to a jury instruction based upon state law can constitute deficient performance for purposes of Strickland such that relief would be warranted under § 2254.[9] Even with that assumption, however, this Court finds that the state court's denial of post-conviction relief in this case was ultimately not unreasonable. In order to prevail on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Strickland requires a showing of prejudice; and in order to succeed on his § 2254 habeas petition raising an ineffective assistance issue, Petitioner must demonstrate that the state courts came to an unreasonable conclusion on the prejudice issue. See Harrington, 562 U.S. at 102 ("Under § 2254(d), a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported or, as here, could have supported, the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of this Court.").

A criminal defendant is prejudiced by his counsel's errors where he is deprived him of a fair trial. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 678. Under Strickland, a 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." Id. at 694.

When the Circuit Court for Baltimore City addressed the "dual inference" issue on Petitioner's original Petition for Post Conviction Relief, the court never explicitly analyzed the second (prejudice) prong under Strickland; however, the court expressly highlighted "the context [in which the instruction] was given; i.e., pertaining to the consideration of circumstantial evidence only and not the overall burden of persuasion." Resp't's Ex.4 at 5. In fact, the trial court had also included lengthy instructions on the government's burden to prove Petitioner's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Resp't's Ex.24 at 177-81, 187. Moreover, during closing arguments, Petitioner's counsel emphasized the government's burden of proof and noted that Petitioner had no obligation to present evidence in his defense. Resp't Ex.25 at 15, 54-57. These additional instructions are all the more significant because, when addressing matters of erroneous jury instructions, this Court must consider the instructions as a whole and within the context of the overall record of the case. See Estelle, 502 U.S. at 72. Because the court properly instructed the jury on the matters of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" burden of proof and the presumption of innocence, the state post-conviction court could have concluded that there was no reasonable probability that the jury was misled or that the result of the trial would have been different if not for counsel's alleged error. See Miller v. Phillip, 813 F.Supp.2d 470, 484 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (finding that counsel's failure to object to a similar "two inference" instruction did not merit relief under § 2254 for ineffective assistance of counsel where the trial court had repeatedly reminded the jury of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard); Floyd v. Grace, Civ. A. No. 06-2324, 2006 WL 6553085, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 13, 2006) (same);[10] cf. Estelle, 502 U.S. at 75 (taking note of other limiting instructions in jury charge in case where the United States Supreme Court refused to find a denial of due process despite the use of a jury instruction that was deemed contrary to state law). Indeed, Petitioner's noticeable failure to articulate precisely how counsel's alleged errors prejudiced him in his papers buttresses this conclusion. See, e.g., Pet'r's Mem. Supp. Pet. at 53, ECF No. 87 (baldly asserting that, "[b]ecause the state's case against Mr. Nicolas was scant and circumstantial, there is a reasonable probability that it affected the outcome of the trial"). In light of the record in this case, the state court could have reasonably concluded that Petitioner failed to demonstrate sufficient prejudice to maintain a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel;[11] therefore, Harrington mandates that this Court deny habeas corpus relief under § 2254 with respect to the "dual inference" jury instruction.[12]

c) INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE - GUNSHOT RESIDUE

Petitioner asserts that the admission of evidence that he had gunshot residue (GSR) on his left hand undermined the fundamental fairness of his trial. Petitioner has not identified any clearly established federal right or provision of federal law in connection to this claim, nor has this Court's investigation revealed any such right or provision warranting the requested relief. Accordingly, Petitioner's gunshot residue claim fails to qualify for relief under § 2254. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a).

d) BRADY V. MARYLAND ISSUE

Nicolas contends that two witnesses-Richard Benson and Jennifer McKinsey- were interviewed by police during the investigation of his case and that those witnesses indicated that they had heard a loud noise (similar to a gunshot or a car back-firing) in the general vicinity where Aja's body was found between 9:45 and 10:00 p.m.[13] Nicolas argues that these statements were improperly withheld in violation of his due process rights under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).

"[T]he suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or punishment." Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963). "The Brady rule is based on the requirement of due process. Its purpose is not to displace the adversary system as the primary means by which truth is uncovered, but to ensure that a miscarriage of justice does not occur." United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 675 (1985). The Brady requirement extends beyond just the prosecutor; "the knowledge of some who are part of the investigative team is imputed to prosecutors regardless of the prosecutors' actual awareness." United States v. Robinson, 627 F.3d 941, 951 (4th Cir. 2010).[14]

In order to prevail on a Brady claim, it must be established that the evidence at issue is both favorable to the defense and that the unavailability of the evidence calls into question the result of the trial. Bagley, 473 U.S. at 678. The Supreme Court has made it clear that there is no distinction between exculpatory evidence and impeachment evidence in the context of the Brady analysis. See Giglio v. United States, 405 U.S. 150, 154 (1972). There is no requirement that the guilty finding must be overturned unless suppression of the impeachment evidence so limited the defense's ability to cross-examine an accusing witness that "its suppression undermines confidence in the outcome of the trial." Bagley, 473 U.S. at 678.

Moreover, "[e]vidence is material only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Bagley, 473 U.S. at 682. Thus, under the Supreme Court's jurisprudence, "[t]he question is not whether the defendant would more likely than not have received a different verdict with the evidence, but whether in its absence he received a fair trial, understood as a trial resulting in a verdict worthy of confidence." Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419, 434 (1995). "[T]he materiality inquiry is a context-specific determination." Spicer v. Roxbury Correctional Institute, 194 F.3d 547, 560 (4th Cir. 1999). The reviewing court must "evaluate the whole case, taking into account the effect that the suppressed evidence, had it been disclosed, would have had on the evidence considered at trial." United States v. Ellis, 121 F.3d 908, 918 (4th Cir. 1997).

In this case, Petitioner challenges the state courts' conclusions with respect to both favorability and materiality.[15] For the reasons that follow, this Court finds that the unavailability at trial of the evidence, which was favorable to Nicolas, calls into question the result of that trial, undermines confidence in its outcome, and did not result in a jury verdict worthy of confidence.

1. Favorability

The issue of the statements' favorability was raised before the Circuit Court of Baltimore City on two separate occasions. On Petitioner's first motion to reopen, Judge Berger ruled that the Benson and McKinsey statements were not favorable. Specifically, Judge Berger found that "these witnesses would have given testimony that, at best, conflicted with the theory of the case advanced by the Petitioner, " and he further noted that "arguably the statements by the witnesses were more consistent with the State's theory of the case than the defense."[16] Aug. 18, 2010 Mem. Op. at 9 (Berger, J.). Aug. 18, 2010 Mem. Op. at 9 (Berger, J.). Petitioner's subsequent application for leave to appeal filed with the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland was denied without any explanation on July 15, 2011. When Petitioner returned to the state courts to file his Second Motion to Reopen Post-Conviction Proceedings, Judge Geller stated that he "[saw] the favorability analysis of the Brady claim as unchanged since it was reviewed by the Honorable Stuart R. Berger."[17] Mar. 29, 2013 Mem. Op. at 9 (Geller, J.), Pet'r's Ex. UU, ECF No. 145-8. The Court of Special Appeals again affirmed the Circuit Court.[18]

In this proceeding, Petitioner attacks the state courts' conclusions on favorability, arguing that the state courts misapplied settled federal law by failing to consider the impeachment value of the suppressed statements. Petitioner also takes issue with the state courts' conclusion that the statements were not helpful to him and were more consistent with the State's theory of the case. In opposition, the State argues that the state courts reasonably concluded that Petitioner failed to establish that the witness statements were favorable to him. In particular, the State contends that the evidence does not qualify as exculpatory evidence because "(1) the statements of Benson and McKinsey do not in anyway [sic] tend to exonerate Petitioner; (2) there was no proof presented in prior state or federal court proceedings that the defense actually would have called either Benson or McKinsey to testify in the case had it known of the Benson and McKinsey statements; and (3) there was no proof below that, even if called to testify, Benson and McKinsey would have testified favorably to Petitioner, i.e., in a manner consistent with Petitioner's defense." Resp.'s Suppl. Ans. at 25, ECF No. 146. The State also argues that the statements have no value as impeachment evidence; in particular, without any further explanation, the State dismisses the notion that the statements could have been used to impeach Dr. Chute's lividity and time of death testimony, stating that Petitioner's assertion "has never been substantiated." Id. at 26. Finally, the State characterizes the Petitioner's position on the favorability of the statements as "ludicrous, " suggesting that "[t]he statement of Benson and McKenzie both describe a specific and discrete set of facts that do not in any way relate to Petitioner's accounting of Aja's murder." Id.

After reviewing the parties' submissions and the record in this case, this Court concludes that the state courts' various rulings are based upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in those proceedings. Specifically, the state courts provided no analysis whatsoever to justify their conclusion that the suppressed statements "conflicted with [Petitioner's] theory of the case." Aug. 18, 2010 Mem. Op. at 9 (Berger, J.), Pet'r's Ex. N.; Mar. 29, 2013 Mem. Op. at 10 (Geller, J.), Pet'r's Ex. UU, ECF No. 145-8, (agreeing with and adopting Judge Berger's August 18, 2010 Memorandum Opinion). As is apparent from the record in this case, the lynchpin for the State's premeditated murder theory was the time of death. At trial, the State theorized that the shooting occurred some hours before Petitioner contacted authorities, while the Petitioner asserted that the shooting occurred around 9:45 p.m.-shortly before Petitioner contacted authorities and the police arrived on the scene. Evidence suggesting that the fatal shot was fired around 9:45 p.m. would have contradicted the State's theory and supported Petitioner's version of events. As such, there was absolutely no basis for the state courts to conclude that the suppressed statements conflicted with Petitioner's theory of the case. Accordingly, this Court finds that the state court decision on the favorability of the suppressed statements was based upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence before the state court and, therefore, Petitioner has satisfied his burden under § 2254 with respect to this issue.

2. Materiality

Because Judge Berger found that the suppressed statements were not favorable, he never reached the issue of whether the suppressed statements were material. Although Judge Geller agreed with Judge Berger on the issue of favorability, he also ruled against the Petitioner on the issue of materiality.[19] Specifically, Judge Geller summarized the evidence against Petitioner and noted that he found it "compelling." Mar. 29, 2013 Mem. Op. at 21-22 (Geller, J.), Pet'r's Ex. UU, ECF No. 145-8. Additionally, Judge Geller noted that "much of the other non-disclosed interviews and statements contradict[ed] Petitioner's theory of defense or [we]re otherwise damaging to him, " and he rejected the notion that the prosecutors' letters to Officer Hannah and Dr. Chute had any relevance in the materiality analysis. Id.

As is apparent from the state court's summary of the prosecution's evidence against Petitioner, the State presented a purely circumstantial case. Noticeably absent from this summary, however, is any consideration of the suppressed statements within the context of Petitioner's defense. See Monroe v. Angelone, 323 F.3d 286, 302 (4th Cir. 2003) ("In assessing the issue of materiality, we must evaluate the importance of the Commonwealth's suppression of the Habeas Evidence. To do so, we first assess the Commonwealth's evidence that Monroe committed first-degree murder. We then weigh against this evidence the strength of Monroe's defense. Finally, we consider whether the Habeas Evidence, had it been disclosed and used effectively, is likely to have affected the verdict of first-degree murder."). The improper consideration of only the prosecution's evidence led the state courts to the irrational conclusion that the statements were not material. While a review of the record makes abundantly clear that the crux of the case against Petitioner was the lividity testimony concerning the time of death, the import of that evidence was all the more obvious in this case: there is written acknowledgement by the trial prosecutors in this case that Dr. Chute's lividity testimony was "the whole case." See Pet'r's Exs. KK & LL. For the state courts to have suggested otherwise is simply unreasonable and inaccurate. Cf. Wolfe v. Clarke, 691 F.3d 410, 424 (4th Cir. 2012) (taking note of state prosecutor's concession at cooperating witness' sentencing that the habeas petitioner would "probably not have been prosecuted" but for the cooperating witness' testimony in the context of the materiality analysis under Brady ).

Had the state court actually weighed the state's case against the Petitioner's defense or considered the suppressed statements within the proper context of both the State and defense evidence, it is clear that no fair-minded jurist could have concluded that the suppressed statements were not material. In particular, Petitioner offered his own evidence that undermined the evidence used by the prosecution and considered by the state courts. At trial, Petitioner's gunshot residue expert testified that the gunshot residue on Petitioner's hand could have come from a secondary transfer, and he expressly disagreed with the State's expert who had opined that the gunshot residue on Petitioner's hand was "most probably" due to firing a weapon. See Pet'r's Suppl. Mem. Supp. Pet. at 16, ECF No. 116. Plaintiff also offered his own expert testimony regarding blood spatter and the angle of the shooting. See Pet'r's Mem. Supp. Pet. at 2, 16 n.5, ECF No. 87. Another expert testified that Petitioner's vehicle had been involved in some incident involving contact to or collision with the rear of his vehicle. See id. at 16 n.5. Moreover, on cross-examination, Petitioner brought out the fact that the alleged inconsistency in Petitioner's statements concerning the race of the shooter was not present in the witness' original statement to police. See id. at 12. Petitioner also offered testimony that his calm demeanor at the scene was attributable to the fact that, after years of corrective therapy, Petitioner had learned to speak slowly and unemotionally in order to control a severe stutter.

In sum, the State put on a circumstantial case in which much of their evidence was disputed. This evidence on the critical point of the State's theory-the time of Aja's shooting-was likely to have an effect on the outcome of Petitioner's trial, and its suppression has resulted in a verdict unworthy of any confidence.[20] Cf. Wolfe, 691 F.3d at 424 (noting that materiality of impeachment information was "manifest" where the witness' testimony provided the only evidence for one of the elements of the crime); Aguilar v. Woodford, 725 F.3d 970 (9th Cir. 2013) (habeas petition granted where state officials suppressed fact that canine had made mistaken scent identifications in previous cases in case where the prosecutors had emphasized the scent identification as definitive proof that petitioner was shooter and the scent identification provided the only corroborating evidence for "shaky eyewitness identifications"); Gantt v. Roe, 389 F.3d 908, 913-16 (9th Cir. 2004) (granting habeas relief in case where state officials failed to disclose evidence indicating matchbook with phone number written inside that had been discovered on petitioner's person upon his arrest was not connected to murder victim despite prosecutor's use of the matchbook as circumstantial evidence that petitioner was the murderer). Accordingly, this Court finds the state court's decision to be an unreasonable one and will grant the Petitioner's petition for writ of habeas corpus on the Brady issue. While recognizing that the writ affords an extraordinary remedy, this Court finds that the requested relief is necessary in light of the state court's repeated refusal to vindicate Petitioner's due process rights under Brady v. Maryland . [21]

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, Petitioner Richard A. Nicolas's Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (ECF No. 1) along with his Amendment to, and Second Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of, Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. Specifically, the Petition is granted with respect to Petitioner's Brady claim, and it is denied with respect to all other claims. Accordingly, Petitioner's conviction and sentence are VACATED, and the case is remanded to the Circuit Court of Baltimore City for a new trial. However, this Court's Judgment will be STAYED FOR THIRTY (30) DAYS to allow for an appeal or, absent an appeal, a decision by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City concerning the Petitioner's continued confinement.

A separate Order follows.


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