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Adams v. Graham

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 20, 2018

MICHAEL ADAMS, #355170, Petitioner,
v.
RICHARD GRAHAM, et al, Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE J. HAZEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this habeas corpus action filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, Petitioner Michael Adams attacks his 2009 convictions in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland for first-degree murder and use of a handgun. ECF No. 1. Adams claims that his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective for failing to argue that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to voir dire the jury to determine what they heard during a lengthy wait in a courthouse hallway, and whether they could remain impartial after spending hours in the hallway with the victim's family. ECF No. 1 at 5.[1] Respondents, the Warden of Western Correctional Institution where Adams is confined and the Attorney General of the State of Maryland, filed an answer, ECF No. 11, to which Adams has replied, ECF No. 14. On August 14, 2017, the Court instructed the Respondents to supplement their Answer and provide the Court with the post-conviction hearing transcript. ECF No. 16. This submission, docketed as a Supplemental Response, ECF No. 23, has been received, making the case ripe for disposition.

         Having reviewed the parties' submissions, the Court finds no need for an evidentiary hearing. See Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts and Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016); see also Fisher v. Lee, 215 F.3d 438, 455 (4th Cir. 2000) (petitioner not entitled to a hearing under 28 U.S.C. §2254(e)(2)). For the reasons set forth herein, the court denies the Petition and declines to issue a Certificate of Appealability.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts and procedural history of the case are outlined in the Court's August 14, 2017 Memorandum Opinion, ECF No. 16 at 2-6, and will not be reiterated here. What is most relevant are the allegations presented on post-conviction review and at the post-conviction hearing: that the trial court erred by allowing the jury on several occasions during the course of trial, but particularly during the hours-long discussion of jury instructions, to remain in the hallway outside the courtroom where members of the victim's family and friends were located. ECF No. 1-4 at 10. The post-conviction review court granted Adams the right to file a belated motion for reconsideration of his sentence but otherwise denied post-conviction relief. See ECF No. 1-4 at 2.

         Adams then sought leave to appeal that adverse decision to the Court of Special Appeals, raising only the claim that the trial court erred in permitting the jurors to remain in the hallway, thus denying Adams his right to due process and an impartial jury. ECF No. 11-7 at 6. In an unreported opinion filed on March 18, 2016, the intermediate appellate court declined to review the case. ECF No. 1-5 at 2.

         Adams filed his Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus on June 7, 2016. ECF No. 1. Adams claims that his trial and appellate counsel were ineffective for failing to argue that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to voir dire the jury to determine what they heard and whether they could remain impartial after spending hours in a hallway outside the courtroom where members of the victim's family and friends were located. ECF No. 1 at 5; ECF No. 1-1 at 4-6. The Court previously explained that Adams's ineffective assistance claims were procedurally defaulted, but that the Court would consider the claim that his due process right to an impartial jury was violated. ECF No. 16 at 8.

         II. 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). The standard is “difficult to meet, ” and requires courts to give state-court decisions the benefit of the doubt. Cullen v. Pinholster, 563 U.S. 170, 181 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also White v Woodall, 134 S.Ct. 1697, 1702 (2014), quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (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 fair minded disagreement.”); Virginia v. LeBlanc, 137 S.Ct. 1726, 1728 (2017).

         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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         As previously noted, Adams' ineffective assistance claims as presented were not raised when seeking leave to appeal the denial of post-conviction relief, and thus are procedurally defaulted. ECF No. 16 at 8. The Court examines that portion of Adams' claim that has been fully presented for litigation: whether Adams was deprived of an impartial jury as a result of the Montgomery County practice of allowing jurors to remain in the hallway outside the courtroom, where jurors could be exposed to comments made by the public, including the victim's family and friends.

         A criminal defendant's right to an impartial jury trial is protected by the United States Constitution, Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 685 (1984), and is well defined under Maryland law. Wright v. State, 131 Md.App. 243, 253 (2000) (quoting Allen v. State, 89 Md.App. 25, 42 (1991)). Supreme Court authority “absolutely” forbids “external causes tending to disturb the [jury's] exercise of deliberate and unbiased judgment . . . at least until their harmlessness is made to appear.” Mattox v. United States, 146 U.S. 140, 149-50 (1892). Further, any unauthorized “private communication, contact, or tampering directly or indirectly, with a juror during a trial about the matter pending before the jury is, for obvious reasons, deemed presumptively prejudicial.” Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 229 (1954). Thus, a trial court must consider the prejudicial effect of any external contact that may tend to influence the verdict. Mattox, 146 U.S. at 150-51. Furthermore, the external contact need not necessarily be a “communication” to trigger some judicial inquiry into possible prejudice. See Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 212-15 (1982) (requiring judicial inquiry into possible prejudice arising from a juror's job application in the office of the prosecutor trying the case); Mattox, 146 U.S. at 150 (requiring judicial inquiry into the prejudicial potential of “reading of newspapers”). The Court has clarified that an external contact need not be intentional. Gold v. United States, 352 U.S. 985 (1957) (granting a new trial where the FBI approached jurors about a different but related case, even though “the intrusion was unintentional”).

         In support of his habeas claim, Adams relies on Barnes v. Joyner,751 F.3d 229, 240 (4th Cir. 2014). See ECF No. 14 at 2-3. In Barnes, a juror contacted a minister to ask a question about the death penalty and brought a Bible into the jury room to read a passage to fellow jury members before deliberations. Id. at 234. In state post-conviction proceedings, Barnes offered information in support of his juror misconduct claim, including post-verdict interviews with other jurors. Id. at 235. The evidence showed that one juror read the Bible passage to other jurors, intending to counteract a defense attorney's argument that “if the jurors voted for the death penalty, they would one day face God's judgment for killing these defendants.” Id. Based on this evidence, Barnes asserted that he ...


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