Rivera v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI, 061918 FED3, 16-2243

Docket Nº:16-2243
Opinion Judge:FISHER, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:TITO RIVERA, Appellant v. SUPERINTENDENT HOUTZDALE SCI; THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA; SUPERINTENDENT KEN CAMERON; THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY
Attorney:R. Damien Schorr, Esq. Rusheen R. Pettit, Esq. Allegheny County Office of District Attorney
Judge Panel:Before: RESTREPO, GREENBERG and FISHER, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:June 19, 2018
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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TITO RIVERA, Appellant

v.

SUPERINTENDENT HOUTZDALE SCI; THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA; SUPERINTENDENT KEN CAMERON; THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY

No. 16-2243

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 19, 2018

NOT PRECEDENTIAL

Argued December 11, 2017

On Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (W. D. Pa. No. 2-13-cv-01394) Magistrate Judge: Honorable Cynthia R. Eddy

R. Damien Schorr, Esq.

Rusheen R. Pettit, Esq. Allegheny County Office of District Attorney

Before: RESTREPO, GREENBERG and FISHER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION 1

FISHER, Circuit Judge.

Tito Rivera, a prisoner of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, seeks federal habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Rivera claims that his due process rights were violated by the inappropriate pre-trial transfer of his case to a new, allegedly harsher judge.

Rivera was convicted of rape and several other violent offenses. After his direct appeal concluded and his sentence was affirmed, Rivera learned, through an article published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that a court employee sent an e-mail to a court administrator that appeared to ask for the reassignment of Rivera's case to a different judge. That court employee was the uncle of one of the victims. The case was later reassigned to Judge McDaniel, who presided over the jury trial and imposed the sentence.

Rivera presents two issues on appeal from the District Court's denial of his habeas application: whether the case transfer violated his due process rights, and whether the District Court abused its discretion by declining to conduct an evidentiary hearing on his due process claim. We conclude that the District Court abused its discretion by declining to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Rivera's due process claim and remand for a hearing to be held. We will therefore not reach the question of whether Rivera's due process rights were violated.

I.

A. Factual History

In 2007, Rivera approached two male college students outside of their house in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, eventually drawing a gun (later determined to be a BB gun that looked convincingly like the real thing). Rivera forced the students into their house. The students' three housemates were also present inside the house, as was one of their girlfriends. Rivera threatened to kill all of them and demanded money. After taking their money, he forced the woman into the adjoining bathroom and raped her. Returning to the room where the men were, Rivera ordered them to pack up other visible valuables and to prepare to go to a nearby ATM to withdraw more money. Realizing that Rivera was no longer holding a gun, one of the men jumped on him. The others helped to restrain Rivera while the woman ran out of the house and summoned the police.

Rivera was charged with Rape, Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse, Indecent Assault, Simple Assault, Burglary, and six counts of Robbery and Terroristic Threats. Judge McDaniel presided over the trial in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Before the beginning of trial, Judge McDaniel made the following statement on the record: "I have spoken to both counsel and told them that the alleged victim in this case is a relative of George Matta, who was Clerk of Courts who I worked with. They both said they saw no conflict nor do I feel any prejudice." Appellant's Br. at 16. Matta was the uncle of the rape victim, and served as Clerk of Courts until a few months before the beginning of the trial. A jury found Rivera guilty of all charges except Simple Assault.

Judge McDaniel sentenced Rivera to an aggregate term of 80-160 years. He filed a direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which affirmed. Four days after his direct appeal concluded, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article describing an email from Matta, then serving as the Clerk of Courts, to Helen Lynch, the criminal court administrator responsible for case assignments. This e-mail was sent ten days before Matta's position as Clerk of Courts would be eliminated, three weeks before the trial was originally scheduled, and five months before the trial actually began. The record does not contain the full contents of the e-mail, only the portion quoted by the Post-Gazette. The portion of the article containing e-mail excerpts reads as follows: "Helen, Happy New Year. I looked up my [relative's trial] and it is set for Jan. 23, [2008] with Judge Sasinoski. I thought it was going to be heard by Donna Jo . . . ."

Mr. Matta noted that his relative was abroad at the time. "She will not be back till the next week. Can you have this changed?"

The note concluded with: "Thanks and I appreciate all your and the Judge's good words and friendship. I truly will miss working with you guys and am...

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