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Matthews v. Bishop

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 12, 2019

DARRELL MATTHEWS, #370-293[1]Petitioner.
v.
FRANK BISHOP, Jr., Warden, et al ., Respondents.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Paula Xinis United States District Judge

         Darrell Matthews brings this habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his 2011 murder conviction primarily on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. ECF No. 1. The Petition is ready for resolution and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6; see also Rule 8(a), Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases in the United States District Courts; Fisher v. Lee, 215 F.3d 438, 455 (4th Cir. 2000). For the following reasons, the Court denies the Petition and declines to issue a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         In May 2011, Petitioner Matthews stood trial for first-degree attempted murder, first-degree assault, and weapons offenses in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. The evidence at trial[2] demonstrated that on August 15, 2009, Matthews shot Augustus Williams, Jr. in the shoulder and chest at close range. Williams identified his assailant as Matthews to a bystander who rendered first aid. An acquaintance of Matthews, Antoine Johnson, also identified Matthews as the shooter. ECF No. 6-2 at 132-134, 140-144, 183, 186, 189-192, 229, 234-236. The State also admitted cell site evidence to corroborate Matthews whereabouts at the time of the shooting. ECF No. 6-2 at 76-79, 85-87.

         Matthews was tried before a jury who found him guilty on all counts. On July 21, 2011, the Circuit Court sentenced Matthews to life imprisonment on the attempted first degree murder conviction; a consecutive twenty-year term for the use of a handgun during the commission of the crime; and two consecutive five year terms for possession of a regulated firearm by a prohibited person. ECF No. 6-6 at 19. Matthews appealed his convictions, challenging the denial of merger as to the two firearm offenses as well as the trial court's refusal to declare a mistrial after the jurors announced a deadlock in deliberations. See Matthews v. State, No. 1442 (unreported, Sept. Term 2011, Feb. 22, 2013); see also ECF No. 6-9. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals vacated one of Matthews's convictions for possession of a regulated firearm but otherwise affirmed the judgment in an unreported opinion. Id. The Maryland Court of Appeals denied further review on July 5, 2013. Matthews v. State, 432 Md. 469 (2013).

         On October 3, 2014, Matthews moved for post-conviction relief in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, contending that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance based on an array of omissions, including failure to request DNA and GSR testing on evidence found at the scene; failure to seek suppression of victim identification testimony and to introduce Antoine Johnson's prior out-of-court signed statement; failure to seek a lesser-included-offense jury instruction and missing witness instruction; failure to object to the state's closing argument; and a variety of claimed errors related to deliberations and sentencing. Matthews also challenged the effectiveness of appellate counsel for failing to raise on appeal the propriety of State's closing argument referencing witnesses who did not testify at trial. ECF No. 6-10 at 4-11, 14-20, 11-13.

         After a hearing, the Montgomery County Circuit Court denied relief except as to whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to file for review of sentence. The Court granted Matthews leave to seek review of sentence within thirty days from the date of its order. ECF No. 6-10 at 21.[5]

         On August 12, 2015, Matthews requested that Court of Special Appeals review his claims of ineffective assistance based on: (1) trial counsel's failure to request a jury instruction on a lesser included offense of second-degree attempted murder; (2) counsel's waiver of Matthews' personal appearance in court to address a jury note; and (3) the failure to object to aspects of the State's closing argument. ECF No. 6-11 at 8. On February 4, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals ordered the State to address whether the post-conviction court erred by not finding counsel ineffective for failure to object or otherwise attempt to cure the State's remarks in rebuttal regarding Matthews' failure to call any witnesses. ECF No. 6-12 at 1. The State, in response, singularly argued that Matthews' application for leave to appeal was time-barred and generally meritless. ECF No. 6-12. Although the Court of Special Appeals rejected that the petition was time barred, it nonetheless summarily denied the application for leave to appeal. ECF No. 6-14.

         Matthews thereafter filed a timely federal habeas Petition in this Court, arguing that the trial court erred in denying his motion for new trial. ECF No. 1. Matthews also resurrects his ineffectiveness arguments regarding the lion's share of claims raised in his state post-conviction proceeding. ECF No. 1-1, 1-2. The claims are thus exhausted as having been presented in Matthews' post-conviction proceedings and in his application for leave to appeal and not procedurally defaulted. Nonetheless, for the reasons stated below, the Petition must be denied in its entirety.

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court may grant a petition for a writ of habeas corpus only to address violations of the United States Constitution or laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a) (2018) see Wilson v. Corcoran, 562 U.S. 1, 1 (2010); Larry v. Branker, 552 F.3d 356, 368 (4th Cir. 2009) (“[I]t is not the province of a federal habeas court to reexamine state-court determinations on state-law questions. In conducting habeas review, a federal court is limited to deciding whether a conviction violated the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”) (quoting Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U.S. 62, 67-68 (1991)). In reviewing the decisions of the post-conviction court, this Court must give “considerable deference to the state court decision, ” and may not grant habeas relief unless the state court arrived at 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 ‘a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.'” Nicolas v. Att'y Gen. of Md., 820 F.3d 124, 129 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)). Further, this Court “must presume that the state court's factual findings are correct unless the petitioner rebuts those facts by clear and convincing evidence, ” and “cannot disturb the state court's ruling simply because it is incorrect; it must also be unreasonable.” Id.

         For a state court's decision to be contrary to established federal law, the state court must have arrived at a conclusion contrary to the United States Supreme Court on a question of law or must have confronted facts that are “materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court” case but nevertheless arrived at the opposite result. Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000); see also Lovitt v. True, 403 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2005); Barnes v. Joyner, 751 F.3d 229, 238 (4th Cir. 2014). As to an unreasonable determination, a federal court “may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied established federal law erroneously or incorrectly.” Lovitt, 403 F.3d at 178 (quoting Williams, 529 U.S. at 411). Rather, the Petitioner must show that the state court's ruling was “so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Barnes, 751 F.3d at 238 (quoting White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. 415, 419-20 (2014)). “The role of a federal habeas court is to guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, not to apply de novo review of factual findings and to substitute its own opinions for the determinations made on the scene by the trial judge.” Davis v. Ayala, 135 S.Ct. 2187, 2202 (2015) (internal marks and citations omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Trial Court Error

         Matthews first argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion for new trial based on the jury's inability to reach a verdict after several hours of deliberation. ECF No. 1-2 at 1. This closely parallels Matthews's direct appeal argument that the trial court abused its discretion by not declaring a mistrial during the first evening of deliberations when the jury announced it was deadlocked. ECF No. 6-7, at 14-21; ECF No. 6-9, at 8-20. The Court of Special Appeals determined that the trial court was well within his discretion to continue deliberations. ECF No. 6-9 at 18.

         In reframing his earlier argument, Matthews does not assert that the trial court's error was one of federal constitutional magnitude. Nor could he. The claim squarely involves the exercise of the trial court's discretion to allow further deliberations. Absent violation of a federal constitutional right, a habeas petitioner fails to state a cognizable claim for relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a); see also Wilson, 562 U.S. at 1; Spencer, 18 F.3d at 239-40. Thus, the Court denies Matthews' petition on this ground.

         B. Prosecutorial Misconduct

         Matthews next argues that the State engaged in prosecutorial misconduct, justifying the grant of habeas relief. Undoubtedly, “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process, ” In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136 (1955), and so prosecutors must comport themselves accordingly. See Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935). Prosecutorial misconduct is actionable when it “so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.” Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168, 181 (1986); see also United States v. Caro, 597 F.3d 608, 624 (4th Cir. 2010). To succeed on this claim, Matthews “must show (1) ‘that the prosecutor's remarks or conduct were improper' and (2) ‘that such remarks or conduct prejudicially affected his substantial rights so as to deprive him of a fair trial.'” Caro, 597 F.3d at 624-25 (quoting United States v. Scheetz, 293 F.3d 175, 185 (4th Cir. 2002). Matthews presents two misconduct claims here.

         Matthews first contends that the State committed reversible error by shifting the burden of production to the defense during rebuttal argument. The State argued:

You can't go on about how this person didn't come in and this person didn't come in and not produce the ones you talked about the whole time. Where is Patrice Smith, the girlfriend he was with? Where is his brother, Jacob Chase? She just talked about him. Where is he at? Jeffrey Thomas? Pootie??

ECF No. 6-4 at 107-08. The post-conviction court, citing Waddington v. Sarausad, 555 U.S. 179, 193 (2009), found that these statements had not misled the jury as to the State's burden of proof. Specifically, the court determined that these comments taken as whole did not implicate Matthews' right to remain silent or the choice not to mount an affirmative defense, and thus did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. See Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 219 (1982) (citing Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963) (aim of due process “is not punishment of society for the misdeeds of the prosecutor but avoidance of an unfair trial to the accused”)).

         This finding is supported by the record. The challenged statements were brief and in response to Matthews's counsel arguing at length that the “social milieu” caused many eyewitnesses to avoid testifying at trial. ECF No. 6-4 at 104-07. Furthermore, the comments were limited, rhetorical, and designed to highlight the illogic of defense counsel's argument. The comments were not suggestive of burden shifting. Accordingly, Matthews cannot meet the heavy burden of showing that such comments so infected his trial as to deprive him constitutional due process.

         Matthews also challenges that the State's rebuttal closing argument violated his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation. In rebuttal, the prosecutor argued:

Ladies and gentlemen, you've already been here for three days. Do you really want to hear about a patrol officer that came and put tape around a house and there was nobody there? I set up a perimeter here and I directed traffic and I didn't allow cars. I don't think you wanted to hear all that. I mean that's why patrol officers aren't here.

ECF No. 6-4 at 108-09. Matthews maintains that the prosecutor's comments, suggestive of what the patrol officer may have said if called, stripped Matthews of his right to confront ...


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