Ciambrone v. Sec'y, Dep't of Corrs.

Decision Date29 November 2021
Docket Number8:17-cv-2783-SDM-SPF
PartiesHEATHER CIAMBRONE, Applicant, v. SECRETARY, Department of Corrections Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Florida

SECRETARY, Department of Corrections Respondent.

No. 8:17-cv-2783-SDM-SPF

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

November 29, 2021



Ciambrone applies under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for a writ of habeas corpus (Doc. 1) and challenges her conviction for first-degree murder, for which Ciambrone is imprisoned for life. Numerous exhibits support the response. (Doc. 21) The respondent admits the application's timeliness (Doc. 21 at 4) but argues that some grounds are unexhausted and procedurally defaulted. (Doc. 21 at 6, 8, 11, 13)


Ciambrone and her husband adopted Lucas Ciambrone, who died while under their care. Ciambrone took Lucas, who was seven, to a hospital emergency room and told a doctor that Lucas had fallen and hurt himself. Lucas stopped breathing but sustained a pulse and blood pressure. The doctor tried to resuscitate Lucas, but Lucas died at the hospital.


A detective spoke with Ciambrone who described Lucas as manic-depressive, homicidal, and subject to outbursts of bad temper. After taking a bath, Lucas became agitated because Ciambrone told him to dry himself. Ciambrone showered in her own bathroom and returned to find Lucas slumped over in the bathtub. Ciambrone performed CPR and drove Lucas to the hospital with her husband when he returned home from work. Ciambrone accompanied the detective and a sheriff's deputy to her home and consented to a search. The deputy observed that Lucas's bathroom lacked light bulbs, towels, toilet paper, and flooring. A plastic bowl sat next to the bathtub on the concrete floor.

The next day, two detectives interviewed Ciambrone a second time at the hospital. Ciambrone told the detectives that she home-schooled Lucas because of his violent behavior. Lucas spent forty-five days in civil commitment after he threatened Ciambrone with a butter knife. Lucas usually hit the walls, used obscene language, and rocked himself hard when he became agitated in the bathroom. Ciambrone had removed the floor in the bathroom because of water damage and had removed the light bulbs because Lucas burned his little brother with a hot bulb. Lucas ate from the plastic bucket in the bathroom. After Ciambrone took a shower, she did not hear Lucas and found him in the bathroom with his head down. Ciambrone provided no explanation for not calling 911.

After obtaining a search warrant, the detectives returned to Ciambrone's home for a more thorough search. The detectives observed scratch marks on the inside of Lucas's bathroom door and bedroom door. Both doors locked from the outside.


The detectives observed feces in the corner of the bedroom. Screws closed shut the window in the bedroom, and black paint covered the bottom of the window.

A medical examiner conducted an autopsy of Lucas and observed four areas of bleeding on his scalp consistent with non-accidental blunt force trauma, five healing fractures on his ribs, and over two hundred abrasions, lacerations, and bruises and over a hundred scars all over his body. Also, Lucas suffered from severe malnutrition. A pediatrician opined that the majority of Lucas's injuries were not self-inflicted, inflicted accidentally, or inflicted by another child. The medical examiner observed pneumonia, likely from vomit aspirated after the severe brain and other head injuries, which are normally associated with a car crash and which would have immediately incapacitated Lucas. The examiner opined that Lucas suffered battered child syndrome, that the cause of his death was non-accidental blunt force head trauma, and that the manner of death was homicide.

Neighbors and other children at the home observed Ciambrone severely punish Lucas. Ciambrone told one neighbor that Lucas defecated and urinated in the home, that she hated Lucas, that she had locked Lucas in the bathroom for a week, and that she was going to kill Lucas in one of her fits of anger. The biological daughter of Ciambrone's husband visited on the weekends and saw Lucas locked naked in the bathroom the entire day. On the day that Ciambrone took Lucas to the hospital, one of her adopted daughters saw Ciambrone place her head on her husband's chest and repeatedly say, “I'm sorry Joe, I'm sorry Joe, I'm sorry.”


During the defense's case-in-chief, a radiologist opined that Lucas's distended stomach and bowels would have prevented Lucas from eating and could have caused him to vomit his food. The radiologist observed bacteria and fluid in Lucas's lungs but no blood on Lucas's brain.

A neighbor saw Lucas violently strike his head against hard objects, including a concrete floor, a door, and an oak tree. Once, Lucas grabbed his own ears and tried to tear them from his head. Another neighbor saw Ciambrone with a severely bruised knee-cap and bitemarks and bruises on her legs.

A psychiatrist who treated Lucas, when Lucas was civilly committed as a four-year-old, testified that Lucas had suffered from stomach parasites likely caused by consuming water contaminated with fecal matter. The psychiatrist observed Lucas throw toys, hit hospital staff, attack other patients, and display mood swings, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and anger. Lucas regularly bit himself and spoke disparagingly about his foster mother. When placed in a quiet room to restore his calm, Lucas usually yelled, screamed, and banged the door with his shoulder.

A clinical social worker who worked with Lucas during his civil commitment testified that Lucas acted very aggressively, lacked any understanding of boundaries, and refused to follow directions. Lucas regularly threw himself on the floor, ran into walls, banged his head on walls, and picked at himself. Lucas sometimes refused to eat and other times drank from the toilet and ate feces. Also, Lucas threatened to hurt and kill himself and other people. The social worker diagnosed Lucas with attachment disorder, oppositional defiant behavior, and post-traumatic stress


disorder and opined that Lucas posed a severe danger to himself and others. The social worker suggested to Ciambrone that she both prevent Lucas from accessing knives and other weapons and lock him in his bedroom at night.

A clinical psychiatrist testified that a child who was abused or neglected during the first two years of his life can suffer from “reactive attachment disorder.” The child can hurt animals, other children, and his parents without remorse and can engage in self-destructive behavior, such as banging his head against a wall. Also, the child can lack control over eating and might hoard or gorge on food. According to the psychiatrist, a parent must lock the child in his bedroom at night to prevent the child from bothering other children or leaving the home, and the parent of the child might feel hopeless, might feel rage toward the child, and might experience an impulse to abuse the child to control the child's behavior.


The respondent argues that grounds one, two, three, and four are procedurally barred from federal review because Ciambrone failed to exhaust the claims. (Doc. 21 at 8-10, 11, 12, 13) “[E]xhaustion of state remedies requires that petitioners ‘fairly presen[t]' federal claims to the state courts in order to give the State the ‘opportunity to pass upon and correct' alleged violations of its prisoners' federal rights.” Duncan v. Henry, 513 U.S. 364, 365 (1995) (quoting Picard v. Connor, 404 U.S. 270, 275 (1971)). “To provide the State with the necessary ‘opportunity,' the prisoner must ‘fairly present' his claim in each appropriate state court (including a state supreme court with powers of discretionary review), thereby alerting that court to the federal


nature of the claim.” Baldwin v. Reese, 541 U.S. 27, 29 (2004) (citing Henry, 513 U.S. at 365-66). Ground One:

Ciambrone asserts that the trial court violated her federal right to due process by admitting into evidence at trial inflammatory photographs of Lucas. (Doc. 1 at 4-5) Ciambrone presented a similar claim as her first issue on direct appeal but presented that issue under state law - not as the violation of a federally protected right. (Doc. 21-10 at 483-85) The failure to alert the state appellate court of the claim that the trial court violated a federally protected right fails to meet the exhaustion requirement. Henry, 513 U.S. at 366 (“If a habeas petitioner wishes to claim that an evidentiary ruling at a state court trial denied him the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, he must say so, not only in federal court, but in state court.”). Ground one is unexhausted.

Ground Two:

Ciambrone asserts that the trial court violated her federal right to due process by admitting into evidence at trial irrelevant and prejudicial character evidence. (Doc. 1 at 5-6) Ciambrone presented a similar claim as her second issue on direct appeal but presented that issue under state law - not as the violation of a federally protected right. (Doc. 21-10 at 485-89) The failure to alert the state appellate court of the claim that the trial court violated a federally protected right fails to meet the exhaustion requirement. Henry, 513 U.S. at 366. Ground two is unexhausted.


Ground Three:

Ciambrone asserts that the trial court violated her federal right to present a defense by excluding from evidence at trial a videotaped interview of Lucas's sister by a member of the child protection team several days after Lucas's death. (Doc. 1 at 7-8) Ciambrone presented a similar claim as her third issue on direct appeal and cited the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment of the federal constitution. (Doc. 21-10 at 491) Because Ciambrone cited federal constitutional law in support of her claim, she alerted the state court to the federal nature of her claim. Reese, 541 U.S. at 32 (“A litigant wishing to...

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