Buehl v. Vaughn, SCI-G

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtALITO
Citation166 F.3d 163
PartiesRoger Peter BUEHL, Appellant, v. Donald VAUGHN, Superintendent ofraterford; The District Attorney for Montgomery County; The Attorney General of the State of Pennsylvania.
Decision Date20 January 1999
Docket NumberNo. 97-1241,SCI-G

Page 163

166 F.3d 163
Roger Peter BUEHL, Appellant,
Donald VAUGHN, Superintendent of SCI-Graterford; The
District Attorney for Montgomery County; The
Attorney General of the State of Pennsylvania.
No. 97-1241.
United States Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit.
Argued Jan. 28, 1998.
Decided Jan. 20, 1999.

Page 166

David Rudovsky (Argued), Kairys, Rudovsky, Epstein, Messing & Rau, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellant.

Mary MacNeil Killinger (Argued), Executive Assistant District Attorney Chief, Appellate Division, Norristown, PA, for Appellees.

Before: MANSMANN, COWEN, and ALITO, Circuit Judges.


ALITO, Circuit Judge:

Roger Peter Buehl appeals the denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Convicted in state court for a triple homicide, Buehl claims that his due process rights were violated and that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial and on direct appeal. Because we conclude that Buehl's due process rights were not violated and that his ineffective assistance claims fail to meet the standard of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), we affirm the judgment of the District Court.


On July 16, 1982, police found the bodies of Courtland Gross, his wife Alexandra Gross, and their housekeeper Catherine VanderVeur shot to death at the Gross estate in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The police determined that the murders had occurred in the afternoon or early evening of July 15. The killings appeared to have been carried out as part of a robbery, since drawers had been pulled out of cabinets in several rooms and a cloth covering a safe in the basement had been pulled aside to reveal the dial and handles. The safe was unopened.

The victims at the Gross residence had been shot with .380 caliber bullets, and the police recovered six .380 caliber cartridge casings from the rooms in which the victims were found. The police found Mr. Gross's body near the top of a flight of steps that led to the cellar. He had been shot in the right foot, the abdomen, and the cheek. Mrs. Gross had been shot in the elbow and the eye. Mrs. VanderVeur, who was found tied to a chair in a bedroom, had been shot once in the head. There were no eyewitnesses to these murders, but the Commonwealth assembled the following circumstantial evidence against Buehl.

In June 1982, an acquaintance of Buehl's named Francis Kelly purchased a .380 caliber Walther PPK handgun. Kelly test-fired the gun at a junkyard on or about June 7. 1 In

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August, after the murders of the Gross household, Kelly returned to the junkyard with a police officer who retrieved two .380 shell casings for ballistics analysis. This analysis revealed that the shell casings from the junkyard were fired from the gun used in the murders at the Gross estate.

On July 7, Joseph Dwyer stole a red Buick Skylark in the City of Philadelphia. Dwyer damaged the Buick's front left tire and lost the tire's hubcap, and he then sold the car to Kelly the next day. On July 10, Kelly lent both the Walther PPK handgun and the Buick to Buehl. Dwyer saw Buehl in possession of the PPK and the Buick that same day. Buehl told Dwyer that he intended to commit robberies on Pine Street in Philadelphia and in Montgomery County, where he would force people to "open the safe." Buehl invited Dwyer to help in these robberies, but Dwyer declined.

On July 13, Buehl purchased 50 cartridges of ammunition for the PPK at Pearson's Sporting Goods Store. Because Buehl initially purchased ammunition that was incompatible with the PPK, he exchanged his original purchase for compatible ammunition and received a credit slip in the amount of $4.50. Buehl signed the form required to buy the ammunition, but his signature was illegible. The store's assistant manager therefore asked for Buehl's driver's license and printed Buehl's name on the form. This manager later identified Buehl as the man who purchased the ammunition.

After Buehl purchased ammunition for the PPK, he used the Buick and the gun to rob the Good Scents Shop on Pine Street in Philadelphia. During the robbery, Buehl shot Nathan Cohn in the ankle and exclaimed: "I'm not playing around." As Buehl left the store, he told an employee: "If anybody comes out here, I'll blow your eyes out." Buehl was observed leaving the store and driving away in the Buick. Buehl admitted to this robbery, and a ballistics analysis determined that the shell casings ejected from the PPK at the store were fired in the same gun as that used at the junkyard and the Gross residence.

On July 15 at around 2:00 p.m., David Mazzocco witnessed a red car that was missing its front left hubcap driving slowly down Berks Road in Worcester Township. Around this same time, Richard Kirkpatrick returned home to find a red Buick Skylark parked in the driveway of his home on Berks Road. When he entered his home, Kirkpatrick was accosted by a man with a pistol. This gunman told Kirkpatrick: "I've shot two other people. I'll shoot you also. I'll start with your leg and work up." He also warned Kirkpatrick: "I'm not fooling." The robber took jewelry from Kirkpatrick's house and fled. Kirkpatrick initially identified a photograph of someone other than Buehl as the robber and made no identification at Buehl's trial. However, on the same day as the Kirkpatrick robbery, Buehl sold jewelry stolen from the Kirkpatrick home to a jeweler in Philadelphia. Moreover, a ballistics expert determined that the .380 cartridge casings found at the Kirkpatrick home came from the gun that was fired at the junkyard, the Pine Street robbery, and the Gross residence.

The Kirkpatrick home is less than a half hour away by car from the Gross residence. At approximately 2:30 p.m. on July 15, an elderly woman wearing a straw hat and a flowered dress bought a box of Domino powdered sugar at the Liberty Bell Meat Market near the Gross residence. When the police discovered Mrs. Gross's body at her home, she was wearing a flowered dress, and a straw hat was found near her head. A box of Domino sugar was in a paper bag with the receipt on the kitchen counter. Catherine Fitzgerald, who cleaned house for the Gross family, testified that Mrs. Gross always put groceries away as soon as she came home.

Between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. on July 15, Buehl arrived at Joseph LaMotte's office in an agitated state and asked if he could borrow LaMotte's gray Datsun because he had "just pulled a job" and "had to go back and wipe off the fingerprints." Buehl told LaMotte that he could not drive the red Buick because he was afraid of being stopped by the police. When LaMotte refused to loan Buehl his car, Buehl said: "Look, this is my life we're talking about. I just wasted three people and I want your car." LaMotte noticed that Buehl had a gun in his waistband

Page 168

and asked where Buehl had gotten it. Buehl replied that he had obtained it from Kelly. LaMotte loaned Buehl his car but said that he needed it back at about 5:00 p.m. Buehl told LaMotte that he would be driving to Conshohocken. A police officer testified at trial that the Conshohocken exit of the Schuylkill Expressway is about 1.5 miles from the Gross residence. The officer also testified that it was possible to drive from the Gross residence to LaMotte's office in 36 minutes, observing all speed limits. At about 4:45 p.m., Buehl called LaMotte to say that he was on the way back. At about 5:00 p.m., a witness near the Gross residence observed a small gray car that appeared to be a Datsun speeding toward the expressway. Buehl returned to meet LaMotte near his office between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m. Buehl still had a pistol in his waistband. LaMotte and Buehl then picked up Mary Treat, who testified that Buehl looked nervous.

On July 17, Buehl called LaMotte from Atlantic City and asked him about "any big burglaries or anything on the news." When LaMotte said that he didn't remember any such news, Buehl said: "Think. It's important." LaMotte then inquired whether Buehl knew anything about an attempted burglary in which three people were killed, but Buehl did not answer.

On that same day, Buehl met a man named Duon Miller in Atlantic City. Miller noticed that Buehl had in his possession a gold money clip engraved with the image of St. Christopher. Mrs. Gross carried a gold money clip with such an engraving, but it was missing after her murder. Miller testified that Buehl told him that he had killed people with a PPK and had thrown it into a lake or river. Buehl asked Miller if he had ever heard of the Gross family, and he offered Miller the gold St. Christopher money clip. Miller testified that he and Buehl argued about money and that Buehl threatened to "get his PPK and come back and blow [Miller] away."

Peter Ross met Buehl on July 19 in the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. Ross observed Buehl arguing with Miller and threatening to kill him with a PPK. Buehl told Ross that he had Miller's vehicle registration and thus could track Miller down and kill him. Buehl also told Ross that he had killed people before, and he asked if Ross wanted him to kill anyone.

Buehl was arrested on July 30, 1982 for burglary. At the time of his arrest, Buehl had in his possession the credit slip from Pearson's Sporting Goods Store; a paper with Miller's name, address and phone number; and Miller's vehicle registration. A police officer testified at trial that, while Buehl was being transferred to Broadmeadows prison, Buehl asked one of the detectives if the police could match shell casings.

Based on this evidence, Buehl was convicted of the first degree murder of Mr. and Mrs. Gross and Mrs. VanderVeur, 2 and he was sentenced to death. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Buehl's conviction on direct review. Commonwealth v. Buehl, 510 Pa. 363, 508 A.2d 1167 (Pa.1986). Buehl then filed a petition under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), which was denied by the state trial court. The...

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