Gaines v. Marsh

Citation528 F.Supp.3d 286
Decision Date24 March 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 20-361
Parties Lawrence GAINES v. Richard MARSH, et al.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)

Cheryl J. Sturm, Cheryl J. Sturm, Attorney at Law, Chadds Ford, PA, for Lawrence Gaines LA-3857 SCI-Benner Township 301 Institution Drive Bellefonte, PA 16823.

Katharine R. Kurnas, Northampton County District Attorney's Office, Easton, PA, for The District Attorney of the County of Northampton.


KEARNEY, District Judge

Stepping outside of a drug house where he served as "muscle" to limit potential customer problems, Lawrence Gaines got into a scuffle with a drug abuser knocking on the door wanting to purchase drugs long after the house closed for the night. A witness swore the scuffle stopped and the prospective drug purchaser later surprised Mr. Gaines by hitting him in the back with a house rail after Mr. Gaines turned away. Mr. Gaines immediately responded by stabbing the prospective purchaser's right arm, right groin, right buttocks, and right thigh in the street. The prospective purchaser bled to death from the stab wounds.

The Commonwealth charged Mr. Gaines with criminal homicide and first-degree murder. He chose a theory of self-defense. His lawyer suggested Mr. Gaines may not want to testify in his defense. The trial judge twice told Mr. Gaines and his lawyer he could choose not to testify and, if his defense counsel requested, the judge would instruct the jury they could draw "no adverse inference" from his choice not to testify to explain his self-defense theory. He chose not to testify. But for reasons still not explained, the trial lawyer never asked for the "no adverse inference" instruction during the charging conference after the close of the defense case. The trial judge instructed the jury on first- and third-degree murder and manslaughter. But as the trial lawyer did not request the "no adverse inference" instruction, the trial judge did not instruct the jury they could draw "no adverse inference" from Mr. Gaines's decision not to testify consistent with his constitutional right. When the judge asked counsel following the lengthy charge if they wished to add an instruction, the trial lawyer decided not to ask the judge to give the "no adverse inference" instruction although he then asked for, and obtained, a supplemental reasonable doubt instruction. The trial lawyer did not consult with Mr. Gaines before deciding not to ask for the "no adverse inference" instruction.

The jury chose to convict Mr. Gaines of first-degree murder instead of the lesser homicide offenses also charged. The judge entered a life sentence without possibility of parole based on the first-degree murder conviction consistent with Pennsylvania law. His trial counsel appealed but did not raise the failure to instruct on the "no adverse inference" to be drawn from not testifying. The Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts affirmed the conviction and sentence. The Pennsylvania courts then denied Mr. Gaines's post-conviction challenges brought by new counsel who also never raised the failure to request the "no adverse inference" instruction.

Mr. Gaines now seeks habeas relief claiming insufficient evidence to sustain the first-degree murder conviction and ineffective assistance of both trial counsel and post-conviction counsel. We deny all but one of Mr. Gaines's multiple grounds for habeas relief including his challenge to excluding a possible defense witness. But Mr. Gaines has met his burden in demonstrating ineffective assistance of counsel in failing to request a "no adverse inference" jury instruction without his client's consent after Mr. Gaines twice elected not to testify to support his self-defense theory and post-conviction counsel's failure to argue ineffectiveness based on this decision.

Trial counsel's failure to follow-through on his repeated trial requests for the instruction and then forego the instruction both during the charging conference and after the charge without consulting with Mr. Gaines fundamentally altered the jury's consideration of alternative homicide claims, is constitutionally ineffective, and highly prejudicial in a close case with credible self-defense evidence presented to the jury from an eyewitness. Mr. Gaines's post-conviction counsel admittedly missed the issue and his ineffectiveness on this issue deprived Mr. Gaines of the ability to timely raise this issue in the Post Conviction Relief Act proceedings. We grant Mr. Gaines's petition for habeas relief based only on this ineffectiveness claim and deny and dismiss all other claims. We further find no basis for a certificate of appealability on the denied claims.

I. Relevant facts adduced from the state court record .1

Lawrence Gaines abused crack cocaine in a known drug house on Ferry Street in the City of Easton, Northampton County on a July 2, 2012 summer evening. He served as the crack house "muscle" to resolve problems when customers lost control.2 Tony Williams also smoked crack cocaine in the house until around 6:00 a.m. on the morning of July 3 when he heard knocking at the back door. Mr. Williams did not immediately answer the door because the owner of the Ferry Street house told Mr. Williams no one else should be admitted to the house. The individual continued knocking at the back door and Mr. Williams eventually went to answer it. Mr. Williams then recognized the person knocking as William Thompson, known as "Poncho."

Mr. Williams saw Poncho waving a twenty-dollar bill and asking to be let inside the Ferry Street house. Mr. Williams refused to let Poncho in, telling him the owner would not allow anyone else inside. Mr. Williams returned to the living room of the house where he and Mr. Gaines began talking.3 While Mr. Williams and Mr. Gaines sat in the living room, Poncho continued knocking at the back door which increased to "boom-boom banging on the door." Mr. Williams and Mr. Gaines ignored the banging, but Mr. Gaines grew tired of the noise and became concerned the continued banging would cause a neighbor to call the police. Mr. Gaines went to the back door and began to speak through the door, without opening it, to Poncho.

Mr. Gaines then opened the back door, and he and Poncho continued their conversation at the doorway. Mr. Williams could not hear the substance of the conversation but heard the men's voices getting louder. Mr. Gaines then left the house, closing the door behind him. Poncho did not enter the house.

Mr. Williams heard both Mr. Gaines and Poncho continue an escalating argument outside the Ferry Street house. Mr. Williams went to the back door to investigate, leaving the house by the back door and walking along an alleyway where the two men argued. Mr. Williams testified he saw Mr. Gaines and Poncho continuing to argue, and he attempted to intervene. Mr. Williams testified he saw Mr. Gaines hit Poncho "out of nowhere" with a "vicious" hit.4 Mr. Williams testified Poncho did not hit Mr. Gaines before being hit.

Mr. Williams saw Poncho fall to the ground and Mr. Gaines on top of Poncho hitting him and kicking him in the back of the head.5 Mr. Williams testified he pulled Mr. Gaines from Poncho who then got up and walked away down the street. Mr. Williams thought the fight ended but then saw Poncho return "with a big stick."6 Mr. Williams testified while he and Mr. Gaines faced each other, and with Mr. Gaines's back to Poncho, Poncho "runs with a stick and hits [Mr. Gaines] in the back" and both Poncho and Mr. Gaines fell to the ground.7 Mr. Williams testified the stick broke in half. Mr. Williams testified the stick "wasn't ... real sturdy" and "was like a rail, like an old house rail or something."8 Mr. Williams testified he did not believe Mr. Gaines saw Poncho coming at him with the stick because Mr. Gaines had his back to Poncho. Mr. Williams testified he saw Poncho over Mr. Gaines's shoulder and "[i]t happened so fast, I can't give [Mr. Gaines] the heads-up move or nothing. That's when [Poncho] hit [Mr. Gaines] with the stick and they both fall and the stick breaks."9

Mr. Williams testified he became afraid when he saw Poncho coming at Mr. Gaines with the stick because he "was standing right -- I mean, me and [Mr. Gaines] was talking. We were close to each other talking" and "[I] was afraid I was going to get hit."10 With half a stick in Poncho's hand and both he and Mr. Gaines on the ground, the two men began scuffling. Mr. Gaines got up from the ground. Mr. Gaines then pulled a knife out of his pocket and said something like, "oh, it's like that? Yeah, it's like that," and began to stab Poncho who remained on the ground.11 Mr. Williams grabbed Mr. Gaines from Poncho.12 Poncho got up from the ground and left. Mr. Williams saw a flow of blood running down the back of Poncho's leg. Mr. William and Mr. Gaines fled the scene.

Other witnesses to the incident between Mr. Gaines and Poncho.

In addition to Mr. Williams's eyewitness testimony, Blane Brandon, a corrections officer at the Northampton County Prison, heard a commotion near Ferry Street. Officer Brandon testified he saw three individuals arguing, two of them starting to fight, the "tall one" hit the "other one," with the "third one" trying to pull the "tall one" off the "other one" in what appeared to be an attempt to break up the fight. Officer Brandon saw the "tall one" hit the "short one" a couple of times, and when the "short one" hit the ground, he saw the "tall one" kick the "short one" a couple of times. Officer Brandon testified the incident lasted about five or ten minutes until he yelled down to the men. Officer Brandon testified the men separated, and he went back to the prison to retrieve something he had forgotten. When Officer Brandon returned five or ten minutes later, he saw the shorter man lying in the middle of the street. Officer Brandon testified the taller man, approximately 6’2" and wearing a black shirt and blue jeans, acted as the aggressor and the shorter man did not...

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