Johnson v. Coyne-Fague, C. A. 21-433 WES

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Rhode Island
PartiesJODY LEE JOHNSON, Plaintiff, v. PATRICIA A. COYNE-FAGUE, Defendant.
Docket NumberC. A. 21-433 WES
Decision Date13 February 2023

WILLIAM E. SMITH, United States District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Patricia A. Coyne-Fague's (“State”) Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 21, Jody Lee Johnson's Second Amended Petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 for Writ of Habeas Corpus, ECF No. 19 (Second Amended Petition). In his Second Amended Petition Johnson asserts that he was deprived of his right to effective assistance of counsel in violation of the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and that his due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated when the State withheld exculpatory information. Second Am. Pet. at 5, 8.[1] The State argues that Johnson's Second Amended Petition should be dismissed because he cannot sustain a claim for relief under 28 U.S.C § 2254. Mem. Supp. Mot. to Dismiss (“State's Mem.”) 3, 8, ECF No. 21. The Court has determined that no hearing is necessary.[2] For the reasons that follow, the State's Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED and the Petition is DISMISSED.

I. Background and Travel

On the night of January 28, 2014, three people - a tall, muscular, black-skinned man; an approximately ten-year-old boy; and a third person whose face was not visible - entered Mary Celletti's home and robbed her at gunpoint. State v. Johnson, 199 A.3d 1046, 1048-49 (R.I. 2019). At trial, Celletti testified that the tall man was wearing dark gray glasses, which had tape on one side holding the arm to the frame; a blue jacket and scarf, which he took off; and a hood, which he pulled down, uncovering his head. Id. at 1049. Celletti subsequently identified the tall man as Johnson. Id. at 1050.

Upon entering the home, the tall man told Celletti and the boy to sit and handed the boy the gun. Id. at 1049. The boy held the gun on Celletti while the other two intruders carried out the robbery. Id. Celletti testified that she talked with the boy, trying to “humanize herself with him” and find out who he was.

She learned his name and where he went to school. Id. She also asked if he thought they were going to kill her. Id. Eventually the three left, after taking a number of items from the home. Id. As they left, the tall man wiped fingerprints from the gun and told Celletti that if she called the police he would come back. Id. After they left, Celletti called her daughter and told her that she had just been robbed at gunpoint. Id. Celletti's daughter soon arrived, along with the police. Id.

Johnson was eventually arrested, indicted, and charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree robbery (Count One), first-degree robbery (Count Two), contributing to the delinquency of a minor (Count Three),[3] and assault with a dangerous weapon in a dwelling with intent to commit robbery (Count Four). Id. at 1048, 1048 n.2. Following a four-day trial in January of 2017 in Providence County Superior Court, a jury convicted Johnson of all counts. Id. at 1048, 1050. The trial justice imposed a sentence of twenty-five years' imprisonment, twelve years to serve, the balance suspended with probation, on Johnson's first-degree robbery and assault with a firearm convictions. Id. at 1050. The court originally sentenced Johnson to twenty years' imprisonment, with ten years to serve and ten suspended with probation, on the conspiracy conviction. Id. However, the court subsequently sua sponte modified the sentence to ten years' imprisonment with ten to serve. Id. All sentences were to run concurrently. Id.

Johnson had filed a motion for judgment of acquittal at the close of the State's evidence, which was denied, and again prior to closing arguments and jury instructions. Id. The court reserved decision on the latter motion. Id. After the jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts, the trial justice denied the renewed motion for judgment of acquittal as well as Johnson's motion for a new trial. Id.

Prior to the entry of final judgment, Johnson filed a notice of appeal, but he did not file another notice of appeal after the trial justice corrected the sentence imposed for the conspiracy conviction. Id. Johnson then petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which the Rhode Island Supreme Court granted, for direct review of his convictions and denial of his motion for a new trial. Id. Johnson challenged the denial of the motion for a new trial, arguing that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Id. at 1051. Specifically, he argued that the complaining witness's identification of him should have been given little weight. Id. Johnson also contended that the weight of the evidence did not indicate that an operable firearm was used in the incident. Id. The R.I. Supreme Court rejected both arguments and affirmed Johnson's judgment of conviction. Id. at 1053. Johnson did not seek further review.

Next, Johnson filed an application for post-conviction relief in the trial court. See Post-Conv. Decision, ECF No. 19-2. Johnson's initial application, filed pro se, asserted five grounds for relief: (1) newly discovered evidence; (2) civil rights violations; (3) malicious prosecution; (4) prosecutorial misconduct; and (5) due process violations. Id. at 2-3. Following the appointment of counsel (“post-conviction counsel), Johnson filed an amended application, which narrowed the grounds to two: (1) ineffective assistance of trial counsel; and (2) due process violations. Id. at 3. The court held an evidentiary hearing and, after considering the hearing testimony and the parties' posthearing submissions, denied Johnson's amended post-conviction application. Id. at 3, 22. Johnson filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the R. I. Supreme Court, but the court denied the petition. Sup. Ct. Order, ECF No. 19-3.

Johnson then timely filed the instant Petition. His original petition contained both exhausted and unexhausted claims. See May 6, 2022, Text Order. Therefore, pursuant to Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269 (2005), and Sena v. Kenneway, 997 F.3d 378 (1st Cir. 2021), the Court gave Johnson the option to amend his petition to include only exhausted claims, file a motion to stay the case until all of his claims had been exhausted, or request that the Court dismiss the petition without prejudice to allow him to present his unexhausted claims to the state courts. Id. In addition, the Court appointed counsel for the limited purpose of assisting Johnson in reaching this decision and making the relevant filing. Id. Johnson chose the first option and, through appointed counsel, filed the instant Second Amended Petition. In response, the State filed the Motion to Dismiss. II. Standard of Review

A. Habeas Standard

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) limits this Court's review of state convictions and sentences. Carpio v. Wall, 269 F.Supp.3d 4, 6 (D.R.I. 2017). Thus, habeas corpus relief serves as a “guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 102-03 (2011)).

When a state court has adjudicated a claim on the merits, a federal court may grant habeas corpus relief only if the state court's adjudication of the claim:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). [A]n unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect application of federal law.” Carpio, 269 F.Supp.3d at 9 (quoting Williams v Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 410 (2000)) (alteration in original). An incorrect application is “contrary to clearly established law if the state court applies a rule that contradicts the governing law set forth by the Supreme Court or confronts a set of facts that are materially indistinguishable from a decision of [the Supreme Court] and nevertheless arrives at a result different from [its] precedent.” Hensley v. Roden, 755 F.3d 724, 731 (1st Cir. 2014) (alterations in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). An unreasonable application occurs “if the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from the Supreme Court's then-current decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Abrante v. St. Amand, 595 F.3d 11, 15 (1st Cir. 2010)). Pursuant to § 2254(d), “a habeas court must determine what arguments or theories supported . . . the state court's decision; and then it must ask whether it is possible fairminded jurists could disagree that those arguments or theories are inconsistent with the holding in a prior decision of the [U.S. Supreme] Court.” DeCiantis v. Wall, 868 F.Supp.2d 1, 5 (D.R.I. 2012) (alterations in original)(quoting Wetzel v. Lambert, 565 U.S. 520, 523 (2012)), aff'd, 722 F.3d 41 (1st Cir. 2013); see also Norton v. Spencer, 351 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2003) (“If it is a close question whether the state decision is in error, then the state decision cannot be an unreasonable application.” (quoting McCambridge v. Hall, 303 F.3d 24, 36 (1st Cir. 2002))) . “The upshot of the AEDPA habeas regime is that ‘when the last state court to decide a prisoner's federal claim explains its decision on the merits in a reasoned opinion' . . . ‘a federal habeas court simply reviews the specific reasons given by the state court and defers to those...

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