Hill v. Wetzel, CIVIL ACTION No. 12–2185

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
Citation279 F.Supp.3d 550
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION No. 12–2185
Parties Donetta HILL, Petitioner, v. John E. WETZEL et al., Respondents.
Decision Date10 November 2016

279 F.Supp.3d 550

Donetta HILL, Petitioner,
John E. WETZEL et al., Respondents.

CIVIL ACTION No. 12–2185

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania.

Signed November 10, 2016

279 F.Supp.3d 554

Ayanna Williams, Cristi A. Charpentier, Community Federal Defender, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioner.

Marilyn F. Murray, Susan Elizabeth Affronti, Philadelphia District Attys. Office, Philadelphia, PA, for Respondents.


McHUGH, District Judge

279 F.Supp.3d 555

Petitioner Donetta Hill is a prisoner seeking federal habeas relief from two state convictions of murder. Ms. Hill maintains her innocence and alleges that various constitutional errors occurred before and during her trial. Though most of these allegations lack merit, Ms. Hill has raised two potentially meritorious claims of ineffective assistance of counsel: (1) that her trial attorney failed to reasonably investigate Ms. Hill's social history, and thus failed to learn of her various and severe cognitive impairments; and (2) that counsel failed to reasonably investigate the circumstances of her allegedly coerced confessions, and thus failed to learn that the detective who questioned her had a substantial history of improper interrogation. Because these claims might—if substantiated—entitle Ms. Hill to habeas relief, I will grant her request for an evidentiary hearing. If Ms. Hill can show that competent counsel would have uncovered information in these investigations sufficient to raise a reasonable probability of acquittal, she must be retried.

Accordingly, for the reasons that follow I will GRANT Petitioner's request for an EVIDENTIARY HEARING on Claims 5 and 9, DENY Petitioner's remaining claims, and GRANT a Certificate of Appealability on all claims.

I. Background

In June 1990, seventy-two-year-old Nghia Quy Lu was found robbed and beaten to death with the claw-end of a hammer in his South Philadelphia home. Police investigated the crime, but arrested no initial suspects. In April 1991, Nairobi Dupont was also found robbed and beaten to death with a hammer in his home, which was a mere three-and-a-half blocks from the scene of the Lu crime. Police conducted a canvass of the area, during which they spoke to several homeless people and cocaine addicts staying nearby. When asked who might have committed the Dupont murder, these individuals mentioned another local homeless addict, Petitioner Donetta Hill.

Ms. Hill, who suffers from "pervasive" cognitive impairment, borderline intelligence, bipolar disorder, and PTSD, Decl. of Dr. Jethro Toomer at 3, ECF 10–2 at 82, was well-known to area police at the time of the investigation. She had grown up and attended school in the neighborhood, and she had multiple psychiatric and psychological referrals from the departments of human services and child protective services. At the time of the investigation, Ms. Hill still often stayed at her mother's home. She had recently given birth to her second child and had returned to the neighborhood after serving a prison sentence for robbery.

After the police canvass, Ms. Hill heard from other homeless addicts that the police wished to speak with her. Accordingly, she went to talk to her probation officer, Maurisio Delisi. Accompanied by Mr. Delisi and another probation employee, Ms. Hill reported to the homicide division of the Philadelphia Police Department. There, she was taken to an interrogation room and questioned by Detective Thomas Augustine.

What happened next is a matter of heated dispute. According to Ms. Hill, Detective Augustine handcuffed her to a chair, verbally abused her with racist and sexist invective, and threatened to take her children away if she did not confess to the killing. According to Detective Augustine,

279 F.Supp.3d 556

he questioned Ms. Hill appropriately and was at all times accompanied by Detective Anthony Tomaino. Augustine and Tomaino testified that after just less than four hours of interrogation, Ms. Hill voluntarily admitted that she killed Nairobi DuPont and witnessed the killing of Nghia Quy Lu. Allegedly under threat, Ms. Hill signed a typed statement reflecting these admissions. Shortly thereafter, she was charged with the Dupont murder.

Four days later, police transported Ms. Hill from the county prison back to the homicide division, where she was questioned further by Detective Eugene Wyatt about the Lu killing. Ms. Hill states that she provided information about two other potential suspects, but that she never confessed to the murder. She then signed a statement that she believed reflected "what I had told them I know [about the other suspects]." NT 03/31/92 at 76. She did not read the statement or have the statement read to her. The statement was a confession to the murder, and Ms. Hill was charged with the murder of Nghia Quy Lu.

Because the two murders were so similarly executed, the trial court consolidated the cases into a single trial. At trial, the Commonwealth introduced Ms. Hill's confessions, testimony that she had fenced stolen goods that had belonged to the victims, and testimony from Detective Augustine that he found an identification card belonging to Ms. Hill at the scene of the Dupont murder. Though Augustine testified to the existence of this card, the police failed to produce it or any property receipt referencing it. They stated that the card had been lost; consequently, neither Ms. Hill, the judge, nor the jury ever examined it. No fingerprints, fibers, or strands of hair were recovered linking Ms. Hill to the crimes. Moreover, though the Commonwealth alleged that Ms. Hill killed both victims after engaging in sex with them, no DNA evidence was presented against her.

At trial, Ms. Hill's attorney emphasized the Commonwealth's threadbare presentation of evidence, but his presentation was equally sparse. Despite being appointed to represent a capital defendant, counsel did not conduct even a rudimentary investigation into Ms. Hill's mental health or into the detectives who allegedly abused her.

Though he possessed medical records showing that Ms. Hill suffered from serious mental and psychological problems, counsel did not interview the family members living with her about her mental health and intellectual limitations, and he did not have her evaluated by any type of mental health professional. Moreover, though Ms. Hill consistently insisted that Detective Augustine threatened and mistreated her during her interrogation, her attorney took no steps to investigate whether Augustine had threatened or mistreated suspects or witnesses before.

Without any information about Ms. Hill's mental health or Detective Augustine's purported practices, Ms. Hill's lawyer called her to the witness stand. She testified about Augustine's abusive comments, though she admitted that she answered his profane shouting with profane shouting of her own: "I gave what he dished out." NT 03/31/92 at 119. She also testified (on cross-examination) about her previous prison sentences, her unemployment, her abuse of alcohol and crack cocaine while pregnant, and her receipt and misuse of welfare and social security benefits. Counsel did not object to these areas of inquiry. Moreover, he did not introduce any evidence to buttress Ms. Hill's testimony that she was innocent and that her confessions were false. On Monday, April 6, 1992, Ms. Hill was found guilty of robbery

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and double murder. She was sentenced to death.1

II. Procedural History2

On September 29, 1995, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied Petitioner's direct appeal and affirmed her convictions and sentence. Petitioner, aided by counsel, filed a timely petition pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post–Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) on April 17, 1997 that raised both guilt-phase and penalty-phase claims for relief. On December 5, 2005, the PCRA court granted Petitioner penalty-phase relief and ordered an evidentiary hearing on her Brady and Batson guilt-phase claims. Following the evidentiary hearing, the PCRA court denied all of Petitioner's guilt-phase claims. It reiterated its grant of penalty-phase relief.

On September 6, 2006, Petitioner filed a notice of appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from the PCRA court's denial of guilt-phase relief. Petitioner also filed a "Jurisdictional Statement for Petitioner's Appeal of the Denial of a New Trial" setting forth fifteen appellate guilt-phase claims. On February 9, 2007, the PCRA court issued an order under Pennsylvania Rule of Appellate Procedure 1925(b) directing Petitioner to file and serve a statement of the matters she intended to raise on appeal within fourteen days.3 Petitioner subsequently requested, and was granted, an extension of time to file her Rule 1925(b) statement.

Petitioner did not file a Rule 1925(b) statement. Petitioner's counsel has represented as an officer of the court that after being granted an extension of time to file the statement, he received a call from PCRA Judge Berry's chambers. Counsel was instructed during this call to file a "list of issues" in addition to the jurisdictional statement "rather than a 1925(b) statement. " Obj. to R & R at 3...

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2 cases
  • Smith v. Hillside Vill., Civ. No. 17–0883 (KM)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
    • 11 Septiembre 2017
    ...because it would have required introduction of expert testimony, a procedural opportunity which the court regarded as unavailable in a 279 F.Supp.3d 550summary action. See Hillside Village v. Smith , 2017 WL 412803 at *6 n.3 (Jan. 31, 2017).So what opportunity to assert an FHAA claim remain......
  • Selenski v. Capozza, Civil 1:21-cv-101
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • 1 Noviembre 2021
    ...where the state court's denial of relief rests on an ‘independent and adequate' principle of waiver under state law.” Hill v. Wetzel, 279 F.Supp.3d 550, 558 (E.D. Pa. 2016) (quoting Nara v. Frank, 488 F.3d 189, 199 (3d Cir. 2007)). Thus, because the Superior Court deemed this issue waived, ......

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