Eichinger v. Wetzel

Decision Date16 January 2019
PartiesJOHN CHARLES EICHINGER, Petitioner, v. JOHN WETZEL, Commissioner, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections; ROBERT GILMORE, Superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Greene; and MARK GARMAN, Superintendent of State Correctional Institution at Rockview, Respondents.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Padova, J.

John Charles Eichinger, a prisoner under sentence of death in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, seeks a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. In his petition, Eichinger attacks both his conviction and sentence asserting numerous claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, trial court error, and prosecutorial misconduct. Having reviewed the extensive pleadings and the voluminous state court record that includes twenty-two days of post-conviction evidentiary hearings, and having conducted oral argument, we deny the petition.


Eichinger waived his right to a jury for the guilty phase of all counts, which were tried in a stipulated bench trial. (A37 at n.3; A3303.1) The decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court("PSC") affirming Eichinger's convictions on direct appeal recited the factual basis of his convictions as follows:

On the morning of March 25, 2005 Eichinger drove to the Greaves' residence. Eichinger told police that he intended to kill Heather Greaves unless she ended her relationship with her most recent boyfriend. To this end, Eichinger arranged to meet with Heather so that she would be expecting him at her house that day. Eichinger carried a large knife and a pair of rubber gloves in his waistband and concealed them under his sweat jacket.
Eichinger went into the house to speak with Heather. An argument ensued and Eichinger pulled out the knife and stabbed her repeatedly in the stomach. Eichinger admitted that he purposefully stabbed Heather in the stomach, because "[he] had heard in movies and books that it was easier to puncture organs there than through the chest, where it is more difficult because of hitting bone." []
Avery, Heather's three-year-old daughter, was in the room and witnessed the stabbing. When Heather cried to Avery to call 911, Eichinger turned away from Heather and slashed Avery in the neck. Avery ran down the hallway before she fell. Eichinger followed her and came upon Lisa, Heather's sister coming out of the bathroom. Eichinger confessed to police, "I had to stab Lisa, too. I couldn't go to jail." [] Lisa tried to run back into the bathroom and shut the door, but Eichinger was able to overpower her. He stabbed Lisa repeatedly in the stomach.
Eichinger moved back towards the kitchen where Heather was dying, but not before he stabbed Avery once more, in the back. He stabbed her with such force that the blade came out her chest, and pinned her to the floor. Eichinger admitted to police that, "I couldn't even let the three-year old identify me. I had known her since she was born and she knew my name. She could speak my name." Back in the kitchen, Eichinger stabbed Heather in the diaphragm and slit her throat.
Eichinger went to the sink to wash his hands and noticed he was cut. He used one of the rubber gloves to prevent his blood from being left at the crime scene. Before leaving, Eichinger cut open Lisa's shirt to make it appear that she had been the target of the rampage in order to confuse the police. Heather and Lisa's father discovered the murders later that day. The police spoke to a neighbor who had witnessed Eichinger leaving the Greaves' home that morning.
Upon receiving this information, Detective Richard Nilsen, a Montgomery County Detective, along with Detective James Godby of the Upper Merion Police Department, went to the Somers Point, New Jersey Acme Food Market where Eichinger was employed. Eichinger agreed to be interviewed. After some discussion, and a false statement to the police, Eichinger confessed to the Greaves murders.
During the same conversation, Eichinger also confessed that he used the knife from the Greaves' murders to kill another woman, Jennifer Still, on July 6, 1999. Eichinger admitted to police that he killed Jennifer because she rejected him in order to stay with her fiancé. Eichinger described this murder:
I had the knife in my hand. I turned away from her for a second and couldn't believe she was doing that to me. She got real close to me. I thought, 'You're ripping my heart out and now you're getting close to me.' She put her hand on my shoulder. I turned around and stabbed her in the stomach.


After I stabbed her the first time, she stepped back, but didn't fall. Her blood splattered out at me. I lunged at her. I just kept stabbing her.


I slit her throat as she slid down the wall. I let her body weight cut her throat against the knife.
Eichinger saved his clothes from that day, and collected articles about the murder to serve as reminders. After using the knife to kill Jennifer in 1999, he stored it in a sheath in a cooler. Eichinger told police, "I had it in the cooler with the rubber gloves and the Scream mask. Every Halloween I put the mask, gloves, and knife on and handed out candy at the door."
As a result of his confessions, Eichinger was arrested and later transported back to Montgomery County. In transit, Eichinger made another incriminating statement describing the triple-homicide as well as the earlier murder of Jennifer Still to the police. This statement was later memorialized in writing.
Eichinger filed an omnibus pre-trial motion seeking to suppress his statements to the police. This motion was denied. Eichinger and Detective Nilsen then testified at a pre-trial hearing on September 15, 2005. The trial judge found Detective Nilsen's testimony to be credible and found that all of the statements made by Eichinger to the police were admissible at trial. []
Eichinger waived his right to a jury in favor of a guilt phase bench trial which was held on October 18, 2005. Eichinger did not contest the charges against him and offered no defense, rather he stipulated to the evidence offered by the Commonwealth at the September 15th Pre-Trial Hearing. Eichinger was adjudicated guilty of all charges, and the Commonwealth sought the penalty ofdeath for the murders of Heather Greaves, Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson. The sentencing phase was tried before a jury beginning on November 1, 2005. Although he did not contest his guilt, Eichinger did contest the imposition of the death penalty. The jury found two aggravating factors in the death of Heather Greaves: that Eichinger had been convicted of another state offense for which a sentence of life imprisonment is imposable and that Eichinger had been convicted of another murder which was committed before or at the time of the offense at issue. The first aggravating factor related to the murder of Jennifer Still six years earlier. The second related to the murder of Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson which was contemporaneous with the murder of Heather Greaves. The jury then found the same two aggravators for the murder of Lisa Greaves plus a third aggravating factor, that the victim was a witness to a murder and was killed to prevent her testimony in any criminal proceeding concerning the offense. The jury also found the same three aggravating factors they found for Lisa Greaves for the murder of Avery Johnson, plus a fourth aggravating factor, that Avery Johnson was a child less than twelve years of age. The jury determined that there was one mitigating factor for each of these three murders, namely that Eichinger was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance. Finding that the weight of the aggravating factors was greater than the weight of the mitigating factor in each case, the jury returned a verdict of death for the murders of Heather, Lisa and Avery.
On December 12, 2005 the trial court imposed three consecutive death sentences for the murders of Heather and Lisa Greaves and Avery Johnson and one sentence of life imprisonment for the murder of Jennifer Still. The court additionally imposed two consecutive sentences of 2.5 to 5 years for possessing an instrument of crime and three consecutive sentences of 1 to 2 years for unsworn falsification.

Commonwealth v. Eichinger, 915 A.2d 1122, 1128-30 (Pa. 2007) (footnotes and citations to the state court record omitted).

In adjudicating Eichinger's petition filed pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 9541, the PCRA Court also made factual findings about the defense evidence presented at the penalty phase proceedings:

At the penalty phase of the trial, [Lead Trial Counsel William] McElroy presented the testimony of two mental health experts, Dr. Gillian Blair, a clinical psychologist, and Dr. Kenneth Weiss, a psychiatrist. []
Dr. Blair testified that in relevant part that she diagnosed Appellant with a personality disorder, schizoid with prominent dependent traits. [] In her report she explained that Appellant has poor coping skills and is susceptible to decompensation at times of heighteneded [sic] stress." [sic] [] Dr. Blair explainedthat decompensation means that someone loses control and behaves in ways in which they normally would not behave, without considering the consequences of their behavior. [] Dr. Blair's testimony went towards the defense argument that at the times of the 1999 Still murder and the 2005 Greaves-Johnson murders, Appellant decompensated as those were times of acute stress in Appellant's life because of his father's diagnosis of and deterioration based upon his Alzheimer's illness. In her testimony, Dr. Blair emphasized that Appellant has had very few people in his life who were really close to him and when his father, with whom he was the closest, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it was very devastating to him. []
Next, Dr. Weiss' assessment of Appellant included the diagnosis of

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