140 F.3d 572 (4th Cir. 1998), 96-7930, Huffington v. Nuth

Docket Nº:96-7930.
Citation:140 F.3d 572
Party Name:John Norman HUFFINGTON, Petitioner-Appellant, v. Eugene NUTH, Warden; Attorney General of the State of Maryland, Respondents-Appellees.
Case Date:March 31, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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140 F.3d 572 (4th Cir. 1998)

John Norman HUFFINGTON, Petitioner-Appellant,

v.

Eugene NUTH, Warden; Attorney General of the State of Maryland, Respondents-Appellees.

No. 96-7930.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

March 31, 1998

Argued Jan. 29, 1998.

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ARGUED:

Jon Steven Baughman, Ropes & Gray, Washington, DC, for Appellant.

Gwynn X. Kinsey, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Appeals Division, Office of the Attorney General, Baltimore, MD, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

David Overlock Stewart, Ropes & Gray, Washington, DC, for Appellant.

J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Criminal Appeals Division, Office of the Attorney General, Baltimore, MD, for Appellees.

Before MURNAGHAN, NIEMEYER, and MOTZ, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge MOTZ wrote the opinion, in which Judge MURNAGHAN and Judge NIEMEYER joined.

OPINION

DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge:

A jury found John Norman Huffington guilty of murdering two people on Memorial Day weekend in 1981. After pursuing direct appeals and seeking post-conviction relief from the state courts, Huffington petitioned for federal habeas relief. The district court denied his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and we affirm.

I.

A.

On November 13, 1981, a jury convicted Huffington on two counts of felony murder and related offenses. All of the charges stemmed from the brutal murders of Joseph Hudson and Diane Becker in the early morning hours of May 25, 1981. The Maryland Court of Appeals reversed Huffington's conviction based on an evidentiary error unrelated to this habeas petition, and remanded for a new trial. See Huffington v. State, 295 Md. 1, 452 A.2d 1211 (1982).

At the second trial, a jury again convicted Huffington of two counts of felony murder and related offenses, and sentenced him to death. Huffington appealed once more, asserting a different evidentiary error. The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected the argument and affirmed. See Huffington v. State, 304 Md. 559, 500 A.2d 272 (1985), cert. denied sub nom. Huffington v. Maryland, 478 U.S. 1023, 106 S.Ct. 3315, 92 L.Ed.2d 745 (1986).

Under Maryland law, Huffington could not raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on his direct appeal. See Johnson v. State, 292 Md. 405, 439 A.2d 542, 559 (1982). He therefore filed a petition for postconviction relief with the Circuit Court for Frederick County. That court vacated his death sentence, but otherwise denied postconviction relief. Huffington thereafter filed an application to appeal the partial denial of post-conviction relief. The Maryland Court of Appeals refused to grant his application for leave to appeal and his motion to reconsider that action. The Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari. See Huffington v. Maryland, 502 U.S. 985, 112 S.Ct. 593, 116 L.Ed.2d 617 (1991).

When the State elected not to seek the death penalty, the state trial court resentenced Huffington to consecutive life terms. He then filed a second application for state post-conviction relief, asserting a single argument: the denial of application for leave to appeal in his first state post-conviction proceeding violated his equal protection and due process rights. The state trial court denied his petition, and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, after initially remanding for explication of the trial court's rationale, denied his application for leave to appeal.

In November 1994, Huffington filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus with the district court. A magistrate judge issued a report recommending denial of the writ. The district court, after conducting a de novo review and correcting certain legal errors, adopted the recommendation and denied the writ. Huffington then appealed to this court.

B.

At Huffington's trial, the State presented both direct and circumstantial evidence that Huffington killed Hudson and Becker. Deno Kanaras, who had already been convicted in connection with the murders, testified for the State at both of Huffington's trials. The

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Maryland Court of Appeals recounted his testimony as follows.

[Huffington] spoke with Hudson at the Golden Forty [a nightclub where Hudson worked as a disc jockey] and arranged to make a cocaine purchase after the bar closed. On leaving the club, they [Kanaras and Huffington] followed Hudson and company to the camp ground [in Kanaras's car], stopping at the 7-11 on the way. At the trailer, [Huffington] spoke with Hudson about purchasing 3 1/2 grams of cocaine, and about arranging a subsequent deal for the remainder of Hudson's cocaine. [Huffington] purchased the 3 1/2 grams for $275, toward which Kanaras contributed $100. [Huffington] agreed to try to arrange a deal for the remainder of Hudson's cocaine, approximately another 3 1/2 grams, at a price of $350. Kanaras and [Huffington] then left the trailer and went to [Huffington's] apartment, arriving at about 3:30 a.m. At the apartment, Kanaras sat in the living room while [Huffington] went to the bedroom to make some telephone calls. [Huffington] subsequently returned and indicated that he had arranged a purchase. They returned to the campground where[Huffington] told Hudson he had a purchaser and also wanted to discuss a bigger deal later that evening. Hudson then got dressed and left a note on a counter in the trailer whereupon the three men left in Kanaras's car. [Huffington] gave directions to Wheel Road and instructed Kanaras to park the car in the driveway of an old farm. All three men got out of the car and walked up the driveway, Kanaras and Hudson walking side by side, [Huffington] following. Suddenly, Kanaras heard four or five gunshots and Hudson fell. [Huffington] reloaded the revolver, approached Hudson, and fired twice from close range into the left side of the head. Kanaras was so shocked he didn't know what to say. [Huffington] then rolled Hudson's body over and pulled a bag of cocaine out of his shirt pocket. Ultimately, [Huffington] placed this bag of cocaine into a Marlboro cigarette box. [Huffington] removed the bag from Hudson's pocket, turned to Kanaras, pointed the gun at him, and ordered him to drive them back to the campground. [Huffington] said that Hudson had $2000 at the campground, which he wanted. At the entrance to the campground, [Huffington] directed Kanaras to park the car some distance from Hudson's trailer so it would not be seen and to leave the car unlocked with the keys in the ignition. [Huffington] also directed Kanaras to accompany him to the trailer. [Huffington] opened the door, which was unlocked, and they went in. Becker's son was asleep in the back of the trailer at the time. After [Huffington] picked up the note Hudson had left and put it in his pocket, they searched the trailer, and Kanaras found the money in a cabinet. [Huffington] then drew a knife out of his boot and told Kanaras to kill Diane Becker. Kanaras, shocked, said he could not kill her. [Huffington] then walked over toward the bed, picked up a bottle from the floor, and struck Becker five or six times in the back of the head. [Huffington] then took the knife and stabbed Becker repeatedly in the chest, back and throat. When [Huffington] finished stabbing Becker in the throat, Kanaras regained his senses and left the trailer. [Huffington] was fifteen or twenty feet behind. They ran to the car, [Huffington] carrying the bottle and a pocketbook. They then drove to [Huffington's] apartment.

At the apartment, [Huffington] changed clothes, and cleaned the gun, knife, and bottle with some rags. He counted the money and forced Kanaras to take $840, although Kanaras tried to refuse it. [Huffington] put his pants in the sink and poured bleach on them in an effort to clean out the bloodstains. Later, he put the pants into a bag and put the knife, bottle, and pocketbook into another bag. They then left the apartment, [Huffington] having ordered Kanaras to take him to the Fiddler's Convention. En route, they stopped by a creek at Harmony Church Road where [Huffington] threw the bottle into some brush, burned the pocketbook and note, and threw some live rounds of ammunition into the creek. They drove further to a location in Cecil County where [Huffington] dropped the knife and gun

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into some stagnant water. Still terrified, being unsure whether [Huffington] possessed any further weapons, Kanaras drove [Huffington] to the Fiddler's Convention as directed. They walked around the Convention and Kanaras spoke with someone he knew. They left after an hour. Kanaras drove [Huffington] to Hall's Furniture Store in Aberdeen, where a friend of [Huffington's] would be working. At that time, [Huffington] threw the bag with the pants into a nearby dumpster. [Huffington] then went into the furniture store. Kanaras drove home.

Huffington, 452 A.2d at 1212-13 (quoting the agreed upon statement of facts); see Huffington, 500 A.2d at 274. In addition to this account, Kanaras testified that he once owned the gun used in the murders, but that he had sold the gun to Huffington approximately five weeks prior to the murders--i.e., sometime in April.

The State did not rely entirely on Kanaras' testimony. Rather, it also presented a significant amount of circumstantial evidence substantiating Kanaras' account and linking Huffington to the murders. On May 26, the day after the murders, Kanaras directed the police to locations in the area surrounding Bel Air, Maryland. At one location the police fished out of a pool of water a gun, holster, knife, sheath, and several live rounds of .38 caliber ammunition. At a second location they recovered more live rounds of .38...

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